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.