Clergy abuse: Love the one you’re with?

Clearly, we are in the early stages of a major wave of mainstream and niche-media coverage of the new John Jay College of Criminal Justice report about the half century or so of clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

However, the early headline seems clear — “Blame Woodstock.”

Thus, the lede on this early Washington Post report:

The largest study ever done on youth sexual abuse by Catholic clergy concludes that the scandal which exploded in 2002 was a temporary problem caused by poorly trained seminarians, bishops who focused too little on victims and a permissive culture in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the rise of divorce, marijuana experimentation and robbery.

At this stage, most reporters are simply responding to the report itself — with little material coming from activist groups on the Catholic left and right. Thus, there is a lot of assuming going on that I find rather questionable.

For example, one popular assumption is that Catholic conservatives want to blame the whole thing on gay priests, while some of the most interesting writing about the alleged “gay subculture” has come from voices on the left (one example here). At the same time, journalists seem to assume that only “liberals” are raising questions about married priests and optional celibacy. I think that’s rather simplistic as well.

Frankly, I have found that “left” and “right” are often meaningless terms in discussing this story. There are locked doors and lots of sin all over the place.

The earliest report from the Religion News Service sums up the tough messages contained in the report in this manner:

The first myth challenged by the study is that priests tend to be pedophiles. Of nearly 6,000 priests accused of abuse over the past half century (about 5 percent of the total number of priests serving during that period), less than 4 percent could be considered pedophiles, the report notes — that is, men who prey on children.

“Priest-abusers were not ‘pedophile priests’,” the researchers state flatly.

Second, the researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely than straight priests to abuse minors — a finding that undermines a favorite talking point of many conservative Catholics. The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report states.

You may want to re-read that passage before you launch into a longer version of some of this same report material from the New York Times. Ready?

The researchers concluded that it was not possible for the church, or for anyone, to identify abusive priests in advance. Priests who abused minors have no particular “psychological characteristics,” “developmental histories” or mood disorders that distinguished them from priests who had not abused, the researchers found.

Since the scandal broke, conservatives in the church have blamed gay priests for perpetrating the abuse, while liberals have argued that the all-male, celibate culture of the priesthood was the cause. This report will satisfy neither flank. The report notes that homosexual men began entering the seminaries “in noticeable numbers” from the late 1970s through the 1980s. By the time this cohort entered the priesthood, in the mid-1980s, the reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests began to drop and then to level off. If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church.

Many more boys than girls were victimized, the report says, not because the perpetrators were gay, but simply because the priests had more access to boys than to girls, in parishes, schools and extracurricular activities.

This early Times story also, helpfully, notes that the John Jay researchers defined “prepubescent” children as those 10 and under — leading to the conclusion that only 22 percent of victims were prepubescent. Meanwhile, the definition used by the American Psychiatric Association classifies a prepubescent child as 13 or younger.

This is crucial because, at the heart of the controversy are several clear facts. First, most of the victims were male and most were teens or, at the youngest, the so-called tweens. Also, it appears that bishops, before and during the crisis years, were confused about the proper treatment and disciplinary approach for priests struggling with “ephebophilia” — intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people. Most bishops were aware that little could be done to help or heal true pedophiles.

As a reporter, I think that this raises a big question about terminology.

This new report stresses that the overwhelming majority of the victims were young males, not because of sexual orientation trends or temptations. This happened, it states, because priests were around young boys more often than girls. To sum it up in a Woodstock-era reference, the priests merely loved the ones they were with.

So news reports are, in effect, stating that the abusive priests were straight men having sex with young males. Right? So is this the same as saying that the majority of the abusers were, in effect, bisexual? Or were they simply, according to this latest John Jay report, acting out in a bisexual manner because they were confused, immature or stressed? What is the proper term here?

Needless to say, do not hit the comments pages with your opinions on the hot-button issues in the report. Instead, talk about the quality of the coverage — most of all — help point us toward URLs for (a) additional, emerging mainstream news coverage and (b) analysis of the report and the news coverage from articulate Catholic voices on left and right. For example, has anyone found a URL for those talking points from Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., that have already been sent to the email in-boxes on legions of religion-beat professionals?

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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.

  • david clohessy

    “. . .it appears that bishops, before and during the crisis years, were confused about the proper treatment and disciplinary approach for priests. . .”

    Sorry, nope. For decades, bishops knew child sex crimes were illegal. Yet the refused to call the police. That’s COLLUSION, not CONFUSION.

    David Clohessy, Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, (7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143), 314 566 9790 cell (

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Great job to Laurie Goodstein & The New York Times for quickly honing in on that questionable victim age cutoff used by the study. Let’s hope other reporters and outlets follow suit, because there seem to be lots of methodology problems here, and it’s a lot to get through on deadline. (I’m posting my comments, as I read the study, over at Belief Beat and on Twitter.)

  • tmatt

    Archbishop Dolan of NYC reacts to the study:

    Whispers (of course) has link to the .pdf of the text:

  • melxiopp

    For context, on October 1, 2010, NPR’s Tell Me More host Michel Martin discussed this topic with Baylor University Prof. Diana Garland, co-author of the study “How Sexual Misconduct Happens”, and Mgnr. Stephen Rossetti, clinical associate professor of Pastoral Studies at Catholic University.

    A transcript of the Tell Me More segment is available here:

    “How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts” by Diana R. Garland & Christen Argueta can be found here:

  • John

    npr just had an interview with Reverend Hoatson about the report. He wasn’t happy about it. They should have also spoken with someone from the USCCB as well, in the name of fairness.

    Truth is, with a report like this, people aren’t going to care what it says, they’re just going to see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear, according to their own preconceptions.

  • tmatt

    JOHN: URL for that NPR report?


    I do not dispute that many or most knew the law.

    However, the fact that many were also CONFUSED about whether clergy who abused male teens could somehow be treated and rehabilitated ALSO added to the temptation in clericism to hide, protect and shield the abusers.

  • Jerry

    You highlighted two points that I think need to be emphasized. First is that the report ignored the standard definition of prepubescent to create one that minimized the problem. Stories about this topic should present the real definition of prepubescent and re-evaluate the numbers in that light.

    The second is that the report defined the abuse of boys in terms of “targets of opportunity”, sort of like saying that priests are like sailors or prisoners who use other males for their pleasure because women are not available. This is another place where the assertion that boys were ‘targets of opportunity’ needs to be expanded by considering other such situations.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Check out the Catholic News Agency story for the conservative Catholic complaints about the study. (And yet, no clarification on the study’s >age 10 definition in the rush to proclaim that most abusive priests weren’t technically pedophiles. How not surprising?)

  • John

    Here is the link to the story on NPR I mentioned…

    Also, one final thought…given the nature of our politics at this time, someone will use this issue to advance some agenda or pet cause. Just saw Anderson Cooper report on it on his CNN show…the media will let go of this bone when there is no more meat left.

  • Bill

    What happens if a bishop, or any priest, learns about the abuse in the confessional? No way he can reveal that and remain faithful to his vows.

    Two questions: Was the abuse evenly distributed? Or were some dioceses or bishops that had more than others?

    Was the abuse equally prevalent in the regular clergy, such as Franciscans and Dominicans, and in the diocesan clergy?

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Some points that ought to be explored in follow-up stories:

    1) Why did the researchers decide to use this very young age distinction for pre-pubescent victims, if not to appease church defenders who have insisted that this is a gay problem, not a pedophile problem? From the report: “Most sexual abuse victims of priests (51 percent) were between the ages of eleven and fourteen, while 27 percent were fifteen to seventeen, 16 percent were eight to ten, and nearly 6 percent were under age seven.” In other words, 73 percent of victims were ages 14 or under — children, by most definitions, rather than post-pubescent/adolescent victims. (In accordance with the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders definition of “pre-pubescent,” how many victims were younger than 13?)

    2) Rather than link the increase in abuse cases to the social upheaval of the 1960s-70s, isn’t another possible explanation that people were less likely to recognize/report abuse in earlier decades?

    3) It makes sense that abuse incidents have decreased since the mid-1980s, as society in general began to do a better job of recognizing and reporting such problems. (Remember all those very-special TV episodes and specials?) However, given that many victims report abuse years later, doesn’t it also stand to reason that we may not know the extent of recent abuse until years from now? Therefore, shouldn’t the study be more like 1950-1990?

    4) The researchers seem to have ignored the link between homosexuality and celibacy, when it comes to Catholic priests — they aren’t factors that can be separately studied and dismissed. (In addition to the joint issues of sexual repression, what about all the gay men who became priests because giving up on a wife/children wasn’t a deterrant, or who were drawn to a culture they felt might cure or contain them?)

    And finally, it seems this study aimed at determining whether abuse was unique/endemic to the Catholic Church culture, as opposed to other denominations or secular groups with access to trusting families — but really, was this ever the point? From the victims and advocates I’ve interviewed, the crux of the crisis was always that the church sheltered and enabled abusers, not whether a priest was more or less likely than a rabbi or a Boy Scout leader to rape a child.

  • clergyvictim

    The numbers are all skewed by the bishops and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice! As a general rule psychologists use age 13 as the beginning of puberty — the report says it is 10 years of age. Naturally a LOT of the victims fell in the 10-13 years old category — so using the 10 year the numbers are all showing a lower percentage of pedophile priests.

    Who can trust the bishops to give ACCURATE and HONEST figures? Case in point, Philadelphia! For years we were told there are no priests with accusations against them in active ministry – and then suddenly last February the grand jury discovers thirty-seven!!! Bishops also try to tell us that 4% of priests were abusers — the actual numbers counted at is closer to 10%!!!

    As for blaming society and “the 60′s!” I was raped in 1970 by a priest who was ordained in the early 1950′s — certainly his moral ethics were well established by the time the 60′s rolled around. His history of abuse runs from the 1950′s until just 2 months before his death in 2006 at the age of 82! After my rape I reported to my deacon supervisor — another priest in the same parish. Remember, this was 1970. Nothing happened because he was diagnosed in 1957 s having a psycho-pathological personality and was STILL playing with mentally ill teen aged girls. He, too, was ordained in the early 1950′s. By the time the 1960′s rolled around these two priests were WELL into their 40′s — and at that time would be considered “old” and not part of the “current age.”

    As for the bishops’ honesty in numbers — when I brought my case back to Boston I was informed that “I was the only one” — that there were no other accusations against my perp. I managed to get hold of the investigation and found THREE letters dating back to the 1990′s accusing him of sexual abuse. If the bishop (cardinal) can nget away with lying to me as a priest — how much easier is it to lie to a lay person?

    The Hierarchy of the church (all the way to Rome) needs to come clean, be honest, transparent etc. LIST THE NAMES of all perpetrators who have been credibly accused. They cannot be taken to court because of the statutes of limitations. They are still just as dangerous and society in general needs to know about them. Our society is is so migrant! A priest who abuses in Boston can also abuse in Minnesota, or Nevada or anywhere. The names need to be public and acessible.

    Fr. Jim Moran

  • Matthew K

    “Love” the one you’re with? REALLY? Nothing about this abuse had to do with love.

    I’ve always held that song in contempt, it is unfortunate it is raised in this context.

  • Bill P.

    One problem with the coverage of this report is the inability of journalists to connect the findings (and the comments by some Catholics) to the Incarnational nature of the Catholic faith.

    By this I mean that headlines (and the stories they derive from)—like the LAT’s “Report blames society for sexually abusive priests”—don’t take the next step in explaining that Catholic orthodoxy does not see the Church as separate from the sins of the world. That’s the whole point of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The Church is always in the middle of sin, comprised of sinners and is often most present among modern tax collectors and prostitutes just as it is present among the deaf, dumb, blind and lame. Whatever the sin of the day is, you’ll find it in the Church.

    And so that LAT headline should not be read as “the Church is blaming something outside of itself,” or “the Church points fingers.” Rather, within the Catholic worldview, that headline is merely stating the obvious: that societal ills are always present within the Church because that’s where God wants to be. He came to call sinners.

    None of this is meant to offer a “get out of jail free” card for abusive priests—or any abusive Catholic or abusive person of any faith—or the bishops that didn’t put kids first. But it does show (to me, anyway) how core Catholic worldviews may not translate well into the secular press, especially if the reporter or copy editor doesn’t know that they exist.

  • Hank

    I skimed through the report linked above.
    I also have read the orgianl John Jay report

    An item regarding journelitc quality. I know dead lines are a problem, but I think some of the more politically correct statements in summaries the press used are over generlized or mis-stated for political correctness.

    Q. Why did the percentage of Male victims rise and fall as the the number of inciedents rose in the late 60′s-70′s and decline in the lated 80′s-90′s.

    It would take more than a quick reading answer but may be a key to understandin.

  • Elijah

    Here is an article by George Weigel you might find elucidating

    I personally found it to be rather an ineffective shoot-from-the-hip apologetic. That language is too carefully parsed, and it glosses over the cataclysmic moral failure of the hierarchy that did know about abusive priests, shielded them even promoted them far too easily. Even the Diocese of tiny Delaware is shelling out $77MM for criminal and civil wrongdoing. That’s not some little lapse in judgment.

  • tmatt

    Strong critical reaction from Father C.J. McCloskey III at CRISIS mag:

    Yes, he asked the same question that I did, KIND OF. So the conclusion is that, at the heart of the scandal, are straight priests who have sex with young male teens and tweens? If the report is right, is the proper term for these men “bisexual?”

  • Benedict Newman

    David Clohessy says that he’s the director of SNAP. But I thought that SNAP was run by a Father Kevin Clohessy???

  • Nicole Neroulias

    TMATT: As with the Catholic News Agency story, the Crisis magazine piece you’ve linked to conveniently overlooks the John Jay report’s absurdly low age cutoff for “child” victims. (Age 10, vs. the usual age 13.) This doesn’t pass the journalism smell test.

    There are valid complaints about the study, whether it’s from the liberal vs. conservative, religious vs. secular, lay vs. clergy, etc. points of view. But, any story that supports the “most abusive priests weren’t pedophiles” conclusion without clarifying that the study skewed ages in order to reach that result — that’s a giant red flag of bias, right there. And it makes it hard to take the rest of the story seriously.

  • Dave G.

    I guess because so many have so many reasons to want the truth to be one thing or another, actually getting to it will be tougher than we might like to admit.

  • jh


    I actually think questions shoudl be asked of John Jay as to why they picked the age of 10 and not 13 or 14. I think there is wide agreement.

    Still I am not sure how that invalidates the rest of the study. The study is there because it gives us a look at a massive amount of data. It does not invalidate the “story” whatever that is or all the findings

  • Julia

    I agree with what Bill P. is getting at.

    I’m seeing criticism all over the place of the study placing the blame on outsiders. These offenders were not contemplative monks. They were out in the world in the midst of the huge societal changes happening in the 60s and 70s. That era saw huge changes in how priests and nuns live. These folks were parish priests and teachers. They were in the trenches even if they didn’t attend Woodstock.

    One other criticism: there is a repeat tendency in the media to equate “the church” with the clergy and hierarchy; 99% of “the church” is lay people.

  • Julia

    melxiopp said:

    “How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts” by Diana R. Garland & Christen Argueta can be found here:

    The linked study was about adults targeted for abuse by a wide variety of denominational leaders. It is relevant to the child abuse situation because of its observations about the attitudes of the targeted person and the congregation that contribute to the perp’s “getting away with it.”

    Where do the lay people in the parish or local church fit into all this? That subject is not much addressed; most of the focus in the John Jay study and in the media is on the bishops.

    An ex-seminarian friend said a priest told him that parents hand their children over to him on a platter. The linked study notes the clergyman’s abuse of a power position, but also focuses on church members’ tendency to doubt what they are seeing, and “nice” people’s difficulty in confronting signs of questionable behavior.

    Brings the play “Doubt” to mind.

  • Norman

    “Why did the researchers decide to use this very young age distinction for pre-pubescent victims…”

    Excellent question Nicole, and with so many people puzzling over this I had expected the studies authors to have a response ready. Any idea if the authors are responding to journalists queries on this?

    Guessing I’d hazard they are making a 3-part distinction between pre-pubescent, pubescent and post-pubescent. If so, is there precedent for such a distinction in the field of studying sexual abuse? It seems odd to me.

  • Norman

    The Boston Globe speaks to the lead author of the Jay Study and specifically addresses the age question. Here’s the relevant part of a very thorough and balanced report:

    But in one of the most confusing and provocative aspects of the report, the authors asserted that pedophiles were not the cause of the sexual abuse crisis, either.

    Although the word “pedophilia” is commonly used to describe any adult who has sexual contact with minors, the psychological definition is much more restrictive, referring to adults who have a persistent sexual attraction to children under age 13, usually of a particular age group.


    Later in the report, the researchers seemed to employ an even narrower definition of pedophilia.

    “It is worth noting that while the media has consistently referred to priest-abusers as ‘pedophile priests,’ pedophilia is defined as the sexual attraction to prepubescent children,” the report said. “Yet, the data on priests show that 22 percent of victims were age 10 and under, while the majority of victims were pubescent or postpubescent.”

    [Lead author Karen] Terry said later that the purpose of including this information was not to minimize the crimes of those who abused older children and youth, but rather to clarify the problem and its potential solutions.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    It’s good that The Boston Globe asked about the age conflict, but the researcher’s response doesn’t change the question: on what basis did they decide that an 11-year-old child is pubescent, and therefore not the victim of a pedophile? That isn’t the clinical or legal age cutoff. (Also, whatever you may think about not-so-innocent kids these days, remember that we’re talking about the 1960s-1970s.)

    And furthermore, given that the study concludes that more victims were male due to opportunity (altar boys, etc.) rather than predominantly homosexual perpetrators, couldn’t the same argument be used to note that pedophile priests had more access to 11-to-14-year-olds than to younger children?

    This age issue a major flaw in the study, along with the assumption that there was much less abuse going on before 1960 and after 1990. Keep digging.

  • Norman

    on what basis did they decide that an 11-year-old child is pubescent, and therefore not the victim of a pedophile? That isn’t the clinical or legal age cutoff. (Also, whatever you may think about not-so-innocent kids these days, remember that we’re talking about the 1960s-1970s.


    Another issue is that onset of puberty is earlier today than it was even twenty years ago. I can think of few 11 year olds in my cohort during the late 70′s/ early 80′s who were pubescent at eleven, so while the early cutoff might be relevant now, it doesn’t fit the era in question.

    And furthermore, given that the study concludes that more victims were male due to opportunity (altar boys, etc.) rather than predominantly homosexual perpetrators, couldn’t the same argument be used to note that pedophile priests had more access to 11-to-14-year-olds than to younger children?

    There might be something to this. The very young would have no reason to be alone with a priest, and the older teens would have worlds of their own.

    I’d be interested to know what percent of victims went to parochial school or were altar boys. In the accounts I’ve read (sorry to slip into anecdote) there is an added layer of betrayal in that the victims come from especially devout families who sought out and befriended predatory priests.

    In my day and parish it wasn’t common to be alone with a priest. We had lay catechists and our parish priest was rather remote and would only show up once or twice a year to say a very few words at the front of the class and smile awkwardly. There was no youth ministry in my parish that I was ever aware of. Access is definitely an important point here.

  • Becca Balmes

    I would be really interested in seeing the study authors’ justification for the age groupings, but personally the 10-13 age being separated and not considered “pre-pubescent” makes sense.

    Spend a lot of time around 10-13 year olds, and you’ll come to the realization that a lot of them think, look and act completely differently from under-10 children. Puberty is coming sooner for more children, particularly girls, for reasons not yet understood. The “tween” designation seems particularly apt, and perhaps the academic definitions of childhood need to catch up to society.

    I’d like to see some of the journalists and commentators who are slamming the study over the age groupings connect the dots between ephebophilia and the highly-developed bodies of many supposedly pre-pubescent children.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Becca — The study looks back decades. Puberty wasn’t at age 11 in 1960-1980!

  • Norman

    This is getting complicated, Nicole! Here is a 2000 article from the journal Population quoting figures gathered in England between 1950-1970 placing onset of male puberty on average at 11.5 years with voice change occurring on average at 13.5 (p.71). While age of menarche has clearly declined over time, this says on page 70 that onset of male puberty may have declined in the last 200 years or it may have risen in recent decades!

    Us guys appear to be a great puzzle… but the Jay data for onset of puberty seems to roughly hold up in this article, to my surprise.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Let’s put it this way: why didn’t the study group victims into a) 7 and under; b) 8-10; c) 11-13; and d) 14-17. That way, there would have been an accurate figure of how many of the abusers met the legal and clinical definition of pedophiles.

    Journalists are right to ask why the study used such odd age groupings (7 and under, 8-10, 11-14, 15-17) and the unsupported victim age of 10 for its “pedophilia vs. ephebophilia” distinction. It looks like the categories were manipulated, allowing abuse defenders to proclaim that most abusers weren’t pedophiles (“only” 22 percent of the victims were age 10 or under), and most victims were “adolescents.” If you read the report and do the math, 73 percent of the victims were aged 14 and under — so the majority of victims were certainly aged 13 and under. That means that most of the abusers WERE pedophiles after all.

    P.S. Nitpicking over these ages is crazy anyway: who thinks that it’s more acceptable for an 11-year-old to be raped than a 9-year-old? But it does throw the study’s conclusions into question, and the researchers certainly need to explain themselves better.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This report on Catholic Culture quotes a psychiatrist who takes major issue with the report trying to claim that homosexuality is not an issue.

    The psychiatrist argues that the criminologist who did the Jay report are not qualified to analize the root causes of the abuse.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Archbishop Dolan points out that this is a study by the John Jay College, not the USCCB. That is a point that some commenters here seem to have missed. If NPR was to balance a defender with an attacker, they should contact someone from John Jay College who worked on the study, not a USCCB person who are the ones who paid the main portion of the study cost, but they did not do the study and were not the ones drawing the conclusions.

  • Norman

    I see zero mitigation between the rape of a child under ten and the rape of a child over ten. Quibbling over the terms “ephebophilia” and “pedophilia” has always struck me as beside the point. After questioning the very accuracy of the study’s information regarding onset of puberty, however, I was duty bound to report I had been wrong on that technical point.

    It is important for journalists to ask why the study grouped victims as they did, what the rational was, and what the effect of doing so is. These are obvious question.

  • John Pack Lambert

    An actual study of the Boston Globe article will show that the “less than 5 percent of priests accused were pedophiles” is based on the under 13-years-old rubric.

  • Norman

    Addendum: Do pedophiles have some secret ninja sense that tells them biological processes have begun which will not become apparent for 2 years? The DSM criteria seem pretty wise in light of this, so why weren’t they followed? It may be technically correct to say pedophiles are by definition attracted to prepubescents and the majority of clerical sex abuse victims were pubescent, but, in real world terms, isn’t this a distinction without a difference? Even if we say the terms matter in regard to offender treatment, what pedophile actually perceives these subterranean biological processes?

  • Richard Starr

    As I read more and more coverage of the report from commentators – as opposed to straight news accounts – this debate over the age brackets for defining ‘pedophile’ are being used as a tool to relativize the offenses. “11 or 13 what’s the big difference?”

    Fine: puberty may not have been 11 back in the 1960s, but sex between an adult and a 15-year old (except perhaps in Haight-Ashbury) would have been seen as an occasion for horsewhipping the adult.

  • tmatt

    The Houston Chronicle offers a set of links to emerging commentaries on the report.

    This might be a list to watch.

  • David Casson

    I would just like to say you made a very poor choice for the title of this article.

  • Patrick

    Spin, spin, spin! Last time I looked the definition of Homosexual behavior is having sexual activities with the same sex and that characterizes the vast majority of the abuse. Heterosexual abusers find ways to get to their victimes. So, the media and authors of the report don’t want to state the obvious: this is predominately homosexual behavior. “res ipsa loquitur”