A 10-year clergy abuse scandal?

I realize the following criticism is going to sound picky, picky, picky.

Guilty as charged. I happen to think, however, that nailing down the facts is an important task when we are dealing with a story as important as the latest report on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The arguments are continuing — and well they should — on several elements of the study. I, for one, would like to see more discussion of the report’s finding that most of the crimes consisted of heterosexual males having sex with young males, because the young males were more available, due to altar boy duties, etc. My question is simple: Couldn’t these priests more accurately be described by skeptical journalists as “bisexual” in their orientation and/or behavior?

Meanwhile, journalists are struggling with the sheer size and scope of the story, even in the American context alone.

For example, carefully read the following slice of the second-day New York Times story

Victims groups accused the bishops of using the report and the researchers’ credibility to try to cap the 10-year scandal.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in an e-mail: “America’s bishops hope this will be their ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment, like George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier prematurely and conveniently declaring victory in Iraq. Their plan is to act as though the crisis has been clarified and is now past. It’s deceptive and disingenuous, but shrewd public relations.”

Among the most controversial findings in the report is the mountain-shaped graph that shows the number of abuse victims climbing through the 1960s, peaking in the 1970s and sharply declining from 1985 onward.

The report theorizes that priests coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, growing up in families where sexuality was a taboo topic, and trained in seminaries that did not prepare them for lives of celibacy, went on to violate children during the social chaos of the sexual revolution.

Hey copy desk! How long has this scandal been gnawing at American Catholics? Was that 10 years?

So that 10-year era, roughly, would be from the bishops’ wake-up call in 2002 (that produced so many headlines, of course) until today? Or would that have been from 1992 — another major meeting of the bishops on the subject — until 2002? And all the bad stuff ended after 2002?

But that reference makes no sense if one of the main points of this John Jay report is that abuse was at its worst in the 1970s and ’80s. Right? Veteran reporters would also know that the first huge wave of news coverage began in the early 1980s, including a made-for-television movie in 1990 (“Judgment”), some magazine covers, etc. That was, of course, rooted in coverage of the hellish activities of a Father Gilbert Gauthe down in Louisiana.

So this is not a “10-year scandal.” This story is much, much, much bigger than that.

We are talking about a scandal that has been making headlines in the MAINSTREAM PRESS for at least 30 years. And the reality under the surface — as noted in the John Jay document — is longer than that.

Facts matter. Time for a correction and some additional care at the copy desk.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Karen

    What I rarely see in the coverage is that there is usually a time lag between abuse and reporting, even with newer standards. So there may be abuse that has occurred since the peak years but is still unreported. It makes basic sense to not consider the recent drop in cases as statistically significant. It may be true, but we don’t have the data.

    And I have to wonder how much of the scandal was attributed to a few individuals (plus the superiors who covered things up.) I remember once an arrest of two brothers in the Bronx who were responsible for 80% of the rapes in a fairly sizable area. So besides Father Gilbert Gauthe, do we know how specific individuals may have biased the statistics. Although we tend to assume that the number and influence of bad guys tends to be fairly constant, that isn’t necessarily the truth. So locking up a few extremely prolific pedophiles may possibly explain drops in cases (and would make episcopal lack of responsibility much more serious.) I’d like to see those numbers.

  • http://www.patrickomalley.com Patrick O’Malley

    This is at least a 60 year scandal, since its clear that priest were raping children since the 1950s, and its clear that the Catholic church as always tried to hide it. …

  • Bram

    By what criteria are these priests who sexually abused young boys being classified as “heterosexual”? Were they asked prior to ordination? If so, could they simply have lied? Should we really expect an honest account of his sexual proclivities from someone who then goes on to abuse a young boy?

  • Karen

    I suspect that pedophilia like rape is more about power than sex or sexual orientation. There is certainly a large percentage of pedophiles who may abuse young boys but in adult partners prefer women. The attempt of some pedophiles to describe their crimes as a sexual preference should have as much validity as rapists would get if they claimed their crime as a sexual preference. Frankly I see little journalistic challenge to those suppositions.

  • Bram


    But it’s debatable how much of this sexual abuse was of a pedophilic as opposed to an ephebophilic type. Much if not most of it may *not* have been. I’m simply seconding what seems to be tmatt’s skepticism that what this was all about was heterosexual priests so pent up by priestly celibacy that (a) they engaged in sexual abuse and (b) chose to sexually abuse young boys — against their stated sexual proclivity — simply because it was easier abusing young boys than abusing young girls. Somehow that doesn’t ring true. Such a priest could just have taken off his collar and gone to a singles bar. I continue to think it’s worth asking if a couple of kinds of spin are at play in this report: (1) one spin designed perhaps to placate the right by minimizing how much pedophilia was entailed and (20 another spin designed perhaps to placate the left by minimizing homosexuality among abusive priests. Just some food for thought — the kind of food I’d like to see more of it in the coverage of this.

  • tmatt


    Actually, my question about bisexuality is sincere. Why is no one using that label for what the researchers claim to have found?

  • Chip

    What’s your definition of bisexual, Terry?

  • Chip
  • Bram


    I didn’t mean to imply that your question about bisexuality wasn’t sincere. I take “bisexual” to mean that someone is heterosexual *and* homosexual in their proclivities, such that a bisexual priest who abuses a boy is acting out his homosexuality at that time and not the heterosexual side of his proclivites. It just seems odd to describe a male who has sex — consensual or not — with another male as heterosexual in that capacity, whether or not he might act on different proclivities in different contexts from that. Which raises the question — how often have these supposedly heterosexual pedophile and/or ephebophile priests done something like that? If they’re as heterosexual as some want to claim, then are we to take it that they are lusting after female parishioners and/or consuming heterosexual pornography involving adult women and *then* abusing young boys? Or are we to take it that in addition to abusing young boys they are *also* abusing young girls and/or having sex with women their age?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2011/05/study-blames-poor-training-not-celibacy-or-homosexuality-for-catholic-clergy-abuse.html Nicole Neroulias

    The sexual orientation question relates to the study’s age problem — deciding that victims over age 10 (not 13) were adolescents, and therefore their abusers were ephebophiles rather than pedophiles.

    If the victims were predominantly teenage boys — not the case here — you would have a stronger argument for homosexuality or bisexuality as a major factor in the abuse. But, most victims were under age 13 when the abuse began, and from what I’ve read, a pedophile’s gender preference in children is distinct from his adult sexual orientation. Also, the study correctly notes that the disproportionate number of male victims could be explained as crimes of opportunity (altar boys, all-boy Catholic schools, retreats, etc.) rather than the sexual preference of the priest — and abuse seems to have decreased even though there seems to have been an increase in gay priests.

  • Judy Harrow

    Bram (re #3)

    A priest who is going to take off his collar and go to a bar to meet a sexual partner could just as easily go to a gay bar, so that’s not relevant.

    I think there are two separate issues combining here.

    One is violation of the celibacy vows, which is an internal problem for the Catholic Church, and not the business of governmental authorities.

    The other is abuse of authority. It’s really just as bad when a clergy member of a religion that does not require clergy celibacy uses his/her position to manipulate dependent and vulnerable people into having sex. Or when an entirely secular person (therapist, schoolteacher, policeman, employer …) does the same. This is certainly against the code of ethics of many secular professions, and against the secular law when it involves children.

    But the hypothetical guy in the bar, who is doing wrong on many levels, is probably not breaking the secular law.

  • Elijah

    This topic of orientation (and its labeling) is a good one. Since we don’t know much of the priests’ sexual activity beyond the abuse stories (most of which concern homosexual activity), what evidence is there to suggest that the priests were ever heterosexual or bisexual?

  • Doug

    “Hey copy desk! How long has this scandal been gnawing at American Catholics? Was that 10 years?”

    I would submit that “scandal”, particularly from a Catholic perspective, refers to the effect that public knowledge of the abuse has had. The abuse and the lies, (which only scandalize those having knowledge of it, saving any Bishop of course) have been going on for a hell of a lot longer.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    My point there is that the scandals –plural — have been in the national press since the mid-80s at least.

  • Bram


    It would be easier for a heterosexual priest in our scenario to take off his collar and go to a singles bar than it would be for him to abuse a young girl in his charge, but it might *not* be easier for a homosexual priest in our scenario to take off is collar and go to a gay bar than it would be for him to abuse a young boy in his charge — especially if he had been abused himself in such a way, by a homosexual priest, in the days *before* gay bars. It could well be that an increase in *self-identified* homosexual priests, and indeed in gay bars, does correlate with a decrease in clergy sex abuse, precisely *because* it makes it easier for homosexual priests to act out sexually *without* abusing young boys than it was in the days when many if not most homosexual priests did not self-identify their homosexuality and had no access to gay bars. Just some thoughts. I make no claim for their trenchancy.

  • other Chris

    … See this Illinois law regarding health workers:

    “Under the second bill, prosecutors would be required to immediately notify regulators when they charge health care workers with a sex crime, criminal battery against a patient or forcible felony. Those with pending cases would only be allowed to treat patients in the presence of another health care worker, and their patients would receive written notice of the charges that makes clear the worker is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I’m trying to spike all of the comments that merely slam the Catholic church. Stick to the journalism folks.

  • Michael in Abu Dhabi

    The age statistics are a bit skewed in the report. However, if you talk about the statistics of the victims or the statistics of the priests you get different sets of trends.

    The multiple abusers tended to be true pediphiles, after those younger, perhaps under 11. This was only a tiny percentage of priests, about 5% of the accused or about 0.2% of all the priests from 1950. But this small number account for over a third of the victims. The rest of the priests accused, about 95% of those accused had victims of an average age of about 15 and very predominately male. This part is clearly homosexual. And of the total of the 5% accused, only about a fifth of this would warrent police and court action.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2011/05/study-blames-poor-training-not-celibacy-or-homosexuality-for-catholic-clergy-abuse.html Nicole Neroulias

    Michael from Abu Dhabi — that’s very interesting. But FYI, given your last sentence: even consensual sex with a minor is illegal in the United States, and would indeed warrenbnt police and court action. (There are cases where a 19-year-old is convicted of statutory rape for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend.) But clearly, in the case of clergy abuse, the adult in question is a trusted authority figure — spiritual authority, as well as professional authority. The average 15-year-old isn’t in a position to consent to a sexual relationship with someone like that.

  • Passing By

    Not all accusations involved sex acts. It’s that sort of over-simplication that plagues reporting on all sex abuse, not just Catholic problems.

  • John

    Blaming celibacy as the motivator to priest sexual abuse of minors is simplistic thinking. If you don’t have sex for a period do you suddenly start sexually fantasying about children – I think not. You fantasize about who you are sexually attracted to and for most of us that is adults – whether your sexual orientation is different or same sex attracted. These men were sexually attracted to children or adolescence – they do not have age appropriate sexual attraction. In the non cleric world these type of men hang out more often than not amongst the heterosexual worlds as that is where the children and young people are. They become teachers, scout masters, sports coaches. Some are attracted to male minors, others to female minors and some to both genders. They don’t go to same sex or different sex singles bars as they are not attracted to adults.