As a lawyer and an advocate for survivors of Catholic priest abuse for nearly two decades, I read with interest Professor Thomas Plante’s article in the Huffington Post recently concerning the so-called John Jay study on the causes of the Catholic Church’s child abuse problem. Many readers will recall that the Study concluded, in part, that one of the causes was the turbulence and changing mores of the 1960’s—a conclusion that has drawn widespread derision amongst commentators. Professor Plante—who consulted on the project at the request of John Jay—took a more serious approach to his commentary, and his article deserves a serious response.
I agree with the professor that more needs to be done in terms of organizational oversight and accountability within the Church. I also agree that the John Jay Report was by all fair measures an independent research project that was not “rigged” as Plante puts it, by the Catholic bishops.
However, in his article, Professor Plante makes some conclusions that do require clarification and at times, correction. For instance, the John Jay Report is not comprehensive in the sense that it covers every aspect of the priest abuse crisis. It clearly passed over in silence the role the clerical culture played in the sexual abuse of minors. Plante states definitively that celibacy and homosexuality are not causally related to the crisis. While this is true as far as it goes, yet, celibacy, for sure, is an integral part of the Catholic clerical culture. Richard Sipe, perhaps the leading expert in the world on priest abuse and the clerical culture, has done extensive research on the subject of celibacy. As a former priest and a therapist, he has completed a 25 year study on the subject of celibate/sexual behavior of priests specifically. Thomas Doyle, an ordained Catholic priest is also an highly learned expert on the subject. He has noted that, “…the influence of mandatory celibacy and the sub-culture of which it is an integral part play a major role in the socialization and maturation processes of the men who will eventually violate minors. The clerical culture should have been the subject of the $1.8 million venture because if looked at closely and honestly it would have yielded information that not only provided believable reasons for the abuse nightmare but valuable though radical steps to take to avoid similar travesties in the future.”
Professor Plante also claims, “The study also shows that the vast majority of abuse cases occurred between the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s. Ninety-four percent of all cases happened before 1990 and 70 percent of offenders were ordained before 1970.” This is simply not true. How do I know this? Certainly, it is well documented that the problem of child sexual abuse has haunted the Catholic Church for centuries, even millennia. (Interested readers will want to read “Sex, Priests, and Power,” written by Sipe, Doyle and canon lawyer and former priest Patrick Wall. ) So, for the study to pretend that the “problem” is one that arose in the last decades of the 20th Century is simply disingenuous. Moreover, I have seen too many Catholic Church documents that prove that Church leaders, at least some of them, knew full well the scope of the problem in the US back before 1950.. For example, Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, founded the Paracletes in 1947 in order to deal with those priests who are abusing minors. In 1964, Fitzgerald wrote a letter to a bishop acknowledging that 3 out of every 10 priests he counseled were there for the sexual abuse of minors. In the early 1960’s the same Fr. Fitzgerald wrote a letter to then-Pope Paul VI warning him about the prevalence and sinister nature of priest sexual abuse of minors. Beyond that, I have seen candid letters from the 1950’s from bishops to heads of religious orders making clear that at least some bishops knew only too well about the abuse problem. Even the Vatican issued a letter to the world’s bishops in the early 1960’s about how to deal with the phenomenon of priests abusing minors.
In the Huffington Post article, Professor Plante states that the American Church has received the majority of sexual abuse claims that it will ever receive, because those who’ve been abused have had “incentive” to come forward recently. This statement is somewhat surprising from a psychology professor. For it is virtually beyond serious dispute in the mental health fields that most children aren’t capable of coming forward to talk about their abuse for long periods of time, even decades, because of the traumatic and confusing nature of the abuse itself.
Finally, Plante makes the following comment regarding the sociological make-up of priest abusers, “Let’s also be very clear that the report found that the vast majority of clergy sex offenders are not pedophiles, but rather situational generalists violating whomever they had access to and not seeking out young pre-pubescent children of either gender. They violated whoever was available to them at the time.”
So…. What’s the point? Is a “situational generalist” who abuses children better than a pedophile who does? Should Catholics breathe a sigh of relief about this? I think not. For what remains clear is that priests who abused minors took very specific and calculated steps to target them. These priests groomed their victims by showering them with attention, gifts, special favors, and a certain sense of specialness. The resulting damage—emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually—was profound. So, no matter what label Professor Plante wants to give these priests, they abused children.
I appreciate Dr. Plante’s willingness to share his insights concerning the John Jay Study. However, with respect, I do believe he raises more issues than he answers. The problems with the John Jay study cannot be simply explained away so easily—nor can the problem of priest abuse of children in the Catholic Church.