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.