May 19, 2011

Lies, Damned Lies, and the Catholic Church

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

There is nothing new about the Catholic Church blaming society for its sex abuse problem. What is new is a study from John Jay College that seems to support that tiresome excuse.

Released yesterday was a $1.8 million study prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the subject of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The report “Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010,” was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and seemingly makes attempts to blame society for criminal acts of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests.

The report makes gross attempts to blame the “liberal” society of the 1960’s. Researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice state that the peak incidence of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the 1960’s and 70’s reflected the increased level of other “deviant behaviors” in American society including drug use, crime, an increase in premarital sex, and divorce. The sexually abusive priests were ordained in the 1940’s and 50’s and therefore were not properly trained to confront the social upheavals of the 1960’s.

When I read early reports and outrage over the scapegoating of the '60s counter-culture, I thought it was the kind of leap so often made by soundbite seeking reporters, probably based on an equally sensational press release, and that the paper itself would be more cautious and even-handed.

Kathleen McChesney of the Office for Child and Youth Protection of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops correctly notes that it would be dangerous to misinterpret as causative the study's statistical correlation between the increase in other "deviant" behaviors that began in the '60s and the spiking of priestly sexual abuse.

The study found that the increase of abuse incidents during 1960s and 1970s was consistent with "the rise of other types of 'deviant' behavior such as drug use, crime and changes in social behavior such as the increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce." This finding may be dangerously misinterpreted by some as a "cause" of the abuse.  [emphasis added] While the sexual activities of clergy members with consenting adults during this time may reflect a sexually liberated society, at no time was the sexual abuse of minors legal, moral or justified. Notwithstanding breaking their vows of celibacy, as adult followers of the Catholic faith these offenders knew, or should have known, that their behaviors violated and injured the young.

As any good scholar knows, correlation does not prove causation. So it would be dangerous indeed to draw such an inference. The problem is that it's the authors of the study who do exactly that. 

Ms Terry said the 1960s and 70s were a period that saw "patterns of increased deviance of society", and the church sex abuse scandal developed in parallel. "The social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of some individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate," she said.

I decided to look to the source material for myself and see how the researchers of this prestigious institution -- my father's alma mater, by the way -- had arrived at this conclusion. Surely there would be substantial qualitative analysis demonstrating how celibate priests felt so undermined by rising divorce rates that they suddenly felt the overwhelming need to bugger children.

Instead, I was treated to specious logic like this:

The economic and social optimism of the 1960s came with a rise in social activism, intergenerational conflict, illegal drug use, crime, and disorder. The 1970s continued the pursuit of individualist projects and values as the economy faltered and a conservative reaction to openness and experimentation became more apparent. Further caution about sexual behaviors arose when AIDS developed into a national issue in the early 1980s. As general public attitudes about sex and sexuality changed, the statutes that defined sex acts as criminal changed as well. The General Social Survey (GSS), a regularly conducted public opinion poll, showed a marked change in the proportion of the respondents who felt that premarital sex was “not wrong at all”—the figure was 26 percent in 1972, the first year the survey was done, and rose to 42 percent in 1985.179 By 1985, twenty-seven states in the United States had passed legislation to decriminalize sex among adolescents (“age-span provisions”), and forty states had amended their statutory rape laws so that women could be prosecuted.180 In the mid-1980s, a majority of states modified their rape laws to expand the definitions of criminal sexual behavior, and almost all had passed legislation for mandatory reporting of sexual abuse of a child by 1990.

For the Causes and Context study, the social indicators found to be most relevant to the modeling of the change in incidence of sexual abuse are divorce, use of illegal drugs, and crime. Sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest is an individual deviant act—an act by a priest that serves individual purposes and that is completely at odds or opposed to the principles of the institution. Divorce is an act also made for personal reasons that negates the institution of marriage. Illegal drug use and criminal acts violate social and legal norms of conduct, presumably at the will of the offender. The recorded or reported incidence of each of these factors increased by 50 percent between 1960 and 1980.181 If the data for the annual divorce rate are compared to data for the annual rate of homicide and robbery, the time-series lines move in tandem. From stable levels in 1965, the rates increase sharply to a peak at or soon after 1980 and then begin to fall.182 This pattern is indicative of the period effects that can be seen in the Nature and Scope data on the incidence of sexual abuse by priests.

Get it? Divorce, premarital sex, drug abuse, and crime are "deviant." Raping children is "deviant." Therefore, ipso facto, it's all part of the same pattern of social degeneration. Some might call that a false equivalency, but they wouldn't have the backing of John Jay College.

Their contention is that there is a statistical correlation between all these forms of deviance that came to prominence in the 1960s and the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, which they claim spiked in that era and then dramatically dropped by the mid 1980s, when the Church took matters in hand.

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But they provide no statistics of any of those other social phenomena; only endnotes with sources that presumably provide them. There are no graphs showing how these social trends moved in tandem. I mean, for a contention that inevitably controversial, you'd think they'd at least whip up some lovely visual aids. Not having access to their cited material, I did a little googling and verified pretty much what I'd assumed. Those other social trends did rise in the '60s and '70s but they did not fall; at least not at remotely the same rate demonstrated in the chart above. There are very slight declines in divorce, for instance, but marriages have also decreased. Divorce and premarital sex may have been deviant behavior in the '60s, in the sense of deviating from societal norms, but they have since become normal. Premarital sex, for instance, is nearly universal in the US. I certainly wouldn't characterize crime as normal behavior but crime rates rose steadily into the early '90s and then backed off their highs in more recent years. Those rates are still substantially higher than they were in 1960. The drug picture is more complicated and varies based on the type of drug. Alcohol is also a drug, btw, and an ever-popular one at that.

And if you're thinking that the causal relationship between all these societal factors and the surge in priestly sex abuse is spelled out more fully in their earlier paper Nature and Scope, please do have at it. For what it's worth, I ran searches on divorce, premarital, crime, drugs, 60s, 70s... Most of those words aren't even in the report and the ones that are are in a completely different context.

Another pointed criticism of the new report is that it defines pedophilia narrowly and makes the claim that the pedophile problem is only 5% of the overall issue.

The study is also likely to provoke controversy for its determination that priests who abused children over the age of 10 are not to be considered "pedophiles," because the victims -- by the authors' broad definition -- had already reached puberty.

"Most of the priests who had allegations of abuse abused pubescent and post-pubescent minors, not prepubescent children, and as such, the phrase 'pedophile priest' is a misnomer," Terry said, asserting that fewer than 5 percent of priests accused of abusing children could be described as pedophiles.

The American Psychiatric Association defines prepubescent children as those under the age of 13.

The classification in the paper itself is quite murky and a little inconsistent. While it shows the age range of pedophile attraction as going to 11, it charts the age grouping of victims differently.

Most sexual abuse victims of priests (51 percent) were between the ages of eleven and fourteen, while 27 percent were fifteen to seventeen, 16 percent were eight to ten, and nearly 6 percent were under age seven. Over 40 percent of all victims were males between the ages of eleven and fourteen. It is worth noting that while the media has consistently referred to priest-abusers as “pedophile priests,” pedophilia is defined as the sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Yet, the data on priests show that 22 percent of victims were age ten and under, while the majority of victims were pubescent or postpubescent.

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So prepubescent children, 22%, are indeed broken down as below age 10. But earlier in the paper, the authors define pedophiles as having singular attraction to children under 11.

For the purpose of this comparison, a pedophile is defined as a priest who had more than one victim, with all victims being age eleven or younger at the time of the offense.164 An ephebophile is defined as a priest who abused more than one victim, with all victims being boys above the age of twelve.165 Single offenders are those who had only one victim, and the multiples group includes all other accused priests who had more than one victim but were not defined by the other groups.

They also conflate the term ephebophile with the term hebephile, which only appears in the endnotes and glossary. The term ephebophile is generally used to connote attraction to mid to late adolescents, aged 15-19. The DSM doesn't list it, in and of itself, as a pathology. Whereas pedophilia, an attraction to prepubescent children, and hebephilia, an attraction to pubescent children, are considered pathological. And the age ranges don't break down nearly as neatly as they would seem to in this study because the onset of puberty varies. It is hebephilia that designates an attraction to roughly that 11-14 age range. But onset of puberty is generally 10-11 in girls and 12-13 in boys. Considering that far more boys have been the victims of priestly abuse, that makes that 11-14 even more suspicious. You can't say these priests were attracted to pubescent children based on age alone because of that variance. You'd have to look at each individual child and consider when that child had entered puberty. For what it's worth, one of the proposed changes for the DSM-V is a combined diagnosis of pedohebephiliac disorder.

If that hebephilic age range, 11-14, is the single largest group effected -- over half of all children molested -- how many of those abused children may have been prepubescent or barely pubescent? Suddenly the apologia of a 5% pedophilia problem seems risible.

The larger problem with this study is that the funding and data pool throw its credibility into further doubt. Over half of all funding came from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and still more of the funding came from other Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus. Much of the data was also self-reported by bishops. Victims groups and attorneys were not consulted.

Jason Berry, a Catholic journalist who has written several books on the subject, said the study was important but "deeply flawed" because authors didn't include sources such as the largest victims' attorneys' firms.

. . .

"It's 'garbage in, garbage out.' Two academics, paid by bishops and using information from bishops, reach the conclusions bishops desperately want to reach themselves," said a statement Wednesday by Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the survivors' advocacy group.

If you think self-reporting by church hierarchy is reliable, look no further than the disastrous case of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which gave its review board pre-filtered information, didn't tell them they were withholding case files, and then threw them under the bus when a grand jury found far more abuse than had been reported.

So every contention in this paper is highly questionable, from the heartening finding that homosexuality among priests was irrelevant to the highly suspect contention that abuse cases dropped into the basement when the Church cracked down in the '80s. There's something for everybody to love or hate in this study, but little to trust.

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