The Roots of Scandal
The clergy-abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church throughout the last decade has probably gained the most attention regarding the criminal way that problem priests were moved around and never turned in to authorities. What has been given far less attention is just what lead to the abuse in the first place. A new report sheds some light on the problem.
A highly anticipated report on the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the US Roman Catholic Church was released this week by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The lead researcher said no one factor was responsible for the actions of the priests. Both celibacy and homosexuality were ruled out as causes. Instead, researchers found that priests were influenced by societal changes during the 1960s and 1970s, what they called an increase in “deviant behavior.”
So imagine it’s 1965 and you are a good Catholic and the parent of three sons. The oldest son is an athlete. He plays football and baseball and he is a star in both sports. Your second son is handsome and outgoing. He is the class president of his high school and never has trouble finding a date for Friday night. Your third son is quiet and introverted. He’s a good student and spends a lot of time in his room with his books. Like most Catholics at that time there is a certain amount of pressure to send a son to the priesthood. The Church relies on parents to apply enough pressure to steer their children in this direction. Given the personalities of your three sons, which one do you pick?
In the 60s seminaries were mostly closed communities with little outside contact. Young men entered communities where sexuality was not discussed and they had no guidance on how to deal with the emotions and testosterone that was coursing through them. Occasionally they would hear about life outside the seminary or maybe go on a field trip and see it first-hand. The culture was no doubt a bit overwhelming. Social taboos seemed to be breaking down daily. It must have been a confusing time for a young man to come of age in. Even more difficult when it happened in an all-male setting with religious rules in place.
From the Boston Globe
Many of the priests who have been accused of abuse attended seminaries at a time when sex was barely discussed in class.
At the same time, some observers theorize that some priests suffer from stunted sexual development – that their sexual feelings stopped changing when they entered the worlds of the seminary and the priesthood, or even before, so they act as if they were adolescents themselves.
Growing up in the Church during the 70s and 80s I saw firsthand just how much power a parish priest had. They were kings of their small communities and if they were outgoing they achieved near-celebrity status. A priest with suppressed sexual desires could easily manipulate not just children but adults. My own parish lost three priests during the 80s because they fell in love with women and left the priesthood. I’ve heard similar stories of priests engaging in affairs with married parishioners. And there is the abuse of minors.
“It has always been welcomed by parents when they see a priest taking a boy to a ballgame, or hunting or fishing or camping – the priest acts as a chaperone as well as companion – and conventionally, people have not raised an eyebrow,” said Gill, the Chicago priest and doctor. “If a priest is taking a girl off for walks or swimming or any of these social or athletic events, there is some question. I think parents are a little more skeptical about turning girls unreservedly over to the priest for companionship.”
What remains unclear is whether the abuse of boys specifically were crimes of opportunity or were these gay men who were sexually adolescent? That may be a much different discussion but it’s probably ancillary to the root-cause analysis. So the point of this post is not to dwell on the cover-up. It seems clear that cause of the sex abuse scandal must lie with the seminary system and the culture it created. The laity often funneled their most introverted and socially awkward children into closed, all-male communities and then those children left these communities and entered a world that was filled with social upheaval and they were given great power with the parish communities. This created a perfect storm that lead to the abuses we are still learning about today.