One of the difficult things about discussing the clergy abuse “crisis” is the way we frame it. It seems to me that right now what the Catholic Church faces is not one crisis, but three. Certainly they overlap, but they are also distinct. And they will likely need distinct responses.
1. Abuse of minors.
This crisis is the most jarring. But it’s also the most understood and the most explored. Following the 2002 reporting by the Boston Globe, the US bishops commissioned a study, run independently by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The study had a number of interesting findings on the nature and scope of the abuse, and was followed up by a second study published in 2011 on the causes and contexts of clerical abuse of minors.
The study found the “clergy abuse crisis” to be a historical phenomenon. Abuse of minors by clergy increased in prevalence from the 1950’s through the 70’s, peaked in the 1980’s, and then significantly decreased and has since flattened out. We now understand that a minority of priest abusers could be classified as pedophiles (2%) or ephebophiles (about 11%); the majority were “generalists.” The increase in openly homosexual clergy or the prevalence of same-sex sexual activity before, during, or after seminary didn’t at all correlate with the abuse of minors. Nor did the celibacy requirement seem to be a factor. Priests tended to have their first incident of abuse more than a decade after ordination, and were more at risk to abuse in times of increased stress and social isolation. We also learned that the majority of offenders had only one or two victims, while the majority of victims were abused by serial offenders (many abused, but a few did most of the abuse).
The study found that abusers were a heterogenous group and could not be identified by any single motive, characteristic, or experience. But even if we can’t identify all abusers before they abuse, the report provided a number of recommendations to reduce abuse opportunities.
2. The cover-ups.
This is a distinct (though certainly related) scandal. And unlike the abuse of minors, which appears to have declined significantly, recent news reveals that this scandal is ongoing. Rather than the abuse scandal which implicates clergy generally and the Church as a whole, this scandal seems to fall primarily upon the Catholic hierarchy.
We need to keep in mind that this scandal isn’t about abuser priests or issues of sexuality. This is an issue of institutional structure, leadership, and transparency. The solutions to the abuse crisis won’t fix the cover-up crisis. And any Church leader who blames the cover-ups on the abusers is employing neutralizing and evasive techniques.
3. Harassment and assault of seminarians and younger priests by those in authority.
This third crisis came to light with the revelations about Cardinal McCarrick. It turns out that priests and bishops in positions of power have used that power to prey upon and sexually exploit younger priests and seminarians. Again, while this issue is certainly related to the previous two crises, it is also important to consider the ways in which this issue is distinct and will require its own responses and solutions.
For one thing, the scope and nature of this third scandal are still little-understood. And, like the cover-up crisis, it is still ongoing. Parts of the John Jay Report may be helpful in understanding this issue. For example, consider the report’s finding that in-seminary “homosexual” experiences correlate to post-seminary sexual experiences, while pre-seminary homosexual experiences do not. But even if the John Jay Report can help shed light, it may be a long time before we really understand the context, scope, and nature of this problem.
That shouldn’t stop us from responding to and addressing it. But we should keep in mind that half-baked responses may exacerbate, rather than resolve, it.