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Sex-Abuse Reports Pull No Punches

“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” the infamous yet apocryphal question asked of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson about the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, could have been asked about clergy sex abuse.

The shameful answer is that abuse of minors by some priests and deacons did happen in the last 52 years and viciously contradicted the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That fact is clear from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s research study on the “nature and scope” of the problem, released February 27. This study quashes any lingering hope that abuse of minors by priests was a fiction created by headline-hungry, anti-Church media.

By the Numbers

Ninety-seven percent of dioceses and 60 percent of men’s religious communities, representing 80 percent of religious priests, completed the surveys for the John Jay study.

The study documented 10,667 victims who were sexually abused by Catholic clergy. (Since many victims do not come forward until years later, that figure is probably much higher.) Most were between the ages of 11 and 17.

At least 4,392 diocesan and religious order priests and deacons were accused of engaging in sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002.

Abusers represent four percent of all priests involved in active ministry during that time. Priest-abusers in religious orders were only 2.7 percent of priests in their communities.

By 2003, clergy sex abuse had cost dioceses and religious orders more than $572 million, which paid for victim compensation, victim treatment, abuser treatment and attorneys’ fees.

The 'How' and 'Why' Report

That same day, the National Review Board released a “causes and context” report based on the John Jay numbers and on its own interviews with 85 individuals: victims, bishops, priests, psychologists, district attorneys and others.

The National Review Board’s report attempts to explain how this crisis happened: Why were individuals with a predisposition to prey sexually upon minors allowed to become priests? Why did they remain priests after bishops received evidence of such abuse?

The Board called the actions of abuser priests and “the inaction of those bishops who failed to protect their people from predators” both “grievously sinful.”

The Board refused to hide behind the fact that most sexual abuse occurs in families. “[W]hen sexual abuse of  minors occurs in the Church it is particularly abhorrent.”

The Board found “two overarching contributing factors”: Dioceses and orders did not screen candidates for the priesthood properly, and seminaries did not form candidates for the priesthood adequately and prepare them for the sexual revolution of the ’60s.

The large numbers of vocations in the ’50s and early ’60s may have overwhelmed the system, and the paucity of vocations later led to pressure to ordain even marginal men, the Board suggested.

Since four fifths of the victims were male, the Board addressed the issue of homosexual priests. The Board concluded that this crisis was caused neither by homosexuality (the conservatives’ favored explanation) nor by priestly celibacy (the liberals’ most common explanation).

The strongest words in the Board’s report were saved for bishops. Many bishops, the Board found, treated victims as adversaries, not as injured parishioners in need of healing.

The Board suggested that bishops relied too much on psychologists, who had a vested interest in promoting the remedial benefits of therapy, and on lawyers, who sometimes gave “myopic legal advice.”

What troubled the Board most was the lack of bishops’ outrage and the lack of accountability by them. “The exercise of authority without accountability is not servant-leadership; it is tyranny,” the Board commented.

It also recommended that bishops make more use of Vatican II institutions like presbyteral councils and provide fraternal correction for one another. And they advised more lay input in the selection of bishops.

Moving Toward a Transparent Church

Both reports are monumental efforts. They are brave and don’t spare anyone’s feelings. The analysis is complex, the recommendations many and far-reaching. Just as the National Review Board refused the simple analysis, it eschewed the quick fix.

Last June, an article in St. Anthony Messenger’s special issue, “Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing,” posed the question of whether the National Review Board was “for show or for real.” These painfully honest reports prove the Board is rubber-stamping nothing. Because the U.S. bishops appointed this board and are allowing it to do its work, they show they are no longer carrying a bucket of whitewash.

At the press conference announcing these reports, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. bishops, said, “The terrible history recorded here today is history.” True, but history can repeat itself if the recommendations in the National Review Board’s report are not taken to heart.—B.B.

Both reports are available in full at St. Anthony Messenger’s special issue is available at

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