WASHINGTON — Authors of a controversial study examining the causes of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church are defending their finding that a surge in abuse in the 1960s and '70s was sparked by broader social and cultural upheaval and a failure to prepare priests for a life of celibacy.
The study's lead author, Karen Terry of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said interviews with hundreds of priests and a separate evaluation of divorce rates, illegal drug use, crime and premarital sex shaped the researchers' conclusions.
But she also cautioned that the causes of abuse are complex and can't be linked to a single factor.
"What's important is this convergence of factors," Terry said in an interview Wednesday at the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which commissioned the study.
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Critics said the report minimized the sexual abuse epidemic in the church and downplayed the institutional church's responsibility for creating conditions where abuse flourished, relieving church leaders of an obligation to make fundamental changes to prevent its recurrence.
"Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that tells them precisely what they want to hear: It was all unforeseeable, long ago, wasn't that bad, and wasn't their fault," David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement.
And some questioned the report's emphasis on the socio-cultural dynamics surrounding the spike in abuse at the expense of other factors, particularly the role of the church hierarchy.
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said social dynamics in the 1960s and '70s might have figured into the abuse crisis, but the study's authors were not sufficiently specific about how.
"For example, the big rise in homicide and robbery we saw during that period was due to an increase in the illegal drug markets," he said. "The increase in the divorce (rate) was due to the fact that women were seeing themselves in different roles. That doesn't explain" why priests abused children.
Finkelhor lauded the researchers for their "thoughtful presentation" of a huge variety of variables, but he said the report should have said more about the failure of the church hierarchy to remove abusive priests from ministry for decades.
"There is reason to think that the nature and extent of the problem was abetted by the confidence that people had that they wouldn't get caught, or that sanctions would be minor," he said.
What seems to confirm that, he noted, is the report's finding that when the church began to take abuse more seriously in the 1980s and '90s, the rates of abuse dropped off.
The study's authors said their research upended a number of widely argued theories. Gay priests were no more likely to abuse than straight priests, they found, and in fact, abuse incidents seemed to decline as more gay men entered the priesthood in the 1980s and '90s. The church's policy on priestly celibacy remained constant during the big spike in abuse cases, leading the authors to conclude that celibacy was not any more likely as a cause.
Most priests who abused were trained at mainstream seminaries, the report found, not foreign institutions or seminaries for teenagers, as some have postulated. And no single psychological characteristic or developmental or sexual history factor distinguished priests who abused from those who did not, making it unlikely that seminaries could have done more to screen out potential abusers.
But in one of the most confusing and provocative aspects of the report, the authors asserted that pedophiles were not the cause of the sexual abuse crisis.
Although the word pedophile is commonly used to describe any adult who has sexual contact with minors, the psychological definition is much more restrictive, referring to adults who have a persistent sexual attraction to children younger than 13, usually of a particular age group.
According to that definition, only 5 percent of priests in the treatment centers were pedophiles, according to clinicians who treated them, the John Jay team wrote, so "it is inaccurate to refer to abusers as 'pedophile priests.'"
Later in the report, the researchers seemed to employ an even narrower definition of pedophilia.
"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," the report said. "Yet, the data on priests show that 22 percent of victims were age 10 and under, while the majority of victims were pubescent or post-pubescent."
Terry said later that the purpose of including this information was not to minimize the crimes of those who abused older children and youth, but rather to clarify the problem and its potential solutions.
"If you want to prevent sexual abuse, it's going to be very different to prevent someone who is pathologically driven to abuse prepubescent children from someone who might regress to this kind of behavior under stressful circumstances," she said. "Is this a situation where we need to help them improve their social skills so they are not hanging out with 14-year-olds? Or is this someone where we need to have them go into psychological treatment so they don't act on their impulses to sexually act out with 8-year-olds?"