Clergy Sexual Abuse: Questions Remain

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a 1.8 million dollar study, popularly known as the “John Jay study,” to uncover the patterns and causes of the sex abuse crisis since 1950. The National Review Board—the entity designated to implement the study—gave the first John Jay report in 2004. In this report, which describes the “Nature and Scope” of clergy sexual abuse, the board pointed out that more than 80 percent of the victims were teenage boys and young men.

This conclusion, in itself, should have been a solid roadmap for truly correcting the sex abuse problem.

Indeed, the bishops quickly responded. They issued guidelines for tough diocesan policies, such as the immediate reporting of abuse to civil authorities, and better oversight of children’s safety.

However, despite those good reforms, clergy with sexual abuse histories were still active in public Church ministry. In early 2011, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia revealed it was involved in yet another major “roundup” of sex abuse cases, a majority of them (82%) involving the original category of identified victims—male teens and young men.

Also in 2011, the Vatican called on bishops and local dioceses to develop comprehensive plans to stop sex abuse. It urged “an even greater importance in assuring a proper discernment of vocations.” Clearly, the Vatican still sees a need to encourage more thoroughness when screening priesthood candidates.

These developments—still surfacing seven years after the original John Jay findings—suggest that reforms have not been wholly adequate. Why? I would suggest that, from the start, reforms concentrated on defensive measures—protecting young people from predators who may be lurking in the clergy. That is well and good. However, a more important question remains unanswered: why should the Church allow predators to be lurking among the clergy in the first place?

The fault is not with the original John Jay data. It pointed to the predator issue by identifying the overwhelming victim demographic as young men and male teens. Here are the statistics, in Part 4.2 of the study: “four out of five (80%) alleged victims were male,” and “the majority of alleged victims were post-pubescent (87.4%), with only a small percentage of priests receiving allegations of abusing young children.”

This statistic paints a vivid picture: the sex abuse crisis was the overwhelming work of a very small number of clergy targeting young males as their victims.  This fact suggests one reform that has yet to be addressed: the Church must screen out clergy candidates with same-sex attractions.

At first, this reform appeared to be on the radar. In 2004, the National Review Board stated that while the sex abuse crisis had no single cause, “an understanding of the crisis is not possible” without reference to “the presence of homosexually oriented priests.” The board cited the data: “eighty percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature.”

Dr. Paul McHugh, a former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a member of the National Review Board, put it more strongly. Quoted in an August 25, 2006 National Catholic Register editorial, he observed that the John Jay study had revealed a crisis of “homosexual predation on American Catholic youth.”

But that warning soon disappeared from the public perception. The John Jay conclusions began to be explained as an “environment” problem. This new interpretation was made official in a 2011 John Jay report, “Causes and Context.”

Two years earlier, Dr. Karen Terry, the lead spokesperson and coauthor of the John Jay study, offered this interpretation at the bishops’ November 2009 meeting in Baltimore. According to the account in the National Catholic Reporter, Dr. Terry inferred that the sexual orientation of the predators didn’t matter. In Dr. Terry’s words, “It’s important to separate the sexual identity and the behavior … Someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature, but not have a homosexual identity.”

Quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the National Catholic Reporter, Dr. Terry said the problem was that clergy “had access to boys” rather than because they had “a homosexual identity” or a “homosexual orientation.”

But “access to boys” avoids one glaring issue: the data reveals that a very small contingent of clergy did most of the sexual exploiting, and they overwhelmingly chose same-sex victims.

Dr. Terry’s own interpretation notwithstanding, it is absolutely crucial to examine who these exploiters are. At the very least, it’s a cop-out to blame the crisis on the “field” of victims, and the implication is potentially dangerous: It suggests that future crises could be avoided if the Church bans “access to boys.” This inevitably would include banning: priests from all-male high schools; priestly vocation retreats; and any gathering designed to specifically encourage young men in the pursuit of a Christian way of life. These kinds of gatherings have raised generations of good Catholic men for centuries—and, rest assured, morally strong and healthy priests have never had any interest in sexually stalking young men at these gatherings.

Instead, we owe it to generations of Catholics to get to the heart of the issue, and examine what kind of man would sexually pursue post-pubescent males.

Before going further, let’s be clear: sexual predators come in both homosexual and heterosexual orientations. In either variety, sexual predation is evil, and homosexual behavior isn’t the only sexual sin, or the only problem. All sexual sins can gain strength unless the clergy formation process includes an emphasis on spirituality, prayer, and asceticism. But the data from the John Jay study strongly suggests that a homosexual influence in the clergy is a key factor in the sex abuse crisis.

And yet, this factor has been consistently ignored in the reform process. In fact, in the John Jay report issued in 2011, homosexuality was definitively discounted as an issue.  The study cited “organizational” (and institutional) causes among the explanations for the sex abuse crisis. It concluded that perhaps the real causes are the result of “certain vulnerabilities” accompanied by “opportunities to abuse,” as in “access to boys.”

The second report did not suggest screening anyone from the seminary. Rather, the “Conclusions and Recommendations” suggested that the solution lay in “education,” “situational prevention models,” and “oversight and accountability.” The report stated: “By regularly surveying priests, administrative staff, and parishioners about their responses to, and satisfaction with, the priests with whom they have contact, dioceses are more likely to be alerted to questionable behavior that might have been undetected in the past.”

In effect, now all priests will be considered guilty until proven innocent! More insidiously, the report calls for closer surveillance or “oversight” of the activities of all priests. According to a July 22, 2011 article in the National Catholic Reporter, this means “ensuring at least one adult is present whenever clergy and children (young men) are together.”  Big Brother, welcome to the Church.

Significantly, this second John Jay report was challenged by a top psychiatrist who treats sexually abusive priests. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons told the Catholic News Agency on May 20, 2011, that “he is ‘very critical’ of the latest findings because they avoid discussing important causal factors in clerical sex abuse cases, namely homosexuality.”

Of course, anything critical of homosexuality offends modern standards, even the standards of some within the Church. But those are not the standards of the Catholic Church, and her teaching.  Pope Benedict XVI, for example, says in his recent book, “Light of the World,” that one of the “disturbing problems” in the Church today is that “homosexuality exists in monasteries and among the clergy.”  He goes on to say that “homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation.”

The Pope’s statements are backed by the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (#2358), and other documents which declare that homosexual behavior is “objectively disordered.”

The question is: will objective data, like the John Jay study, be interpreted by Church standards, or by other standards?

So far, the answer is unsettled. Unfortunately, what should be the Church’s primary concern seems to be currently off the table. Instead, the study’s new direction and warning about “access to boys,” carries a subtle, but troubling, challenge to the Christian formation of young men—including the male-only priesthood.

When it comes to “access to boys,” the Church should have only one goal: to protect every young man who has discerned a call to religious life, and any male who sees, in priests and deacons, worthy role models of Christian values. For now, this vast demographic of human souls is still vulnerable to sexual targeting within the very walls of the Church.

We must face facts. The data overwhelmingly identifies the main victims of the sex abuse crisis as young men. Furthermore, what critics call “access to boys” is a natural consequence of Church life, and the male priesthood. Therefore, true reform should not be to question “access to boys,” but to reconsider, with compassion and wisdom, whether clergy roles are appropriate for any man who finds “access to boys” a sexual temptation.

Until this human problem is addressed, we cannot expect a complete solution to sexual predation within the Church.


This article was originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review magazine and it reprinted with permission.

Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., was ordained in Aug. 26, 1972. He is currently in the process of developing the Julia Greeley shelter for homeless, unaccompanied women in metro Denver. He is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008; and in 1997, he was sent by Mother Teresa to instruct Missionaries of Charity in Madagascar and South Africa on the subject of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist . His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made two series for Mother Angelica's EWTN: Crucial Questions, Catholic Answers, and What Did Vatican II Really Teach?