Woodstock and the USCCB

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I’ve been puzzling over Sister Mary Ann Walsh’s whimsical Huffpost post on the Jay Report. Sister Mary Ann is director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops so one presumes that what she publishes has some institutional throw-weight beyond nihil obstat and imprimatur. Her leitmotif has to do with the fact that media reaction to the report centered on the “Woodstock defense,” the New York Times‘ coinage for the report’s readiness to Blame It On The Sixties.

Let it be known that any insult to the hallowed Woodstock days puts
gray-haired hippies up in arms. We wore the peace sign, sang “Kumbaya My
Lord” to simplistic guitar music and cheered on peacenik confreres who
disrupted the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. But the only thing
most of us violated was good taste. (Orange shag carpeting anyone?)

Well, OK. But the Jay authors really are serious about attributing what they contend is a major increase in the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the 1960s to concurrent changes in social mores. Is Sister Mary Ann disputing that claim?

She goes on to point out that, in the fuss over Woodstock, commentators overlooked “the gist of the report,” which was that the number of abuse cases “declined dramatically starting in the mid-80s.” And why did they decline?

Cases dropped as education in seminaries increased and as dioceses began
to implement safe environment plans and protocols for interaction
between adults and children. It also helped that some priests in well
publicized abuse cases wound up doing time.

But in fact, the report goes to some lengths to show that there was no significant change in addressing issues of “human development” in seminaries until the scandal went ballistic after 2002. And, as Figure 1.1 on page 8 makes dramatically clear, the sharp decline began in 1980, not “the mid-80s.” This matters because the first big abuse case, that of Father Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana, did not break until 1984. Prison-term object lessons and safe environment plans may well have done some good, but neither was a prime mover of the decline. What was?

The report suggests, without elaboration, that the 1980s brought about “a reduced tolerance for behavioral deviance in society in general.” Sure, the hippies had cut their hair by then, but take a look at the violent crime rate through the decade. It’s on the rise. A better argument might be constructed around increased societal concern about the problem of child abuse outside the home in the late 1970s–which turned into a species of moral panic in the early 80s. And I contend that a true explanation for the decline in priest abuse cases needs to take account of the shrinking size and the aging of the the active priest population. All that the USCCB media relations director is sure of is that you can’t blame Woodstock:

Sexual abuse of a child is an intolerable aberration for which there is
no excuse. For those who ever thought it was not harmful or even,
incredibly, thought it was acceptable, education and prison time sent a
message. But it had nothing to do with wearing love beads and tie-dyed

It is, perhaps, best to consider “the abuse crisis” as two separable crises. The first has to do with the emergence after 2002 of many reports of abuse by priests, most of which took place prior to 1990. The second has to do with the emergence of many reports of the failure of bishops and their subordinates to deal properly with abusive priests, which failure persists to this day. The former has resulted in huge monetary losses for the Catholic Church. The latter has resulted in a huge loss of episcopal moral authority.

Had the bishops begun handling abuse cases properly at the time when American society began to focus on the problem of child sexual abuse–and when it actually began to decline–the financial payouts would still have been considerable. But their moral authority would have remained substantially intact.

  • W.A. Whitestone

    As George Weigel, William Donohue and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and a number of others have pointed out, a compromise with the positions of the PC agenda has compromised the Church…and moved her from the foundation of Scripture. You can’t have a strong, courageous Church run by bishops who will not stand firm and guard the Faith and morals.
    It will be costly to clean up the priesthood, but less costly than not doing so.

  • Gabrielle

    Finally, an article concerning the John Jay report that makes some sense. The 60’s didn’t make the priests abuse, or there would have been an increase in sexual abuse in the general population at the same time. The 80’s didn’t make them stop. There are simply less priests than before. Is there any hope for bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes? Not until they stop blaming the world around them and everything but themselves for the abuse and the cover-up. And if Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese is any indication, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

  • John Shuster

    Mandatory celibacy and clerical culture will continue to attract idealists, gay men, and sexual predators to the priesthood. Once the idealists figure out what is really going on and decide to leave because they can’t change things, the remnant will continue to use church structure and resources to their own ends and to the dismay of the Faithful.

  • seamus

    The real problem with the bishops was a princely attitude of being the law and above the law. The polity of the Catholic Church opened it to such an abuse of power. What really needs to be cleaned up is the episcopacy itself by starting with the laity selecting their chief pastors.
    A true liberal veiw of sexual mores is antithetical to child abuse, which is more truly the abuse of power. The rise of a moribund reactionism if not outright bigotry so now prevalent in the USCCB and so often mouthed by Sister Walsh will do little to win back the moral credibility of the bishops. The faith and morals is guarded by good catholics both liberal and conservative in spite of their bishops.

  • Joanne

    Just to point something out…the sexual abuse has been going on in the “Church” for the last 1700 years. It has nothing to do with the 1960’s or ’70’s.
    The hierarchical structure of the catholic church which is all about power and control has no usefulness in the Catholic Church any longer(or actually anytime that I can think of for that matter). This is one of the changes that Vatican 2 was pointing to for the future of the catholic church. It was a Holy Spirit moment in the Catholic Church!
    They know that they have been losing their power and they are now trying to run back to the Middle Ages where they can pretend they know what is good for everyone and people were more obedient. The people and even some of the clerics were less educated in that time. Yet, the heirachy of today seem not to think that they need to live by the same moral laws and scriptural teaching the rest of us try to live by. Why are they above the law? Jesus never preached this…do they even realize that according to Scripture they are to be servants to all of us(laity included) and we also are to be servants to each other? If they did realize and understand this teaching of Jesus these horrible crimes would have not persisted for so long.
    This is a no brainer everyone! I am concerned the only way to get this across to these power and control hungry people is to…STOP THE MONEY FLOW! You can still give to charities or give to a sister, layperson or priest you know is doing great pastoral work in the name of the Lord. Give it to any organization that will not have to give to the church of Rome but they can use it to help the people of God.
    The only thing hierarchy seems to get is money, power, control and secrecy. It is very discouraging isn’t it….