John Jay College Report on Catholic Sex Abuse

Following up their earlier study, John Jay College has produced an analysis of the sex abuse scandal in the US. I think it is mostly quite a good analysis, though there are a few weakness and one or two unnecessarily controversial claims tied to those weaknesses.

  • To my mind, the most crucial section is this passage, which rejects the equation of abuse with homosexuality:

There has been widespread speculation that homosexual identity is linked to the sexual abuse of minors by priests, largely because of the high number of male victims identified in the Nature and Scope study. However, the clinical data do not support this finding. Treatment data show that priests who identified as homosexual, as well as those who participated in same-sex sexual behavior prior to ordination (regardless of sexual identity), were not significantly more likely to abuse minors than priests who identified as heterosexual.

This is an important recognition, since some representatives of the Church have tried to tie the abuse to homosexuality.

  • This NPR story discusses controversy surrounding the way that the “pedophilia” and “ephebophilia” are used, another problem with earlier attempts to articulate the causes of the abuse:

The researchers define pedophilia as abuse of anyone 10 or under, and by that definition, only 22 percent of the cases fall in that category. But McKiernan notes that the American Psychiatric Association puts the line at anyone under 14. “And in fact,” McKiernan says, “when you draw the line in the correct place, it turns out that 60 percent of the victims were aged 13 or younger. In other words, 60 percent of the victims were victims of pedophile abuse.”

However, I think this is a misreading: the study’s authors only take up the question of the victims’ ages in the portion of the study devoted to “psychological analysis,” where they consider diagnostic criteria alongside other possible causes like offenders’ own histories of physical and sexual abuse. There, they are very careful to distinguish various “specialist” offenders from “generalists” who abused victims of various ages. They don’t do this to mitigate the harm experienced by older victims, but in an attempt to understand the etiology of the abusers’ desires. This is why they adopt the traditional “pre-pubescent” standard over the more inclusive definition that uses the age of 14, which is primarily of use in criminal prosecution. The work the study’s authors do here is careful and the analysis appears to be data-driven and data-responsive: they use it to reject a DSM-style “paraphilia” analysis for many of the same reasons they reject the equation of abuse with “homosexuality”: the data just does not justify the conclusion.

  • That said, their analysis still focuses a bit too much on individual factors, and rejects an attribution of institutional blame. (This is largely because they see the abuse as a flashpoint, something that occurred in the 60s and 70s but not before or since in the same degree. See the chart below.) The study’s most controversial finding will undoubtedly be this:

The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally. This increase in abusive behavior is consistent with the rise in other types of “deviant” behavior, such as drug use and crime, as well as changes in social behavior, such as an increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce. The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally.This increase in abusive behavior is consistent with the rise in other types of “deviant” behavior, such as drug use and crime, as well as changes in social behavior, such as an increase in premarital sexualbehavior and divorce.

The glaring weakness of the study is that it treats the absence of historical evidence of abuse as evidence of the absence of such abuse. Since reported cases spiked in the 50s and 60s, the study assumes that actual cases spiked in that period as well. Take a look at the graph below. Does it prove that there was a single flashpoint of abuse (caused by cultural “deviance”) or could we treat the growing reporting of abuse in the fifties and sixties as the combination of increased awareness and a survivorship bias? How plausible is the hypothesis that those abused earlier would have died or have adopted historically-traditional codes of silence?

  • NPR interviewed a priest who runs a nonprofit devoted to survivors of sexual abuse, Fr. Bob Hoatson. He suggested that the causal factor the report ignore is unaccountable power:

I think all of the men that abused me were kind of protected by this cocoon of power and authority and, like, “I work for God so I could do anything I want.”

This must surely be a factor, and the study’s authors acknowledge this when they compare the Catholic Church’s scandals to those we’ve seen in other religious communities and in families. In all cases, it’s unaccountable power that sets the stage for abuse.

11 thoughts on “John Jay College Report on Catholic Sex Abuse”

  1. The Catholic Church got a bum rap. The sexual abuse incident rates for public schools are estimated to be at least as high as those of the Catholic Church’s in many studies surveyed by the U.S. Dept. of Education:

    Nor is the Catholic Church unique in using its bureaucracy to cover up scandal and protect suspected offenders; teachers unions have been very successful in making it difficult to fire teachers even in cases of severe misconduct.

    It’s clear from worldwide studies that a small but persistent incidence of adult-child sex is a normal part of the human condition across a wide range of institutions. Occam’s razors suggests no extra hypotheses about the effects of celibacy, institutional culture, or Catholic dogma are necessary to explain the relatively normal rate of abuse in Catholic institutions.

  2. It looks to me like you didn't read my post where I agreed that there's nothing unique to the Catholic Church that caused the abuse. It's just one of many sites of unaccountable power, and one that is at least in principle and practice committed to discovering and rooting out abuse in the future. You should also consider reading the John Jay College report, which makes many of the same points.

    What's worse, it looks like you didn't even read your own link. The report you cite doesn't give evidence for your conclusions, and your claims about teachers' unions equivocate between "severe misconduct" (i.e. nonsexual misconduct, since child sexual abuse is a police matter) and "hiding predatory priests from law enforcement and coercing the silence of victims."

    I appreciate readers and reason-responsive discussion, even criticism, but I don't appreciate drive-by unresponsive spam.

  3. Thanks for the prompt response, but I’m afraid we’re not quite seeing eye-to-eye:

    i) You mentioned “other religious communities and families” as places where abuse also happens, but didn’t mention public schools. I find this omission a bit bizarre since a great deal of abuse takes place at public schools, far more than in Catholic Schools, which are relatively few in number. Being helpful, I thought I’d provide some data on public school abuse.

    ii) “The report you cite doesn't give evidence for your conclusions…”

    The report provides a wealth of data from many surveys. Since there are many different ways of measuring abuse, I thought I’d just provide a link and let you sort through the numbers at your leisure. I didn’t cite specific numbers mainly because I didn’t feel like getting into a discussion of particular methodologies, but I really don’t think my suggestion that Catholic Church abuse rates are not significantly higher than those of public school abuse rates is controversial. For instance, the John Jay report (pdf page 21 of 152) guesstimates abuse per confirmation rates of 5 per 100,000 in 2001; compare that with Table 5 on pdf page 28 of the report I linked to, which gives public school abuse rate estimates from several studies for roughly the same time period.

    iii) I didn’t think it was controversial to point out that public unions protect their members from sexual abuse allegations, since protecting their members in general is the whole point of unions; it seems kind of obvious. If you must have proof that union protection of public school teachers from sexual abuse allegations is something that happens, here:

  4. I should say at the outset that I'm interested in this primarily as a situation in which the design of an institution's fact-finding and norm-enforcement seemed to break down, not because I have something against the Catholic Church. I have a great respect for the Catholic philosophical tradition. (Plus the usual caveats: some of my best friends are Catholic, I married a Catholic, etc.)

    i) The scandal was not caused by the abuse, it was caused by the cover up. Certainly similar coverups happen in local public schools, but at a much smaller level and without any kind of coordination between schools. That said, the Catholic Church takes a larger-than-fair share of the blame because it is a monolithic institution, while "public schools" are plural and independent of each other.

    There are benefits and costs in setting oneself up as the moral arbiter on earth, and this is one of the costs. It's analogous to Walmart being sued for sex discrimination: when you're the largest retailer in the country, you inherit all of the country's best and worst habits because your workforce is a cross-section of that population. So if Americans are misogynists, then Walmart will be misogynist. On this, I would think we could see eye-to-eye, since that was your initial point: "a small but persistent incidence of adult-child sex is a normal part of the human condition across a wide range of institutions."

    ii) You're comparing statistical apples and oranges. Unfortunately, comparing "reported cases" i.e. with a named victim and abuser, with anonymous surveys of "have you ever been…" variety doesn't let us say which is more prevalent. Sadly, we do not have very good data on public school student abuse, as the report you cite indicates. But nor do we know how many cases of priestly sexual abuse went unreported: we only know reporting spiked and that most of the reports, going back sixty years, were made in 2002 as this began to be matter of serious study. That's a bit different from asking every fifteen-year-old Catholic about their experiences. The anonymous survey is one method we use to derive unreported cases for other modalities and situations: we'd be better able to make the comparison if there was a similar study done of every confirmed Catholic between 15-18.

    Also, a small correction: the John Jay report says it is 15 per 100,000 confirmed, not 5, though I feel I should reiterate that the problem here is not prevalence, it is the cover up… not to mention the constant tu quoque argumentation and attempts to shift the blame to hippies and homosexuals.

    iii) Are you seriously comparing "providing legal representation for misconduct allegations" with "hiding abusers from investigation"? What makes those seem relevantly analogous to you? I also worry that you're also conflating criminal and the administrative investigations: teachers only get transferred to new schools when the police investigation doesn't result in a conviction for criminal abuse, because in that case the transfer would be to a prison!

  5. i) Is the Catholic Church really monolithic in a significant way that the U.S. government isn’t? Hmmm. I dunno.

    “Are you seriously comparing "providing legal representation for misconduct allegations" with "hiding abusers from investigation"?”

    I see no important moral difference between institutions where bishops personally protect accused priests and institutions where procedural rights secured through collective bargaining protect accused teachers. Both types of institutions protect abusers. Also, unions do a lot more than just make sure that teachers get lawyers when they’re accused (heck, that would be redundant in criminal cases). Just google, “sexual abuse teachers unions.” You’ll find stories where unions keep teacher records sealed from inquiring parents, ignore warnings about teachers, make disciplinary hearings such a long, drawn out process that schools are discouraged from pursuing disciplinary action, insist that teachers still receive pay checks even after they’ve been convicted of abuse, etc. There’s nothing bishops or other Catholic bureaucrats have done to protect suspect priests that schools and unions have not also done to protect suspect teachers.

    P.S. The 5 per 100,000 rate comes from the top of the right-hand-side on page 21 of 152.

  6. i) Since public schools in the US are under local control and are regulated by the states, I'm not sure the comparative unity of the RCC and the US government is really relevant. However, the ways in which the Catholic Church incorporates laity in decision making, and distributes most legislative tasks throughout the ordinary Magisterium is something I think often goes under-remarked: in that sense, the RCC is actually much more like the US government than the two organizations would like to pretend. Still, it's hard to compare divided sovereignty and a bicameral legislature to the nested modes of overarching authority we see in the Church.

    ii) If you don't see an important moral difference between the procedural due process and personal protection, I can understand why you see my failure to include schools as "bizarre." This also makes sense if you aren't aware of the ways in which the federal government is restricted from intervening in local schools.

    I believe that there is an important moral difference between these two institutionalized behaviors. (Otherwise, the most problematic institution of all would be the Legal Aid Society.) I disagree with much of the rest of what you say, but it's not specific enough for me to take on point by point. ("Google it" is not an argument.) Take a look at the case of Father H to identify specific behaviors you want to demonstrate unions have also engaged in. (If you look at the rest of my blog, you'll see that I'm rather ambivalent towards teachers unions in any case.)

    PS- The 15 per 100,000 rate comes from the middle of the left-hand-side on page 21 of 152. (The
    "15 per" number is derived from 1992 cases reported all years through 2004, while the "5 per" number is for 2001 reported all years through 2004. There is good reason to fear that many child abuse cases take longer than a few years to surface.)

  7. i) To be specific, in many cases the effect of teachers unions is to make it extremely time-consuming and costly for schools to fire someone, which combined with natural group preferences for insiders and fear of teacher lawsuits leads to schools (rather than unions per se) adopting policies that protect and hide suspected abusers. So quite often, it’s school administrators following standard “protocol” rather than union officials or policies per se that protect suspect teachers. Here’s a pretty standard expose of these kinds of practices:

    And this gem of a paragraph:

    “Even after getting caught, many men were allowed to continue coaching because school administrators promised to keep their disciplinary records secret if the coaches simply left. Some districts paid tens of thousands of dollars to get coaches to leave. Other districts hired coaches they knew had records of sexual misconduct.”

    Is it right to assume that even though you think procedural rights per collective bargaining agreements somehow makes protecting abusers OK, you still condemn the actions of administrators following school policy in hiding the records of suspected abusers from the public? If so, you must agree that many, many public schools have acted as immorally as the bishops that protected abusers.

    Of course, keeping records of allegations sealed is sometimes also explicitly necessary per collective bargaining agreements rather than simply being a standard school policy. For instance, check out the Personnel Files section of this contract:

    ii) Well, I looked at the Peter Hullerman=Father H case, and in a nutshell the story goes:

    Church hears allegations about Father H; H admits to it; church doesn’t call cops; church sends him to counseling at another parish; church doesn’t tell anyone about H; church doesn’t follow Counselor’s orders to keep him away from kids; Father H. molests again.

    So the Church’s moral malfeasance apparently lies in the fact that it didn’t call the cops, didn’t tell anyone about this guy, and didn’t obey the counselor’s orders to keep him away from children.

    Well, it took me about 2 seconds to find a bunch of analogous cases of unionized public school teachers. The case of Randy Sheriff, elaborated upon in the first link above, is as good as any:
    Basically, the story goes:

    School hears allegations about S; Principal believes them; school doesn’t call cops; Principal orders S to stay away from victim; S doesn’t listen to Principal; school doesn’t tell anyone; School let’s S transfer to other school without telling anyone; S does the same thing.

    Sound familiar?

    iii) Think of it this way: suppose that instead of bishops doing all this stuff by fiat, there were a priest union that negotiated “due process” procedures and rights for priests accused of this stuff. To wit: all accused priests will be given the option of transferring out and having their records sealed in the event that allegations arise. Also, before any allegations can even go into a record the accused has to be given an opportunity to “conference” (i.e. intimidate) with his accuser, as one union requires:

    Would the collective bargaining and separation of administrative power and duties make everything the Church did in these cases OK?

  8. i) Note that the Seattle case was a case of sexual misconduct and not criminal sexual abuse, since apparently their statutory rape laws do not cover 16 year olds and the prosecutor chose not to prosecute under the "improper use of authority" provisions. Compare that to the case of Glenn Whitworth, from your own link: he was arrested and convicted of raping a 13 year old. Since the majority of the priestly sexual abuse covers children under the age of 14, there's an important difference you're conflating here. Father H was a clinical pedophile.

    ii) In general, I think it's possible to accuse Seattle's school system of impropriety that is vaguely similar to that of the Catholic Church. But these are only vague similarities: when you look more closely there are some pretty important moral differences. Also, this is not an indictment of the US Government or of "public schools" or "teacher's unions." It's an indictment of the Seattle school district in question. Unfortunately, this is one of the costs of claiming to be catholic, i.e. universal.

    iii) Since the unions are not negotiating protection from *criminal* prosecution, these just aren't good analogies. If in fact a union negotiated criminal immunity, this would be just as wrong as what the Church did. The Santa Monica policy you cite is pretty shitty, though, even if it only deals with employment and not prosecution.

    My working hypothesis is that it is always wrong, everywhere and for everyone, to try to build institutional silos of unaccountable actors, whether the institution is the Catholic Church or the US intelligence community. This is also true for unions, but they are rarely able to wield so much power. That said, I've written critically and at length about the way that police unions hamper investigations into police misconduct and criminality.

  9. One last thing: I think you should explicitly address why you're conflating the administrative and the criminal processes. This looks to be consistent with the RCC's own stance, but it's never been well-justified (aside from an occasional claim to "sovereignty.") The RCC's own policies did seem to treat what we today think of as crimes as if they are only employment (and spiritual) matters for the priests and victims involved. This is perhaps the starkest contrast between Church and State, and largely where I see the norm-enforcement breakdown occurring.

  10. i) The Sheriff example was just meant as an example of secrecy; we don’t know if any statutory rape laws were violated or not. Since the first school didn’t report the affair, police never got a chance to thoroughly investigate.

    ii) I fear you may not be getting that it’s a completely uncontroversial and well known fact that schools don’t usually report sexual abuse allegations, even one’s they know to be true and criminal, to the police. Check out section 7.4 of the report I linked to in my first post; it points out that in the one study that focused specifically on this issue, schools often failed to report to police. It’s even worse when you read the write-up of that study:

    A quote:
    “Investigations tended to be poorly carried out. Superintendents rarely contacted the police
    or the district attorney's office, nor did they usually report the allegations to child abuse
    hotlines…the questioning of students tended to be incomplete, and it was sometimes carried out in a way that could frighten or intimidate students.”

    The report goes on to point out that in many cases teachers are ultimately just asked to quietly leave the district.

    Check out section 10.1, too, which points out that, “Many school districts make
    confidential agreements with abusers, trading a positive recommendation for a
    resignation” and gives two examples of unambiguous crimes that resulted in hush-hush agreements.
    If you read the New York rubber room story that I linked to in my 2nd post, you’ll see that the district’s modus operandi is to just send suspect teachers to rubber rooms rather than deal with the police or a laborious dismissal process where union advocates would fight fiercely for the teachers.

    iii) “Since the unions are not negotiating protection from *criminal* prosecution, these just aren't good analogies.”

    “One last thing: I think you should explicitly address why you're conflating the administrative and the criminal processes.”

    You confuse me. Neither the RCC nor schools/unions ever had the power to give people immunity from criminal prosecutions or stop victims from reporting their abusers to the police. They both just encourage policies that hide/conceal facts about employee backgrounds and fail to conduct thorough investigations of employees and/or report them to the police.

    iv) Are you giving yourself a thumbs-up on all your comments? Really?

    1. i) Fair enough.

      ii) A good correction. Thank you for linking to that report directly. Though it's from 1995, I doubt much has changed in the interim.

      iii) The RCC can and did move abusers out of the jurisdiction of local police. But it's reasonable to suggest that they didn't actively prevent children or parents from reporting abuse to the police themselves, though their use of moral authority to achieve that end is significantly more powerful than a teacher's.

      iv) You get a +1 for every comment if you're signed into Intense Debate, plus whatever other people give you. Though I won't require it of you, it'd be easier for me if you'd sign up for Intense Debate yourself, so that I wouldn't have to approve each of your comments. Plus then you could start collecting these completely irrelevant "Thumbs Up."�

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