Keep the Faith, Change the Church.

VOICES: In God We Trust; Everyone Else Brings Data

By H. Brian Sequeira, Ph.D.

Revelations in the report by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury have commentators asserting some underlying causes for the failure by the Catholic Church’s hierarchy to appropriately deal with this tragedy. Conservative commentators such as Cardinal Viganò attribute the cause to a “homosexual current” running within the church. Progressive commentators advance the cause for married priests or optional celibacy, thereby implying that the underlying cause is celibacy required of all Catholic priests. 

The cacophony of cyber opinions reminds me why we need sound data-driven studies to inform policy and action. There is no better purveyor of that practice than Eugene (Gene) Krantz who is best known for his famous utterance “Failure is not an option!” during the dramatic return of the Apollo 13 crew safely to Earth. Perhaps less well known is that above his desk was a banner that proclaimed: In God we trust – everyone else brings data.

In space exploration parlance, “data” means more than a list of numbers. Indeed, a mere table of numbers is worthless if not accompanied by a description of how it was acquired, what methods were used to eliminate bias, what tools were used for its analysis, and what relationship any conclusions derived from it bear to other investigations on the subject. This level of integrity ensures that investigators or commentators have not cherry-picked only those facets of the data that suit some pre-conceived notions. 

An erroneous conclusion can spell disastrous consequences for any action based on it for a space-flight mission. In the case of the problem for the Catholic Church, such consequences are no less disastrous for human souls, and contemplation must precede a response borne out of a desire to “get it right.” The Pontiff is correct in advocating silence and thoughtfulness while constructing a well-considered response instead of being stampeded into actions that may prove ineffective or worse. 

There are at least ten (10) studies that address clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. Of these, the most recent authoritative study in the U.S. was undertaken by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Their findings are summarized in reports published in 2004 [1] and 2010 [2]. Shown below is a plot reproduced from page 8 of their 2010 report which graphs the number of reported incidents of sexual abuse of a minor by year of occurrence. This plot challenges the notion that celibacy is a cause for the abuse of minors. Celibacy was in force over the entire period. So how could it cause an abuse trend that increased, attained a peak, and sharply declined over the period? 

An even greater challenge to linking celibacy with abuse of minors is posed by a study commissioned by the Anglican Church in Australia in 2009 [3]. As it notes: “A key finding of this study is the similarities in pattern of abuse found between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Similarities were found in patterns of male victim characteristics, location and types of abuse, accused person characteristics, and delayed reporting and disclosure of abuse.” By way of quantitative information the report notes that “Three quarters of complainants were male.”

The report continues: “This similarity is despite significant differences in the nature of clergy vocations (the Anglican Church does not require singleness or celibacy). The similarity between the Anglican and Catholic churches is also despite significant differences in ministry involving children. In the Catholic tradition, priests may have opportunities to abuse children who act as servers. Servers are less common in the Anglican Church, although they are a feature of some churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.” 

Another significant finding is that the Jesuits — a celibate order that runs schools and whose members have greater access to teenage boys — had the lowest level of credible allegations reported to the royal commissions among religious orders and denominations. 

While some commentators [6] advocate married priests as a salve for the child abuse crisis, the basis for that remedy is unsupported by data. Furthermore, the hack and release of names of clients of the Ashley-Madison enterprise demonstrably showed how the married pastors involved [had] expanded the bounds of misery for their actions beyond themselves to their families. And sporadic, but no less disturbing, media reports of incest committed by married pastors of other religious denominations point to unintended consequences of a non-celibate ministry. Collectively, these findings and events suggest that celibacy is an unlikely smoking gun for the child-abuse crisis, and that married priests may be a remedy that is worse than the disease.

Another assertion made by commentators is that a homosexual sub-culture in the Church is the cause for the crisis. Their conclusion derives from one finding of the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that about 80% of the victims were male and that 100% of the abusers were male. This is an example alluded to earlier of the dangers of cherry-picking data. The same report noted the context of that finding in relation to other investigations when it stated: 

“A review of the narratives of men who were seminarians in the 1950s and of published histories of the seminaries themselves does not reveal any record of noticeable or widespread sexual activity by seminarians. The interviews done for the Causes and Context study and the data from the clinical files confirm this finding. Sociologist Dean Hoge, after a 2001 survey of diocesan and religious priests, reported their responses to a question about the presence of a homosexual subculture in the seminary they attended. Only 3 percent of diocesan priests aged sixty-six or older, who would have been seminarians in the early 1970s, answered affirmatively. In contrast, 40 percent of the priests aged thirty-six to fifty-five, who would have been seminarians in the 1980s and 1990s, reported that there was a clear homosexual subculture in the seminaries they had attended.” 

So, if homosexuality is the cause of the present child-abuse crisis, why does an increased perception of a homosexual subculture coincide with a sharp decline in the number of abuse incidents as indicated in Fig. 1.1 reproduced above? One explanation may be found in the plot on p. 35 and the accompanying narrative in [2]. 

A clearer explanation of a similar finding in the Study by the Anglican Church narrates: 

”There is no reason to believe that either the Anglican Church in Australia, or the Catholic Church around the world, has a greater proportion of men in pastoral ministry who are attracted towards boys than in the general population. 

"It may be however, that the opportunity for abuse of boys is greater than for girls. In the life of the Anglican Church of Australia, there is a multitude of ways in which clergy and others involved in pastoral ministry can be involved with children. However the opportunities to be alone with children, and not to arouse suspicion in other adults, are much fewer. While a relationship between a leader and an adolescent girl which involves frequent time alone may well cause parents and others to be concerned, a similar relationship between a male leader and a boy may not attract suspicion. Indeed, it may be encouraged and commended, especially where the young person is troubled and lacks male role models.” 

The report further references that: “Indeed in one study of a clinical population of sexually abused children, 74% of the male children were abused by a man who had a heterosexual relationship with a female relative …” [4]. 

Thus a conclusion based on a single facet of the data (e.g., percentage of abused male children) is challenged when other facets of the same data are examined from internal and external contexts. It is no surprise that reports by the John Jay College and that commissioned by the Anglican Church conclude that child abuse is unrelated to homosexuality. Indeed, a study in 2000 by Watkins and Bentovim [5] concluded categorically (p. 52): “Homosexual abuse involving children is not related to adult homosexuality, any more than child abuse involving girls is related to adult heterosexuality.” 

This discussion is NOT about refuting conservative or progressive viewpoints. Rather, it IS about the need for informing policy and action via thorough analyses of high-integrity data. Subjective biases have no place in policy-making or action plans because conclusions derived from them can diverge from those based on objective data as illustrated in the examples above, and worse, flawed conclusions lead to flawed policies that do not achieve the objectives that they were intended to. 

If the present crisis has taught us anything, it is the evolving nature of knowledge. Our Church leaders find themselves called to account for decisions that they made based on knowledge dating back several decades. Our knowledge base today reflects better understanding compared to that of past decades, and will very likely be supplanted by knowledge in the decades to come. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to use our current data to maximum benefit. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to not limit those benefits by cherry-picking its contents. 

Dr. Sequeira is a space scientist who works in an Applied Physics Lab on NASA programs.

References 

[1] John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002”, February 2004. 

[2] John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States 1950-2010”, May 2011. 

[3] Patrick Parkinson, Kim Oates, & Amanda Jayakody, “Study of Reported Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church,” May 2009. 

[4] Jenny, C, Roesler, T. & Poyer, K. “Are children at risk for sexual abuse by homosexuals?” Pediatrics, 94, 41-44, 1994. 

[5] Watkins, B. & Bentovim, A. “Male children and adolescents as victims: a review of current knowledge,” In G Mezey & M King eds. Male Victims of Sexual Assault 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP, 2000. 

[6] The Listener, “The Catholic Church needs to reform – and celibacy is a good place to start”, New Zealand Listener Magazine, October 6, 2018. Article also appears at link https://www.noted.co.nz/currently/social-issues/catholic-church-needs-re... on Sep. 27, 2018.