New knowledge about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy

New knowledge about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy

A blessing or a curse?

By Kathleen L. McChesney, c

Kathleen L. McChesney addressed the National Religious Vocation Conference during its September 2004 Convocation. This article from Seminary Journal, captures much of what she presented to NRVC.

Kathleen L. McChesney

In the two short years since the potential magnitude of sexual abuse of minors by some members of the Catholic clergy became widely known, much has been learned about the problem. Efforts have been made to determine the nature and scope of the problem, to discover what must be done to heal the emotional and spiritual wounds of those who have been abused, and to find ways to prevent such abuse from occurring in the future. In the near future, further investigation will begin to determine, insofar as possible, why some who are ordained and represent the holiness of the Catholic Church commit such offenses. Structures and practices will be studied in attempts to identify the type of environment in which such activity was able to take place and, in some instances, be repeated. What exactly is this new knowledge? And how, after so many years of confidentially dealing with reports of abuse, was the Catholic Church able to provide this credibly?

To answer these questions, some history is necessary. In the early 1990s, in response to two significant cases of serial sexual predator priests, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) developed five “principles” for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse and to provide for healing for those who had been abused. The concepts were logical and strong. But, while some bishops were interested in determining the full range of abuse by clergy in the United States at that time, others were not. Thus, no studies were conducted, leaving the data gathering to academics, journalists, and a growing network of abuse survivors. The January 2002 revelations by the Boston Globe and other media characterized a crisis that the Catholic Church could neither refute nor accurately describe.

The USCCB was poised to address, arguably, the largest problem in its history without knowing its dimensions or root causes. Recognizing that without better knowledge attempts to deal with the crisis might fall woefully short, the bishops set out to fill in the missing pieces.

In adopting the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People1 in June 2002, the bishops included a promise to determine both the extent and reasons for the crisis. Importantly, the bishops turned to a lay group, the National Review Board, asking the board to commission this unprecedented research. With great sense of purpose, the board readily identified the John Jay College of Criminal Justice as an institution able to develop and complete a timely study on the “nature and scope” of the problem of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy. That study, “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002”2 was conducted with the cooperation of 97 percent of the United States Catholic bishops and 60 percent of the men’s religious orders. It was completed and published in February 2004.

How, then, after so many years of confidentially dealing with reports of abuse, was the Catholic Church able to provide data in a credible way? First, the diligence, thoroughness, and honesty of the hundreds of diocesan employees, attorneys, and major superiors of men who completed the surveys proved critical. In addition, the John Jay College research team crafted a survey instrument that was able to capture and compare responses to determine if a concerted effort to color these data were to be made. Based on the types of responses received from dioceses, eparchies, and orders of various sizes, populations, and locations no such effort was indicated. And, despite the many types of record-keeping and archival systems where the underlying data were maintained, a substantial amount of significant information was obtained that became the genesis of this “new knowledge.”

What is this new knowledge? Nature and scope of the problem

The new knowledge gained from the “nature and scope” study is voluminous and complex. Until the report was completed, the number of priests and deacons accused of sexual abuse of minors between 1950 and 2002 was the subject of much speculation. Through this research, it was found that at least 4,392 priests and deacons, representing 4.3 percent of those in service to the church during this period, were accused of acts of abuse by 10,667 boys and girls.

New knowledge about victims

Of those boys and girls, 50.9 percent were between the ages of 11 and 14; 27.3 percent were between the ages of 15 and 17; 16 percent between the ages of 8 and 10, and 6 percent were under age 7. Most of the victims were boys (81 percent), and 40 percent of all victims were boys between the ages of 11 and 14. Seventeen percent of the victims had brothers and sisters who were also abused.

New knowledge about reporting

Some believed that church leaders did not know the full extent of the problem until 2002, and the data support this belief. Only one-third of the 10,667 allegations were known to the church prior to January 2002. The study also found that only 12 percent of the incidents were reported within the first year after they occurred, while 50 percent were reported more than 20 years later. The reports received after January 2002 mirror the substance of the earlier reports with regard to decade of occurrence. Specifically, most acts of abuse began in the 1970s, with the highest number of acts occurring in any one year being in 1980. It is important to note that nearly 50 percent of the abuse occurred over a duration of from one to four years.

New knowledge about offenders

Most of the offenders, 68 percent, were ordained between 1950 and 1970, usually between the ages of 25 and 29. Most were in their 30s when the first reported instance of abuse occurred, although 17 percent were over 50 years old. The assignment of the offender at the time of the incident was primarily associate pastor (42.3 percent); however 10.4 percent were resident priests and 7.2 percent were teachers.

Although 56 percent of the offenders had but one accuser, most of the abuse was repeated over time. 149 priests (3.5 percent) were responsible for the abuse of 2,960 victims, indicating that a small percentage of accused priests comprised a substantial percentage of the allegations. Detailed information normally found in personnel or medical files was not available about most of the offenders. However, some information pertaining to offender histories was located that indicated that at least 7 percent of the offenders had been abused physically, sexually, or emotionally as children. 17 percent of the offenders had a history of substance abuse problems, although 80 percent of those accused were sent for substance abuse intervention.

New knowledge about the offenses

The offenses occurred most often in the offender’s residence (40.9 percent). Acts also took place in churches (16.3 percent); the victim’s home (12.4 percent); and in vacation homes, schoolrooms, and automobiles. The abuse sometimes occurred during a social event, when the victim was visiting or working in the priest’s home, or when traveling with the offender. Many families of victims socialized with the offenders.

New knowledge about criminal charges

Law enforcement authorities were contacted in 1,021 of the cases. Criminal charges were filed in 384 of the cases, and 252 priests or deacons were convicted as a result. Prison sentences were given to 100 of those convicted.

New knowledge about expenses

The costs to the church have been enormous. As of December 2003, over $500,000,000 had been spent for therapy for victims and offenders, for settlements, and for attorney’s fees. Not measurable is the impact of the crisis on the families of the victims, the perception by some of the faithful that the church has lost its moral authority, and the impact on the priesthood and diaconate.

The National Review Board Report: more new knowledge

As dioceses, eparchies and religious orders were participating in the “nature and scope” study, the National Review Board prepared a report that now serves as a predicate for the planned, broader study on the “causes” of the crisis. The board’s report, “Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States,”3 was also issued in February 2004. Although not based on an empirical study, this report provides keen insights into the problem of sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic Church, and contributes much new and actionable knowledge for the protection of children. Like the “nature and scope” study, the board’s report was dependent upon the assistance and cooperation of many individuals. Church officials, lay leaders, persons who had been abused, medical experts, and academicians willingly described their experiences or shared their perspectives on the issues. The candor and sincerity of those who worked with the board is reflected in the thoughtful commentary of the report.

The report’s major premise is that the offenders, first and foremost, failed to abide by church teachings. Poor screening in the selection of candidates for the priesthood, the sexual dysfunction of the offenders, and insufficient seminary formation cited by the board form the hypotheses for the next study. Extensive study of the offenders will be required to determine if these hypotheses are correct.

The National Review also characterizes the church’s response to this crisis as inadequate. Leading to this response may be the confluence of eight key factors. Traditional research regarding of all of these factors may not be possible, but each factor is likely to be contributory and should be considered.

Eight key factors leading to the church’s response

  1. Church officials did not understand the broad nature of the problem and treated allegations as sporadic and isolated.
  2. Church officials put institutional concerns first out of fear of scandal.
  3. Litigation caused bishops to act in adversarial, rather than pastoral, ways.
  4. Many in the church did not understand the pain of the victims.
  5. Church leaders over-relied on the advice of psychiatrists.
  6. Fraternal correction among bishops was limited.
  7. Some bishops placed the interests of the priests above those of the victims.
  8. Difficulties with the existent canonical processes precluded the necessary trials from occurring. From this study the board made 32 recommendations in six areas: further study and analysis; enhanced screening, formation, and oversight; increased sensitivity and effectiveness in responding to allegations of abuse; greater accountability of bishops and other church leaders; improved interaction with civil authorities; and meaningful participation by the Christian faithful in the church.

A blessing or a curse?

Some may consider the new knowledge from the report and the study to be a curse. Without a doubt, this information is shocking, painful and sad. The knowledge will very likely help some victims to heal, prevent future victimization, and regain public trust in those who represent the church. Others may be suffering from issue fatigue and believe that what is known thus far is sufficient.

On reflection, the new information must be considered a blessing. By having a clearer picture of what occurred, it will be easier to determine many of the causes. This new knowledge suggests ways in which abuse can be prevented. It reassures victims that they were not alone in their anguish. The information also will provide ways to measure the church’s progress in eliminating the evil that existed in its darkest corners. Perhaps, too, the initiatives of the Catholic Church in the United States to determine the nature and scope of this problem and its causes will lead other institutions to do the same. Additional studies will enhance the knowledge gained thus far, allowing for even greater success in reducing the scourge of child sexual abuse in American society. That, too, would be a blessing.

1. “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 2002.

2. “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002.” John Jay College of Criminal Justice, February 2004.

3. “A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” National Review Board, February, 2004.

Kathleen L. McChesney is the executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection (OCYP) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Appointed to this new office in December 2002, McChesney is responsible for assisting U.S. Catholic dioceses and eparchies with implementing “safe environment” programs for children and youth. The OCYP is also responsible for ensuring that U.S. Catholic bishops comply with the provisions of the Charter and Essential Norms for the Protection of Children and Youth through auditing and the preparation of an annual report. Prior to her USCCB position, McChesney served in the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 24 years, retiring as executive assistant director for Law Enforcement Services, the third highest position in that organization.

Reprinted with permission from Seminary Journal. For more information on Seminary Journal, contact the National Catholic Education Association Seminary Department,, or call (202) 337-6232 ext. 222.

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