A US report highlights misperceptions about clergy sex abuse and gives recommendations on prevention.

WASHINGTON – Several commonly held assumptions about clergy sexual abuse of minors are actually misperceptions, says a major study on the problem in the United States.

The study, released at the headquarters of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington on May 18, was conducted by a team of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.

“No single psychological, developmental or behavioural characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not,” the study report said.

Furthermore, it was found that “the majority of priests who abused were not driven by particular pathologies, and most did not ‘specialise’ in abuse of particular types of victims.” The report said 70 percent of priests referred for abusing a minor “had also had sexual behaviour with adults”.

It often is thought that the sexual abuse crisis in the Church continues unabated today, the report observed. But it said “the peak of the crisis has passed”. It said the Church “responded”, abuse cases decreased substantially and clergy sexual abuse of minors “continues to remain low”.

Data show that abuse incidents were “highest between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s”, the report noted. “Ninety-four percent of the abuse incidents reported to the Catholic Church from 1950 through 2009 took place before 1990”, it said. Currently, “fewer new reports are brought forward” each year.

The report dispelled certain misperceptions regarding the abusers’ sexuality. It said:

“Clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity ... are significantly more likely to sexually abuse” minors than priests “with a heterosexual orientation or behaviour”.

However, “because of the large number of sexual abuse victims who were male minors”, homosexuality’s role in the abuse “has been a notable question”. The study considered it “important to note that sexual behaviour does not necessarily correspond to a particular sexual identity”.

A possible reason that so many male minors were abused is that priests had greater access to them, the report speculated.

The study showed that “the only significant risk factor related to sexual identity and behaviour was a ‘confused’ sexual identity, and this condition was most commonly found in abusers who were ordained prior to the 1960s”.

Neither celibacy nor the Church’s male priesthood undergirded the sexual abuse problem, the report said. Priestly celibacy, consistently practised in the Church over many centuries, cannot explain the spike of abuse cases from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s and the steep decline after 1985, the report added.

In a key summary observation on abuse prevention, the report said: “For abuse to occur, three factors must converge: There must be a person who is motivated to commit the act of abuse, there must be a potential victim and there must be a lack of a ‘capable guardian’.”

The report recommended that Catholic leaders and others in the Church:

  • Make it more difficult for priests to commit abuse. Safe environment programmes serve this goal.
  • Make it more likely that abusers will be identified.
  • Institute periodic evaluation of the performance of priests.
  • Maintain and evaluate steps to prevent abuse.
  • Exercise “transparency in reporting and dealing with sexual abuse”.

The report said priests should have “outlets to form social friendships and suitable bonds with age-appropriate persons.”

The report stressed that “to fully achieve change in the Catholic Church, all diocesan leaders must be committed to transparency about their actions, ensure that the immediate and appropriate responses to abuse become routine and ensure that such actions are adopted on a national level by all Church leaders”. - CNS

Clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity are significantly more likely to sexually abuse minors than priests with a heterosexual orientation, says the report.

(Top Photo: Ms Karen Terry, principal investigator for the John Jay College report, speaks during the May 18 press conference. Beside her is Bishop Blase J. Cupich, chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People. CNS photo

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