A $2 million study commissioned by the U.S. bishops is not likely to put to rest questions about the causes of the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood.
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a top psychiatrist and authority on treating sexually abusive priests, told CNA that he is “very critical” of the findings because they avoid discussing important causal factors in clerical sex abuse cases, namely homosexuality.
The study began to receive criticism on May 17, the day before it was released, in both the secular press and from Catholic experts who have studied the issues involved closely.
The study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York cites the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s and poor seminary training as the root causes of the crisis. The report is the third commissioned by the U.S. bishops since the break of the scandal in 2002 and was intended to address the patterns and pathologies behind the abuse.
Despite the report showing that nearly 80 percent of victims were post-pubescent and adolescent males, the study concludes that clinical data “do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity ... are significantly more likely to sexually abuse.”
Fitzgibbons disputed that conclusion, saying that “analysis of the research demonstrates clearly that the major cause of the crisis was the homosexual abuse of males.”
This, he underscored in a May 18 phone interview, “was the heart of the crisis.”
Statistics from the recent John Jay report show that less than 5 percent of abuse took place with prepubescent children, making pedophilia a fraction of the core issue and sexual activity with adolescent males the primary occurrence.
“One can conclude that these priests have strong same-sex attraction,” he said. “When an adult is involved with homosexual behavior with an adolescent male, he clearly has a major problem in the area of homosexuality.”
“Priests and seminarians with deep seated homosexuality have a serious responsibility to seek appropriate help to protect adolescents,” he emphasized.
Fitzsgibbons praised the John Jay Criminal College for their work in previous studies, which he said gave “accurate” statistics on sex abuse. However, he was critical of the college being chosen for the third study analyzing underlying factors, saying that criminologists “lack the professional expertise to comment on causes of sexual abuse.”
“The earlier conclusions were very accurate, but the present analysis – the attempt to identify causes and context – I would completely disagree with.”
“If the (U.S. bishops) conference wanted an analysis of the causes of complex sexual behavior with adolescents,” he said, “don't turn to criminologists.”
“They are not trained to understand those causes – that training is given to mental health professionals.”
“They can report on the statistical analysis of the behavior but in terms of causes, they've crossed a line, in my view.”
The John Jay researchers also clarified in their study that priestly celibacy was not a factor in clerical sex abuse and said that the offenders chose to victimize boys because clergy had greater access to them.
Bill Donohue, president of The Catholic League for Religious Liberty, reacted to the notion of accessibility to boys over girls, saying the “there are so few incidents of abuse these days – an average of 8.3 per year since 2005 – that it makes no sense to compare the percentage of male victims at the peak of the scandal to what has happened since altar girls were allowed.”
“The latest study on abuse notes that 83 percent of the allegations made in 2010 were by males, and the bulk of incidents took place in the early 1970s,” he said.
“Besides, priests had nothing but access to male altar servers before the 1960s, and the report notes that sexual abuse was not a problem then.”
“That’s because there were fewer gay priests then,” Donohue argued.
The report “says that 81 percent of the victims were male and 78 percent were post-pubescent,” he reiterated. “Since 100 percent of the abusers were male, that's called homosexuality, not pedophilia or heterosexuality.”
“A homosexual is defined by his actions, not his identity,” he said.
Despite the disagreement incited over the particulars of the report, the numbers ultimately show a drastic decline in sex abuse occurrences within the Church over time.
The “peak of the crisis has passed,” the report noted. Because the Church “responded,” abuse cases decreased and sexual abuse of minors “continues to remain low.”
Researchers said data show that abuse incidents were “highest between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s.”
“Ninety-four percent of the abuse incidents reported to the Catholic Church from 1950 through 2009 took place before 1990,” the study said, adding that currently, “fewer new reports are brought forward” each year.