A worthless and dangerous report
Last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a report called “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” (.pdf), a companion to their 2004 report, “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, 1950-2002“. Both reports were compiled by the research team at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York at the request of the USCCB’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board, a group of prominent Catholic laity (both the OCYP and the NRB were created by the USCCB after the 2002 adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People). It is important to note that, although the research was carried out by the John Jay College, the UCCSB had the final say on whether or not to authorize publication of the report.
Before I read the newly-released report, I tried to be as charitable and optimistic about it as possible, with the thought that “well, this is better than nothing”.
After finishing the report, though, I can say with certainty that both my charity and my optimism were unwarranted. I was wrong. Very wrong. This report isn’t better than nothing. It’s a major setback in the movement towards Church accountability.
In the hope of counteracting some of the report’s detrimental effects, I want to offer some summary and analysis of its methodology, data, and conclusions. The report itself is very long (143 pages), but you can get an overview of its findings by reading its brief “Executive Summary” and/or The New York Times‘s recent article on the report.
First, I want to explain why this report’s findings are neither credible nor insightful:
1. The conflict of interest created by the funding. For example, a recent news report said that “[m]ore than half of the $1.8 million cost for the nearly 150-page report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the ’causes and context’ of child sex abuse by clergy came from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops”. Yes, the USCCB donated $918,000 of the report’s $1.8 million cost. However, such news reports should also explain that the majority of the remaining funding came from organizations that are either explicitly Catholic-affiliated or that have histories of funding Catholic activities and advocacy (the Knights of Columbus, the Raskob Foundation, Catholic Mutual Group, Sisters of Charity Ministry Foundation, the Luce Foundation, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the St. Joseph Health System, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, The Assisi Foundation of Memphis, Daughters of Charity Foundation/Province of the West).
So, this is a study that was commissioned by the USCCB (who retained “authorization” rights over publication of the final report) and that was funded almost entirely by Catholic or pro-Catholic organizations. Conflict of interest doesn’t get much more blatant than that.
2. Limited and untrustworthy data. In addition to reusing much of the information from the Nature and Scope study, the researchers explain that:
The primary data sources for the Causes and Context study are as follows: (1) longitudinal analyses of data sets of various types of social behavior (for example, crime, divorce, premarital sex) over the time period to provide a historical framework; (2) analysis of seminary attendance, the history and the development of a human formation curriculum, as well as information from seminary leaders; (3) surveys of and interviews with inactive priests with allegations of abuse, and a comparison sample of priests in active parish ministry who had not been accused; (4) interview and primary data from the 1971 Loyola University study of the psychology of American Catholic priests; (5) surveys of survivors, victim assistance coordinators, and clinical files about the onset, persistence, and desistance from abuse behavior; (6) surveys of bishops, priests, and other diocesan leaders about the policies that were put in place after 1985; and (7) analyses of clinical data from files obtained from three treatment centers, including information about priests who abused minors as well as those being treated for other behavioral problems (2).
These sources are acceptable but insufficient. They aren’t an adequate substitute for independent outside analysis of and inspection of Church data. Had the Church been willing to provide access to data that was not self-reported, then each of the above-mentioned sources could have provided additional useful information for the study. On their own, though, they’re just not enough.
As the report explains, this problem began with the Nature and Scope study:
…the USCCB wanted to know the extent of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church on a national level from 1950-2002. Any method of data collection on a project of this scope has limitations. The John Jay College researchers determined that it would be impossible to gather an adequate sample—there was simply not enough known about the problem nationally. It was decided that the best method to study this problem was to conduct a “census,” or to collect comprehensive information from the records of every diocese, eparchy, and religious institute in the United States. Though this method had restrictions, these files provided a wealth of information regarding the abusers, minors who were abused, and the financial cost of the individual cases (7).
Here, the researchers fail to justify the substitution of a “census” of self-reported data for an actual adequate sample and fail to explain the highly problematic nature of self-reported data, beyond mentioning that it “had restrictions”.
If it is true that it would have been impossible for the researchers to “gather an adequate sample”, then the researchers should have acknowledged that they needed to wait until such a sample could be gathered and should have refused the USCCB’s request. Instead, though, they chose to engage in a time-consuming and expensive study that would, ultimately, fail to provide any credible findings or useful suggestions for reform.
The fact that much of the data from the Nature and Scope study was reused in the Causes and Context study (2) is one of the primary reasons that, like the Nature and Scope study, the Causes and Context study was not worth undertaking.
Throughout the Causes and Context study, the researchers blindly accept the truth of the Church’s self-reported data. This is both troubling and dangerous, particularly when it comes to Church officials’ claims that they were not made aware of incidents of sexual abuse by priests until many years after they occurred. For example, the researchers assert that:
Despite data indicating that the incidence of abuse rose steadily between 1950 and 1980 and fell sharply by the mid-1980s, most of these events were unknown to civil authorities or church leaders before 2002 (27).
In 2002, the public response was focused on the leaders of individual dioceses and then on the collective hierarchy of the Catholic Church. What this outpouring of pain and indignation failed to accommodate was the temporal disjunction between the historical occurrence of these incidents of abuse and the emerging knowledge by Catholic leaders of the extent of the abuse (75).
yet their only evidence for this claim of “temporal disjunction” is the dioceses’ self-reported data. Even a cursory glance at the history of the Church’s response to the sex abuse crisis illustrates just how dubious this claim is. One such example can be found in the case of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In late 2009, after years of refusing to release sealed documents pertaining to cases of sexual abuse by priests (fighting it all the way to the Supreme Court), the diocese ran out of legal options and was forced to turn over some of their files. As suspected, these documents contain evidence that Cardinal Edward Egan, previously Bishop of Bridgeport, knew about various allegations of abuse at the time of or shortly after their occurrence, but, instead of reporting these allegations to law enforcement, decided to handle the issue “internally”, potentially endangering more children in the process.
And Egan wasn’t merely “a bad apple”. Church leaders in dioceses all over the United States (89) chose to handle sex abuse allegations “internally”, which is a clear indication that, like Egan, many Church leaders indeed did know about cases of abuse at the time of or shortly after their occurrences, despite their self-reported assertions to the contrary.
Additionally, the researchers assert that:
There was no clear indication…of the bishops’ or other diocesan leaders’ understanding of the extent of harm resulting from sexual abuse. Although this lack of understanding was consistent with the overall lack of understanding of victimization at the time, the absence of acknowledgment of harm was a significant ethical lapse on the part of leadership in some dioceses (119).
Here, they researchers acknowledge an “ethical lapse”, yet refuse to place the blame where it belongs: on the abusers and on those who engaged in a cover-up of their behavior. Instead, the researchers claim that, in the 1960s and 1970s, American society as a whole didn’t understand how damaging and harmful child sex abuse was, and that the Church leaders of this time thus couldn’t possibly have known the proper course of action to take in response to an allegation of abuse.
Ultimately, despite the extremely problematic nature of their data, the researchers insist that:
The Causes and Context study provided a unique opportunity to collect robust, rich, and multifaceted data on the sexual abuse of minors over a sixty-year period. Seven sources of quantitative and qualitative data were analyzed, and the findings support a consistent set of conclusions. This convergence of findings provides confidence in the data, which can then serve as a base for creating policy recommendations (118).
This failure to acknowledge the highly flawed nature of the data in question indicates that the researchers are not credible and that the Causes and Context study’s conclusions are, for the most part, neither trustworthy nor deserving of serious consideration.
Next, let’s look at two of the major problems of and flaws in the report’s methodology and conclusions:
1. One of the most egregious aspects of this report is that the researchers arbitrarily redefine “pedophilia” as sexual abuse of victims that were ten years old or younger at the time, despite the fact that the DSM sets the cutoff age at thirteen. Defining it as “ten years old or younger” allows the researchers to make claims like:
Less than 5 percent of the priests with allegations of abuse exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia (a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by recurrent fantasies, urges, and behaviors about prepubescent children). Thus, it is inaccurate to refer to abusers as “pedophile priests” (3).
It is worth noting that while the media has consistently referred to priest-abusers as “pedophile priests,” pedophilia is defined as the sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Yet, the data on priests show that 22 percent of victims were age ten and under, while the majority of victims were pubescent or postpubescent (10).
… whereas if they had stuck to the DSM‘s guidelines (age thirteen or younger), most of the priest-abusers could legitimately be called “pedophiles”, as “[m]ost sexual abuse victims of priests (51 percent) were between the ages of eleven and fourteen, while 27 percent were fifteen to seventeen, 16 percent were eight to ten, and nearly 6 percent were under age seven” (10). In other words, if the researchers had used the DSM‘s guidelines, the percentage would jump from 22% to almost 73%.
Arbitrarily changing the age from thirteen to ten was a very sleazy and duplicitous move, and, unfortunately, many media outlets will most likely report the “5%” and “22%” figures without explaining the study’s authors’ arbitrary redefinition of “pedophilia” (see this CNN story for an example). “Pedophilia” is a word that evokes strong feelings in many people, and, without this explanation, most media consumers will be left with the impression that the Church’s sex abuse crisis isn’t nearly as horrible or widespread as they had previously thought.
Frustratingly, the researchers do not explain why they chose to redefine “pedophilia”, saying only that: “[f]or the purpose of this comparison, a pedophile is defined as a priest who had more than one victim, with all victims being age eleven or younger at the time of the offense” (34).
Even more egregious, though, is the researchers’ attack on any media outlet or individual who accepts the standard definition of “pedophile”:
Media reports about Catholic priests who sexually abused minors often mistakenly have referred to priests as pedophiles. According to the DSM IV-TR, pedophilia is characterized by fantasies, urges, or behaviors about sexual activity with a prepubescent child that occurs for a significant period of time. Yet, the Nature and Scope data indicated that nearly four out of five minors abused were at least eleven years old at the time of the abuse. Though development happens at varying ages for children, the literature generally refers to eleven and older as an age of pubescence or postpubescence (53).
I’m both horrified and perplexed by the researchers’ arbitrary and unexplained redefinition of their study’s primary topic. Remember: their redefinition of “pedophile” allows them to claim that only 22% of priest-abusers were “pedophiles”, whereas, if they had used the DSM‘s definition, that percentage would jump to almost 73%. Media consumers who hear the figure of 22% reported without context will, most likely, assume that it is based upon the standard (DSM) definition, and, as a result, will develop a highly inaccurate understanding of the realities of the Catholic sex abuse crisis. Because of this, I don’t think it’s uncharitable or unreasonable to call into question both the credibility of and the integrity of the researchers.
2. The researchers attempt to place some of the blame for the sex abuse crisis on the failures of seminaries to fully prepare priests for the social changes that accompanied 1960’s and and 1970’s culture, focusing on “the impact social changes in the 1960s and 1970s had on individual priests’ attitudes and behavior and on organizational life, including social stratification, emphasis on individualism, and social movements” (7).
For example, the researchers assert that, according to their data:
[T]he problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests peaked in the 1970s, with a decline by the mid-1980s in all regions of the Catholic Church in the United States. Though more cases of sexual abuse continue to be reported to dioceses today, almost all of these allegations are of abuse that occurred decades earlier (46).
then proceed to attempt to connect this supposed “peak” in sexual abuse cases (again, remember that all of this data comes from the “censuses” they sent to the dioceses) to the concurrent shift in cultural norms/”social indicators” (36) and rise in “deviant behaviors” (46), primarily “divorce, use of illegal drugs, and crime” (36), arguing that: “[t]he documented rise in cases of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s is similar to the rise in other types of “deviant” behavior in society, and coincides with social change during this time period” (46).
This argument indicates that the researchers need to be reminded of two things: that correlation does not equal causation, something that they either do not understand (doubtful) or actively chose to ignore, and that equating divorce with the “use of illegal drugs” and “crime” and the sexual abuse of children is problematic, to say the least.
Their attempt at justifying this argument is both pathetic and painfully convoluted:
Sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest is an individual deviant act—an act by a priest that serves individual purposes and that is completely at odds or opposed to the principles of the institution. Divorce is an act also made for personal reasons that negates the institution of marriage. Illegal drug use and criminal acts violate social and legal norms of conduct, presumably at the will of the offender. The recorded or reported incidence of each of these factors increased by 50 percent between 1960 and 1980. If the data for the annual divorce rate are compared to data for the annual rate of homicide and robbery, the time-series lines move in tandem. From stable levels in 1965, the rates increase sharply to a peak at or soon after 1980 and then begin to fall. This pattern is indicative of the period effects that can be seen in the Nature and Scope data on the incidence of sexual abuse by priests (36-7).
Yet again, it bears repeating that both this claimed “peak” in sexual abuse cases (which forms the crux of their argument that the sexual abuse crisis was a “historical problem” (2)) and the argument that “period effects” are partially to blame for this “peak” are supported only by extremely limited and inherently untrustworthy data.
All of this grasping at straws serves only one purpose: to deflect guilt away from the perpetrators and those who engaged in covering up their acts.
Even more disturbing and baseless is the researchers’ claim that one cause of this “peak” in sexual abuse cases between the 1960s and the 1980s is that, until recently, seminaries failed to provide a “human formation” (41) curriculum consisting of “the training in self-understanding and the development of emotional and psychological competence for a life of celibate chastity” (5) and providing “a clear delineation of behavioral expectations appropriate to a life of celibacy” (120), asserting that: “[p]articipation in human formation during seminary distinguishes priests with later abusive behavior from those who did not abuse. The priests with abusive behavior were statistically less likely to have participated in human formation training than those who did not have allegations of abuse” (3).
Defending this assertion and attempting to connect it to the supposed “peak” in sexual abuse cases required the researchers to employ painfully convoluted logic including, once again, the “correlation equals causation” fallacy:
Human formation in seminary is critically important. The drop in abuse cases preceded the inclusion of a thorough education in human formation, but the development of the curriculum of human formation is consistent with the continued low levels of abuse by Catholic priests (118).
Men ordained in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s did not generally abuse before the 1960s or 1970s. Men ordained in the 1960s and the early 1970s engaged in abusive behavior much more quickly after their entrance into ministry (3).
In other words, the researchers believe that the vast majority of priest-abusers, whether they attended seminary in 1930 or in the early 1970s (or any time in-between), committed their crimes during the 1960s and 1970s (the time they refer to as the “peak”), and that this is primarily due to the fact that their seminaries failed to provide these priest-abusers with a proper “human formation” curriculum.
All of this begs the question (one that the researchers completely ignore): why would any priest have to be taught (in a “human formation” curriculum or otherwise) that it’s never acceptable, ethically or legally, to sexually abuse a child? According to the researchers, we should unquestioningly accept their baseless assertion because, without a proper training in “human formation”, these priest-abusers were unable to understand “appropriate forms of closeness to others” (121) and that certain behaviors are not “appropriate to a life of celibacy” (120).
The fact that the researchers completely ignore this question, this 500-pound elephant in the room, is egregious and unacceptable, and is yet another indicator of this report’s uselessness.
Sometimes I think that I should stop writing about this issue, as I’ve written about it so many times before and it’s quite difficult not to repeat myself. But I can’t and won’t shut up about it, and neither should you. The day that we stop writing and talking about it is the day that the Church wins this fight.
Time and time again we have seen that the Church will do whatever it takes to downplay and/or cover up their failings and crimes. They have shown their willingness to fight dirty, and one of the most useful and effective tools in their arsenal is their dominance of the discourse and conversation (both in the media and elsewhere) about these issues. The Causes and Context study is a textbook example of this: when the media reports its “takeaways” without providing context, they are, in effect, doing the Church’s face-saving dirty work for them.
No, we must not shut up. We must not allow the Church to dominate the discourse. Speak out in whatever ways you can. On its own, what you or I say or write may not have any effect on the Church or the discourse surrounding this issue. Taken as a whole, though, our words provide a clear indication that there are many of us who will neither blindly accept the Church’s domination of the conversation nor quietly sit by while they evade justice time and time again.
Don’t shut up, even when you feel like you’re repeating yourself. It took me a while to realize that the reason I’ve sometimes been repetitive when writing about this is that the Church itself has repeated the same crimes and the same institutionally sanctioned cover-ups over and over again. They repeatedly refuse to admit their culpability or to face legal punishment when appropriate. And, most importantly, they repeatedly deny outsiders access to their files that contain information on the sexual abuse of children and the cover-ups of that abuse.
Until the day that they allow that access, until the day that the light of public scrutiny is finally able to illuminate and reveal the darkest and most disturbing aspects of the Church, we owe it to the victims to never, ever shut up.
I won’t shut up, and neither should you. The day that we stop fighting back is the day that they win.
Let’s make sure that day never comes.