New Report on Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis


BOB ABERNETHY, host: A highly anticipated report on the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the US Roman Catholic Church was released this week by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The lead researcher said no one factor was responsible for the actions of the priests. Both celibacy and homosexuality were ruled out as causes. Instead, researchers found that priests were influenced by societal changes during the 1960s and 1970s, what they called an increase in “deviant behavior.” Several victims groups denounced the report, saying it does not place enough blame on the bishops who covered up abuse.

We discuss the report and the reaction to it with Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton, the managing editor of this program. Kim, is it the case that the report has something in it to make everybody unhappy?

KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly): Well, a little bit. When this crisis here in the United States really hit a boiling point in 2002, a lot liberals in the church said, well, the problem is this all-male priesthood and enforced celibacy, and that’s creating the problem. A lot of conservatives said it’s homosexuality and gay priests and that’s the problem. And this report said it’s not either one of those. But the report did say the social upheaval in the 60s and 70s, and there were critics who didn’t like that sort of blame-it-all-on-Woodstock idea. The report said that in seminaries priests weren’t being trained to handle the new sexual mores of the United States at that time, and there was a lot of stress, and that generated the problem, but that makes a lot of critics frustrated because they say it makes it a sociological problem and not a systematic problem and a spiritual problem within the Church.

John Jay College report on Catholic church sex abuseABERNETHY: And the fact is, Kevin, the abuses happened, whatever the causes.

KEVIN ECKSTROM (Editor, Religion News Service): That’s right. Whether it’s gay priests or celibacy or anything else, the fact is that this happened within in a very particular institution, the Catholic Church, that was incapable for 50 or 60 years of really handling this problem and dealing with it in an effective way, and a lot of times what they did was they shuffled it off to the side, or they said, oh, well, this isn’t really that big of a deal, or we can reassign this problematic priest somewhere else, and this— the way that this problem was handled did not happen in the same way in, say, public schools or boy scouts or whatever. So I think the bishops to their credit and the church to its credit gets—should be acknowledged that this is the widest study that’s ever been done on child abuse, child sexual abuse, but they don’t really quite go far enough, I don’t think, in saying how the church’s own responsibility contributed to it.

ABERNETHY: And there was nothing in the report, was there, about the bishops who moved around the people who were committing these terrible acts?

LAWTON: Well, the report does say that the bishops were part of the problem in that they didn’t deal with it or they spent more time focusing on the priests and not the victims who were being abused. But what the report doesn’t do is then come up with suggestions for dealing with that, for punishments, or for mandatory things that the bishops have to do when this happens, and that’s a frustration.

post02-sexabusereportABERNETHY: Do they have to report to law enforcement?

LAWTON: If it’s a state law, they do. The guidelines set up by the bishops encourage the local dioceses to report allegations to the authorities. But again, it’s not mandatory, it’s not binding and there’s no enforcement mechanism.

ECKSTROM: I think one of the big numbers, sort of one of the hidden numbers, actually, in this report was that only 14 percent of these cases over the 60-year period were turned over to law enforcement. That means that 86 percent of cases were handled internally in the Church, and the big criticism of the Church has always been that they don’t know how to handle it internally. And they say, oh, trust us, we’ll take care of it, don’t worry about it, but they’re not referring these to law enforcement, which is what a lot of people say they should be.

ABERNETHY: Is the problem over? To what extent has it peaked and gone away? There was something in there about …

LAWTON: Yeah, the report says it was a historical problem, and there certainly has been a decrease in the number of cases being reported. However, we’ve seen, we’re seeing right now in Philadelphia, in the archdiocese of Philadelphia there’s a situation going on right now where a local grand jury has suggested that 37 priests who were accused, with credible allegations of abuse, were allowed to remain in their posts, and the lay review boards that have been set up to help the Church monitor this—they were shocked to hear that. So there are clearly still a lot of issues.

ABERNETHY: Kevin, very quickly. Is it over or not?

ECKSTROM: Last year, in 2010, there were just seven cases reported of abuse that was alleged to have occurred in 2010. So, in that case, you are not seeing hundreds of cases of abuse, but what’s problematic for a lot of people is that the Church is not reporting any cases, and they are not releasing the names of accused priests that might encourage of other victims to come forward.

ABERNETHY: Many thanks. Kevin Eckstrom, Kim Lawton.