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A worthless and dangerous report indeed

In May, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a report entitled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” (.pdf). This report was compiled by a group of researchers 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). Keep in mind 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 this report.

My analysis, “A worthless and dangerous report”, can be found here. If you’re unfamiliar with the USCCB’s report, take a look at my analysis, which offers a brief summary.

A month after the report was published, Karen Terry, head of the research team at John Jay College, responded to some of the report’s critics in a piece for Salon, “No, I didn’t blame Woodstock for the Catholic priest sex abuse“.

In this post, I’ll respond to just a few of her assertions.

Terry claims that she wrote her article to “put the record straight”. Yet she does just the opposite: she ignores most of the legitimate objections to and criticisms of the highly flawed report, provides inadequate and superficial responses to the objections that she does address, and refuses to acknowledge the ethical implications of her (and her research team’s) willingness to create a report that was funded primarily by the USCCB and other Catholic organizations and that required the USCCB’s approval before publication.

From Terry’s article:

A study of this complexity does not easily lend itself to an accurate sound bite.

Nevertheless, one early media report in a national paper attributed the explanation of social factors as a “Blame Woodstock” excuse, a phrase that went viral and was cited more than 14,000 times within the next two days.

The truth is, at no point in the report did we “blame” Woodstock or simplify the explanation of the abuse crisis to the “swinging sixties,” as some papers reported.


…the findings indicate that abusive behavior could best be explained through an interaction of micro- and macro-level factors. While the patterns of abuse in the Catholic Church are consistent with (though not caused by) patterns of other types of social behavior from the 1960s through the 1980s (when abuse cases peaked), data showed that most of the priest-abusers had problems such as intimacy deficits, an emotional and psycho-sexual maturity level similar to adolescents, and life stressors, as well as inadequate seminary education on how to live a life of chaste celibacy.

The abuse was particularly pronounced for men who were ordained in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when there was a substantial increase in Catholic seminarians and inadequate education for them.

Yes, many media outlets went with the “Blame Woodstock” sound bite. And it’s understandable that Terry would want to offer a brief rebuttal to that. However, I find it disturbing and frustrating that she focuses on minor misrepresentations by media outlets instead of addressing the most egregious aspect of her report: the fact that the researchers arbitrarily redefined “pedophilia” as the sexual abuse of a child age ten or younger as opposed to thirteen or younger, which is the standard definition (from the DSM). This redefinition allowed the researchers to present faulty statistics that make the Church seem far less culpable than the evidence actually indicates.  Terry refuses to acknowledge the fact that if the researchers had used the DSM’s guidelines (age thirteen or younger), most of the priest-abusers would be defined as “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%. This was a callous and underhanded decision on the part of the researchers, yet Terry brushes it off as if it doesn’t matter at all.

Although the researchers didn’t “blame Woodstock”, they did (in contrast to what Terry claims in the above-quoted excerpt) attempt to to spin a supposed temporal correlation into an unsubstantiated claim of causation. In the report, the researchers argued that the “failure” of seminaries to adequately prepare priests to deal with the social changes that accompanied 1960′s and and 1970′s culture was one cause of the contemporaneous “peak” in sexual abuse cases (keep in mind that evidence for this supposed peak comes from data obtained via a self-reported “census” of dioceses). The researchers failed to explain why priests, in the absence of adequate seminary preparation, were unable to deal with social change such as (from the study): “social stratification, emphasis on individualism, and social movements” (7), nor did they provide sufficient evidence to justify their claim that some of these priests were so overwhelmed by this social change and by shifts in cultural norms and the rise in “deviant behaviors” (46), primarily “divorce, use of illegal drugs, and crime” (36), that they began to sexually abuse children. Throughout this section of the report, the researchers blatantly attempted to shift blame from the perpetrators onto the victims.

In her article, Terry offers no explanation as to why social change would cause a priest to become a child molester, why any adult, priest or otherwise, needs to be taught that it’s wrong to sexually abuse a child (the report argues that, 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)), why the researchers confused temporal correlation with causation, or why the researchers used this painfully convoluted explanation as a way to deflect blame from the perpetrators and those who covered up their acts.

Terry’s article certainly doesn’t “put the record straight”. It does, however, provide further confirmation of the report’s flaws, and I suppose we should be grateful to her in that respect. That’s cold comfort, though.

A worthless and dangerous report indeed.

  1. I’d like to add a supernatural aspect to this, if I may! From the point of view of theology, all the business of the influence of social change should be irrelevant. As should any idea of seminary training about appropriate behaviour. The Catholic Church is supposed to be God’s instrument on Earth. The Pope is supposed to be a direct spiritual descendent of St Peter, and is chosen according to God’s will. This isn’t a trivial concern for the Church – the child abuse scandal is a threat to the core of its theology. I know that our first concern should be for the abused and to bring the abusers and their helpers to justice, but I think also we can and should point out as often as a we can that the Church can no longer claim, even on its own terms, to have moral authority and theological basis.

    August 8, 2011
    • Michael Kingsford Gray #

      Theology schmeology.
      The RCC has never been about theology.
      They used this as a smokescreen for the poor ignorant scmucks who fell for that bullshit line.
      They are now, and have always been, a criminal gang of thugs and standover merchants, who cynically parasically milk their targets in order to gain power, prestige, palaces, prostitutes etc for their tiny elite.
      A bigger and more successful version of the Mafia, if you prefer.
      The report amplifies this basic fact by denying it so feebly.

      August 8, 2011
      • Michael Kingsford Gray #

        “parasically” -> “parasitically”

        August 8, 2011
      • The mafia analogy is quite apt. There has been quite a lot of discussion regarding possible prosecution of the Vatican (for being complicit in covering up child sex abuse) under RICO (, which has been used to prosecute various mafia organizations in the past. There’s no clear agreement, though, over whether or not RICO applies to the Vatican. If such an agreement is ever reached, the Vatican is going to (most likely) be in a whole lot of trouble.

        August 12, 2011
    • but I think also we can and should point out as often as a we can that the Church can no longer claim, even on its own terms, to have moral authority and theological basis.

      Yes indeed. However, although it’s very important to point that out, I don’t think that the majority of Catholics particularly care about arguments against the Church that are based on reason and evidence. However, if we keep in mind that the audience for such arguments is non-Catholics who are on the fence about whether or not to respect the moral authority of the Church, I think such arguments can perhaps be quite effective indeed.

      August 12, 2011
  2. Whether or not it is about theology doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is that it says it is, and that millions accept it.

    August 8, 2011
    • Yes, that’s a good point. Ironically (or maybe not), one of the last straws for me re: Catholicism was reading a great deal of Catholic theology (I was required to, as part of a high school course).

      August 12, 2011
  3. Thanks for your thoughtful analysis, Miranda. I fear that the John Jay report will never be what the Bishop’s Conference hoped it would be. It will never get them off the hook. It’s inconceivable for those of us effected by this monstrous pathology that no one or nothing is actually to blame for what happened and continues to happen. And so it’s natural for the media as well as your average thoughtful person to dismiss the study with a sound bite.

    The leadership needs to do better. And that begins with them owning this scandal. Nothing short of that will suffice.

    August 9, 2011
    • Could the leadership ever own this scandal? I don’t believe so.

      August 9, 2011
      • @Steve Zara,

        I think you’re right, at least as far as the current leadership goes. The Church as it stands is categorically, pathologically incapable of telling the truth about its wrongdoings, apologizing, or accepting blame for anything. “If only,” they’ll say, “those priests had been better Catholics. If only they had truly followed the Church’s teachings; Christ’s teachings. They were misguided.” And where it can, it points to external forces that did the misguiding: greedy, land-desiring kings, perhaps; or Muslims; or gays. Or, hell, “permissiveness,” as an abstract concept!

        The truth is, underneath it all, they really do believe they’re infallible. They really do believe that fundamentalist nugget, that No True Scotsman fallacy which says it is impossible to be a good Christian, a good Catholic, and do bad things. It is foundational to the Church. They MUST deliver these not-pologies and they must externalize blame. They cannot do anything else, because it would destroy the central tenets of their religion.

        On a more positive note, I think Richard Wagner may be right re: getting the Church off the hook. But I don’t think it’s going to be for good reasons. I think it’s going to be for some bad ones.

        “Pedophile priests” is a very appealing meme. People (western people, at least) like to see holier-than-thou, uptight squares with their hands caught in the cookie jar. We are also thoroughly fascinated with things doing the opposite of what they’re meant for; people in protective roles who predate on us.

        Just try to find an American who hasn’t heard about impostor police officers victimizing random people they pull over. Hell, I still know parents who are freaked out about their children getting apples and Halloween candy with razor blades in them, and that never happened at all! I don’t think this is a perception that can be countered by any study, spurious or otherwise.

        August 9, 2011
        • What interesting perspectives! My personal experience is that you are right. Just to give one example, when I was being driven around in the USA many years ago a friend insisted that we dare not stop in certain towns in the Deep South for fear of becoming the victims of dodgy police!

          As for the Catholic Church and their not-pologies, it’s possible for priests to actually fool themselves that they don’t need to apologise fully because they can wipe out their own moral wrongdoing through confession. It’s a truly awful situation – the Catholic Church feels it has the supernatural moral authority to forgive itself anything, and it simply is not subject to the concerns of secular authorities. What goes on with in the Church is between the Church and God, and is no-one else’s business.

          August 10, 2011
          • Oh, definitely. Definitely. The latest whispers of using Confession as an excuse have truly disgusted me. It’s becoming more and more obvious that, while we (“we” being reasonable people, everywhere) see that the problem is the Church cared more about its reputation, its personnel (and perhaps its religious rites) than justice, the laws of sovereign nations, or the safety and well-being of children, what the Church sees as the problem is that we’ve caught them, and we’re getting onto them about it.

            We’re trying to get them to admit they institutionally covered up the rape of children, apologize for that, and put in place real protections against it, at the very, very, very least. The Church is trying to get us to shut up; we are being ‘handled.’ It’s a matter of public relations. They aren’t trying to solve the same problem we are. We are their problem.

            August 10, 2011
        • Both you and Steve make a great point re: the use of confession as an excuse. I think that’s one of the core issues of this whole mess, but it’s one that’s rarely addressed. I’ve written about the horribleness of confession and all of the issues that surround it, but only from a personal perspective. It’s something that deserves a more thorough and general analysis, I think.

          August 12, 2011
    • Thanks for the kind comment, Richard. And, although I definitely agree with this:

      And that begins with them owning this scandal. Nothing short of that will suffice.

      I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, unfortunately enough.

      August 12, 2011
  4. pete #

    There’s something about the claim of universality meaning the victims either aren’t in the loop or need to go to god as well. Catch 22 that the veil of confession is just a part of. Some are taught from youth that it can’t be wrong no matter what happens behind cloister doors. That’s a dangerous reality that itself needs to be addressed alongside priest’s urges. The victim’s perspective is totally lacking in what amounts to media snowballing. Stop wondering why the priests did it and wonder why in hades they get away with it. Everything else is manufacturing ignorance for everyone, not just the faithful.

    August 10, 2011
    • Stop wondering why the priests did it and wonder why in hades they get away with it.

      Absolutely. That’s one of the most frustrating things about this report. It’s focused almost entirely on analyzing why the priests molested children, when, as you say, the real question is why the Church was allowed to get away with the coverup and has never been (and will never be) fully persecuted under the law.

      August 12, 2011
  5. Miranda, as important as this topic is, I simply cannot read this all the way through in one sitting. Your first post on this was quite good, but I wound up reading the entire report over a couple of weeks. Anyway, thanks for being able to sit through this and write about it; I have nothing useful to say other than I’m glad someone is writing about it.

    I find it quite difficult to get past the &^@$)*@&#(@&* @I#&*P@#* stage.

    August 10, 2011
  6. Michael Kingsford Gray #

    FWI- As reported by the National Secular Society (UK), in their “Quotes of the Week” section:

    “The only way — and I mean the only way — that the Catholic Church is going to change its stance on [the child abuse] issue, or indeed on any issue, is if Catholics vote with their feet, and get the hell out of there.”
    (Greta Christina, Alternet)

    Replace “feet” with “wallets”, and I very nearly agree with her in this.

    August 12, 2011
  7. ““The only way — and I mean the only way — that the Catholic Church is going to change its stance on [the child abuse] issue, or indeed on any issue, is if Catholics vote with their feet, and get the hell out of there.”
    (Greta Christina, Alternet)”

    I disagree. What is needed is for governments to take action against the Church. Right now, the Catholic Church is still treated as an organisation worthy of respect, even though attendances are falling dramatically in many Western countries, so falling attendance isn’t doing the trick. There has to be a situation where governments see an electoral disadvantage in pandering to the Church.

    August 12, 2011
    • Michael Kingsford Gray #

      Withdrawal of automatic tax exemption would be a sterling beginning!

      August 12, 2011
      • “Withdrawal of automatic tax exemption would be a sterling beginning!”

        It would. But unfortunately I can’t see it happening. It’s hard to see how much worse the Catholic Church could get, and yet governments still do sickening things like invite the Pope for a cosy chat. Short of the Catholic Church nuking somewhere, I can’t see that changing. Governments are stuck on the Faith is Good setting.

        August 12, 2011
    • I think perhaps feet, wallets, and government action would help. I’m not sure how much, though.

      August 12, 2011
  8. C. Mason Taylor #

    Yeah, sadly, feet don’t matter. Not enough. The Church will just do what it does already: try to drum up attendance with various local campaigns, and rationalize away any effect their insular, navel-gazing bigotry has on the situation. To them, the draw of secularism is not pluralism, freedom, wealth, health, or peace, but the inexorable appeal of sin.

    August 12, 2011

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