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18 May 2011

The Culture War and Convenient Catholic Conclusions

A new report, commissioned and funded by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has concluded that the rise in the frequency of priestly sexual abuse of children in the late-20th century was primarily the result of the "permissive culture" of the Woodstock generation. On one count, the findings seems almost progressive, stating (here) that "If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church." On the other hand, the report dismisses the claim that priestly celibacy increases the likelihood of abuse.* The bigger claim, though, seems problematic. If it really was the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, wouldn't we see the incidence of child sexual abuse exploding everywhere and not just in the Church? While it is difficult to draw conclusions about the changing rates of child sexual abuse over time, it is likely that while the rates at which child sexual abuse have been reported has increased over the past 50 years, the actual rates of abuse have probably been in decline. Suspiciously, the Church's conclusion that the licentious '60s and '70s are to blame dovetails neatly with the Catholic Culture Wars narrative, which, briefly stated, decrees that the Church must stand as a guiding moral voice against mainstream modern cultural change. It fails to address any organizational-level effects (even if they are not unique to the institution of Roman Catholicism). In short, it smacks of bad social science: "We don't find a smoking gun so it must be 'culture.'" The report's findings seem a bit too self-serving to be plausible.

* - While I would agree that celibacy is unlikely to cause abuse--and admittedly not having read the full report--I fail to see how the report could back up such a claim. In order to give evidence to this claim, one would need to compare the abuse rates of celibates to the abuse rates of non-celibates, and since the Catholic Church does not have any in-house data on the latter--at least not any data that isn't more than a thousand years old--I don't see how they can make this claim.

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