Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Those on the Catholic left are not very happy that the Jay Report declines in no uncertain terms to blame clerical celibacy for the sexual abuse crisis. As the report puts it:

Factors that remained consistent over this time period, such as celibacy, do not explain the sexual abuse “crisis.” Celibacy has been constant in the Catholic Church since the eleventh century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.

This is the way social scientists, bless their hearts, look at causation. You’ve got a “factor”; it’s constant through a period of change; therefore it cannot be a cause of the change. Case closed. Q.E.D.

But this kind of factor analysis can be an unwieldy tool for grasping how the world changes. Consider, for example, the rise and decline of divorce rates in America, which pretty much mirror the rise and decline of child sexual abuse by priests.

The charts on the right, taken from the Jay Report, show the number of sexual abuse incidents by all priests (blue lines) and by ordination cohort (red lines). There’s the same big run-up in the sixties and seventies, the same peaking around 1980, the same decline afterwards (though steeper in the case of abuse). 

Now, one can easily blame the increase in divorce–including, of course, the rise of no-fault divorce laws–on the cultural changes of “the sixties.” Marriage itself was not the problem; something else was responsible for divorce going off the chart. But whatever that something else was, it made marriage as it was somewhat problematic. Lots of married people wanted out, and no doubt a significant portion of them got out in inappropriate (immoral) ways. And by the time divorce rates peaked, marriage as a social institution had itself changed. No longer was there the same stigma attached to living together and bearing children out of wedlock; no longer was there the pressure to get married. For better or worse, marriage has ceased to do as much work in American society as it once did.

So with celibacy in the Catholic Church. In the sixties, it became problematic. Many priests and nuns left the celibate life–and (it seems) a significant number of priests got out of it by behaving badly. And by the time abuse rates peaked, celibacy had come to function in a different way in the church. A much higher proportion of church work was being performed by the non-celibate–laymen and laywomen. Today, those men who enter the priesthood do so better screened and more mature in years–and, of course, in fewer numbers. Nuns are disappearing. And child sexual abuse has declined.

The point is: It’s much too simple to pretend that complex phenomena like marriage or faith-based celibacy are constants in the life of a society or an institution like the Catholic church. They are variables that interact with other variables. None of this is to exonerate abusers and their episcopal enablers. Nor is it to assert suggest that the all’s right with celibacy in today’s Catholicism. In the eleventh century, non-celibacy for secular clergy (including bishops) became problematic for a number of economic, social, and ideological reasons. And so, the church stamped it out. A well functioning religious institution knows how to change with the times.

That’s the big news out of the John Jay College Final Report on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, due out at 2 p.m. today, according to David Gibson’s scoop for RNS last night (followed swiftly by NYT’s Laurie Goodstein, who also scored a copy). To wit:

[T]he researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely than straight priests to abuse minors—a finding that undermines a favorite talking point of many conservative Catholics. The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report states.

What’s more, researchers note that the rise in the number of gay priests from the late 1970s onward actually corresponded with “a decreased incidence of abuse—not an increased incidence of abuse.”

Over at In All Things, Jim Martin rings the changes on why this will come as a surprise to many, pointing specifically to the shortage of “‘public’ models of healthy, mature, loving celibate homosexual priests.” (Mychal Judge, the Franciscan father who died at Ground Zero on 9/11 while serving as chaplain to the FDNY, is a rare exception.) Martin declines, however, to point to the role of those conservative Catholic talkers in fingering gay priests as the problem–above all the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue.

Here, for example, is Donohue back in 2006, arguing on behalf of the Vatican’s decision to keep men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” (whatever that means) out of seminaries:

As I have said many times before, most homosexual priests are not molesters, but most of the molesters are gay. The John Jay [interim] Report made this clear: 81 percent of the victims are male and almost as many are postpubescent. This is not called pedophilia—it is called homosexuality.

But the final report demonstrates (through reliance on diocesan records and live interviews) that just because the victims were boys doesn’t mean that the molesters were gay–any more than the fact that most prison rapes involve male victims doesn’t mean that most prison rapists are gay. For priests, boys were the most readily available targets of sexual opportunity.

Donohue will no doubt embrace the final report’s finding that most offenders were not pedophiles in the strict sense (one of his favorite talking points); the large majority of cases involve boys over the age of 10. But the punchline to the point is that the way to prevent child abuse by priests is to keep gays out of the priesthood. And that, the final report makes clear, is just not true.

Update: Donohue sticks to his guns: “A homosexual is defined by his actions, not his identity.”

No doubt about it, the Vatican’s latest missive has laid an egg. Styled as an encyclical to assist national bishops conferences in developing guidelines for dealing with clergy accused of sexual abuse, the letter utterly ignores what everybody outside the Church hierarchy itself acknowledges to be the central problem: the bishops themselves.

Take Philadelphia, please. The U.S. bishops conference didn’t merely have guidelines, it had Vatican-approved norms–which were ignored by Cardinal Justin Rigali and his henchmen. As for the archdiocesan review board, tasked with reviewing all cases, it was kept in the dark and then used to provide cover for episcopal misbehavior, according to its chair, Ana Maria Catanzano. That’s the problem in a nutshell.

Always eager to safeguard its prerogatives, the Vatican insists that if the conferences want to go beyond guidelines and actually establish “binding norms,” then “it will be necessary to request the recognitio from the competent Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.”  OK, let’s go with that.

To deal with the problem of recalcitrant bishops, the conferences should be obliged to establish binding norms, which norms must include a zero tolerance policy for bishops, comparable to the American zero tolerance policy for priests. That is to say, if there is credible evidence that a bishop has covered up a case of clerical sexual abuse, he will be suspended from office by Rome, and removed if the case is proved. Assuming Rome wants to get the bishops’ attention, that’s the two-by-four that would get it.

Now that we have entered the final week of the Harold Camping-certified End Times, it behooves us to consider the signs. Here goes.

* Osama  (the false Antichrist) Bin Laden killed by Barack H.  (not the false Antichrist) Obama.

* Forces of Repression (viz. Gog and Magog) at work all over Middle East.

* House of Representatives kills off Medicare. (Who needs it?)

* Head of IMF (aka Root of all Evil) arrested for sexual assault.

* Poll numbers of Barack H.  (not the false Antichrist) Obama headed north.

* Palestinian protestors killed on way to Tel Megiddo (Armageddon).

* Mike Huckabee removes hat from presidential ring. (Talk about the Great Disappointment!)

* Newt Gingrich, convert to Catholic Church (i.e. astride Whore of Babylon), jumps into presidential ring.

* Democrats threaten to capture NY-26.

* All Facebook pages inscribed with number “666.”

* Lots of earthquakes, tornadoes, floods.

* Yankees drop three in a row to Boston at the stadium.

* Doonesbury recognizes End of World at hand.