The John Jay College researchers studied the phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States between 1950 and 2010. They observed that the number of cases of clerical sexual abuse rose steadily from 1950 to a peak in the late 1970s and declined rapidly thereafter. The researchers note that the vast majority of this abuse was not reported until at least the 1990s and that incidents of abuse are still being reported. Nevertheless, they claim that these cases “continue to fit into the distribution of abuse incidents concentrated in the mid-1960s to mid-1980s.” The researchers also found that around 81 per cent of clerical sexual abuse victims in the US were male.
Bizarrely though, the John Jay researchers use these data to argue that the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s was the principal causative factor in the significant rise in reported cases of clerical sexual abuse from that time until the mid-1980s. What is more, they contend that in the 1980s, a “conservative reaction against openness and experimentation” began the process of decline. In other words, as Mark Silk aptly puts it, the John Jay report endorses the “Woodstock defence” and the “Reagan restoration”. Despite such a palatable conclusion, many conservative Catholic commentators were annoyed that the report did not blame gay people for the abuse. “The authors go through all sorts of contortions to deny the obvious - that obviously, homosexuality was at work,” fumed the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue.
In my view, it is possible that the 'Swinging Sixties' had some effect on the level of child sexual abuse, but I find it far from a complete and credible explanation for the phenomenon. Nor do I believe gay men were responsible for the abuse.
To begin with, sociologist David Finkelhor contends that much of the observed rise in sexual abuse by priests and in society as a whole can be explained by an increase in the reporting of such crimes in subsequent decades as well as a growing awareness and understanding of sexual abuse by authorities. Indeed, before the 1960s, people did not speak openly about sexual matters and children's problems were often ignored. Moreover, Finkelhor argues that if it were true that the social/cultural revolution of the 1960s was the main cause of the spike in reported abuse, one might expect men who came of age in the 1960s to have been more likely to abuse minors in subsequent decades than younger cohorts of men. However, that is not what is observed in crime statistics. In fact, Mark Silk shows that the John Jay reports own statistics do not support the Woodstock defence:
According to the report's own graphs, abuse by the pre-1960 cohort rises in the 1950s, remains constant in the 1960s, and begins to decline in the 1970s. For the 1960s cohort, abuse rises in the 1960s, remains constant in the 1970s, and declines in the 1980s. "The 60s" cannot account for increased abuse in the 50s. And if the 60s and 70s were so morally permissive, why did abuse among these two cohorts level off and/or fall?
As Silk argues, an important factor ignored by the John Jay study is the US priest population. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a greater proportion of clergy than at any other time in the history of the Catholic Church in the USA. Thus, Silk contends that “the number of cases tracks the priesthood boom of the postwar period and the post-60s bust, during which the population of active priests shrank and aged.”
In any case, it has been shown that the Catholic Church has a long-standing problem with sexual abuse of minors by priests. Tom Doyle, Patrick Wall and Richard Sipe demonstrated this in their book Sex, Priests & Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. The authors argue that the Church's own legal documents and the pronouncements of authoritative sources like St. Peter Damian reveal "a consistent pattern of non-celibate behaviour by significant numbers of priests" throughout Church history. Of the medieval period, they note that "monks became known for the frequency of homosexual activity, especially with young boys.”
Pertaining to the 20th century, Doyle notes that Fr Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Paraclete community in 1947 to provide help to priests with psychological problems. From the beginning Fitzgerald was treating priests with psycho-sexual issues. In a letter to a bishop in 1964, he said that 3 out of every 10 priests admitted were there because they had sexually molested minors. Doyle also contends that victim support groups and plaintiffs' attorneys in the USA and elsewhere are seeing a significant increase in victims who were violated in the fifties and even the forties. So it would seem that sexual abuse by priests was a significant phenomenon long before the free-wheeling 60's and 70's.
It must be said that there was not nearly the same degree of social and cultural upheaval here in Ireland in the 1960s as there was in the USA. In fact, Ireland remained a very conservative society right until the early 1990s. Yet as the SAVI report shows, there was a large rise in reported abuse of children born in the period 1911-29 as well as in 1930-49. The reported abuse cases rose again for children born in 1950-1969, but declined for those born between 1970 and 1983. Thus, if the pattern for clerical sexual abuse in Ireland is anything like that in Irish society as a whole, then it would seem that the rise in reported abuse began in the 40s and 50s, not in the 60s. For instance, the Ryan report documents abuse and its cover-up by the clergy in industrial schools during the 1930s and 1940s. So even if the so-called "Woodstock defence" was credible in the US, it just doesn't wash in Ireland.
The second issue is the sexuality of the abusers. Some Catholics have argued that because the vast majority of the victims of US priests were boys aged between 11 and 14, the abuse was committed by gay men. However, psychotherapist, author and ex-priest Richard Sipe conducted a long-term, large-scale study on priest's sexuality, monitoring 1000 priests for a 25-year period. Sipe found no connection between whether a priest was homosexual and whether he abused minors.
Moreover, even the John Jay report itself argues that there is no evidence linking homosexuality and clerical sexual abuse of minors. John Jay researchers looked at the behaviour of men before they entered seminary, in seminary and once they were ordained. Based on statistical evidence, they drew the following conclusion:
Priests who had same-sex sexual experiences either before seminary or in seminary were more likely to have sexual behavior after ordination, but this behavior was most likely with adults. These men were not significantly more likely to abuse minors.
Interestingly, the report notes that openly homosexual men began entering the seminaries “in noticeable numbers” from the late 1970s through the 1980s. By the time this cohort entered the priesthood, in the mid-1980s, the reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests began to drop and then to level off. If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more openly gay priests began serving the Church. More importantly, the researchers found that only 18.9% of abusers in the US priesthood were true pederasts/ephebophiles whose victims were exclusively male teens aged between 13 and 17 years old. On the other hand, 42.1% of abusers were described by the researchers as “generalists” with victims of various ages and genders. This would seem to support clinical psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea’s contention that sexual abuse of minors is a crime of opportunity: the priesthood provided far greater access to teenage boys than any other category of minors and thus it is unsurprising that they comprised the overwhelming majority of victims.
In any case, the modern academic consensus is that homosexuals are no more likely to have sex with minors than heterosexuals. One review of the evidence concludes that "the man who offends against prepubertal or immediately postpubertal boys is typically not sexually interested in older men or in women". So homosexuals and paedophiles/pederasts are, for the most part, separate groups. That is not to say there are no cases of homosexuals having sex with minors, but generally speaking, there is no reason to believe that homosexuals are more dangerous to children and teenagers than heterosexuals. Indeed, if homosexual men as a group were more predisposed to abuse teenagers than heterosexual men, one would expect a lot more instances of openly gay men outside of the priesthood being charged with sexual abuse. To my knowledge, this has not occurred.
It seems certain that the sexual abuse of minors, both in the Catholic Church and in wider society, has dramatically declined since at least the 1990s. For instance, David Finkelhor observes that child sexual abuse declined by 53 per cent in America between 1992 and 2007. Nevertheless, there is not much evidence to suggest that a 1980s “conservative reaction” to the social revolution of the 1960s was responsible for this rapid decline. Instead, Finkelhor and his colleague Lisa Jones argue that multiple factors helped bring down rates of child sexual abuse, including advances in psychiatric pharmacology; the economic boom of the 1990s; increased numbers of law enforcement and child protection personnel; increased prosecution of child sexual abuse and longer prison sentences for such crimes; growing public awareness about sexual crimes; and new treatment options for family and mental health problems. Finkelhor and Jones do argue that the social upheaval of the 1960s and its subsequent dissipation might have had some effect. However, they maintain that cultural/generational change does not usually have immediate consequences on behaviour or attitudes in society and thus cannot adequately explain the sharp decline in abuse that occurred. In light of alternative explanations, the idea that Reaganism wrested American society and the US Catholic Church from the evil clutches of gay hippies is not at all credible.
Within the Church, Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea believes that the following factors were likely to have reduced the level of sexual abuse: the marked decrease in the number of priests, the aging of the remaining priest population, and the ever-increasing reluctance of parents to let children spend time alone with priests. Frawley-O’Dea complains that the John Jay researchers tended to ignore these factors and over-emphasise the role played by the Church’s development of better child policies.
Furthermore, while the John Jay report does condemn the inadequacy of the response by bishops to allegations of abuse, Frawley-O’Dea does not believe the researchers’ assertion that Catholic bishops were unaware of the extent of sexual abuse in the Church or the damage it did to victims. Indeed, Tom Doyle and others have shown that sexual abuse of minors has been a persistent problem in the Catholic Church since at least the Middle Ages. Worse still, Doyle and his colleagues found that "a pattern of secrecy” in the Church’s handling of clerical sexual issues emerged after the Reformation. Therefore, the John Jay report, with its assertion that clerical sexual abuse in the US Catholic Church was a “period effect” brought about by “sexual liberation” of the 1960s, facilitates opposition to Church reform.
Mark Silk goes further. He blames the John Jay report for deeming “celibacy and an all-male priesthood as ecclesiastical constants incapable of being causal factors” and ignoring “the fact that what created the crisis was not some new acquiescence in behavioural deviance but an enhanced standard of criminal accountability that rendered unacceptable the old diocesan ways of doing business.” In this respect, the John Jay researchers told American Catholic bishops what they wanted to hear. Thus, it is hard to argue with Silk’s barb that the US bishops “got the report they paid for."
Unfortunately, it seems that the world is full of true believers who prefer ideological comfort blankets to complex realities. Indeed, since the global financial crisis occurred in 2007-2008, many right-wing commentators have tied themselves in knots trying to exonerate the neoliberal ideology that caused the crisis and to blame government contamination of the free market instead. Fortunately, most people don’t seem to find such contorted analyses credible. Similarly, I hope that most people are sensible enough to see through the Woodstock defence of clerical sexual abuse for the sleight-of-hand sham that it is.