Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is it the Cultural Sink, or Power?

Is it cold comfort to be compared to other institutions?

In the recent meeting of US Bishops, a preview was given of an ongoing study investigating the causes of the sexual abuse crisis, suggesting that what happened in the Church mirrors what is occurring in society as a whole.
On the sexual abuse crisis, the bishops heard preliminary findings from a $2 million study on the “causes and context” of the scandals by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Early results appear to suggest the crisis mirrored broad patterns in American society, such as the sexual revolution of the 1960s, rather than arising from unique forces within the church. “This is in conflict with the idea that there is something distinctive about the Catholic church that led to the sexual abuse of minors,” Karen Terry, a researcher with John Jay College, told the bishops.

Speaking after the session with the bishops, Margaret Smith of John Jay College said that while the researchers do not have hard data on sexual abuse in other institutions, nothing they’ve seen suggests that the problem has been proportionately worse in the Catholic church than in other sectors of society.

While many bishops appeared to welcome the findings, a few warned that they offer no more than cold comfort.

“It’s a bit like my doctor telling me that my cancer is no worse than my hospital roommate’s cancer. ... Our situation should be much better,” said Bishop Robert Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio.
Victims groups were not pleased with the findings of this study. Neither was priest, sociologist, and columnist Andrew Greeley, and it's worth noting that he has not always been on the same page as the victim's groups. Here was his take on it in his latest column, Researchers Miss Cause of Abuse:
The team searching for an explanation of pederasty gave a verbal preview of their findings to be reported in full later in the year. The cause of the problem seems to be change in sexual morals and media imagery. The bishops will love that and so will the Vatican -- a cause of the problem that is external to the Church. Blame the people for their sexual mores and the media for their exploitation of the human body, not why so many bishops denied the problem for so long.

The writer who has the best insights on the problem is a professor of sociology from Purdue, Anton Shupe. He argues (his most recent book is Spoils of the Kingdom) that the explanation for abuse is not psychological but sociological, neither homosexuality nor celibacy, but sociological -- power. Routinely the strong abuse the weak if they think they can get away with it (in all five of the denominational situations on which he reports). You desire the money that often seems to be lying around inviting theft, you desire the young body that is available to you by reason of your sacred power. Because no one seems likely to stop you, you take what you want, whether you're married or not and whether you are straight or gay. This abuse of the weak -- young or older -- by those with power (and especially sacred power) is part of the human condition and always has been. It will be stopped only when those in power restrain their partners in power (clergy, teachers, cops, doctors, etc.) from such abuse.


crystal said...

I think Andrew Greeley is right. I find it unbelievable that pedophilia in the Church is caused by a change in sexual morals and media imagery. How is the pedophilia before the sixties expalined away? Ugh!

Jeff said...


I agree. I don't think it begins to explain it away. I think this has always gone on. There may be something to the theory that those with a conflicted sexuality, with their maturity stunted in an adolescent phase, may have felt more compelled and bold to act out in the 60s and 70s, but it's worth mentioning that this city's most notorious class was the seminary class of 1960. There was nothing liberal or licentious about their formation.

Garpu the Fork said...

Kind of makes you wonder what seminary classes 40 years from now are going to be like.

cowboyangel said...

I notice there's no mention here of doing a study on the reasons why so many supposedly moral and inteligent men who held power in the Church covered up the epidemic of abuse that had been occurring for decades. Was that also due to the 1960s?

Mike McG... said...

"Is it the cultural sink *or* power?" Why not the cultural sink *and* power?

My sense is that re the Catholic sexual abuse tragedy we tend to have our story and we're sticking to it. Inasmuch as near contempt for the offending bishops seems to be the only thing progressive and conservative bishops agree upon, I wonder if there is an element of schaudenfruede here.

I also wonder about the resistance to recognizing that this disaster is multicausal. Perhaps we believe that if we acknowledge that multiple factors were at play our favored explanation is diminished. But profound tragedies such as this one rarely have a single root.

One can hold that abuse is intricately linked with abuse of power *and* that the power dynamics of Catholicism may be fertile ground for such tragedies *and* that it has always gone on *and* that it increased during the sexual revolution *and* that any episcopal attempt to deflect their derelection of responsibility onto the 'spirit of the times' is bogus *and* that minimizing the extent of child abuse in other venues(e.g., schools)is unhelpful *and* that child sexual abuse is not an exclusively Catholic phenomenon *and* that there are differences in culpability among cases *and* that the decisions bishops faced look much clearer today than on the day they made decisions *and* that many of these decisions were tragically unwise *and* that they should take full responsibility for these errors *and* it is a scandal that they haven't *and* we have no idea what we would have done were we in their shoes.

Assuming that the modal member of the notorious class of 1960 was 26 at ordination, he was just 30 in the mid-1960s when boundaries began to crumble, 'love' began to trump 'rules,' and the Age of Acquarius ruled. How could the sexual revolution not have been a factor?

Mike McG... said...

Cprrection to error made in second paragraph, above:

Inasmuch as near contempt for the offending bishops seems to be the only thing progressive and conservative **Catholics** agree upon, I wonder if there is an element of schaudenfruede here.


Jeff said...


I don't know, but from what I've heard and read, good progress in regard to this problem had been made by the time the 80s and 90s came along, as there was more frank and open discussion in the seminaries on celibacy, sexuality, and how to channel and deal with sexual tensions and energy in a healthy way. I fear that if the seminaries go back to a more traditional model, some of that might be lost.


While that John Jay study might or might not be be useful in explaining the phenomenon of abuse, you're right in that it begs the question a bit. What are the causes behind the coverup?

Jeff said...


Well, that could very well be true. It might very well be a case of a cultural sink AND an abuse of power. A multi-causal explanation makes pretty good sense in a problem as complex as this.

Just the same, I don't think schaudenfruede is a factor here, Mike. The abuse of children is too tragic and too important to enjoy a feeling of schaudenfruede over. I know I don't feel that way. I think the anger at the bishops is certainly justified, and I spent a good amount of time a couple of posts ago defending collegiality and defending the bishops as vicars of Christ in their own right per Vatican II.

As for having no idea what I'd do in their shoes... I have to take exception to that. I'm pretty sure I can say that I would not have done the same thing. At least I'd like to think that I wouldn't have. I sure hope not. Maybe I see things differently as a father, although I do recognize that in "defending the guys", this code of silence is a powerful group dynamic seen in lots of different walks of life.

Assuming that the modal member of the notorious class of 1960 was 26 at ordination, he was just 30 in the mid-1960s when boundaries began to crumble, 'love' began to trump 'rules,' and the Age of Acquarius ruled. How could the sexual revolution not have been a factor?

It may have been. It may have been the worst combination possible. Sheltered immaturity and stunted sexuality bump up against the Age of Aquarius and the conviction that all the old rules were going out the window. In that respect, maybe we should be glad that seminary candiates no longer come from minor seminaries anymore, where guys would go directly from elementary or junior high school right into seminary life. The sexual revolution is no longer new, but it shows no signs of abating either. Maybe it's better that we have delayed vocations and more mature candidates now, guys who (hopefully) have been able to work out who they are sexually before they enter religious life.

That's the abuse part... As far as the coverup goes, the need to protect the institution and prestige of the Church took precedence over the welfare of children, and this happened with liberal and conservative bishops alike. I think the analysis of Shupe and Greeley is solid on this point, and I think the bishops should be as concerned about that as with the causes of the abuse itself.

Steve Bogner said...

I like what Conlon said - 'Our situation should be much better'. By the way, he's from Cincinnati, where sexual abuse by clergy was handled very poorly, and the archbishop actually pleaded guilty in court on behalf of the archdiocese. Conlon is saying that the church ought to conform to a higher standard, and I can support that.

People are people, whether they have a collar or not. I understand that there will be a certain number of crooks and perverts in the priesthood; it's how we handle those cases that makes the difference.

'Should' the bishops have done better, done differently? That doesn't strike me as a valid question any longer; it implies a certain sense of justification and subjectivity. The fact is, they didn't report cases of sexual abuse, and they let offenders go free. Now, they did learn from that and have improved things once it all came to light, and that's a good thing. But there is still a huge credibility gap (well, for me at least) that they have to regain.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

I'm inclined to agree with you, which is why I think the victim's advocate groups and groups like the VOTF are necessary and indispensable. The laity have to stay engaged and involved here, continually questioning. For all the good they do, this is also a culture that is nearly 2,000 years old, and without having their feet held to the fire by the laity, the episcopate will find ways to justify their actions and keep on slipping into old patterns of behavior.