How Did This Happen? Part 1

Less than a month ago, I said I would stop talking about Roman Catholicism, and I had every intention of sticking to that.  But I am going to break that promise to talk about the release of the report of the Royal Commission in Australia about clerical sexual abuse.  The results are shocking--if the reports are correct, the scope of the problem in Australia was even worse than in the United States or in the UK/Ireland.  To give an example, there was a reference to a Benedictine monastery in Western Australia in which 17.6% of the monks had an abuse allegation lodged against them at some point in the 1950s.  Think about being in a room with a group of monks in which one out of every six of them had someone in the 1950s accuse them of committing a sexual violation on a minor.  Think of how many complaints were not made in the culture of the 1950s.  One in six.  My God.

I had a twitter exchange last night with Maureen Clarke about the report, focusing on what is the obvious question--how did this happen?  I've gotten this question before from various folks, and I decided it might be worthwhile to lay out my best effort at answering this question.  I've talked about pieces of my thoughts on this topic in various places, but never in one place in a cohesive way.  This is obviously only my own take, based on my own experience--I have no particular expertise other than having seen behind the veil of the Catholic priesthood.  So, take this for whatever you think it is worth.

The first way to address this question, I think, is to divide the question "how did this happen?" into two parts, based on two different facets of the "this" at issue.  The first "this" is "how did it come to pass that some number of Roman Catholic priests sexually abuse children?"  The second "this" is "how did it come to pass that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church covered up the fact that some number of Roman Catholic priests had and were sexually abusing children, either actively or passively, thus facilitating the abuse?"  This distinction is important, I believe, because the causes for the two questions are different, and because much of the discussion around this issue confuses these two questions in a way that makes it difficult to get to the bottom of either of them.  In this post, I want to focus on question #1, and leave the more complicated question #2 for future posts.

On question #1, I think it is probably useful to talk about the wrong answers that have been offered (I should note that all of these wrong answers are relevant when discussing question #2).  The first wrong answer, offered as part of a set of conservative talking points, is that the sexual abuse of children is a product of the disintegration of morals brought about by the Sexual Revolution.  If this is true, then we would expect that clergy sexual abuse of children would be unknown in early, more moral days, but that is demonstrably false.  St. Peter Damian, one of the great theologians of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter to the Pope chronicling in extensive detail the wide-spread abuse of children and implored the Pope to do something to stop it.  In 1049.  You can find discussions of clerical sexual abuse of minors in local synods all the way back to the 4th Century.  There is nothing new about any of this, and nothing to do with the Beatles or the Pill or whatever other bugaboos of the Sexual Revolution you want to point to.

Even worse, there is the wrong answer, again offered by the usual conservative suspects, that this is "really" about the fact that a disproportionate percentage of Roman Catholic priests are gay men. First, the basic premise which has been used to support this thesis--that most of the victims are boys and young men--has come into question.  The most notorious abuser in Massachusetts (at least in terms of number of victims), Rev. Robert Kelley, molested girls, not boys.  Even the Jay Report, which goes to great lengths to make the abuse crisis all about the wild 60s and 70s, points out that the abuse of boys often had far more to do with access and opportunity than orientation--it was less suspicious for a priest to spend lots of unaccompanied time with a boy than with a girl, especially before the scope of the abuse became widely known.  There is no evidence that being gay has any correlation with abusing young people.  We should call this idea what it is--a slur, not much different from the idea commonly part of racist discourse that black men are always a threat to assault women, especially white women.

The last wrong answer, and this one more common from the left-hand side of the equation, is that the abuse is a result of celibacy.  This is belied by the cases of childhood sexual abuse by Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis, two populations with no tradition of clerical celibacy.  Not to mention the ranks of teachers, Scoutmasters, and other people with access to children who have been accused of abuse.  Abusers exist in all walks of life, in all relationship situations, not just celibates.

Having dispatched the bad reasons, let's turn to the more correct reasons.  First, we have to admit that in a population of a certain size, there is going to be some percentage of people who will sexually abuse minors.  Psychological screening and other best practices can work to reduce the number of abuse incidents, but it is probably not possible--in the Roman Catholic Church, any other church, or any other body--to reduce the number to zero.  It is reasonable to be critical of the policies and procedures that have been put into place thus far by churches, but we also need to be realistic about what those policies can do and can't do.

One thing that needs to be said about screening procedures, though, is that any and all screening procedures that are in place will be in tension with the critical lack of people entering the priesthood training pipeline.  There are dioceses and religious orders, both here and abroad, that are willing to take basically anyone, and are easy to identify if you know how and where to look.  The truth is that, no matter how many red flags you may be carrying around, if you are a single man and you want to become a priest, you can eventually find someone willing to take you.  Joel Wright, the seminarian of the Steubenville, Ohio diocese who was caught trying to "buy" a toddler for sexual purposes online had been previously rejected by 45 dioceses and religious orders prior to being accepted by Steubenville.  Forty-five.  And the Steubenville diocese either never asked about this clearly relevant fact, or knew and didn't care.

Even places that are attempting to follow the screening procedures, there is going to be a pervasive pressure to find reasons to say yes to some candidate to stave off the math of an aging and shrinking pool of priests.  Keep in mind as well that during the so-called halcyon days of the post-war period when vocations were booming, there was often no screening at all save a letter of recommendation from the pastor of the candidate's parish.  It has basically never been the case that rigorous screening of seminarians was the order of the day, and it certainly is not the case now, at least looking church-wide.

It's also worth pointing out that child sex abusers are often sociopaths (here is an interesting journal article on the topic).  One of the defining characteristics of sociopaths is the ability to lie extremely effectively, as they lack any guilt or shame stemming from the lying.  Thus, an abuser or proto-abuser may be able to easily convince the vocations director and formations personnel that he is A-OK, especially where, again, those folks are pre-disposed to wanting to say yes.  In theory, this should be screened out by psychological testing that is given to all candidates prior to entry.  My purely anecdotal retort to that is that my psychological screening didn't pick up my depression, which was in full bloom at the time of the examination.  If I was able to unconsciously fool the test into thinking I wasn't depressed, or the test just didn't pick it up, imagine what a stone-cold liar seeking to get in at any cost would be able to do.

We should also take seriously the idea that some percentage of the priests who abused children were themselves abused as children, perhaps by priests.  Victimized people tend to reenact their victimization under circumstances similar to the ways they were victimized.  It happens in family contexts, and it stands to reason that it would happen in this context--a boy who had been abused by a priest might make his way into the priesthood and begin a new cycle of victimization.  This certainly doesn't excuse the behavior, but it explains why someone who is an abuser and abuser-to-be might be attracted to the priesthood.

So, what can be done to reduce the number of sexual abusers or potential sexual abusers in the Roman Catholic priesthood?  It seems to me that the only way to do this is to have more exacting screening protocols, and the only way that would be possible is to expand the pool of potential priesthood applicants such that the institution is not disincentivized to reject people.  And expanding the pool means considering non-celibate men and/or non-celibate women.  As long as the pool is limited to single men who are willing to pledge life-long celibacy, the pool will be too small, and thus the incentives weighted too far in favor of cutting corners on the admissions process.

I would say, however, that the real problem is to found in question #2.  That, from my perspective, is where the true fault lies, and that is where we will turn next.


Cherry Pie said…
Victimized people tend to reenact their victimization under circumstances similar to the ways they were victimized.
This has been true in my life. Thank you for the journal article.
Moor Larkin said…
"First, the basic premise which has been used to support this thesis--that most of the victims are boys and young men--has come into question.  The most notorious abuser in Massachusetts (at least in terms of number of victims), Rev. Robert Kelley, molested girls, not boys"

This is faulty analysis. This pattern would not be established via an individual count, but rather by the overall distribution of perpetrations, regardless of the numbers involved. What would also be very relevant is the count of instances where an individual assaulted both sexes in the course of the criminal activity. Do you have figures/references for any of that?
Michael Boyle said…
Let me ask you a question, Moor Larkin. Why is it important for you that the priest sex abusers be gay?

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