The Timeline of Abuse

One of the more oft-heard responses to the recent outbreak of coverage on the abuse scandals in the Church is the following: ‘when is the Church going to respond to this and protect children?’ This question is entirely sensible. We have heard about these scandals in the past, and yet fresh stories of abuse are appearing on a weekly basis. Moreover, the responses of many in the Vatican, as in several other incidents in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, has been disheartening. At the same time, I think it is important to point out for those concerned about the abuse of children (as opposed to the competency of the Vatican press office), that the crisis phase of the abuse scandal has been over for the better part of twenty years in the U.S. (and notice the recent reporting has focused on incidents at least that old). The following graph summarizes the annual reports of abuse by priests in the United States over the last fifty-five years (for those who are curious about post-2004, there were six reported incidents in 2009):

Source: the John Jay Report, h/t Ross Douthat.

Now, certainly statistics are not any comfort to a victim of abuse, any more than the rarity of fatal automobile accidents is a consolation to those who are mourning. But if we are serious about preventing the abuse of children – as I think the Church is – it is essential that we correctly diagnose the problem, rather than latching on to celibacy, the absence of female priests, or whatever our preferred reform may be as the reason why the scandals happened. None of these proposals were implemented during this time period, and yet the rate of abuse fell dramatically and continues to fall.

I have several theories about why the abuse rates rose and then fell so sharply during this time period. They include lax seminary standards in the 1960’s and 1970’s, significant advances in psychological screening after this period, the loss of prestige the Church (and religion more generally) suffered which tended to attract more committed candidates, and perhaps the influence of bishops appointed by John Paul II. Additionally, in recent years, the bishops enacted stringent disciplinary policies for accused priests and mandatory training for all individuals who deal with children in every diocese in the country. Ultimately, however, none of these theories is as important as the data above – which demonstrates that the abuse crisis in the United States has been over for quite some time, and that the abuse of children is exceptionally rare currently in Catholic institutions.  This is cold comfort, of course, to the victims, and it does nothing to mitigate the awfulness of the actions of many of these priests and some bishops, but it does (hopefully) provide some context for evaluating the Church’s actions going forward.

32 Responses to The Timeline of Abuse

  1. Jason says:

    Does this graph have a source?

  2. Micha Elyi says:

    “…in recent years, the bishops enacted… mandatory training for all individuals who deal with children in every diocese in the country.”

    Knowing the farce of past “training” schemes such as diversity training, I no longer care to volunteer for any such parish or diocesan activities.

  3. restrainedradical says:

    The stats need to be adjusted for the decline in vocations (abuses per active priest is a better measure) but the decline in abuse probably remains even after an adjustment.

    Celibacy and other issues obviously were not the cause. And it’s possible to address problems like abuse without reform in these controversial areas. But they could help and the fact that priests don’t have children or motherly instincts can’t be ruled out as an ingredient in creating an environment ripe for abuse.

  4. Donald R. McClarey says:

    The stats are especially relevant since with all the publicity about abuse I believe victims of abuse are much more likely to come forward today than they did in the past.

  5. John Henry says:

    Does this graph have a source?

    Apologies, Jason. The post has been updated to include the source.

  6. Art Deco says:

    The stats need to be adjusted for the decline in vocations (abuses per active priest is a better measure) but the decline in abuse probably remains even after an adjustment.

    The number of priests has declined by about a third since 1965. That is only of modest significance in explaining the above.

  7. Karen LH says:

    OK, this is probably a dumb question, but if the incidence of abuse peaked in 1980, why was 2002 such a crisis? Because it sounds like the Church was already handling the problem (or it was going away for other reasons). Was it just that there were some bad pockets and a need for uniform standards for bishops to follow?

    I’m having trouble putting together this graph with what I (fuzzily) remember from then.

  8. j. christian says:

    I’ve taken the diocesan training, and although it’s difficult to sit through parts of it, it’s a worthwhile exercise. Much of the advice is common sense, but the insight into the mind of the abuser was particularly helpful. (The training I took used interviews with convicted abusers and victims.)

    The training, combined with everything else I’ve ever read about abusers, leads me to believe that there’s not much merit to restrainedradical’s conjecture above. Given that there are plenty of abusers with children and some molesters are women, it seems hard to lay the blame on the lack of children/motherly instincts.

  9. John Henry says:

    Karen LH,

    Your question was basically the reason I wrote this post; everyone seems to be very confused about when the abuse took place because there was a significant lag between most of the abuse and the reporting on it. 2002 was a crisis primarily because that is when we finally found out about the abuse that occurred over the preceeding 40 years, and particularly the horrific actions of some bishops that moved abusive priests from one parish to another.

    In 2009-2010, there has been new coverage of scandals in Ireland and Germany (my understanding is that most of these cases are older also), but nothing has really happened in the U.S., aside from shaky attempts to argue Benedict (or his delegates) didn’t punish two abusive priests (who were already removed from active ministry) enough while he was at CDF. However, the abuse statistics above are almost never indcluded in the newspaper coverage of the scandal, and so many people are confused about the timeline.

  10. restrainedradical says:

    Just to clarify, pedophile priests would exist regardless. But I think it might be possible that abuse cases would’ve been handled differently had parents and women had a say.

  11. John Henry says:

    It’s possible, restrained. Counter-factuals are impossible to prove one way or the other, and so people generally rely on their prior intuitions when evaluating the plausibility of a suggestion. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other on this. On the one hand, certainly, women generally seem to be less likely to abuse children in this way; on the other hand, the higher rates of abuse in the public school system than Catholic institutions suggests that having a high percentage of women does not necessarily prevent abuse.

  12. jh says:

    “Just to clarify, pedophile priests would exist regardless. But I think it might be possible that abuse cases would’ve been handled differently had parents and women had a say.”

    I rather doubt that. I was talking to Female Judge that grew up during this time period about this. SHe is a non Catholic. She told me that she quite understands why this happened. Sexual Abuse and scandal were viewed differently back then as to society as whole. He was kept quiet and yes woman were involved in that too.

    I see that in the black church where sadly this also rampant. Thught there is still male dominance black women are often the backbone and exert great power and influence. That attitude of “not airing our dirty laundrey in public” still prevails and it appears to me to be very accross the board as to genders

  13. Samwise says:

    If a man would make a good, healthy husband and father, then he would make a good candidate for the priesthood IF that is his vocation. Also, a man should have had good, healthy personal relationships with both sexes, mature in quality…years ago, I don’t think it really mattered. New research shows that many young Priests involved in this sex scandal had been actively engaged in homosexual relationships before entering the seminary and even during their vacation time while in seminary…as far as pedophilia, although this was a very small percentage of the overall sexual abuse, it’s still way too much and hard to understand how these men made it to ordination…where was the discernment of other seminarians, teachers, superiors, etc? I think the requirements are stricter now…

  14. Todd says:

    Let’s remember that this graph likely does not represent a picture of the whole abuse story, but only reports gathered from victims alive at the time of the Jay Study. It is a snapshot from 2002-04. We would expect a bell curve in any event. I think we also get the downward trend from 1980 onward because of the application of psychological screening to seminary candidates. In other words, good for Vatican II.

    We have good reason to suspect that an important limitation of the Jay Study is the upcurve in reports prior to 1980. Many victims had died by 2002, and the culture, both church and secular, mitigated against children reporting abuse at the time and adults reporting later.

    We have no way of knowing, but I suspect that actual abuse was fairly high all through the ages. The horrific stories that do come to us prior to 1950 may well be the tip of the iceberg. No comfort to the victims, to be sure. But it is a feather in the cap of those who trumpet that the Church is doing a great deal to stamp out abuse. They are right, and in the US, we have a thirty-year track record to show it.

  15. jh says:

    I am willing ot bet records were kept but it would be interesting to see the rate of abuse allegations involving Lay Catholics that had contact with children in this time period.

    Something the laity seems not to want to go into

  16. So is your claim, Todd, that the graph represents a real fall-off in abuse since the 1980 high, but that appearance of an increase in abuse from 1960 to 1980 is an illusion?

    Certainly, it seems clear that there must always have been some amount to abuse in the Church — just as there has always been some about of abuse in families. It is a sin found in many places and times, and there’s nothing magical about the time before the 60s that would have prevented it entirely.

    However, it seems entirely believable that the slipping moral standards in the wider society, increasing prevalence of pornography, lax formation, lax discipline and a period that was unquestionably one of great uncertainty and turmoil in the Church would have increased the amount of abuse during those decades by a factor of five or ten, which is what the graph seems to indicate.

  17. j. christian says:

    but only reports gathered from victims alive at the time of the Jay Study

    What, is everyone who was alive before 1950 dead now?

  18. Todd says:

    “However, it seems entirely believable that the slipping moral standards in the wider society …”

    Possibly. In my parents’ generation, the extremes of alcoholism and drug abuse were seen as immoral. By the time a person gets to be a drunk, I’d say the addiction has overtaken any attempt at abstinence.

    As for the abuse of children, we know it happens most often in families, and families are their own mini-cultures. We might say that there’s a certain moral domino effect: less respect for authority, and more sex, drugs and rock-n-roll leading to the rape of children.

    Maybe you have a point. It seems we also have increased slavery in the world these days, so maybe lots of sins are making comebacks.

    As for a five to tenfold increase because of a general permissiveness? I find it hard to believe. Sex predators still operate in secret. None of their “permissive” practices were accepted at all in society.

    If there had been a study commissioned in 1980, I suspect, we’d see a bell peak in 1960. And so on down the line.

    Bottom line I agree with you that the institutional management of clergy and seminary candidates was very poor prior to 1980. But given that some notable “moral” bishops have been implicated–cardinals like Brady and Law, I get the sense that this is more sex addiction than moral failing. Which isn’t to say that addicts shouldn’t take moral responsibility–that’s basic 12 Steps.

    A final thought experiment (which might be verified by someone with raw data): redo the Jay Study and eliminate the reports in which either the priest or victim has died since 2002. I suspect the peak would move a few years into the 80’s.

  19. I suppose how much one is willing to believe abuse increased due to a lax and sex-saturated culture is widely open to conjecture. I’m hesitant to assume that simply be looking at the graph we have a much better ability to forecast a backward trend than the John Jay folks did.

    I could believe a pretty big increase because of a sex-saturated culture and chaos within the ranks of the Church. Clearly, abuse of children and teens is something which happens at the margins, among a small statistical minority. In this regard, a small change to the large majority might significantly increase or decrease the size of the tail. On the majority side, the difference between 94% of priests not abusing and 97% of priests not abusing isn’t that big, but it’s a large delta in the number of abusers.

  20. Brian English says:

    “As for a five to tenfold increase because of a general permissiveness? I find it hard to believe. Sex predators still operate in secret. None of their “permissive” practices were accepted at all in society.”

    Roman Polanski seems to get a lot of respect for a guy who drugged and raped a 13-year old girl.

    Do you really believe that a group like NAMBLA could have had any type of public presence prior to 1960?

  21. Todd says:

    “I suppose how much one is willing to believe abuse increased due to a lax and sex-saturated culture is widely open to conjecture.”

    I think so. I would say that the instances of priests having sex with adults might be influenced more by social norms. Clergy preying on needy counselees is pretty creepy in its own right, but there you have, theoretically, consenting adults. The Jay Study didn’t touch clergy overstepping with anyone other than minors.

    The root of the abuse might center around this question: is sex with children primarily sexual or is it primarily about power and control? Rape and sexual abuse of women and children has long been the custom of victorious militaries–many centuries and many cultures, not just the modern day. Is this about soldiers who have been celibate during long campaigns, or is it more likely about the humiliation of the defeated?

    I don’t think there’s any single answer to any of this. Just count me as suspcious of all the ones trotted out a single easy answer: celibacy, the 60’s, homosexuality, power issues in the hierarchy, etc.

  22. Joe Hargrave says:

    A sex-saturated culture is a problem, to be sure.

    Let’s not forget the underlying cause of that – a willful abandonment of Catholic teaching on sexuality, beginning with the angry revolt of progressive radicals against Humane Vitae.

    Paul VI said that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church. He specifically meant the corruption of the liturgy by subversives and rebels, but it is also related to the sex crisis – the degradation of tradition is what leads to a lax moral atmosphere, one of “experimentation”, i.e. carelessness, and in some cases, I believe a deliberate attempt to destroy the Church – a goal that her enemies have held since the beginning, through the Protestant deformation, the French Revolution, communism, and finally the “sexual revolution.”

  23. Joe Hargrave says:

    On being presented with a “letter of dissent” to sign and send to the Vatican upon the publication of Humane Vitae, by Cardinal James Francis Stafford:

    “I could not sign it. My earlier letter to Cardinal Shehan came to mind. I remained convinced of the truth of my judgment and conclusions. Noting that my seat was last in the packed basement, I listened to each priest’s response, hoping for support. It didn’t materialize. Everyone agreed to sign. There were no abstentions. As the last called upon, I felt isolated. The basement became suffocating. By now it was night. The room was charged with tension. Something epochal was taking place. It became clear that the leaders’ strategy had been carefully mapped out beforehand. It was moving along without a hitch. Their rhetorical skills were having their anticipated effect. They had planned carefully how to exert what amounted to emotional and intellectual coercion. Violence by overt manipulation was new to the Baltimore presbyterate.”

  24. Patrick says:

    The graph comports with what I’ve noted about local stories about abusers. My archbishop made the statement to me that “In my day [in the seminary], if you did your studies and folded your hands in chapel, you were going to get ordained. It’s not that way anymore.”
    Has every last abuser been eliminated? No. That’s not possible, any more than it is possible to eliminate sin. Schools, whether Catholic, public or otherwise, have what paedophiles seek, i.e. children and teenagers, and they are naturally going to try to be there to satisfy their sinful desires. The institutional barriers are now in place to try to eliminate them before they get to the kids, but some will still slip through. The anti-Catholic media continues to headline the (alleged) cases that do occur, while burying short stories about accused public school teachers on the back pages of the third section. If there isn’t a new accusation, they can always write up a story about how the victims reject any efforts to apologize and make sure it doesn’t happen again as “too little, too late.”

  25. Wj says:

    Re “smoke of Satan”: it is too simplistic to apply this to dissenting theologians only; Marciel Maciel was the very embodiment of Satans smoke if anyone was, and certain high ranking cardinals too willing to take his money (and Dzieswz as well) give off a waft of burning flesh, no?

  26. Joe Hargrave says:


    “Smoke of Satan” is Paul VI’s phrase, and a cardinal close to him told us exactly what it meant. It’s not “too simplistic.” It’s just what he said.

  27. Kathleen E. says:

    I wish that more parents had believed those children who came home and did say what was happening, but many parents did not. At that time, it was common to tell a child who complained at all about Priests (or Nuns) “oh, no, Father (Sister) wouldn’t do that” or if the the child was believed, “you better not tell anyone!” So many issues that are vebalized today were never discussed years ago. But if those parents had believed their children or defended them if they did believe what their child said, had stepped forward, the individual Priests would have been stopped sooner and fewer children would have suffered! But there were and still are, people who are afraid of Clergy and/or how things “look” and worry if they will somehow be blamed or their child may be blamed and people who like the Priest will turn against them and their child. It’s all so sad but we need to be wary of all Media Reports and defend our Catholic Church while admitting we, as a whole, are not perfect, we love our Church.

  28. Robert says:

    I get the feeling that many commenters forget or do not know that sexual predators tend to be arrogant, clever, extremely manipulative people, especially those who successfully abused many victims over long periods of time. I am not surprised that such people can conceal their tendencies and activities, or justify what comes to light, or convince friends and superiors that they “have changed their ways,” whatever lie is necessary. There is a reason they are called predators. Think of a predator in nature, the skill, the patience, the perseverance. Think of a skilled hunter. I think too many look on these criminals and members of NAMBLA as merely sickos or something like sexual geeks, and that is a mistake. They are dangerous, clever deviant criminals.

  29. Jeff says:

    How much could these trends be explained by changes in the total number of children under the supervision of priests? In 1980, the tail end of the Baby Boomers were in high school. The *number* of students in Catholic schools would have still been very high, even though the *percentage* had declined since 1965. Whatever those numbers may look like, one should certainly keep them in mind when observing trends like those seen in the above chart.

  30. […] Something Different in the 60s and 70s? Given some of the discussion on John Henry’s post yesterday about the timeline of the abuse scandal, I wanted to do a bit more digging into what the actual statistics of the scandal […]

  31. Roamin' Catholic says:

    These statistics, which appear to date the abuse events, not their reports, are comforting to those of us wishing to put the problem behind us. In my (local) experience, however, these data are hard to believe. Anecdotal evidence, of course, is of limited validity. But I remember MY PASTOR in 2002 or so reading us a letter from our Ordinary (Maida) to the effect that the problem had been solved many years before, here in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The irony: the priest who read this to us was later convicted of raping boys in our parish AT THAT TIME. Also a similar event occurred at a neighboring parish in the intervening years. Further, a visiting priest from the Philippines, who was ordained there after being convicted of rape during Seminary here in Detroit, has been preaching in my current parish within the past year. So in my area the problem does NOT appear to be behind us.

    Now to my point: As I watch the current media feeding frenzy, unjust as it appears toward the Holy Father, it strikes me that it presents some rare opportunities to the Church. First, while the NYTimes authors themselves may never be appeased, they can influence untold numbers, and the Church could take the opportunity to make a much more compelling case.

    She could take this opportunity to make it clear to every reasonable bystander that she has taken this problem seriously, and has responded with justice to the perpetrators and enablers, and also that she has put sufficient countermeasures in place to prevent and correct future episodes.

    In her defensiveness, I don’t think that she has made her case. If abusive priests have met justice, this may or may not be clear in the press. But in the case of episcopal enablers, I think it’s clear that NO justice has been served. Without such justice, I don’t Holy Church will ever appear to have taken this matter seriously.

    Finally, this would also be an opportune time for Holy Church to make its case to an over-sexualized culture, that mandatory commitments of lifelong celibacy actually enhances personal holiness in any way, let alone that it benefits the Church. We all know that this claim is seen as absurd by innocent bystanders, and that it is highly counter-intuitive. Unenlightened people think it is obvious that this is a source of the problem, and wonder how the value it adds could possibly offset the ‘seven demons’ that it seems to have let into the Church.

    Clearly, now is the time for the Church to step up and make its case to a skeptical world. Can she rise to the occasion?

    Roamin’ Catholic

  32. Angela T says:

    The decline in numbers does seem comforting to me. However, what if later on we find out of other cases that occured in our times? It seems like in several of these cases the abusers threatened the victims to keep it all a secret. It was only decades later that many of them were revealed, and i think the lag in time has to do with shame over such secrecy (though by the time several cases popped up and the media got involved in it, people found it much easier to speak out against the priests, whether falsely or in truth). Could such a thing happen? could much more abuses be going on now that we do not know of? I hope this is not the case, but I worry that it might be.

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