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Never Has So Much Damage Been Done By So Few

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Media reaction to the John Jay Report on "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests. 1950-2010" has centered on what the New York Times deemed the "Woodstock defense," that is, blaming the libertine spirit of the bohemian music and peace meeting in 1969.

Let it be known that any insult to the hallowed Woodstock days puts gray-haired hippies up in arms. We wore the peace sign, sang "Kumbaya My Lord" to simplistic guitar music and cheered on peacenik confreres who disrupted the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. But the only thing most of us violated was good taste. (Orange shag carpeting anyone?)

Unfortunately by arguing about Woodstock, many miss the gist of the report, which is that the number of cases of child sexual abuse by clerics declined dramatically starting in the mid-80s. Cases dropped as education in seminaries increased and as dioceses began to implement safe environment plans and protocols for interaction between adults and children. It also helped that some priests in well publicized abuse cases wound up doing time. The John Jay report notes that as abuse went into decline in American society, statistics show that the numbers of abusers dropped more quickly in the church than elsewhere. Educating priests-in-training and volunteers and teachers on the job, and publicizing crimes by priests who went to jail were dramatic wake-up calls, even for people who didn't recognize criminal behavior instinctively.

Last year in the U.S. Catholic Church of 68.2 million members, there were seven credible accusations of abuse of a minor by a priest. There should not be any, and punishment for abusers should be swift. Even in the worst days of abuse, however, it was an estimated four percent of priests who abused. Obviously there should have been no abuse, but it is unfair to ignore the fact that abusers constituted a small percentage of priests. When it comes to abusers smearing the reputations of dedicated, clean-living clerics, never has so much damage been done by so few.

The John Jay report rightly criticized the church's lack of transparency and pointed out that when the church dealt with an abuser, it kept its actions a secret. It is understandable, given the ignorance about sex abuse in society until the very late 20th century. Just a couple decades ago, and even perhaps more recently, if one parent discovered the other sexually abusing a child at home (where most abuse happens), he or she didn't discuss it at the PTA or go to the police. They might have tried to get spiritual or emotional help secretly for the perpetrator and the victim, though the crime is so shameful as to be paralyzing. A bishop told me a few years ago that one of the scandals in this matter was that bishops weren't even speaking with one another. No one at a bishops' meeting was apt to ask: "Hey Joe, any of your priests abuse kids?"

The silence is broken now. This is good. People, including well-trained children, speak up and speak out. Bishops notify the police when there is a credible accusation. Children are taught to tell parents and teachers when someone's familiarity makes then uncomfortable. Everyone knows that "Keep your hands to yourself" has meaning even after kindergarten.

The gray-haired hippies, who are now retiring from proper jobs in areas such as education, law, medicine, and public service, agree. They reflect nostalgically on Woodstock. They look wistful when they hear the strains of "Where have all the flowers gone?" and they smile for "Puff, the magic dragon." The Catholic hippies might even hum the sing-songy "Sons of God, hear his holy Word...." Woodstock evokes memories of wise or unwise passion. It doesn't, however, equate to sexual abuse of a child.

Sexual abuse of a child is an intolerable aberration for which there is no excuse. For those who ever thought it was not harmful or even, incredibly, thought it was acceptable, education and prison time sent a message. But it had nothing to do with wearing love beads and tie-dyed shirts.