The Pattern of Priestly Sex Abuse
Reproduced below is a chart from the John Jay Report on sexual abuse in the Catholic priesthood, commissioned by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, showing the number of credible accusations of abuse across the last half-century. It’s part of the basis for my column’s claim that something in the moral/cultural/theological climate of the 1960s and 1970s encouraged a spike in sexual abuse, and also for my assertion that we’ve since seen the church come to grips with the problem, at least in the United States.
It’s important to note that most of these incidents were reported in the 1990s and 2000s, years after they took place. This raises the question of whether the low numbers for the 1950s reflect a real difference between the rate of abuse in the Eisenhower era and the rate in the decades that followed, or whether it’s just that fewer of the victims from the ’50s have come forward with their stories, because of advanced age, greater shame, etc.
There’s no way to be completely certain about this, and clearly there was abuse in the church, and horrid cover-ups as well, going back decades and centuries and more. But the John Jay data suggest that something significant really did shift, and escalate, in the years around the sexual revolution.
For one thing, the rate of so-called “short term” incidents — cases where the priest’s abusive behavior reportedly lasted less than a year — remained relatively constant from the ’50s through the first decade of the 21st century. [A large number of the priests were charged with only one offense!] The prevalence of longer-term abuse, on the other hand, followed the same pattern as the overall data, going way up in the ’60s and ’70s and then dropping off after 1980 (see pp. 39 of this report for the graph). The same discrepancy appears when you look at the type of molestation: male-on-female versus male-on-male, and true pedophilia versus so-called “ephebophilia” (the abuse of pubescent teenagers). To quote from the National Review Board report, which analyzed the John Jay data:
The incidence of sexual molestation of a minor under eleven years of age did not vary as greatly throughout the period as did the molestation of older children. In addition, the incidence of abuse of females did not change as dramatically as did the incidence of the abuse of males. There was, however, a more than six-fold increase in the number of reported acts of abuse of males aged eleven to seventeen between the 1950s and the 1970s.
If the abuse in the ’50s (and earlier) followed roughly the same pattern as the abuse in the ’70s, and just remains more underreported today, you would expect the ratios of different types of abuse — long-term versus short-term, male versus female, pedophilic versus ephebophilic — to remain relatively constant across the decades. But they don’t: Instead, the post-1960 period shows a dramatic increase in reports of long-term sexual misconduct with teenage boys, and a substantially smaller increase in other types of abuse.
This data informs the conservative Catholic argument that the post-Vatican II exodus of straight men from religious life and the spread of a sexually-active gay subculture within the priesthood is the abuse scandal’s “elephant in the sacristy.” Liberal Catholics might counter that the priesthood has always been disproportionately homosexual, and that the sexual revolution probably just encouraged psychologically healthy gay priests [Is that an oxymoron considering that actual male homosexuals shorten their life spans by at least twenty years according to the Communicable Disease Center?] to give up on the church entirely, leaving behind a clerical population tilted toward repression, self-loathing and the dysfunctions of the closet. Whichever narrative you prefer, though, it’s hard to deny that something changed in the 1960s, and not for the better.