Feature

Sex abuse by priests: Were the ’60s to blame?

John Jay College of Criminal Justice has released a 300-page report on the causes of the sex-abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic church.

It’s taken five years and $2 million, said Daniel Ruth in the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times, but the American Catholic Church has at last figured out who’s to blame for its ongoing sex-abuse scandal: “Country Joe & the Fish. Oh, and Janis Joplin, too!” In a study commissioned by the church’s bishops, New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice has concluded that the lax morals of the 1960s and ’70s were the primary cause of the sexual abuse of thousands of teens and children by priests. The report claims that sheltered clerics couldn’t cope with the “societal stress” of the “post-Woodstock period,” and as premarital sex and divorce rates skyrocketed, they got caught up in the sexual “deviance’’ of the times. This is just another exercise in denial, said the Boston Herald in an editorial. The report denies that celibacy played a role, but fails to explain why an all-male, celibate priesthood reacted to the sexual revolution by mostly abusing boys. Why didn’t they have sex with adults?

Critics are doing the report a “great disservice” by oversimplifying its findings, said Meghan Murphy-Gill in USCatholic.org. The 300-page study says that “multiple factors” contributed to the scandal, including the inadequate preparation priests received for a life of celibacy. And American bishops are strongly criticized for repeatedly concealing allegations of abuse by priests, said David Gibson in The Washington Post. This complex report, laden with statistical analyses of abuse cases, also challenges some of the myths that have built up around the scandal. It notes, for example, that there is no statistical evidence that “gay priests were more likely” than straight clerics to abuse minors, as conservative Catholics often claim. It’s similarly dismissive of the liberal argument that celibacy leads to child abuse, finding that sexually abstinent priests are less likely to engage in abuse than laymen who also work with children.

The report may offer few concrete explanations of the abuse epidemic, said Amy Sullivan in Time, but its recommendations are clear: The American Catholic hierarchy must adopt “uniform policies that encourage transparency” and genuine accountability. Such reforms, however, appear a long way off. Last week, the Vatican issued new guidelines for bishops dealing with sex-abuse cases. But those guidelines are voluntary, so bishops will continue to have the final say—even over whether allegations are turned over to police. “The bishop remains king, reporting only to the pope and God.”

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