Causes, Context and Prevention

One of the most valuable responses to the sex abuse crisis that embroiled the Church in the United States has been a series of scholarly studies, conducted by John Jay College  of the City University of New York.  The most recent report, issued today, contains conclusions about the “Causes and Context” of sex abuse by clergy.  As a person who is in the work of preventing that crisis from ever recurring, I took a keen interest in what this report had to say.

There are many important insights here, which have already shaped the prevention efforts here in the Archdiocese and elsewhere.  The conclusions are valuable because they apply not just to incidents involving clergy (which, of course, are a tiny minority of cases of sexual abuse), but can help us to prevent any such incidents from happening in the future.

The following are some of the conclusions about the abusers.  The report’s conclusions are in plain text, my comments are in parentheses and in italics.

  • Individual characteristics do not predict that a priest will commit sexual abuse of a minor. No single psychological, developmental, or behavioral characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not.  (In essence, “profiling” does not work — you can’t find the single magic characteristic that will identify a potential abuser, and screen your staff to eliminate those people.)
  • Some factors, however, increase the risk that a person will become an abuser.  (We’re not at a loss here.  There are some factors that we can look for in potential abusers, in order to stop them before they have a chance to offend.)
  • In particular, men who were sexually abused themselves when they were minors were significantly more likely to commit acts of abuse than those who were not abused.  (This highlights one of the most insidious effects of child sexual abuse, which I have seen in those victims and survivors I have dealt with — child sexual abuse gravely damages people, and it leaves a legacy that in many ways is life-long and difficult to cure.  Of course, we also have to remember that history is not destiny — just because someone has been abused doesn’t mean that they will become an abuser.)
  • Other vulnerabilities, in combination with situational stresses and opportunities, raise the risk of abuse: isolation, loneliness, insecurity, poor social skills, lack of identity, confusion over sexual identity, psychological immaturity, poor relationships with their parents when they were youths, and alcohol abuse.  (It’s important to note that ad hoc factors — stresses and opportunities — are a significant factor.  That is very useful in identifying effective prevention strategies.)
  • Other conclusions relate to the situations in which abuse occurred, and give insight into how to prevent it:

  • Child sexual abuse is often a crime of opportunity, and the abusers typically took advantage of situational opportunities to groom their victims over a long period of time so that they could build trust and create opportunities for abuse to take place.  (Limiting a potential abuser’s opportunities to groom a child is a critical prevention step — that’s the main purpose of codes of conduct, policies, etc.)
  • The best way to protect children from abuse is to create safe environments where appropriate boundaries between and adults and children are maintained, particularly by preventing situations and locations where children and adults are alone together.  (It is impossible to over-stress the importance of maintaining proper boundaries, not just physical boundaries, but relationship boundaries — the signals and expectations that define the nature of a healthy and proper relationship.)
  • Seminary formation, particularly in areas of human formation and how to live a life of celibate chastity, are essential to prevention. (This is absolutely crucial, and not just for clergy, but for everyone who works with children.  Virtue must go hand and hand with vigilance.)
  • Prevention policies should focus on three factors: education, situational prevention models, and oversight and accountability. (The most effective safe environment and prevention programs have redundancy and overlap — multiple levels of child protection that serve to back each other up, so that if one fails another will compensate.)
  • Many of these lessons, and the best way to respond to them, are already being implemented here in the Archdiocese and in other dioceses around the nation.  The testament to that, I believe, is the extraordinarily low number of recent incidents of abuse in Church programs.  For more information about our child protection efforts, check out our website.

    I have some additional thoughts about the report, but I’ll save them for a second blog post to give them the emphasis they merit.

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