The recent (January 16) grilling of Vatican officials by United Nations officials about the sexual abuse of minors by priests plus its cover-up by dioceses does not seem to have revealed anything new. It seems to be primarily a way of trying to oust the Holy See from the UN and a victory for the habitual anti-Catholics. Left unexplored and unanswered are the more interesting questions. Why was there this burst of immorality by priests directed toward children and adolescents?
After the news of this sexual scandal exploded in 2002, the US Bishops appointed a disinterested group to study it in detail. The result was “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, A Report Presented to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by the John Jay College Research Team” dated May 18, 2011. A month later I published a blog on it on a now-discontinued website.
What follows is a slightly shortened version of that article. Unfortunately, I can no longer find the Report at the USCCB website, and the PDF I found elsewhere no longer has the two graphs mentioned below. The information may be there, but it is not as visible in 2014 as it was in 2011.
In my  review, I found the most interesting statistics were in two graphs, Figure 2.3.1, “Annual Count of Incidents Reported and Priests Accused, by Year” and Figure 2.3.2, “Distribution of Alleged Incidents of Abuse by Date of First Instance.” The first shows an increasing number of incidents reported each year during the Fifties, a marked jump in 1960—the year the birth control Pill was so widely publicized and accepted, continued increases with another large increase in 1969—right after the dissenters and millions of Catholics thumbed their noses at the traditional moral teaching affirmed by Humanae Vitae, a continued climb to 1980, and then a marked decline each year to 2002, somewhat below what it was in 1950. In other words, when the Scandal was publicized in 2002, it was already over, at least in terms of sensational numbers.
The second graph more or less paralleled the first. Of special interest was a 100% increase in the numbers of “first instance” from 1959 (150) to 1960 (300). The numbers of “first instance” then dropped back to about 200, then slowly increased to just over 300 in 1968, and took another huge jump in 1970 to about 425. Beginning in 1981, the numbers gradually fell to about 25, slightly less than in 1951, and way less than in 1950 when approximately 125 first instances were recorded.
I found nothing in the report that attempted to explain this rise and fall of the incidences of sexual abuse by priests and deacons, so I will offer my own interpretation. The gradual increases in the Fifties may be due primarily to the increases in the numbers of priests in the Fifties. The gradual decline from 1981 to 2002 may be due partly to the gradual aging and decrease in numbers of priests in that period, but see also below for possible theological influences. The significant increases in the Sixties occurred at a time when traditional sexual morality was being questioned not only in the culture but also within the Catholic Church. The huge increases in both the “Annual Count” and “First Instance” in 1960 so parallel the widespread societal acceptance of the [birth control] Pill that it is difficult not to see an association. Similarly, the large increase in the Annual Count (1969) and First Instances (1970) parallel the widespread Catholic rejection of Humanae Vitae and the entire Tradition of sexual morality that the encyclical represents. Thus I maintain that the theological maelstroms of the 1960s and the 1970s had a significant causal effect on the great Scandal that was taking place in those years.”
There is no shortage of evidence that thinking leads to behavioral changes and then to more such thinking and further changes. In his 1929 book, A Preface to Morals, secular humanist Walter Lippmann criticized the “progressives” of his day for adopting the logic of birth control and abandoning the logic of human nature. The expanding use of barrier methods of birth control during the Roaring Twenties led the revisionists to think that if it is permissible to separate having sex from having babies, it would also be permissible to separate sex from marriage itself. And, without children to care for, they further speculated that it would be progressive to marry, have contraceptive sex, and then divorce when boredom outweighed immediate pleasure. They even gave it a name—companionate marriage.
The very next year, the Anglican bishops gathered for a periodic meeting at the Lambeth Palace of the Church of England and debated the birth control issue. “Conservative” Bishop Charles Gore argued that the acceptance of contraception would open a Pandora’s Box of sexual and social evils including the acceptance of sodomy, but his side lost the vote. Thus in 1930 the Church of England became the first organized church to accept contraception, but Gore’s witness provides a wonderful example of being able to foresee the effects of the logic of birth control. By the early 21stcentury, the Church of England had not only accepted marital contraception but also sodomy and even the ordination of openly homosexual bishops.
The battles of the Sexual Revolution within the Catholic Church were fought in the 1960s with many essentially thoughtless articles during the early Sixties advocating the acceptance of unnatural forms of birth control. Almost every writer qualified his or her comments by pledging full acceptance of Catholic teaching once the Pope clarified it. Most of those writers became active dissenters, however, when Pope Paul VI issued his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which clarified the issue by reaffirming the traditional teaching that marital contraception is seriously immoral.
Less than two years later, self-styled revisionist Michael Valente spilled the beans about the logic of birth control, saying that in rejecting Humanae Vitae the revisionists had also rejected the entire natural law theory on which, he said, it was based. Therefore, according to Valente, they had no way to say a firm NO to any imaginable sexual behavior between consenting persons. He specifically included bestiality.
In 1971, the generally liberal journal, Theological Studies, published my article, “Continued Dissent: Is It Responsible Loyalty?” in which I showed that the decision-making principles of arch-dissenter Fr. Charles Curran could not say a moral NO even to spouse swapping. No one ever complained that I had created a straw man, but neither the Valente book nor my article had any slowdown effect on the birth control propaganda by other Catholic writers.
The point of this bit of history is that what passed for moral theology regarding sexuality during the Sixties and Seventies—and perhaps well into the Eighties in some places—was garbage. It couldn’t say NO to anything of mutual consent. In 1977 Paulist Press published a book by the Catholic Theology Society of America that so reflected this thinking that it drew an analogy between Catholic homosexuals doing sodomy and Catholic married couples doing contraception. They used cautious wording, but the inference was clear that while both behaviors contradicted the formal teaching, they were really okay and the teaching would have to change.
Now, imagine someone who is taught, at least by inference, that Catholic teaching on sexuality is wrong and that sodomy is loving behavior. Imagine that the person who imbibes this erroneous teaching is a Catholic seminarian or priest with a same-sex attraction. What is to keep him from putting his inclinations into action? One might say that he should know that such actions with a minor and especially with a prepubescent are both illegal and wrong, and I agree. But also in the theological and sexual milieu at the time was the rallying cry of some homosexuals, “Sex before eight or it’s too late.” Assuming that such a slogan reflected their real thoughts, one could imagine that they thought a bit of coercion or persuasion might be permissible, somewhat like a parent exercising coercion or persuasion to get their children to eat their vegetables.
Every Catholic bishop knows well the axiom, Agere sequitur esse. Action follows being. Or more loosely, “What you do follows from what you are.” They also know that to a large extent, what you think is what you are. After all, isn’t the whole purpose of Christian education to help the student think with the mind of Christ and thus act as a Christian should?
I am quite aware that even when people have had the best education about morality they can still cave into weakness and sin, but I maintain that it becomes much easier to engage in sinful behavior if one has been trained to think that traditional moral teachings are wrong.
The bottom line consists of questions, not answers. In the analyses sponsored by the US Bishops since the 2002 exposure of the Great Scandal, where is the analysis of the moral theology taught to the sexual abusers both in the seminary and in their later seminars and reading? Have admitted offenders been asked about their overall thinking about sexual morality? Was their thinking influenced by the fact that the US Bishops continued to employ Fr. Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America for 19 years after he led the dissent from Humanae Vitae? (One dissenting priest told me that I was in dissent from the bishops because I disagreed with Fr. Curran whom the bishops continued to employ.) In short, if education is deemed important, what effort has been made to examine the seminary moral theology of the Sixties to the present? If it has been made, what, if any, changes have been made? And if that effort has not been made, why not?
To return to the gradual decline in the Scandal starting in 1981, it’s very possible this was related to the efforts of Pope John Paul II to reaffirm authentic Catholic teaching on sexuality. The Synod on the Family in 1980, the near martyrdom of John Paul II on May 13, 1981, the publication of Familiaris Consortio—The Apostolic Exhortation on the Family in late 1981, and his continued “Theology of the Body” lectures certainly had their good effects, and one of them may have been to reorder the thinking of many priests and deacons with a same-sex attraction. Thinking does affect action.