New York Times Survey, Page Two
Accused priests first became a significant proportion
of ordination classes in 1956, the Times study found. Of that class,
32 priests have been accused of abuse. Of priests ordained from
1956 through 1959, 119, or 1.8 percent, were accused of abuse. The
number of those accused out of each ordination class fluctuated
only slightly through about 1963, when it reached 40, or 2.6 percent
of that year's class. Then it remained fairly consistent through
the mid-1970's. But since fewer men were being ordained in the 1970's,
priests accused of abuse made up a larger proportion of their classes.
Many of these priests did not commit their offenses until the 1960's
or 1970's. But the Times research found that 63 priests were accused
of abuse that occurred in the 1950's, and 7 in the decades before.
The relatively low numbers do not indicate that the sexual abuse
of children was not a problem in those days, sexual abuse experts
said, since it is likely that people of previous generations rarely
reported it because of the social stigma, the fear of retribution
or the failure to understand that what happened to them was abuse.
Mr. O'Connor, who is now 73, said that when he was raped at age
10 by priests at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Church in the South Bronx,
he did not dare tell anyone. He said his mother found out only when
she discovered blood on his underwear. (The New York Archdiocese
said it was unable to comment on the allegation because the director
of priest personnel was traveling abroad.)
Mr. O'Connor said that his parents wrote a letter complaining to
the senior pastor, and even threatened to hire a lawyer. But he
said he knew of 10 other boys who had been similarly attacked and
whose mothers had learned of the molestations but said nothing.
He says the women, devout Catholics, refused to confront the priests.
"In the 40's and 50's, when you were talking to a priest, it was
like you were talking to Jesus Christ himself," Mr. O'Connor said.
One day, the three priests disappeared from the South Bronx parish,
Mr. O'Connor said. His parents later learned that their letter had
eventually made its way to Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York,
who sent the three priests, all now dead, to work in parishes upstate.
Loosening the Roman Collar
By the mid-1960's young priests emerged from their near-cloistered
seminaries and stood blinking at a world changing around them.
There were simultaneous cultural revolutions inside and outside
the church. The Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, suddenly
lowered barriers between the church and modern society, and between
the clergy and laypeople. The liturgy went from Latin to English,
the altar was turned around and priests faced the people at Mass
for the first time in centuries. Laypeople took on leadership roles.
Priests and nuns joined the antiwar movement and the civil rights
struggle, rubbing elbows with Protestants and Jews, college students
Priests who had had strict curfews in the rectories where they
lived with their fellow priests were suddenly free to come and go.
They bought cars, were invited to meetings and marches, moved about
without their collars.
Father Silva, ordained in 1965 in San Francisco, said: "All of
a sudden, father is expected to be close to the folks, and so he
takes off his cassock, he takes off the Roman collar and puts on
a sport shirt, and he's assigned to work with the teenagers.
"Here you are developmentally somewhere between age 13 and 16,
never having ever looked at your own sexuality, never having asked
the question, gay or straight? you didn't even know the words,"
Father Silva said. "And so you find yourself with the teen club,
and father is taking the students on a ski trip overnight. If he
is emotionally still a teenager, very inappropriate things can happen."
In fact, it was customary for new priests then to be assigned to
supervise the teen club or the altar boys, church experts said.
Parishes in those days had full complements of three or more priests,
and the priest with the least seniority was often given the job
with the least status working with youngsters.
Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, executive director of the Trauma Treatment
Center of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis and a sexual
abuse expert who addressed the Catholic bishops at their Dallas
meeting last year, said of priests: "They were thrown into the company
of young men who were having adolescences very different than they
had dating, masturbating, having buddies. The priest saw himself
as an age mate of the youth, and better yet, as a leader of the
pack. At some point, all those genuine human needs for closeness,
including touch, just burst."
The Times study found that 4 of 5 victims of priests were male.
That is nearly the opposite of those victimized by nonpriests, nearly
two-thirds of whom are female, several experts in sexual abuse said.
The experts offered several possible explanations: that priests
simply had more unfettered access to boys; that priests who had
had their first sexual encounters in seminaries were more likely
to be attracted to boys; that a high percentage of priests were
gay; that women and girls hesitated to report such abuse for fear
they would be accused of inviting the attention.
Over all, 256 priests were reported to have abused minors in the
1960's. There were 537 in the 1970's and 510 in the 1980's, before
a drop to 211 in the 1990's. The numbers do not prove that the upheaval
in the church and society in the 1960's and 70's caused the abuse,
but experts who reviewed The Times's research said it was important
to consider the historical context in which the scandal occurred.
The church was jolted by two earthquakes in the 1960's. Vatican
II was the first, and Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical upholding
the church's condemnation of artificial birth control in 1968, was
Amid surging use of the birth control pill, many priests say it
fell on them to promulgate a teaching they could not agree with.
And many said the controversy removed their inhibitions about criticizing
or even disregarding church teachings on sexuality.
"People were beginning to decide that the church couldn't make
the rules anymore," Mr. Dinter said.
At the same time, many healthier priests were jumping ship. Beginning
in 1967 and for the next 10 years, priests abandoned their vocation
in droves. About 525 left in 1968, 675 in 1970 and 575 in 1973
at the height, more than 1 percent of the American priesthood annually,
according to figures supplied by the Center for Applied Research
in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Many left disillusioned that Vatican II had not eased the rigid
episcopal hierarchy or the rules on celibacy, and many left to marry.
Those left behind included a greater percentage of priests who were
theologically conservative, gay or maladjusted, a trend that the
bishops had apparently begun to note. In 1971, they commissioned
a study by Dr. Eugene Kennedy, a psychologist at Loyola University
of America and a former priest, and Dr. Victor Heckler, the principal
investigator. Their report, "The American Priest: Psychological
Investigations," found that 57 percent of priests were psychologically
Sinners in Therapy
By the 1970's and 1980's, when abuse was reaching a peak, church
leaders were still doing little to confront it effectively. As they
had for centuries, bishops and priests regarded priests who molested
not as criminals but merely sinners.
"If a priest was having sex with a boy it meant he was weak and
gave in," Mr. Dinter said. "It meant he should go to confession
and not be weak again."
Even a serial offender like John J. Geoghan, a defrocked priest
who was convicted of abuse last year in Boston, was repeatedly given
a pass by his bishops and his peers. He has been accused of molesting
more than 130 children over 30 years in a half-dozen parishes.
"If you read his record, seminary rectors were wondering about
him," Dr. Kennedy said. "But the culture of the priesthood was very
supportive, so a fellow got a lot of cover just for wearing a Roman
By the 1970's, some bishops had begun referring priests to therapists,
but most of the therapists were priests, or working at church-related
treatment centers, Dr. Frawley-O'Dea said.
Bishops who turned to outside clinicians sometimes disregarded
the advice they were given. Dr. Stayton recalls that in the early
1970's, a bishop asked him to have precisely six sessions with a
priest who was molesting children.
After the six meetings, Dr. Stayton said: "They transferred him
to a high school someplace outside of his diocese, and they didn't
ask me. I never had to make a report, I just had to turn in a bill.
I would never have recommended that he go to a high school."
The Times study found that half of the priests accused of abuse
had more than one victim, and one-third had three or more. In the
rest of the cases, only one victim has come to light. But there
have been many cases in which an accused priest insisted he had
only one victim, and more came forward later. Experts in sexual
disorders say that the high percentage of priests with multiple
victims suggests that the church was dealing with a cohort of offenders
who were not easily stopped.
Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research
Center at the University of New Hampshire, said, "The more victims
you have, the higher chance of reoffending."
Sixteen percent of the priests accused of abuse had five or more
victims, which may be an indication, said Dr. Finkelhor, that these
were "compulsive child molesters those who actually have a preference
for juvenile victims. That's their primary sexual orientation."
By the mid-1980's, the warning had been sounded. The Rev. Gilbert
Gauthe, a Louisiana priest who molested as many as 100 boys, was
sentenced to 20 years in prison. Two priests and a lawyer who defended
the church in that case produced a report predicting that sexual
abuse by priests could eventually cost the church in the United
States more than $1 billion. The report was never distributed to
A Scandal's Unwritten Chapter
The Times's research confirms a point that the nation's Catholic
bishops made as the scandal escalated last year: most of the abuse
cases are old. Of the accused priests, 211 abused in the 1990's,
and 36 since 2000.
The bishops say the abuse declined because they began to address
the problem in the mid-1980's. In 1992 the bishops' conference issued
five recommendations, which included removing an accused priest
from ministry for evaluation and treatment, and reporting cases
to law enforcement.
Seminaries were overhauled, in part, in recognition that they were
producing unhealthy priests. By the late 1980's, many Catholic seminaries
and dioceses began psychological screening of candidates for the
priesthood, said Sister Katerina Schuth, a sociologist at St. Paul's
Seminary at the University of St. Thomas.
Human sexuality was added to seminary curriculums soon after 1992,
when Pope John Paul II called for the church to pay attention to
the "human formation" of priests, said Sister Schuth. Studies show
that more seminarians and priests now identify themselves as homosexual
than in previous generations, and with the openness has come more
candid discussion in seminaries of celibacy and chastity, she said.
The decline in priest cases in the 1990's parallels a 40 percent
decline in the sexual abuse of children generally, Dr. Finkelhor
said. There are many reasons, he said: more offenders are incarcerated
for longer periods; children are more closely supervised; and there
is more awareness about identifying and reporting sexual abuse.
But many say that the real reason for the decline may be simply
that the victims of the 1990's have not surfaced yet.
"You will see some kind of a bubble in 2005, when the people who
were abused in the 1990's come forward," said Dr. Frawley-O'Dea,
who has treated many abuse victims. "It takes a lot of survivors
until their mid-20's, when they have accumulated enough life experience,
to know they were messed up."
But there could be another explanation for the 1990's decline:
the church is still covering up cases. Despite the pressure on bishops
over the last year to reveal the extent of the abuse, some refused
to release the number of accusations or the names of the accused
Anthony Zirilli and the research staff of The New York Times
contributed to this report.