The Called, the Chosen, and the Tempted: Psychologists, the Church, and the Scandal

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In 2002, the U.S. Catholic bishops finally accepted that the sexual abuse of minors by priests was a widespread problem within the church that required action. The bishops asked researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study the problem. The John Jay reports (2004, 2011) found a thirty-year trend of rising incidents between 1950 and 1980, followed by a sharp decline during the 1980s. These incidents involved nearly 4,500 accused priests and nearly 11,000 different alleged victims. More than eighty percent of the victims were male. Failing to find a psychological profile that differentiated perpetrators from non-perpetrators, the researchers argued that many priests succumbed to situational temptations involving male minors, due to changing socio-cultural values about sexual activity associated with "the Sixties." The John Jay studies showed little awareness that an increasingly close relationship existed between the church and Catholic psychologists during the very decades that the incidents were rising. This relationship involved professional psychologists assessing candidates for the priesthood in order to screen out those with serious psychopathologies, including various forms of sexual deviancy, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists who treated priests for aberrant sexual behavior. Assessment psychologists detected no systemic proclivity for future child sexual abuse (although patterns of psychosexual immaturity, sociopathy, and homosexuality seem suspiciously relevant in hindsight). At the time, child sexual abuse had not been identified by the public as a serious social problem, no method existed for detecting this potential, and psychologists as a broader discipline struggled to understand the complexity of human sexual identity and behavior. Even so, there were two and possibly three points before 2002 when clergy sexual abuse might have been detected and acted on as a systemic problem within the church: the late 1930s, 1965-1971, and 1985-1986. When considered together, the work of psychologists in screening candidates, therapists in treating priests, and the John Jay data suggest that perhaps two-thirds of priests in the 1950s and 1960s were psychosexually immature and that a subset of these priests who also were sociopathic, attracted to minors, or open to same-sex activity for various reasons, including a fear of women, accounted for a sizeable share of the problem. Why these apparently relevant factors may have characterized candidates and priests to a greater degree between 1950 and 1980 is not clear. 

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