The news that the John Jay College has determined that the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church had as its cause under-trained and under-supported priests, coupled with the turmoil of the 1960’s–and not celibacy or homosexuality as its cause– has generated all sorts of comments and criticisms. Many of these comments are accurate, like the criticism from SNAP— Survivors’ Network of Abuse by Priests– that the report is wholly silent about the role that the bishops and their naivete, denial and cover ups played.
Now, it may come as a surprise, but I do not think the study is wholly wrong in its basic conclusion– that the pedophilia problem was not "caused" by celibacy or homosexuality. I have written on this very topic before. To state the obvious, the modern problem of abuse of children by priests was caused by extraordinary high numbers of pedophiles in the priesthood– either drawn to the priesthood because of their pedophilia or as "products of the system." Less obvious, the problem was made worse by the Church’s abysmal system for selecting, training and monitoring priests; by a systematic failure of the Church to educate priests about how to live a celibate life and yet still be balanced and whole persons; and by bishops who made the problem worse by recirculating dangerous priests. My friend Richard Sipe, a former priest who has studied and written about the abuse problem in the Church for forty years, and who has testified on behalf of victims in hundreds of cases, has written about all of this extensively– most interestingly that the "cause" is not celibacy.
But the question that the John Jay Study does not answer– indeed the question that John Jay was not apparently asked– is how did the pedophilia "problem" become a full on "scandal," one that not only devastated thousands of innocent children, but also deeply, irrevocably scarred the image and credibility of the Catholic Church? For I take it as a given that society would not have been wholly shocked over the last ten or fifteen years by revelations that the Catholic Church had an active pedophilia problem. Indeed, similar revelations have come out about the Boy Scouts of America, the LDS (Mormon) Church, and other such organizations, and as of yet no great national scandal has resulted. I say this because, as of yet, the public has not yet been saturated with story after story of how the hierarchies of these organizations engaged in a systematic and calculated cover up of the problem. But the "problem" of abuse in the Catholic Church became a worldwide "scandal" once it began to become clear that this was not just a problem of the actions of a number of sick and twisted priests, but was fundamentally a problem of disintegrating spiritual integrity, and the actions of too many bishops, cardinals and others in high places who, over and over again, here, there, and seemingly everywhere, refused to act in the Spirit of Christ and do the right thing. This is the "cause" of the scandal.
And it is truly tragic: not only did it visit unfathomable suffering upon the most vulnerable and innocent members of the Church, the children, but it scarred, perhaps permanently, the respect that society once bestowed upon the Catholic Church. As a Christian, when I hear radical secularists ridiculing Christianity, especially Catholicism, because of the child abuse scandals, I cringe at the knowledge that it was the actions of the Church leadership– at least if not moreso than the actions of the pedophiles themselves– that provided the ammunition for the Church’s enemies to use against it.
So the John Jay study is perhaps not so flawed, at least as far as it goes. The problem is that it does not go far enough. It does not ask the biggest question– not what caused the "pedophilia problem," but rather, what caused the "pedophilia scandal?" It is not John Jay’s fault that they did not answer this question; after all, they were not asked.