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The church blames society

The Sixties are one of the latest explanations offered for clerical sexual abuse. And like the rest, it doesn't withstand scrutiny.

By Mary Sanchez

The counterculture caused stressed-out priests to sin. This is the banal and evasive conclusion of a five-year study, costing nearly $2 million, that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned to look into the causes and context of the sexual abuse of minors by the church's clergy.

The study was prepared by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. One particular point stood out: "Social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s manifested in increased levels of deviant behavior in the general society and also among priests of the Catholic Church in the United States."

No single cause was found for the abuse, nor could it be predicted, the study maintained. If that sounds like absolution for church leadership, you are reading the report as intended.

So we're to believe that priests were simply swept along with the rest of society as drug use increased, premarital sex became more acceptable, and divorce grew more common? Oh, the horrors of the Summer of Love!

May I point out that "deviant" behavior is a slippery category, and that loosened morality as to sex in general isn't the same as the criminal act of sexually abusing a child? The report correlates the rise in sexual abuse of children by priests with rising crime and divorce rates - "deviant behavior" all - without establishing how they're related, other than coincidence in time.

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Damnable distortion

The problem is that child molestation by priests - and the systematic cover-up of their crimes by church hierarchy - has been exposed as a global phenomenon. How well does generalized "deviance" explain trends in sexual abuse in South Africa, Ireland, Germany, and other countries worldwide? Surely the divorce and crime rates didn't play out in all these countries the same way they did in the United States.

The study also took pains to characterize the scourge of sexual abuse by priests as "historical" - which is to say, a thing that happened and is now mostly past. It notes a drop in reported abuse cases starting in the mid-1980s and credits new policies and practices put in place in churches and seminaries. If this is true, shouldn't we be asking how important the societal deviance explanation is to begin with?

Moreover, it seems a little too pat to use reported cases of priestly abuse to draw conclusions for all time.

The most damnable aspect of the report - yes, that word was chosen carefully - is its efforts to distort the role of pedophilia.

The report defines prepubescent children - the targets of pedophiles - as being no more than 10 years old. By that standard, as the New York Times pointed out, the bishops can claim that fewer than 5 percent of sexual-predator priests were pedophiles, and that only 22 percent of the victims were prepubescent.

Tell that to a man who was molested as a 12-year-old altar boy.

A more accepted age cutoff is 13. Had the report used that age, the vast majority of the cases involving priests could be labeled pedophilia.

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No excuses

To its credit, the bishops' National Review Board, which oversaw the study, took pains to point out that "none of the information included in this report should be interpreted as making excuses for the terrible acts of abuse that occurred," as one member wrote in her introduction. "There are no excuses."

But they've come close to making them. Tweaking the data can't hide the facts. Nor can attempts to find a broader sociocultural context explain away the institutional context of the church itself. Hierarchical authority in many dioceses provided cover for the "men of God" who committed these acts. And the church continues to struggle with its credibility as an honest broker, with both law enforcement and its own congregants, in rooting out priestly abuse.

A sin is a sin is a sin. Every Catholic knows that. The church makes much of its monopoly on theological and moral truth. For its faithful, there are no uncertain terms; they must take personal responsibility for their actions.

And yet, with this report, the U.S. bishops appear to be seeking scapegoats. And that doesn't make for a very healing confession.