Sunday, July 06, 2008

CAN’T TELL YOUR PRIESTS

Sometime in the past year I got around to reading the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on abuse among the Catholic clergy (the text is available here).

I read these things because I’ve become very interested in the dynamics of these increasingly numerous ‘waves’ of ‘concern’ that wash over and through American society nowadays, creating damage the way a cattle stampede could wreck a frontier town if the herd came down Main Street at full speed. As I’ve mentioned in other Posts, it stuns to realize that these things have started, reached white-hot heat, and sustain themselves – all in such a short space of time, all in an era – the 1990s and 2000s – when we are supposed to constitute one of the most ‘advanced’ and knowledgeable societies in human history. And it stuns to think that a society that could be stampeded so easily into a disastrous and unjustified war in Iraq was prepared for such a destiny by its becoming accustomed to the assorted sex-offense stampedes.

It would be easy to just write it off to the fact that there are still large numbers of Americans who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old or so; or who don’t believe it’s only 6,000 years old but refuse to believe in the mechanism of evolution. And of course, once any reasonable adult realizes that many folks believe in the literal truth of the Bible – ever’ word of it – yet insist that when the scriptural text repeatedly and unmistakably says “wine” it actually means “grape juice” (as in Welch’s or some such), and that this dual insistence causes them not a moment’s lost sleep whatsoever … well, it would be easy to blame it on hicks.

But where the evangelical and fundamentalist brethren and sistern might certainly not mind seeing them Kathliks taken down a peg or two – and certainly the loss of the Catholic Church’s and hierarchy’s stature in American society has opened up all sorts of opportunities for the progeny, however distant, of the Reformation – yet the priest-abuse wave didn’t start with them. Like the sex-offense wave that preceded it, the priest-abuse wave is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, abetted by some of the most enlightened and elite elements of American society. It has a ‘science’ and a ‘history’ and all sorts of ‘facts’ that nurtured it and justified it, and justify it still.

When the wave broke in early 2002 it was actually a repeat of a wave that had run its course in the mid-‘80s, and yet had come back in the early-‘90s, and – like a magical tornado – had turned around and come back for yet a third run on the place. Not particularly believing in magicks, I got the idea that some other dynamic or dynamics must be feeding this curious behavior.

The Jay report being the most widely known study, conducted by an institution that was both academically accredited and connected to practical expertise in criminal justice and law enforcement, I turned to it to see what it had to say. After all, the Catholic bishops had accepted the report, and the report had formed a bedrock for the validity of the ‘crisis’ and justification for the various measures and alarums that had followed.

I’m putting my observations in note form, simply to make it easier on myself and the reader.

- It claims that its brief is to examine the number and nature of allegations of sexual abuse of “minors under the age of 18” by Catholic priests between 1950 and 2002. That’s 52 years, and decades of the stuff is – well – decades in the past. We will see this curious repetition/qualification in re the age: what constitutes a minor? A child? Since when has a teenager become a child? Thus: define ‘child’ in ‘child sex abuse’. The study will later conflate priests and ordained deacons.
- While it is scrupulous in calling the victims ‘alleged’, yet it then goes on to credit any/all of the allegations insofar as it bases its analysis on those ‘reports’ made by the alleged victims in order to deduce characteristic and usable ‘information’. Thus we have the imperial mandarins studying the unicorn for useful information about the horse and about ‘things’.
- They have identified 4,392 priests in the period 1950-2002, charges against whom “were not withdrawn or known to be false”, leaving a very large criterion gap. How could one establish truth or falsity without a trial?
- “There is no definitive number of priests who were active between 1950-2002.” Are they serious? They then come up with 2 possible numbers: 109,694 (by toting up manpower reports from dioceses, religious orders, “and eparchies” – in case the reader might wonder if John Jay were familiar with things Catholic) and 94,607 (but this is for the period 1960-2002, delivered without comment). All told, using the 109K figure, the percentage of accused priests constitutes .0400386 percent of that 109K total (my calculator won’t go further). And then we would have to start factoring in the validity of the allegations and the severity of the acts alleged. - They start to confuse ‘allegations’ and ‘reported cases’.
- They remind us that all of these figures are tentative because additional ‘reports’ may come in at any time. Of course, given that a ‘report’ may be nothing more than somebody saying that such-and-such a thing happened 1 or 2 or 5 decades ago, then that’s a pretty safe bet, and it all adds a shivery sense of ongoing-ness, so vital to maintaining ‘concern’.
- Approximately one-third of all allegations were “reported” in 2002-2003 and two-thirds have been made since 1993, though the time-of-alleged-abuse in some of these goes back to 1950. The foregoing delivered without comment. THEN: “Allegations of abuse in recent years are a smaller share of all allegations” – ditto delivered without comment. Naturally, at least until evidentiary boundaries were broken down by the courts, the risk of proof being more readily found against an allegation was greater for a more recent case, thus discouraging ‘reports’.
- 68% of the accusations were for the years 1950-1979; no explanation is ventured for this.
- The majority of priests (56%) were accused of having “abused’ (no definition ever provided) just one “victim”. 149 priests (3.5% of that 4,392) were alleged to have abused more than 10. The definition of ‘abuse’ has to be considered carefully: although it might denote rape and overt genital activity, the term ‘abuse’ is also used in the media to describe a touch to an inappropriate area or a touch that was simply unwanted, or at least seems unwanted upon reflection much later on.
- The largest group of alleged victims (50.9%) was between the ages of 11 and 14; 27.3% were between the ages of 15 and17; 16% were between the ages of 8 and 10, and “nearly 6%” – as opposed to 5.x% - were under the age of 7. 80% were male. The report goes out of its way to make the most heinous crime seem a larger percentage than it apparently is, and does not seem fazed by the fact that the larger proportions are not with small children.
- There is a 20-category table of offenses. The most frequent acts: touching over the clothes – 52.6%, touching under the clothes – 44.9%, cleric performing oral sex – 26%, victim disrobed – 25.7%, and penile penetration or attempted penetration – 22.4%. The text quickly goes on to note that “relatively few (no percentage given) priests committed only the most minor acts”; no evidence for this assertion is given.
- It then entitles its Sec. 2.1 most oddly: “Estimates of the Prevalence of Sexual Abuse of Youths Under 18 Children in the United States”. Note that a) this is baldly ungrammatical and nonsensical as written and b) it is a rather strategically located ‘mistake’, attempting to conflate ‘children’ and ‘youths’ – defined as “under 18” and c) John Jay is apparently shifting focus here to the general US population, away from the RC priesthood.
- “Most estimates” for this population “are derived from forensic sources” (so we can only imagine how reliable they are, especially since the so flexibly-defined ‘reports’ came in when the stampede had already started). Then: “since it is not known how many people in the US experience a form of sexual abuse as children, some researchers select groups, or samples, of individuals to study and direct questions to them” – there is never any discussion of how to validate these ‘self-reported’ narratives. Or whether any effort is made to validate them at all; after all, it appears to be a canon of victimism that to examine an accusation for proof, corroborating evidence, or even truth constitutes a re-victimization of the alleged (and self-described) victim. How any determination is to be made at all is anybody’s guess, which is no doubt part of the reason so few actual trials have ever been held.
- It then goes on to note that studies of child sex abuse incidence (as distinguished from prevalence, neatly) “gained greater urgency after the cluster of day-care abuse cases in the 1980s made the issue one of acute public interest”. No mention of the fact or consequence thereof that most of those cases have now been overturned, their defendants released from years or decades of imprisonment and their prosecutions called into great question; no apparent insight into the fact that “acute public interest” doesn’t guarantee acute and accurate science and – indeed – so often militates against it.
- “A look at the victimization studies that focus on the sexual abuse of minor children [including those ‘youths’ under 18, or just the kids under – 12? 7? … John Jay doesn’t say] suggests [a rather weak verb, even though it imparts a patina of scientific restraint] that the problem is extensive”. Grammatically, we have lost the bouncing ball: are we referring to abuse of minors in the United States generally or abuse of minors by Catholic clergy? Yet by the text having brought it up in this arrangement of the text, un-careful readers may simply conflate ‘priest abuse’ and ‘extensive’. And we have to consider, especially by this point, just how careful these ‘studies’ of all the ‘reports’ really are.
- And then, admitting gently that they don’t have “data reflecting the prevalence of abusers”, yet they have “data from several studies reporting the prevalence of victimization”. This is a way of saying that they haven’t got any actual and validated/confirmed knowledge, but they have all the ‘knowledge’ gained by simply listening to ‘victim’ stories. Still, “the prevalence rates reported in these studies vary somewhat.” Alas. It then goes on to state that “27% of females and 16% of males disclosed a history of childhood sexual abuse; 42% of the males were likely to never have disclosed the experience to anyone whereas 33% of the females never disclosed.” [Yet only] “15.3% of females and 5.9% of males experienced some form of sexual assault” – so it would appear that most of the alleged abuse is not assaultive, which is mickle curious indeed, given the horrific scenarios taken up in the media.
- Following a peak of almost 150K cases “reported” in 1992, the numbers had been declining between 2-11% per year up to 2002 with 89K. So this priest abuse ‘crisis’, curiously, was taken up just as the whole thing is in notable decline.
- It quotes (disappointed) researchers who “conclude that – taken together – they suggest that at least part of the drop in cases has resulted from a decline in sexual abuse of children” – alas. [But, to pray in the spirit of John Jay, Nil Desperandum!]
- The charts are (once again) described in the headings as being about “Sexual Abuse” but not distinguishing the age – child or adult – of the alleged victim.
- Its Sec 3.1 is headed “Introduction to the Problem of Child Sexual Abuse by Adult Men”. “Sexually abusive behavior” – no definition – with “children under the age of 18” – conflating (and contradicting) its own prior category definitions.
- In a remarkable by-the-by, it classifies as “severe” only those acts “with penetration”, of which a later chart will show that only 23% qualify as either “penetration” or “attempted penetration” (and it will not further reveal how many of that 23% were “attempted”). And “some” of the priests accused of anything also displayed (our old stand-by) “behavioral problems, the most common of which were personality problems”. Of course, given the prevalence of ‘personality problems’ in American society in general – even if limited only to its adult members, the value of this last point is questionable. Unless it were put in simply to shore up a weak case.
- As noted, just over half of all priests accused were accused of a single instance. Just over 4% were accused of over 10 separate instances.
- The text then quickly and sooo helpfully includes a chart with responses to its survey question as to whether any accused might also be possibly guilty of other instances, called “potential allegations”, and then adds these “potential” allegations to the “formal” ones.
- Table 3.5.4. gives us a breakdown of the (alleged) victims by age and gender: Males: 1-7: 203; 8-10: 992; 11-14: 4282; 15-17: 2892. Females: 1-7: 284; 8-10: 398; 11-14: 734; 15-17: 502. It’s not clear from the text whether these numbers represent only ‘formal’ reports or include ‘potential’ reports as well.
- Table 3.5.7. shows that the category-offenses of Touching (Over or Under the clothes) were in a class by themselves (52% Over and 44% Under), with next-largest Cleric Performed Oral Sex weighing in at 26% and Victim Disrobed at 25%. Penile Penetration or Attempted (a huge gap here) is 22.4%. A whopping 20.7% is “unspecified sexual abuse”, which can’t be very horrific or John Jay would have milked it for all it was worth. And then 18.3% is categorized as “No Record”, which is not explained and makes no sense on its face.
- With a straight face the report says “Despite the gravity of the crime of child sexual abuse and the public policy interest in dealing with it, very little systematic data has been collected”; this is a stampede in search of a ‘startling noise’, after the fact. It also implies – though Jay ain’t gonna say it – that all these laws and uproars have been effected on the basis of almost no knowledge whatsoever.
- 62.2% of priests were charged with 1 count, 18.4% with 2 counts (no indication of the severity) for a total of 80.4% of all allegations being for 1 or 2 counts, and then you can start factoring in …
- And out of those 4,392 priests, Table 3.7.7. demonstrates that 2,850 were for acts not involving “sex”, leaving 1,540 to include “sex”. How much “penetration” was achieved or attempted. Or sought. In any of these ‘cases’. How bad can sexual abuse be without ‘sex’? I’m just askin’.
- The characteristics of abusers seeking to entice their victims include speaking nice to them, giving them gifts, promising them things they’d like … which sounds like a how-to for anybody’s first date. But for abusers this is called ‘grooming’ – brrrrrr.
- At the end, the report notes that “the majority of alleged victims were post-pubescent, with only a small percentage of priests receiving allegations of abusing young children”. It then seeks to recover itself by stating in the next paragraph that “much of the sexual abuse reported involved serious sexual offenses”, although its own charts clearly indicate otherwise (even when the definitions are allowed to migrate in order to keep the numbers up – which is an intellectual abuse called ‘inflation’, to be added to another form of abuse called ‘conflation’ – but I digress).
- And lastly, in its discussion of “treatment” in Sec. 5.4, it merely provides a thumbnail review of sex treatment over the past 100 years and THEN states flatly that “there is no cure for sex offenders”, although it has a) previously said that so little is known about any of all this and b) hasn’t even established that “sex offenders” is a diagnostic criterion amenable to prognosis (and in fact it isn’t a clinically valid or accepted criterion). But some types of treatment, John Jay graciously and primly allows, “appear to be successful at reducing recidivism”. No mention that ‘sex offenders’ have the lowest recidivism rate except for murderers according to the DOJ and a sly sliding-over the question as to just what extent therapy of whatever sort has helped to achieve that low rate.

I hold no brief for the Catholic Church or for its hierarchy. Nor do I for a moment condone the sexual abuse of anybody by anybody else. I do have a very deep interest in the political health of American society and culture. It cannot be good that such a slippery report was allowed to escape scrutiny by the national press, and that so many citizens were allowed to – and allowed themselves to – assume so vast and dense a concentration of heinous criminality, partly on the basis of such a report.

A mind-exercise: take those 109,000 or so priests from 1950-2002. Figure that each one of them had an average ministry-life of 40 years. On each day of those forty years, each priest would have had an average of X encounters with parishioners under the age of 18. Multiply that all up (if you can get a calculator that will go that high). That gives you (for purposes of the exercise) a number for the amount of encounters with ‘minors’ had by all U.S. priests, any one of which might have become ‘abusive’ (widely defined, for the sake of the exercise here). Now against that figure, you’ve got 4,392, further reduced – if you wish – by some of the percentages and factors indicated in the report. Just what percentage of the total number of encounters ‘went bad’? I’d say you’ve got a figure far lower than the accident rate for first-world airlines (where folks die horrible deaths outright). Certainly, a rate favorably comparable to other professional groups and – as we keep seeing nowadays – the military, where female service-members are being sexually abused in massive numbers by their male colleagues, if the news stories are to be believed.

But it seems to be a given for these stampedes that a sense of perspective and even a moiety of critical thought or even plain old tire-kicking skepticism are out of bounds. And you can make the case that a stampede, by definition, requires the loss of a sense of perspective and examination.

As long as such an atmosphere prevails, buttressed by all the familiar slogans such as zero-tolerance, even-if-only-one, metaphorical-death-is-still-a-form-of-death, and all the Goebbelsian insistence on emotions trumping thought and doubt equaling treacherous opposition and skepticism proving secret connivance … as long as all that is allowed to remain in place in the atmosphere of our public life and deliberations, then we are going to keep seeing more of these stampedes.

And if the government police power is sufficiently stirred to extend itself even further than it already has, then there is no telling what will be proclaimed the next ‘outrage’, and what new class of outcasts is paraded in the queasy glare of klieg lights.

And how many ‘minors’ (however defined) are dead in Iraq, on our warrant as the People? How many of our troops, rather than being ‘saved’ from fancied depredations of ‘priests’ have been ‘saved’ into a free-swinging vengeance against the unbelievers so characteristic of the apocalyptic and war-worshipping proclivities of the Fundamentalist Ascendancy?

There appears to have been not so much priestly child-raping and orgiastic pedophilia as we had initially been led to believe. Perhaps a no-WMD situation avant la lettre.

It says so little and yet so much about the American Catholic bishops that so much was allowed to proceed so far without principled action. And that perhaps is of relevance only to Catholics. But it is of relevance to all of the People that Our capacity to discern is being so deeply and frequently assaulted, thereby weakening Our ability to ground and manage the affairs of Our society and the actions of Our government. To Our great detriment and the harm of the entire world community, and all its peoples, and all its children.

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