A landmark study by researchers of John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded that there was no single cause or predictor of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.  This study of the causes and context of the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church complemented an earlier study by the same researchers on the nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.  Media reaction to the release of the study was “ho-hum,” but not surprising.  After all, when the principal investigator for the report stated that clergy abuse was consistent with the social patterns at the time, it was difficult to rev up the attack against the church for its mishandling of this matter.  Apparently it remains true that only bad news is real news!

Frankly, when we bishops supported the recommendation of our National Review Board that such studies be undertaken, many bishops were a bit skeptical about their usefulness.  We were already very aware of all the mistakes that had been made by the church in the past and also wary of hurting or annoying victims any more than had already occurred in the past.  These studies might bring out devastating information that would further debilitate the church’s evangelizing mission.  On the other hand, if the report produced some positive news, a hostile media, trial lawyers and even some victims’ groups might attempt to denigrate the report.  I do believe the study is worth reviewing.  It’s important to understand what has been learned from past mistakes and to provide a model response to the tragedy of child abuse.  

Some of you may be unfamiliar with those entrusted with the study.  John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York is an international leader in educating for justice.  The college offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upward of 14,000 students from more than 135 nations.  In both its teaching and research, the college approaches justice as an applied art in service to society and as an on-going conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law.  

The cost of this latest study was an estimated $1.8 million.  Funding was provided by several groups and individuals, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ($918,000) and the National Institute of Justice ($283,651). Was it worth it?  I think so, but the jury is out.  There were several important learnings about the causes and context of child sexual abuse by clergy.  The study is available on the USCCB website.  I shall attempt to summarize some of the major findings.

Most of the abuse occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s.  There does not seem to be any single factor that led priests to abuse.  The increased frequency of abuse is consistent with what was going on in society during that same period.  The social influences at work back then further exacerbated the vulnerabilities of certain priests.

Furthermore, there has been a huge decline in sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Ninety percent  of the known cases occurred more than 20 years ago.  Our church is not in the middle of a sexual abuse “crisis” any longer.  Most newly reported cases today are based on abuse that took place decades ago.  Four percent of priests had allegations of abuse from 1950-’02.  Since then about 500 men have been ordained annually in this country and abuse is quite rare among those priests.  No evidence exists that priests abuse at a higher rate than men in the general population or in any other groups.

Celibacy is not to blame, nor are most offending priests pedophiles.  Commitment to celibacy was constant during the time most of the abuse occurred.  Most sex offenders in society are not celibate clergy.  Young children have not been the typical victims.  The more likely victim of abuse by a cleric has been an adolescent.  

Many rushed to judgment that this was a homosexual issue because so many of the youth abused by clergy were boys (81 percent).  The John Jay Study reports that no evidence exists to suggest that sexual orientation by itself contributes to sex crimes against children, but rather, it is a crime of opportunity.  Catholic priests typically had more access to young male adolescents than to female adolescents.

A major concern for all is the way diocesan officials, particularly bishops, have handled these matters.  The study indicates that even before 2002 most bishops who learned of the allegation of abuse dealt with it as fairly and as reasonably as they could.  Their responses included administrative leave, assessment and psychological treatment.  In the 1980s and ‘90s some clergy abusers were treated and returned to ministry when “rehabilitated.”  Claims of the efficacy of psychological treatment were typical back then.  Only a few priests were removed from the priesthood because laicization required consent from the Vatican and/or cumbersome canonical procedures.

The most important conclusion is that the Catholic Church is a safe place for children.  Cases of sexual abuse by priests have decreased dramatically since the 1980s.  Nowadays it is extremely rare.  The church maintains a zero tolerance policy.  All credible cases of child abuse are reported to civil authorities, internally investigated and presented to a local review board of mostly laypersons.  Those with credible accusations are permanently removed from ministry.

Our church has taken steps so that a sexual abuse crisis will not happen again.  All church workers go through safe environment training and our dioceses are audited yearly by an independent secular auditing firm to assure compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  Our church commissioned these two studies so that we might better understand the problem and thereby protect children more effectively.  No other child-serving institutions has undertaken the self-scrutiny needed to produce such a report.

The bottom line for all of us, not just Catholics, is that sexual abuse of a minor is a widespread human problem, not limited to the priesthood.  It is prevalent in homes and in organizations in which adults mentor young people.  The best way to protect children from abuse is to create safe environments where appropriate boundaries between adults and children are maintained.  Hence it is very important for all of us, church and society, to work together to prevent such abuse and to punish perpetrators who are abusers.  This is no time for complacency.

Campaign Postscript:
The Sharing our Faith Shaping our Future capital campaign of the archdiocese is moving full steam ahead.  Because of your generosity our church will be able to place more priests in parishes, support pastors who have served us faithfully but have now achieved retirement status, provide greater tuition assistance packages for families wanting to send their children to Catholic schools and provide necessary training for the many employees and volunteers engaged in pastoral ministry.  Recently I learned that one of our smaller Portland parishes, Sacred Heart Church, has already reached its financial goal with the participation of 55% of the parishioners.  If most parishes could achieve that level of participation, we would far exceed the campaign goal.  We continue to work to provide leadership gifts for the campaign.  Thus far we have achieved two $1,000,000 donations, a $500,000 gift, two $250,000 gifts and a number of $100,000 contributions. Despite the reluctance of a few parishes, I am still confident that we can achieve our goal and more effectively serve our evangelizing mission in the future.  Remember.  We are asking for a pledge payable over five years.  Five dollars per week would be a net investment of $1300 over the five year campaign.  It seems achievable for most families.  Whatever you can do, please do it.  Thank you so much for your past and on-going support of the Catholic Church here in western Oregon.