Dealing with the imperfect storm - Catholic Courier

Dealing with the imperfect storm

Scenes of devastation — earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods — are commonplace in the past few months. 

The media have presented heart-rending graphic images of the effects: loss of life, property damages in the millions of dollars, recovery expected to take years.

The causes and context of these natural disasters are subjects of studies and reports in the aftermath. Often, the conclusion has found to have been the result of the "perfect storm," that is, the combination of earth movement and tide; temperature differentials; tropical depressions that came together simultaneously to cause the destruction: the perfect storm.

Now comes a report on the causes and context of the clergy sex-abuse crisis that has wracked the Catholic Church by ruining lives, costing millions of dollars in settlements, bankrupting dioceses and religious orders, even damaging the reputation of the Catholic Church as a credible participant in the public square.

It is the result of an "imperfect storm."

The report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York is one of two mandated by the U.S. bishops to understand what factors led to the sexual-abuse crisis in the church and to make recommendations for reducing abuse.

The study identified three factors that contributed to the imperfect storm of abuse.

"There must be a person who is motivated to commit the act of abuse, there must be a potential victim and there must be a lack of a ‘capable guardian.’"

The report said attention should be given to the situational factors associated with abuse and "reduce the opportunities for abuse to occur."

The report, issued May 18, found incidents of abuse increased from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s and then declined in the 1980s and remains low. But abuse has not been eradicated.

Although the problem is largely historical, said Karen Terry, principal investigator of the study, there will always be adults attracted to children. There will always be a risk when adults form mentoring and nurturing relationships with minors, she said.

The report will not persuade those outside the church who have used the abuse crisis to discredit the church and those inside the church who use it to advance their own agenda. The researchers said homosexuality was not a factor, nor was celibacy. Nor, it said, could those with tendencies for abuse have been discovered by psychological testing.

It would have been comforting if the report had specific criticisms.

"It is important to understand that no single ’cause’ of sexual abuse in society can be found; similarly, no single ’cause’ of sexual abuse by priests is evident. Rather, sexual abuse is a complex phenomenon, and the pattern of change in incidence that is analyzed in this study has social, psychological, developmental and situational explanations," the study said.

What is the takeaway?

Much is asked of men who would become priests: a life of celibacy, forsaking the support system offered by a spouse and family, a lack of intimacy.

The causes and context data indicate that abuse is most likely to occur at times of stress, loneliness and isolation. According to the report, such stressful or challenging situations triggered the desire in some priests to form inappropriate relationships with others — such relationships were most often with adults, but sometimes with minors.

We see the signs urging "support the troops" and "support our law enforcement officers" and this recognizes that people in each profession have a high level of challenges: danger, life-threatening situations, separation from families.

Often after natural catastrophes, the perfect storms, there is the desire to do something, no matter how overwhelming. Supporting our priests is something that we can do to alleviate factors leading to the imperfect storm. Organizations such as the Serra Club and the Knights of Columbus sponsor dinners, outings and recreation to show appreciation for priests.

Individuals can work to offer positive relationships and support for those with vocations to a challenging life.

Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.

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