Douthat cites data from the John Jay report (from where the above graph originates) to argue that "the moral/cultural/theological climate of the 1960s and 1970s encouraged a spike in sexual abuse." He continues:
This data informs the conservative Catholic argument that the post-Vatican II exodus of straight men from religious life and the spread of a sexually-active gay subculture within the priesthood is the abuse scandal’s “elephant in the sacristy.” Liberal Catholics might counter that the priesthood has always been disproportionately homosexual, and that the sexual revolution probably just encouraged psychologically healthy gay priests to give up on the church entirely, leaving behind a clerical population tilted toward repression, self-loathing and the dysfunctions of the closet. Whichever narrative you prefer, though, it’s hard to deny that something changed in the 1960s, and not for the better.
Ross responds to readers' criticisms here. His obvious fallacy is conflating reported cases of abuse with actual cases of abuse.
Reporting sexual abuse by a priest before the 1970s would have been extremely, extremely unlikely. Who would have believed you? How would you bring such a taboo subject up? Given the authoritative structure of the church, the reverence with which priests were treated, and the shame and stigma attached to all things sexual, the chances that a raped child would report a priest's abuse to the authorities or even his or her own family before the 1970s was minimal.
It makes much more sense to me that the rise in data is because of a cultural change that allowed more people to speak about abuse they had buried in their psyches for years and decades than that liberal social mores suddenly took over the groovy church and that's what led the abuse to spike. Sure, when you look at a case like the notorious Paul Shanley, one might see a correlation. Some priests previously abusing in secret might have used some of the broader sexual revolution of the time as some kind of affirmation of their crimes. But it seems much more likely to me that the greater the cultural power held by the church, the greater the likelihood of successful exploitation of minors within it. Human nature has not changed. We have evidence of sexual abuse and misconduct in the priesthood for centuries, alongside deeply homosexual subcultures in monasteries and all-male "celibate" clerical elites. Would it not be surpriusing if this had not been going on, given fallen human nature and the structure of these institutions? I suspect the rate of abuse was much, much higher in the distant than in the recent past – but we never heard about it. And never will.
You see: one core dynamic of abusing a child or a teen by a priest is the unique power of religion to coerce sex. The priest's religious authority allows him to tell a child never to tell anyone else, or face divine punishment. The child or teen internalizes the abuse as something he or she was actually responsible for. The person who is raping you is treated by your family, friends, and every authority figure as uniquely worthy of respect and deference. He is a holy man. If something sexual occurs between you and him, it's your fault, not his. This is true in cases of incest; but it is triply true in cases of priestly abuse – and in so many ways even more evil. To use the authority of Jesus to rape someone is a betrayal on so many levels of so many core values it beggars belief that it could have gone on so long, and destroyed so many souls.
In many cases, the rapes would take place followed by absolution – so the teens are kept in a psychic loop of sex, repentance and dependency, all perpetuated by the culture of deference and the shame of the act itself. How many teenage boys in the 1940s would go to the cops or their parents if Father Joe had stuck his finger up their butt or his dick down their throat or asked them to let him fondle their genitals? I use these explicit terms because I think it's important to keep in mind what we are actually talking about here. Child abuse can some to seem as anodyne as "enhanced interrogation" if we're not careful. We're talking about a priest getting a deaf child in a confessional and forcing him to go down on him. Think about that for a horrifying second. The idea that this could even be contemplated without fury and immediate action by sane and decent church officials – let alone by Vatican bureaucratic claptrap and tacit consent as recently as 1998 – is preposterous. Which means to say: the current Pope has acted as if he shares the worst of the attitudes of the past on this question. Nothing he has done recently can eradicate that fact – about his character and the institution he leads.
The idea that we are only now glimpsing a long history of abuse, a glimpse made possible by the sexual revolution and greater awareness of the rights and dignity of children, is certainly backed up by what we have seen in Ireland, where the rape, beatings and abuse of children were endemic in this kind of authoritarian, reverent climate for as far back as survivors go. The reason for the spike in the 1960s and 1970s is surely that it's only now that those survivors have the ability to come forward. What haunts me are the silenced voices of so many other broken souls under this kind of regime for centuries.
As for the drop-off since 1980, I'm sure the revelations helped end the secrecy and self-protection that enabled this kind of abuse to continue with the tacit complicity of the hierarchy. The rules that have been put in place also help explain the drop. We should be grateful for that, and in so far as the current Pope helped get those rules in place, he deserves credit too. But that credit cannot somehow obliterate his direct enmeshment in the abuse and cover-up before. The only way for that to occur is either resignation or total personal and public repentance for his role in enabling the rape of so many defenseless children.
Today is a day in the Holy Week calendar called Maundy Thursday. It celebrates the Last Supper which was followed by Jesus' washing of his own disciples' feet. It's hard to imagine a greater symbol of the notion that those who lead the church must do so with total humility:
After Jesus had washed his disciples' feet and had put his outer garment back on, he sat down again. Then he said: Do you understand what I have done? You call me your teacher and Lord, and you should, because that is who I am. And if your Lord and teacher has washed your feet, you should do the same for each other. I have set the example, and you should do for each other exactly what I have done for you.
Where is that spirit of Jesus in the hierarchy today?
Where is that humility?
Where is that laying down of all power in the service of love?