Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Notes on a Scandal

I've mentioned a few times this semester that one of my research projects, now submitted for examination, has been into the way the issue of clergy sex abuse has been framed by the media. That is, I'm curious about how stories are reported because, very often, the how is every bit as important as the what.

Think, for a moment, about a story concerning fire. There's an enormous difference, say, between telling a classroom of students about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and shouting at the students that the room is currently on fire. One is a history lesson, the other a plea for them to seek safety.

In May, 2011, the John Jay College Research Team released its The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 report. This report uses data submitted by almost all of the dioceses and religious orders and congregations in the United States. The report makes use of data submitted; while one may hope that all data were included, all files shared, it stands to reason that institutional inertia may make the report's findings less-than-perfectly transparent.

Nevertheless, the study does contribute to a reframing of the way I've begun to thought about abuse. A few key points:

  • It is a misnomer to call this a crisis of "pedophile priests." The report finds less than 5% of priests with allegations "exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia." 
  • While cases continue to be reported, the instances of new acts of abuse is rare. Since 2002, we have been flooded with stories of accusations against priests. The flood of accusations, however, seem to arise from the years 1950-1985. Accusations of abuse arising post-1985 exist, of course, yet drop off precipitously. 
  • There is no single cause of abuse; one can blame neither homosexuality nor celibacy. In the case of the latter, the report observes, "the commitment to celibacy is demanding, and that priests have struggled to sustain it, does not, in principle, obviate the value of the practice to the Catholic Church...[similarly] the difficulties that couples have in sustaining the practice of monogamy does not undermine the importance of commitment." 
  • Sexual abuse of minors is hardly a Catholic Church problem; the study recognizes abuse taking place in schools is "woefully understudied" and present in any organization catering to the needs of youth. Sex abuse is a social problem plaguing all of society. 
  • As a social problem, we have - all of us - a role to play. Sexual abuse of minors takes a community: a Perpetrator, a Victim, and a Community who keeps its eyes shut. As one author wrote, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse a child."
  • By 1985, bishops knew there was a problem, yet did not grasp the scope of it. "Though more than 80 percent of cases now known had already occurred by 1985, only 6 percent of those cases had been reported to dioceses by that time." 
  • Without question, bishops and religious superiors did not respond wholly or in a timely manner to advice given that would have prevented numerous cases of abuse. 
As someone who spends a lot of time reading theology and philosophy, it's refreshing to at least deal with data and statistics. I would strongly urge people to peruse the document, reading at least the "Executive Summary" from pages 2-5. 

For the first time in years, I feel cautiously optimistic about the Church's ability to address the issues associated with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. I think the Church has gotten much better - not perfect - but much better. Since I read the report, my antennae have been very sensitive to looking at the time the alleged abuse occurs: over and over again, the year is 1985. This does not deny that abuse has occurred, and almost certainly continues to occur, but it does give credibility to the belief that lessons have been learned, that the Church is getting it, that we are becoming an increasingly safer place for children. 

The way news stories about abuse are reported intend to elicit a strong reaction. Just the other day, "Breaking News" reported a new accusation of an almost 30-year old case. I'm not denying the accusation or the trauma of abuse; I'm only pointing out how the reporting, "Breaking News," does give the sense that its a new instance of abuse rather than an old accusation. 

As you encounter stories, I'd encourage you to be sensitive to the time the abuse allegedly took place. The Church has often failed miserably, yet as I said, I am cautiously optimistic that we are getting better today at making sure our ministry to youth is one that promotes the Gospel rather than facilitates abuse. 


johanes A said...
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Anonymous said...

"it takes a community to abuse a child". Are you kidding? Not your words I realize, but the cold hard facts are that faithful members of the "community" would have been horrified had they known that priests were abusing children in their communities. "The community" neither caused, contributed in any way, or condoned the abuse because they did not know about it, unlike the bishops and other members of the clerical hierarchy, who in some, perhaps many cases, knew exactly what was going on.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

On this, I must disagree. I think it's a natural defense mechanism to look to a simple "Perpetrator-Victim" binary system. The report cites a "Crime Triangle" which, as I mentioned, does implicate the blind-eye a community can turn.

Housekeepers who saw Father escorting a minor to his room; principals suspicious of a teacher's overly keen interest in one or another student; parents who had a suspicion but couldn't believe anything untoward was happening. This is not, as I said, a Catholic problem: it's a social problem and the traits we find within the Catholic settings are common to those of other places (schools, Boy Scouts, etc.).

There are, of course, cultural reasons people remained silent. The vaulted position of clergy, particularly, led to complicit silence. We do no good, however, in saying "Oh, it's all the fault of the bishops" when many were blind bystanders. The blame, or involvement, is not equal. It is, however, present: people did turn blind eyes.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and who lead the community to believe that priests could do no wrong? Why was that housekeeper silent? Are you suggesting that in that climate anyone would have believed her, particularly church authorities had she said anything? Blame is not equal, you say. I say, there is no blame apart from where it obviously falls. It is a complete an utter cop-out to assign any "blame" whatsoever to the "housekeeper".

Anonymous said...

Anonymous seems to have some personal vendetta against the church. The "Crime triangle" is prevalent in all sorts of sexual misconduct cases.

Speaking first hand,as a college student, I could not tell you how many times I've been at a party and have seen a guy trying to take a wasted girl home(obvious sexual assault in some cases) and all the while, friends and bystanders are just sitting there watching/letting this happen.

Now, I am not saying the cases are synonymous, but they are at the very least similar at a basic level. You would be surprised how much a community will let an individual get away with. The community is as much to blame as the church.

Hope you got the gist of the second paragraph, if not i can clarify any issues. Also, why posting anonymously? It's tacky as hell.

-Ian Moore

Anonymous said...

*On a basic level* sorry

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...


Again, I'm not denying that there were cultural factors at play that gave rise to a particularly insidious form of cultural silence/blindness. It's still present: one needn't look much further than Horace Mann, Penn State, or any of myriad cases involving those who "turned a blind eye" out of loyalty to or desire to preserve the reputation of the institution.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that there were and are many situations where people choose to be willfully blind to abuse and that by doing so are culpable and should be held accountable. It's the situations where only the abuser and the institution know of the abuse and the latter takes action to cover up the abuse where I contend that it is inappropriate to speak of a "community abus(ing) a child." in so saying, I do not have a vendetta against the church. People who are parishioners in parishes where church property is being sold and people are being asked to contribute to settlement payments to victims of clergy abuse where those parishioners had no knowledge of that abuse, is where I am coming from. The suggestion that such parishioners were part of the community which abused the children rankles, and is, I think, unjust.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

I'm not really keen on carrying on protracted Comment Box conversations, but let me point something out: how would the institution know unless someone had reported? It's not like the bishops have priests on a leash.

What you're reacting to, and what I'm not saying, is some sort of blame on the parish. The findings of the study implicate a triangular structure of abuse. I'm basically in agreement with this. This doesn't mean that the whole parish is involved only that, in general, certain signs or indications of abuse were probably noticed and not reported (for any number of oppressive or cultural reasons).

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people who set up blogs (thinking in their heart of hearts that they are pretty darn intelligent and worth reading) then take offense when challenged, by saying "I don't want to debate in the comments section" when someone disagrees with them.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

I never ceases to amaze me that people post anonymously.

I'm glad to engage in debate: it's just that, in order to debate, one has to be one the same page. "Comment box" conversations are pointless and go nowhere.

I find it amazing that anonymous responders think they're "pretty darn intelligent" and worthy of engagement.

jamez said...

As someone who has lived through the tragic and traumatic process of wound and healing, wound and healing in coming to terms and dealing with sexual abuse in the family, the heat in this discussion indicates to me that we have only begun to peal the onion here. I'd say that the community aspect is huge in both our ability to wantonly deny, neglect and look the other way and our capacity to support each other, heal each other and overcome denial and neglect - face these demons and transform ourselves beyond them.
We can begin by Listening with an empathetic and heartfelt ear. Call a spade and spade but be willing to reassess the imbroglio. Fasten your seat belts, it gonna be bumpy ride. But if we play our card right - the cards of forgiveness, humility, fortitude, indeed every virtue in the canon will be tested - above all Love for each other as beautiful and broken children of Christ; then we as a Church may someday come to a place where we realize that we can make lemonade out of sewage...

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

From a Victim's Assistance Counselor quoted in the John Jay Report:

I believe that the ability to have access to the children was key. The issue of a trusted person in power kept children from reporting. Fear that the victims would not be believed or would hurt their parents was often an impediment for reporting the abuse. Often gifts, trips, and alcohol were involved. Often the victims that were target were children already vulnerable because of family issues. The parents trusted the clergy and did not recognize the signs. (CC, 116)

It's the last line that is important: they didn't recognize. They saw but did not understand. The blindness was to something they, in many cases, couldn't comprehend: they had no language for it. Yet blindness is blindness: something was there but not seen. The whole point of ongoing education is to make us, as a community, sensitive and alert to these issues.