THE BLOG

The Catholic Sex Abuse Report: Too Little, Too Late?

05/20/2011 02:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2011

I found myself alternatively fascinated and infuriated as I read the new 152 page report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests. The report is both comprehensive and short sighted. It is both clear in its recommendations for education, oversight, and accountability yet ignores some of the very real reasons the problem of sexual abuse of children and youth by priests has been so prevalent in Catholic churches. It is nearly silent about the abusing priests' flagrant disregard for the church's teachings on sexuality and sexual behaviors, while condemning the culture of the 1960's and 1970's for these crimes against children. The extensive sections about other agencies serving youth and other denominations facing similar problems, and the concluding paragraphs that these others should take steps to prevent child sexual abuse seem to obviate at least in part what I wished would have been an urgent call for reform, lamentation, and restitution by the Catholic church.

I can't help but wonder if a single sexologist was asked to read and comment on the report before it was published. Although I was pleased to see that the writers directly address the fact that there is no evidence that gay priests are any more likely to abuse children than heterosexual priests, it was odd that they didn't call then for the Catholic Church to end its proposed ban on gay seminarians. Further, the writers (inaccurately) define pedophilia as sex with children ten and younger -- and then criticize the media for talking about "pedophile priests" when 22% of the victims -- nearly one in four! -- were these ages. Using the more generally accepted definition for pedophilia, their own data reveal that 73% of the victims were under the age of 14. These children and early adolescents were not capable of consent, regardless of the ages used.

It is both legally and morally wrong for adults to have sexual contact, behaviors, or relationships with children under the age of 18. Sexual abuse by a trusted religious leader can be especially soul scarring and devastating. I wonder if anyone will be comforted that the John Jay writers say that priests who sexually abuse children are more accurately labeled "indiscriminate offenders" than pedophiles; or that some of the priests only engaged in "minor acts of sexual touching over clothes or fondling." Both frankly make me feel sick.

The report concludes correctly that there was no single cause of sexual misconduct against children and youth found. But, right at the outset, it makes the unsupported and frankly morally troubling link that

"... the social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s manifested in increased levels of deviant behavior in the general society and also among priests ... organizational, psychological, and situational factors contributed to the vulnerability of individual priests in this period of normative change."

Surely these researchers know the difference between causation and correlation that I was taught in public health school. Even more troubling is that the report's executive summary does not address that these abusing priests and their Bishops had the moral responsibility and moral agency to honor their vows, act legally and ethically, and honor the sacred trust that parents and children had placed in them. Yes, it is true that we now know more about the devastating impact of clergy misconduct than we did two decades ago, but surely they understood at that time that what they were doing violated their vows and was morally and legally wrong.

The report makes a strong case for education in "human formation" in Catholic seminaries, including how to educate and prepare priests for a lifetime of celibacy. Surely that formation must also include comprehensive sexuality education, including handling sexual attractions, maintaining appropriate sexual and professional boundaries, and understanding sexuality through the lifecycle. The Religious Institute's study, Sex in the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, found that most seminarians and clergy in the United States have not been adequately prepared to deal with sexual attractions, to recognize appropriate boundaries and power dynamics, or to assure that their congregations are free of abuse, harassment, and misconduct.

Sexuality courses are largely absent from most seminary curricula, and most students at most of the nation's seminaries can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality course. Fortunately this is slowly changing, as denominations like The United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association have made training of clergy in sexuality issues a priority. It is far past time to assure that all clergy receive sexuality education as part of ministerial formation and required continuing education.

This report, despite its length, coming 11 years after it was first proposed, seems too little, too late, particularly in what reads as its overall conclusion that the bulk of this problem is now behind us. Surely, regardless of our religious affiliation, we share a common belief that sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift, and that we sin when this sacred gift is abused and exploited, perhaps most particularly when such abuse is committed by trusted religious leaders. It is only through required training for all seminarians and clergy, a genuine commitment to safe congregations policies, complete transparency, and accountability and consequences that we can assure that our nation's faith communities can be free of abuse, harassment, and misconduct for us all.