Clergy Sexual Abuse Study: It’s Time for Common Sense

At the USCCB Fall General Assembly in Baltimore on November 17th, the bishops received a preliminary briefing from researchers of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on a report they commissioned in 2006 for insight into the clergy sex abuse scandal.

According to the original research proposal, one of the study’s stated objectives is to “understand, on an individual level, how priests with allegations of sexual abuse differ from other priests.”

By shedding light on the past in this way, such information can help our bishops form future priests according to the Council’s encouragement; “With watchful concern… inquiring into the candidate’s proper intention, his spiritual, moral and intellectual qualifications, his appropriate physical and psychic health, while taking into consideration also possible hereditary deficiencies… even if a deplorable lack of priests should exist” (cf Decree on Priestly Training – 6).

According to Catholic News Service, Margaret Smith, one of two John Jay researchers to address the Assembly, gave the bishops a glimpse at the kind of information they’ve gathered thus far saying, “At this point, we do not find a correlation between homosexual identity and the increased likelihood of subsequent abuse.”

While the full report isn’t expected until December 2010, it’s not too soon to measure the contents of this preliminary briefing against information that we already have and to ask some common sense questions as warranted. To that end I did some research of my own and here’s what I found:

In a 2002 study conducted by USA Today, it was determined that of the 234 priests that have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor while serving in the nation’s ten largest dioceses, 91 percent of the allegations involved male victims. [1]

The Boston Globe reported similar findings in 2003 saying, “Of the clergy sex abuse cases referred to prosecutors in Eastern Massachusetts, more than 90 percent involve male victims, and the most prominent Boston lawyers for alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse have said that about 95 percent of their clients are male.” [2]

Also noteworthy is research conducted by Dr. Thomas Plante of the Department of Psychology at Santa Clara University who found that 80 – 90 percent of the alleged victims of abuse were post-pubescent adolescent boys – not prepubescent children – meaning that the abusers in these cases “are not pedophiles at all but are ephebophiles” (demonstrating sexual attraction to mid-to-late adolescents.) [3]

Keeping all of this data in mind, let’s now take a closer look at the logical implications of Ms. Smith’s briefing.

If, as Ms. Smith’s report implies, a heterosexual priest is just as likely as a homosexual priest to abuse an adolescent minor, it is reasonable for us to expect the ratio of priests accused of abusing females to those accused of abusing males to mirror the demographics of the priesthood as a ratio of heterosexuals to homosexuals.

So, do the researchers at John Jay College really mean to imply that some 90% of the priesthood in the U.S. is homosexual?

The question alone is so preposterous as to border on the offensive, but remember, 9:1 is the ratio of priests accused of abusing adolescent males to those accused of abusing adolescent females. Applying this same ratio to the sexual orientation of the priest population as a whole is simply the logical extension of Ms. Smith’s assertion that both groups present an equal risk of abuse.

If, as I assume, Ms. Smith and her colleagues do not truly intend to imply that homosexual priests outnumber their heterosexual counterparts 9 to 1, it’s only common sense to demand an explanation for the overwhelming preponderance of male victims.

Presented another way, consider the most current data available from the Centers for Disease Control (the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth) which indicates that 4.1% of U.S. males age 18-44 years consider themselves homosexual. [4] If this same percentage is true among the priest population (something we do not know) then Ms. Smith’s assertion suggests that the number of priests accused of abusing adolescent females should outnumber those accused of abusing males by roughly twenty to one. As we know very well; this is not the case. Again, common sense demands an explanation.

Karen Terry, a colleague of Ms. Smith who also addressed the USCCB assembly, may have preempted questions concerning the small percentage of female victims when she cautioned the bishops, “Even though there was sexual abuse of many boys, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person had a homosexual identity.”

While it is prudent to withhold ultimate judgment on the value of the John Jay study until the report is published in its fullness, a couple of things seem rather certain already.

For one; the only way the final report can possibly substantiate Ms. Terry’s assertion is to provide solid and convincing evidence that a very large percentage of the abuse cases actually involved heterosexual priests molesting adolescent boys — an impossibly tall order if there ever was one. If researchers don’t consider an adult male being sexually attracted to a teenaged boy a flashing neon sign for homosexuality, then I’m not entirely sure I want to know what they do consider proof. Still, it will be interesting to see how the researchers attempt to support this incredible claim.

Secondly, the final report positively must provide rock solid demographic data concerning the incidence of “homosexual identity” in the priesthood; anything less means that Ms. Smith and Ms. Terry have offered nothing more than information built on mere assumption and their “findings” are therefore worthless. Why? Because if researchers don’t know with a high degree of certainty how many priests are homosexual, there is absolutely no way they can speak with any authority whatsoever about the relationship between homosexual identity and the incidence of clergy sex abuse.

Now while we shouldn’t prejudge, that doesn’t mean that we (or our bishops) need to check our God-given gift of reason at the door in the meantime, and let’s be honest; the preliminary briefing doesn’t inspire an awful lot of confidence that the final report will provide anything meaningful.

The simple truth is this; the information offered thus far by Ms. Smith and Ms. Terry is so entirely inconsistent with the cases of reported abuse as we know them on the one hand, and common sense on the other, that it can’t help but raise substantial red flags.

Let’s pray that our bishops — who incidentally have earmarked $1 million for research into the clergy sexual abuse scandal — are sufficiently alarmed to press for some solid answers to these common sense questions right now, not later. As we await the final report, the researchers at John Jay College need to be put on notice that unsubstantiated assertions are unacceptable; in return for our investment we expect correct information, not political correctness.

1. “The Accusers and the Accused,” USA Today, November 11, 2002, p. 7D.

2. Thomas Farragher and Matt Carroll, “Church Board Dismissed Accusations by Females,” Boston.com, February 2, 2003.

3. http://www.psychwww.com/psyrelig/plante.html

4. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/abc_list_s.htm#sexualorientation

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  • Joe DeVet

    Editors: I can’t make the article appear on my screen.

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