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Catholic Voice
  June 6, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 11   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Learning lessons from John Jay College study

On May 18, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released its “Report on the Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010,” as called for by the U.S. bishops in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. (See story.)

For those of us who have been involved in dealing with this issue over the last several years, the report is enlightening but did not present anything too terribly surprising with regard to what were and were not the causes of this problem. Nonetheless, it serves as a reminder to us Catholics in this country of the deep soul-searching we have done over the last several years in coming to terms with this scourge on society.

By the grace of God — and despite the impressions some might have — we Catholics can take confidence that our Church has led by example in putting decisive measures in place to effectively deal with this insidious problem. It is no exaggeration to say that, at this time in the history of our country, there is no safer place for a child to be than in the company of Catholic clergy, religious and lay leaders. Of course, this is no time to gloat. As the John Jay Study indicates, there are no tell-tale character traits that indicate who will and will not be an abuser. We must, therefore, continue to exercise vigilance in this regard, for we cannot deny that this is a heinous crime that has been a deep betrayal of trust and inflicted deep wounds on its victims. I therefore wish to repeat my apology to all those who have suffered such abuse from Catholic Church leaders, and give assurance that we will continue to do all that we can to prevent this from ever happening again.

There is, of course, much to learn from the John Jay Report. I would like to highlight some of the more significant points here.

• The frequency of abuse began to increase in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, and dramatically decreased in the early 1980s. Seminaries were not prepared to respond to the rapid social changes during and, obviously, prior to those years in order to give adequate screening and formation to those preparing to serve as priests at that time.

• The abusers most consistently revealed an underdeveloped sexual identity, with those who were sexually abused themselves when they were minors being more likely to abuse as adults. Moreover, the crime is often one of opportunity, with priests having had more opportunities to be with boys than with girls. Thus, the problem was not specifically one of sexual orientation.

• Nor is clerical celibacy the cause of the problem. This is seen not only in the low frequency of abuse before and after the crisis period (the latter especially being thoroughly demonstrated by scientific studies), but even more so by the fact that the vast majority of male abusers in society are married or otherwise involved with an adult partner. (At this point the report speaks of celibacy being “constant in the Catholic Church since the 11th century.” While this is not the place to delve into the topic, it should be pointed out that research by Cardinal Alphons Stickler and others has demonstrated that the “law of continence” for even married clerics has its roots in Christian antiquity, with evidence that its origins go back even to apostolic times. For more on this, the reader is referred to: “The Case for Clerical Celibacy,” by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler [Ignatius, San Francisco, 1995]; “Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy,” by Fr. Christian Cochini, SJ [Ignatius, San Francisco, 1990]; “Celibacy in the Early Church,” by Father Stefan Heid [Ignatius, San Francisco, 2000]; and the exhaustive series of articles published in “Priesthood and Celibacy” [Editrice Àncora, Milan]).

• Another cause of the problem was that bishops were making decisions based on what was (and was not) known about child sexual abuse at the time. By the 1980s, the typical approach bishops took was to send the offender for therapy, and not restore him to ministry until a qualified psychotherapist deemed him sufficiently rehabilitated.

The bishops now, of course, have adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse of minors by Church ministers, and have put into place thorough safe environment programs to protect youth and children and prevent abuse from happening. The Diocese of Oakland, in particular, has been at the forefront of this effort from early on, and effectively so. I remain deeply grateful to my predecessors in leadership here for their foresight and determination in this regard.

Of all of the lessons to be learned from the John Jay Study, perhaps the most valuable comes from this finding: the rise of deviant behavior in the Church in the 1970s paralleled that of society in general. Thankfully, this changed in the 1980s. It should teach us, though, how careful we must be not to fall into that trap of gullibility. Many leaders in our Church at various levels were swept up in the revolutionizing of sexual mores in the ‘60s and ‘70s, failing to foresee the dire consequences that would come back to haunt us. We must not make that mistake again, with regard to the whole range of issues involving faith and morals. We must resist the temptation to swallow wholesale the latest popular cultural trend, but rather critique the culture through the lens of faith. As Christians, we are aided by the light of revelation; thus, it is our duty toward society to offer this critique, affirming what is positive, correcting what is defective, and adapting whatever any given culture has to offer for furthering our mission of knowing Christ better and making him better known. This is what will make us happy, healthy and holy — in short, truly human.

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