BALTIMORE – An ongoing study of the “causes and contexts” of the sexual abuse crisis in the church will touch on societal influences, the role of various aspects of seminary life and how church leaders’ response was a factor, according to the staff of the New York-based John Jay College of Criminal Justice in a report to the U.S. bishops Nov. 12.
In a briefing during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall general meeting in Baltimore, researchers Karen Terry and Margaret Smith outlined the types of information being gathered since the bishops agreed at the same meeting a year ago to spend $335,000 to cover the first phases of the detailed study.
Research falls into six categories, Terry explained: a historical overview of social and political events since 1950; recruitment and seminary training; leadership; victimization; a clinical analysis using data from three treatment centers; and a discussion of prevention and education tactics.
Terry said early research seems to indicate that the patterns of sexual abuse within the church are consistent with the experience of society as a whole.
Among the “clusters of hypothetical factors being studied” to explain the incidence of sexual abuse are social changes of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as social movements, social stratification and changes in the church after the Second Vatican Council and how those influenced priests’ attitudes and behavior, she said.
Another cluster of possible factors is how seminaries recruited candidates and trained them; job-related stresses for priests such as isolation; and structures of dioceses and church leadership.
A third cluster is the changes in parish activities, the growth of youth ministry, and changes in the living situations and responsibilities of parish priests. She also said there is a cluster of structural and legal factors, including economic and statutory changes and law enforcement.
Terry displayed a graph portraying how the major influences of different decades compare with the increase and decline in reported cases of sexual abuse. For instance, it targets peak years of abuse reports correlating to the major social changes and attention to gender and sexuality of the 1960s and 1970s.
Data so far from John Jay confirms the findings of social scientists “that general social changes have had significant impact on the lives of those who are part of or closely associated with religious organizations,” she said.
With regard to seminaries, Terry said research questions include whether the behavior of seminarians can be used to predict future incidents of abuse, and how changes in seminaries between 1970 and 1990 might relate to a decrease in reports of abuse among priests ordained after 1980.
More than 25 percent of all priests accused of abuse were ordained between 1960 and 1969, she reported. Seventy percent of those accused were ordained before 1970.
Another area of study asks how bishops and their staff members responded to abuse reports.
The report by Terry and Smith is intended as an update; a more detailed release is planned for 2008.
In a brief discussion period, several bishops asked about other organizations, such as schools, that might have done or plan similar studies of abuse by their personnel.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., said if the research bears out that the Catholic Church differed little from other organizations in the incidence of abuse he recommended offering the John Jay material to others to see if it benefits them.
He also noted that because of the broad acceptance of the notion that sexual abuse is a problem particularly tied to the Catholic Church it “will take some time to overcome the myth that has developed about the church.”
Smith said although there are no other studies she’s aware of that match the John Jay project in scope she thought there might be data available soon to compare the problem in the church with that in public schools.
Archbishop Eldon F. Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., said relationships with clergy have been difficult for many people.
Retired Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska, said while much of the attention in the news media has focused on priests and some people find it difficult to relate to them “they’re angry at the bishops.”