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. 
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