NEW ORLEANS (CNS) – This is an interview of New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond about the John Jay report on the causes and context of clergy sex abuse released May 18. The archbishop, who was the first chairman of what is now the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, was interviewed by Peter Finney Jr., executive editor and general manager of the Clarion Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper.
Q: You served for several years as the first chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. What is your initial reaction to the report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that there was no single cause or predictor of sexual abuse by priests?
A: The report and its conclusions are not surprising. When I was chair of the committee, the data on the scope and nature of the sex abuse crisis had been gathered, and John Jay was working on the report that would help identify the causes and contexts of the abuse. As the information was coming in, John Jay was sharing some of the information they had gathered, so the report is not a surprise. I’m glad that we spent the money, the time and the effort to do the survey and the investigative work because, it seems to me, there are always three stories: the one presented by the media; the one presented by advocacy groups that have a negative impression of the church and of the priesthood; and the one that is the reality. The John Jay researchers are reputable people, and they went to primary sources for their information. This isn’t secondhand information.
Q: Some people are already saying you can’t trust the information because it came from the bishops.
A: The information did not really come from the bishops. The information that John Jay compiled came from treatment centers, from individual priests who had been accused and from other people who had been involved.
Q: Ultimately, the report seems to indicate the sexual and social revolutions of the 1960s – the “Woodstock” generation – had much to do with the clergy abuse crisis.
A: I agree with that, and that shouldn’t surprise us. We saw in the 1960s what happened regarding sexuality in general, the harmful effect on family life, the rising use of contraception, higher rates of infidelity, divorce and remarriage and couples living together. Whether you call it “Woodstock” or whatever you name it, there was a sexual revolution. There also was a revolution against authority. Those two things came into play. People were increasingly doubting objective moral standards. That happened in all aspects of society, and it certainly happened in the church. We have to bow our heads and realize we embraced some of the darker questions – and it led to sin.
Q: In retrospect, how badly did bishops respond to the crisis?
A: Any of us would say that if we knew then what we know now, we would have handled many of those situations differently. We did not have the same level of research in terms of psychology. We did not have the same understanding of pedophilia and sexual abuse of minors. People can say that’s an excuse, but it’s also a fact. We did not. As we were gaining some of this information, some of the bishops were quicker than others to utilize those new insights. But it’s very clear that if we knew then what we know now, we would have handled those situations differently. We would have been less tolerant. We would have gotten people more permanent help. This isn’t to pass the buck, but bishops and priest personnel directors around the country were following the advice of treatment centers. When psychologists told them, “This guy is OK, put him back in ministry,” the bishops put him back in ministry. Or when they recommended limited ministry, the priest was put back into limited ministry. That’s not passing the buck. All of us — as church leaders, people in the social sciences and people in society — have learned a great deal more. Because of that, we are far more cautious and realistic today. We should be because one case of sexual abuse by a church leader is one case too many.
Q: What about the report’s findings that neither homosexuality nor celibacy played a role in the abuse?
A: Though a large number of youths abused by clergy were boys, the study does not indicate that the basic orientation of abusers was homosexual. John Jay goes on to say that it was a crime of opportunity, that boys were more available to the abusers. The report also indicates there are a lot of things about sexuality that we don’t really understand. When a person is a pedophile, he can be attracted to boys or girls. As we know, some pedophiles are married and some are single, so it doesn’t seem as though from the research that it’s a homosexual issue.
Q: What about celibacy as a possible cause?
A: To say that it’s a celibacy issue does not seem to ring true. In the research, what we see is that in general there were many people during the ’60s and the ’70s who were going through a lot of confused times regarding sexuality and sexual understanding. The report indicates that while the number of abuse cases spiked in the ’60s and ’70s, the commitment to celibacy was constant over that same period of time. Many sex offenders in society are not celibate.
Q: What would you say to people who think the report might be a case of whitewashing the facts?
A: I was involved in these studies from the very beginning, and we engaged the best people in the world to collect the research. We did not interfere in their research. We got periodic reports from them, but we and they did everything possible to allow them to do their work in an independent way. They have their reputation on the line. It would be foolhardy for John Jay to say something they don’t believe in. Again, much of the information did not come from bishops at all. It came from perpetrators, treatment centers, personnel directors and seminary directors. There will always be naysayers, no matter what we say or do. There will always be an opposite view. There are people who don’t like the church or who think we have been dishonest, and they will always find a reason to paint a dark picture.
Q: Is it true this is the widest ranging study of sexual abuse of minors ever undertaken by one organization?
A: There has been no system-wide study like this anywhere in the world. This is the first.
Q: How is seminary training today better equipped to handle this issue?
A: There is certainly continued attention and emphasis on pre-seminary psychological testing. Once a person has been accepted to the seminary, there is a great deal of human formation – helping the man become the very best human being he can be to live out his potential. Also, there are many additional formation seminars and courses on self-knowledge, sexuality, boundaries, safe environment and what it means to be a person of integrity.
Q: What have bishops learned over the last 10 years?
A: We must be overly cautious, we must be transparent with the information we receive, we must investigate and we must have objective investigators look at cases. We cannot do these investigations internally. It takes someone from the outside to give us a professional opinion as to the legitimacy of an accusation. We also have to provide, first and foremost, pastoral care for victims. We as a church have to provide rehabilitation when that’s possible for the perpetrator.
Q: Do you believe the statistics that say the worst of the crisis occurred in the ’60s and ’70s?
A: There’s no doubt about that. The statistics from the bishops’ conference and also from John Jay show that there are very, very few accusations – I’m talking in the single digits – that are current accusations. The vast majority go back 30 and 40 years. At that time, sexuality was not dealt with the way that it’s dealt with in the seminary today.
Q: Is this report another reminder to pray for the victims of sexual abuse?
A: It’s always time to pray for victims. They are certainly part of my prayer every day, given my ministerial responsibilities as a bishop. I have met with victims. I continue to meet with victims. I will always want to meet with victims in order to work with them in a spiritual and pastoral way. We can never, ever give excuses for a priest abusing a child or an adolescent. We simply can never excuse it. It’s not only a crime, but it’s also an embarrassment to the church, and it’s a sin. We must continue to speak loudly about that. What has happened in the church over the last 10 years has made us aware that sexual abuse takes place in schools, families and in youth groups of all denominations and in the secular world. As a society we have to be more attentive. The accusations against the church and the purification of the church have led us to see this as a more global, societal issue, which we may not have seen otherwise. I’m sorry that it took us to see the reality, but it did.