Researchers at the John Jay Col­lege of Crim­inal Jus­tice this month released the results of a study, com­mis­sioned by the United States Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bishops in 2002, exam­ining the causes of the sexual abuse crisis within the Church. The report, which places blame not on church leaders but on the per­mis­sive cul­ture of the 1960s and 1970s is “deeply flawed” says Walter Robinson, dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of jour­nalism at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, who led the Boston Globe Spot­light team that broke the clergy sex abuse story, net­ting the paper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Ser­vice in 2003.

What is your imme­diate take­away from the John Jay study, which says the sexual abuse crisis was the result of cul­tural changes in 1960s and ‘70s?

Like every­body else, I was drawn to what you could call this “third-​​rail con­clu­sion” that the sup­posed surge in the inci­dence of sexual abuse by priests in the ’60s and ’70s was somehow caused by the per­mis­sive­ness of that era. The report cited such things as divorce, drug use, crime and pre­mar­ital sex as somehow being insti­gating fac­tors that made priests abuse children.

The fact of the matter is that the data is deeply flawed. So to draw any kind of con­clu­sion like that is, I think, unwar­ranted. It is more likely that the inci­dence of abuse of minors by priests was just as preva­lent in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s as it was in the ’60s and ’70s. But the num­bers John Jay Col­lege has don’t sup­port that because a lot of records in a lot of those dio­ceses from those ear­lier decades had been destroyed. Also, in those ear­lier decades, people did not come for­ward. And by the time people did start to come for­ward, in the late 20th cen­tury and early in this cen­tury, many of the people who were abused in those ear­lier decades were dead. That’s a more log­ical expla­na­tion for what hap­pened, and it obvi­ously fur­ther under­mines this notion that the per­mis­sive­ness of the ’60s and ’70s had any­thing to do with the abuse.

What are the flaws that you believe skewed the results of the study?

The study is based upon reporting by the dio­ceses and the arch­dio­ceses in the United States to the John Jay Col­lege that was done over time. Some of those dio­ceses were simply not forth­coming. A recent example of that can be seen by looking at the Philadel­phia arch­dio­cese, where, as recently as this Feb­ruary, there were 37 priests with cred­ible alle­ga­tions against them who were still in ministry.

In other dio­ceses, many of the records had been destroyed. In the Boston arch­dio­cese, for instance, there were well over 200 priests who were iden­ti­fied as having had cred­ible alle­ga­tions against them between 1950 and 2002, which is the period under study. In the New York arch­dio­cese, there were only 49 priests [with alle­ga­tions], and the reason for that is that the New York arch­dio­cese had, some­time before this scandal broke, destroyed all of their ear­lier records. That’s the most obvious example of a dio­cese that didn’t even have data to submit, even if it wanted to be forthcoming.

What do you think the results of this study would mean to vic­tims of sexual abuse and to the Catholic com­mu­nity at large?

The good news is that any time there is this much atten­tion — even if it involves a flawed study — that’s brought to bear on a sub­ject of this mag­ni­tude, it tends to spur a lot of dis­cus­sion and per­haps helps add to the impetus for change within the Church and the way they deal with sexual abuse. So that’s a good thing. The bad thing about this study is that, by pin­ning the blame for this on things that hap­pened out­side the Church, such as cul­tural changes of the ’60s and ’70s, it once again rein­forces the view that the Church and the arch­bishops and car­di­nals are being let off the hook. This study ignores the real reason why the rate of abuse was so high for so long — Church offi­cials did nothing to stop it, and in many cases, by trans­fer­ring priests from one parish to another, effec­tively facil­i­tated the abuse of thou­sands of children.