Terrance Heath

Catholic Priests: The Devil Made Them Do It

Filed By Terrance Heath | May 25, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: Catholic church, Catholic priests, child exploitation, child molestation, gay priests

The Catholic Church has finally uncovered the “causes” for its long epidemic of sexual abuse.

A report on the putative “causes” of sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church over the past 60 years is set to be released today. The study, titled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010,” claims celibacy and homosexuality were not prime catalysts for mistreatment — arguing instead that many priests were unable to deal with the pressures of the “sexual revolution.”

The report was commissioned by bishops of the American Catholic Church, and compiled by scholars at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It is thought to have cost around $1.8 billion, half of which was provided by the bishops themselves (the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice contributed approximately $280,000, according to the New York Times).

Its conclusions will doubtless be controversial; they will please neither those who argue for an end to clerical celibacy — thus supporting a priest’s right to marry — nor those who claim that homosexuals are more likely to abuse young boys (who have, in clerical abuse cases, historically been victimised more than girls) and thus should not be ordained.

Well, yes and no.

I’ll explain.

Yes. I was somewhat surprised at the findings about gay priests. Not so much that they found no evidence that gay priests were more likely to abuse minors than straight priests, but the implications of the drop off in abuse as the number of gay priests went up.

Since the scandal broke, conservatives in the church have blamed gay priests for perpetrating the abuse, while liberals have argued that the all-male, celibate culture of the priesthood was the cause. This report will satisfy neither flank.

The report notes that homosexual men began entering the seminaries "in noticeable numbers" from the late 1970s through the 1980s. By the time this cohort entered the priesthood, in the mid-1980s, the reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests began to drop and then to level off. If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church.

Many more boys than girls were victimized, the report says, not because the perpetrators were gay, but simply because the priests had more access to boys than to girls, in parishes, schools and extracurricular activities.

I haven’t read the report, so I can’t say with any degree of certainty what the effect of allowing openly gay men to serve as priests had on the rate of abuse. But part of me thinks that just the impact of not having to be in the closet had to make a huge difference for the priests in question and the congregations they served -- the simple reduction in tortured souls, and the number of people required to commit one sin (dishonesty) in order to cover another so-called “sin,” could only have been a positive.

I also can’t help but note that the report doesn’t seem to put gay priest in the same category with pedohile priests. But that’s where I have a problem. With all reported child sexual abuse going on, the church seems to think it had surprisingly few pedophiles in the priesthood. The thing is, their fudging the numbers a bit.

In one of the most counterintuitive findings, the report says that fewer than 5 percent of the abusive priests exhibited behavior consistent with pedophilia, which it defines as 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,' " the report says.

That finding is likely to prove controversial, in part because the report employs a definition of "prepubescent" children as those age 10 and under. Using this cutoff, the report found that only 22 percent of the priests' victims were prepubescent.

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies a prepubescent child as generally age 13 or younger. If the John Jay researchers had used that cutoff, a vast majority of the abusers' victims would have been considered prepubescent.

That jogged my memory, and went back to previous post that confirmed my initial reaction. The report, at least on the percentage of pedophile priests, seems to fall back on the time honored tradition of moving the goal posts.

Roberts: Bill is good but you cannot link homosexuality to a pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church.

Bill Donohue: It's not a pedophilia... most of the victims were post pubescent...

Roberts: You know...

Donohue: You've got to get your facts straight. I'm sorry. If I'm the only one that's going to deal with facts tonight so be it. The vast majority of the victims are post pubescent. That's not pedophilia buddy. That's homosexuality.

Roberts: Bill, I don't think as a person of faith that you really know what you're talking about when it comes to a victim and a survivor. (crosstalk)

Donohue: It's not of my opinion. Take a look at the social science data. I never said that most homosexuals are that way.

Roberts: No you just said that cut down homosexuals... (crosstalk).

Donohue: Yes! Practicing homosexuals.

O'Conner: Sorry Larry, at what age does somebody become, you know, post pubescent in America as a matter of ages?

King: What is the age?

Thomas: Ah... I don't know. Let's ask Bill. He seems to be the authority on post pubescency.

Donohue: 12, 13 years of age. Look, all I'm saying (crosstalk).

King: We're out of time. We've just touched the surface. Now we've got Anderson Cooper coming on.

King: You want to get in? Sinead, go ahead quickly.

O'Conner: Can I just ask very quickly if that gentleman, sir I don't know your name... just, I'm not quite sure what post pubescent means. You mind explaining that to me?

Donohue: Explain what?

O'Conner: What does post pubescent mean?

Thomas: Post pubescent...

O'Conner: What does post pubescent...

Donohue: Post pubescent means beyond puberty, okay? In other words you're an adolescent and that's what homosexuals do and most of them the molesters have been homosexuals in the Catholic Church (crosstalk).

Thomas: So the boys deserved it because they were post pubescent?

Donohue: Now if you want to take that conclusion, I think that's scurrilous. I never said that. Why would you say that about homosexuals?

O'Conner: Sorry Larry, at what age does somebody become, you know, post pubescent in America as a matter of ages?

King: What is the age?

Thomas: Ah... I don't know. Let's ask Bill. He seems to be the authority on post pubescency.

Donohue: 12, 13 years of age. Look, all I'm saying (crosstalk).

King: We're out of time. We've just touched the surface. Now we've got Anderson Cooper coming on.

Maybe I’m crazy. I’m certainly no authority on the subject. But there’s something else that bothered me about this. It’s illustrated by cases like that of Lawrence Murphy, a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys at a school in Wisconsin -- boys who were deaf but not silent, who tried for years to tell of their abuse -- and who may have continued abusing after he was sent into retirement in 1974.

The documentation on Murphy at BishopAccountability.Org paints a picture of a repeat abuser. (The New York Times has an 86-page document trail on Murpy.) The same seems to apply to the abusive priests the church quietly transferred from parish to parish. At least 30 abusive priests were moved to between parishes all over the world, according to an investigation that spanned six continents and 21 countries.

The pattern of moving priests from parish to parish when reports of abuse surface suggests two things that would seem to contradict the report. First, is suggests that a number of the accused priests were repeat offenders, abusing several children -- and in some cases, scores of children.

Again, I’m no expert, but someone who repeatedly engages in sexual conduct with children is a pedophile in my book. And I don’t buy the church’s convenient redefinition of “post-pubescent” either. I’m sticking with the accepted definition, which brings me to the same conclusion Religious Institute Executive Director Debra Haffner reached.

innocence defiled
Do you remember watching Flip Wilson on "Laugh In" years ago, and his catchphrase "the devil made me do it?" I heard this line in my head again this week as I read the first news reports about the new 152 page report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests.
Later, as I read the entire study, I found myself alternatively fascinated and infuriated. The report is both comprehensive and short sighted. It is both clear in its recommendations for education, oversight, and accountability yet ignores some of the very real reasons the problem of sexual abuse of children and youth by priests has been so prevalent in Catholic churches.

It is nearly silent about the abusing priests' flagrant disregard for the church's teachings on sexuality and sexual behaviors, while condemning the culture of the 1960's and 1970's for these crimes against children. The extensive sections about other agencies serving youth and other denominations facing similar problems, and the concluding paragraphs that these others should take steps to prevent child sexual abuse seem to obviate at least in part what I wished would have been an urgent call for reform, lamentation, and restitution by the Catholic Church.

d_priest sufferI can't help but wonder if a single sexologist was asked to read and comment on the report before it was published. Although I was pleased to see that the writers directly address the fact that there is no evidence that gay priests are any more likely to abuse children than heterosexual priests, it was odd that they didn't call then for the Catholic Church to end its proposed ban on gay seminarians. Further, the writers (inaccurately) define pedophilia as sex with children ten and younger–and then criticize the media for talking about "pedophile priests" when 22 percent of the victims–nearly one in four! –were these ages. Using the more accepted definition for pedophilia, their own data reveal that 73 percent of the victims were under the age of 14. These children and early adolescents were not capable of consent, regardless of the ages used.

It is both legally and morally wrong for adults to have sexual contact, behaviors, or relationships with children under the age of 18. Sexual abuse by a trusted religious leader can be especially soul scarring and devastating. I wonder if anyone will be comforted that the John Jay writers say that priests who sexually abuse children are more accurately labeled "indiscriminate offenders" than pedophiles; or that some of the priests only engaged in "minor acts of sexual touching over clothes or fondling." Both frankly make me feel sick.

So that means that the church had a number of pedophile priests on its roster, and when complaints of child sexual abuse cropped up the church simply moved the offending priests to other parishes.

That actually brings me to my next point. Haffner points out that the report is “nearly silent about the abusing priests flagrant disregard for the church’s teaching on sexuality and sexual behaviors. I’ll have to read it for myself to be sure, but I’m willing to bet it’s just as silent in about the church’s complicity in the abuse, because it pins the blame on the 60′s rather than the church itself.

Jesus is supposed to have said “He who has eyes to see, let him see.” Well, what the articles about the report suggest is that the church still refuses to see. Just as it refused to see its complicity in the abuse, by failing to remove priests who were habitual abusers, opting instead for the “geographical solution” that amounted to little more than moving abusing priests to locations with fresh victims.

The church’s actions regarding sexual abuse by priests has been so well documented by others that I won’t attempt to do it here. The Boston Globe’s coverage is probably the most definitive. Bishop Accountability has even more. But the most recent I’ve read is Jason Berry’s damning report on newly (and hurriedly) beatified John Paul II’s non-response to child sexual abuse by priests.

Should a pope who turned his back on the worst crisis in modern Catholic history be exalted as a saint? Lawsuits by victims, numerous prosecutions and news coverage of bishops who enabled abuse are the shadow story of John Paul's twenty-six-year pontificate, during which time he responded to continuing allegations of clergy abuse with denial and inertia. American dioceses and religious orders alone have spent nearly $2 billion on legal actions and treatment of sex offenders, an aching scandal at incalculable cost to the church's stature.

… Moreover, on the greatest internal crisis facing the church, the pope failed, time and again, to take decisive action in response to clear evidence of a criminal underground in the priesthood, a subculture that sexually traumatized tens of thousands of youngsters. Despite a 1984 warning memo from the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer in the Vatican Embassy in Washington, and a ninety-three-page report on the problem co-written by Doyle in 1985, which was sent to every American bishop, John Paul ordered no outreach to victims, no binding policy to rid the priesthood of deviants. In 1989 the US conference of bishops sent experts in canon law to Rome, seeking a streamlined process for defrocking child molesters rather than waiting for the byzantine Vatican bureaucracy and final word from the pope. John Paul refused. Litigation and prosecutions spread, but the pope remained passive.

As victim-survivors found their way to lawyers, a train of legal discovery in the United States, Ireland and other countries yielded documents linking complicit bishops, religious-order superiors and Vatican officials in the concealment of sex offenders. On April 21 in an important lawsuit against the Vatican by a man who was abused by a predator priest, a federal district court in Portland, Oregon, ordered church officials in Rome to turn over documents for discovery. District Judge Michael Mosman said, "Plaintiff has proffered evidence that tends to show the Holy See knew of [the priest's] propensities and that in some cases, the Holy See exercised direct control over the conduct, placement, and removal of individual priests accused of similar sexual misconduct." The US Supreme Court declined to hear the Holy See's appeal for dismissal, which was based on a claim of sovereign immunity.

On John Paul's role in the church's long nightmare, the Rev. Richard McBrien, a distinguished University of Notre Dame theologian, wrote, "Indeed, he had a terrible record, full of denial and foot-dragging, on the greatest crisis to confront the Catholic Church since the Reformation of the 16th century."

Put simply, if you have priests repeatedly abusing children on your watch, and responded with denial, obfuscation, and even intimidation in some cases, you don’t get to blame the 60s. If you have a crisis of child sexual abuse in your church, and spend more of your time an energy protecting the perpetrators than the victims, it is not the fault of “the sexual revolution” that you have a sex abuse crisis. It is your own fault. Your failure to address the crisis by taking action to stop the abuse, protect the abuse, and hold the abuse accountable ultimately makes you the reason for this tragedy. The only “culture” to blame is your own.

The devil didn’t make you do it. You chose to do it over and over again. That you still chose to deny it just shows how much you don’t get it, and how little chance there is that you’ll be able to stop the abuse.

(Crossposted at Republic of T)

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

A man and a 12 year old is not a gay relationship. It's pedophilia.

I'm continually fascinated by the fact that the Catholic Church behaves as if abuse of children is an effect of modernity. In medieval penitentials, priests and confessors were explicitly cautioned against the temptation of sexual misconduct against those over whom they had ecclesiastical power. Until the counter-Reformation in the 17th and 18th centuries, priests were constantly reminded that they were vulnerable to corruption, that their power was not absolute, and that their own abuse of power to exact any kind of pleasure (gluttony, cupidity, or sexual) from their congregants and penitents was a profound sin. I don't think that it's a coincidence that in the places where priests had the most power, the most access, and the least supervision by lay women, that the abuse was greatest. It's power that corrupts, not sexual desire. That is why the abuse of children by people in power is not a uniquely Catholic phenomenon. You see it in all institutional settings--children, young adults, and the socially and psychologically vulnerable would be a great deal safer if we recognized this fact instead of scapegoating one particular group.

Lots of people didn't become pedophiles despite the "sexual revolution," so the idea is ludicrous.