Clergy abuse: Love the one you're with?

Clearly, we are in the early stages of a major wave of mainstream and niche-media coverage of the new John Jay College of Criminal Justice report about the half century or so of clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. However, the early headline seems clear -- "Blame Woodstock."

Thus, the lede on this early Washington Post report:

The largest study ever done on youth sexual abuse by Catholic clergy concludes that the scandal which exploded in 2002 was a temporary problem caused by poorly trained seminarians, bishops who focused too little on victims and a permissive culture in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the rise of divorce, marijuana experimentation and robbery.

At this stage, most reporters are simply responding to the report itself -- with little material coming from activist groups on the Catholic left and right. Thus, there is a lot of assuming going on that I find rather questionable.

For example, one popular assumption is that Catholic conservatives want to blame the whole thing on gay priests, while some of the most interesting writing about the alleged "gay subculture" has come from voices on the left (one example here). At the same time, journalists seem to assume that only "liberals" are raising questions about married priests and optional celibacy. I think that's rather simplistic as well.

Frankly, I have found that "left" and "right" are often meaningless terms in discussing this story. There are locked doors and lots of sin all over the place.

The earliest report from the Religion News Service sums up the tough messages contained in the report in this manner:

The first myth challenged by the study is that priests tend to be pedophiles. Of nearly 6,000 priests accused of abuse over the past half century (about 5 percent of the total number of priests serving during that period), less than 4 percent could be considered pedophiles, the report notes -- that is, men who prey on children.

“Priest-abusers were not ‘pedophile priests’,” the researchers state flatly.

Second, the researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely than straight priests to abuse minors -- a finding that undermines a favorite talking point of many conservative Catholics. The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report states.

You may want to re-read that passage before you launch into a longer version of some of this same report material from the New York Times. Ready?

The researchers concluded that it was not possible for the church, or for anyone, to identify abusive priests in advance. Priests who abused minors have no particular “psychological characteristics,” “developmental histories” or mood disorders that distinguished them from priests who had not abused, the researchers found.

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.

This early Times story also, helpfully, notes that the John Jay researchers defined "prepubescent” children as those 10 and under -- leading to the conclusion that only 22 percent of victims were prepubescent. Meanwhile, the definition used by the American Psychiatric Association classifies a prepubescent child as 13 or younger.

This is crucial because, at the heart of the controversy are several clear facts. First, most of the victims were male and most were teens or, at the youngest, the so-called tweens. Also, it appears that bishops, before and during the crisis years, were confused about the proper treatment and disciplinary approach for priests struggling with "ephebophilia” -- intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people. Most bishops were aware that little could be done to help or heal true pedophiles.

As a reporter, I think that this raises a big question about terminology.

This new report stresses that the overwhelming majority of the victims were young males, not because of sexual orientation trends or temptations. This happened, it states, because priests were around young boys more often than girls. To sum it up in a Woodstock-era reference, the priests merely loved the ones they were with.

So news reports are, in effect, stating that the abusive priests were straight men having sex with young males. Right? So is this the same as saying that the majority of the abusers were, in effect, bisexual? Or were they simply, according to this latest John Jay report, acting out in a bisexual manner because they were confused, immature or stressed? What is the proper term here?

Needless to say, do not hit the comments pages with your opinions on the hot-button issues in the report. Instead, talk about the quality of the coverage -- most of all -- help point us toward URLs for (a) additional, emerging mainstream news coverage and (b) analysis of the report and the news coverage from articulate Catholic voices on left and right. For example, has anyone found a URL for those talking points from Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., that have already been sent to the email in-boxes on legions of religion-beat professionals?

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