James Martin: How Could It Happen? Tracing the Causes of Sexual Abuse by the Clergy

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The terrible revelations of sexual abuse in Ireland and Germany have confirmed the reality that the abuse of children by clergy is not a phenomenon confined to the United States. Nor, as Kieran Conroy, the bishop of Arundel and Brighton in the U.K., stated recently, is the crisis a media creation. "It is real," he said. "It is a reality." Outrage among the Irish and German public is the predominant, natural and justified response. But buried beneath the shock and anger, especially for Catholics, however, is a searing question: How could this happen?

There is an important resource that may begin to answer this question: the detailed analysis of the roots of clerical abuse in this country, which was conducted by The National Review Board, the group of lay people who researched and reported to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003. Some questioned the independence of the board, but I think that their situational analysis, carried out by committed and highly qualified lay Catholics, is accurate.

Looking at what the National Review Board viewed as the root causes of the crisis in this country may shed light on what happened in Ireland and Germany and elsewhere. On the whole, the board's analysis is about the most accurate and insightful that we have about the American situation. Of course, these are presented by the board as reasons, not excuses. There are no excuses for these crimes.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryMinistry of the Ordained* Culture-WatchChildrenSexuality* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman CatholicPope Benedict XVI* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

Posted March 29, 2010 at 7:39 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Br. Michael wrote:

It seems to me that some key facts are being left out.  Is this homosexual priests and young boys or is it broader?  Just exactly what is the sexual abuse we are talking about?  If the primary offense is predatory homosexuals preying on young boys why is this not pointed out?  Likewise if it is not why is it not pointed out?  As it is we are being fed news stories that are missing critical facts as to what is going on.

March 29, 9:53 am | [comment link]
2. Paula Loughlin wrote:

The abuse may not be media created but the selected presentation and outright omission of relevant facts is certainly done with the most malicious intent by the media.

As how it could happen.  I think in the time frame of most abuse cases we are speaking of a period when we had much more faith and trust in all institutions not just the Church.  This lead to a dependency on them to solve our problems in house.  It also lead to the attitude that the institution was on the whole better and more important than the people who belonged to it.  At the same time it was believed that failings of the institution would reflect so badly on all silence was often seen as the better choice.  This made it essential to protect the reputation of the institution even to the detriment of any victims of misconduct (no matter how severe). 

But we are not speaking of any institution.  We are speaking of the Church which is charged at the very heart with the advancement of the Gospel and with the health of souls.  That she should fall into step with the world’s standards (at the time) for dealing with such abuse is heart sickening.  The current revalations are a sharp reminder that losing her mission for any reason will bring well deserved rebuke.  It also opened a chance for the devil to work his hatred against her. 

Only through prayer and repentence and turning back fully to her mission will the Church weather this storm.  She is meant to be the bride of Christ not the harlot of the world.  She must act as if she remembers this.

March 29, 10:54 am | [comment link]
3. phil swain wrote:

I hope Kendall will post George Weigel’s article which is on the “First Things” blog.

March 29, 11:37 am | [comment link]
4. AnglicanFirst wrote:

“The board asked two main questions. First, Why did so many priests abuse minors in the U.S.? Second, how could the U.S. bishops have dealt with the issue so poorly, or not at all? Regarding the first question, as I far as I understand, roughly 4% of U.S. priests from 1950 to 2000 were accused of abuse. This is slightly higher than that in other professions, including those who deal with children, like schoolteachers. (Most abuse, most studies show, takes place within families).”
“...roughly 4% of U.S. priests from 1950 to 2000 were accused of abuse….”
“This is slightly higher than that in other professions,....”

Then why the intense and seemingly unceasing focus and attacks on the Roman Catholic Church?
Answer:  Those who want to diminish/who hate the Roman Catholic Church look for any chink in the Church’s armor. 

Christians realize mankind’s ‘fallenness’ and deal with that ‘fallenness’ through an ever ongoing ministry in the Name of Jesus Christ.
Those who want to diminish Christianity look at these paedophilic episodes that expose a part of mankind’s ‘fallenness’ and see an opportunity to attack and propagandize against the church.

Some church leaders, not just some leaders of the Roman Church, ‘add fuel to the fire’ when they ignore or attempt to cover up problems that they didn’t adequately ‘deal with.’

One of the first lessons in followership/leadership that I learned was to “not offer excuses” when I had somehow not carried through my responsibilities.  Instead, I was expected to offer solutions to the problem(s) that I had caused and to be immediately ready to act upon those solutions.

March 29, 1:32 pm | [comment link]
5. Agast wrote:

A good article. One quibble: about 5000 diocesan priests had complaints against them over 50 years. That’s 5% of the 100,000 or so men who served during that time. Religious order priests, we might assume had a similar rate, although they were not included in the John Jay study. An earlier study in the Archdiocese of Chicago, cited by Jenkins in Pedophiles and Priests, suggested that about 1/3rd of allegations are bogus or exaggerated. I’m satisfied with a 4% offense rate. A more serious complaint: this is said to be about the rate at which any professional with access to kids will offend. Moreover, as noted, most abuse occurs within families. One sex offender researcher opined to me that about 8% of men offend against underage persons. If that’s true, your child is safer serving Mass for a priest than at a family reunion. Your daughter is much safer.

March 29, 11:00 pm | [comment link]
6. robroy wrote:

Agast, don’t know where you get your numbers but they are way off. There are currently 400,000 priests serving right now. How many have served over the past 50 years? It has to be over a million. That would bring the number down to 0.5% of clergy who have had complaints probably much lower.

March 30, 4:17 am | [comment link]
7. Agast wrote:

robroy -

I was speaking of the U.S., where 40,000 priests currently serve and it’s 100,000 over the past 50 years (actually as of 2003-2005 when the John Jay report was done). As noted, that diocesan priests.

March 30, 9:31 am | [comment link]
8. Agast wrote:


Another good article on the current issues from someone with first hand knowledge.

March 30, 9:36 am | [comment link]
9. Priest on the Prairie wrote:

From the US Department of Health and Human Services’ latest report:

“The percentage of perpetrators of sexual abuse was highest among friends or neighbors (57.7%), other relatives (32.0%), and child daycare providers (23.9%).”

#5 is spot on.  But the secular (Catholic-hating) press won’t do any in-depth articles on that statistic, will they…

March 30, 11:18 am | [comment link]
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