Church abuse crisis John Jay report interview

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Daniel Tsang interviews Bill Andriette 23 May 2011 | KUCI's 'Subversity' on the Catholic Church's 2011 John Jay College report on the abuse scandal, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in ihe United States, 1950-2010. This conversation followed Tsang's interview with Karen Terry, the principal investigator of the report.

DT: So that was our conversation with Karen Terry, who headed the research team at John Jay College, which looked at this whole issue of sex activities between priests and younger people. And with us with a reaction to this report is an observer of sex panics, etc., Bill Andriette, who was features editor of The Guide magazine in Boston formerly. Welcome to the show.

BA: Hi, Dan, thanks for having me.

DT: Tell me, are there good things, things that you liked in this report?

BA: Well, I have to say that, listening to Karen, the phrase that comes to mind is “the banality of evil,” and I mean that in a sense that most listeners wouldn’t grasp on first hearing it. You know, listening to her talk about this whole phenomenon – it’s so cold-blooded. She could be talking about, say, Jewish sex-fiends for an academic study in 1930s Germany; she could be talking about Black rapists in Georgia in the 1930s. She’s just missing the whole human dimension here, the many layers, the many dimensions of what went on here, the many different kinds of phenomena. It’s all hidden behind this thick, clouded rhetoric, these supposedly scientific terms of “offender” and “pedophile priest” and “abuse.” But we never get to the human reality. Certainly the priests are never allowed to speak in this, and the words of the victims have been filtered through what is a massive hysteria and a massive looting of the church. We’re talking, like, two billion dollars that the U.S. church has handed out. When sums like that are involved, and when you’re hitting raw cultural nerves, as you are inevitably with (quote unquote) “deviant sex,” a term that appears in the report a lot, reality just gets warped. So there’s no recognition of that. It’s just sort of breathtaking that someone who could call herself a social scientist could be so clueless as to the context, so unaware of the broad view that you need to take when you are dealing with an issue that is very inflamed at a given time in a given society.

DT: I think she’s taking the legal definition and considering everything abuse. She did concede that there could be some emotional attachment between a priest and an adolescent, but then she said that was wrong.

BA: Right, and after damning the report, let me say that I think also that it is a fascinating document and shows in some respects wisdom and nuance compared to what we hear typically in the media. Yet the sort of voice that is just not heard here at all, that can be heard ever so slightly elsewhere, is totally missing from the report. Let me read just an excerpt from an article, When a boy wants a man, that appeared in the South Florida Gay News in January. It is a very daring thing to publish. The editor of the gay paper I work for now refused to publish it. It’s an interview with a man in his 70s, who grew up in Italy after World War II. He talks about his first sexual experiences being with other altar boys, and then he goes on and talks about visiting the movie theater his father owned in this town. If I can read this little passage:

“When I was about ten years old, I was in the movie theater, in the back row on the aisle. One of the priests was sitting next to me; he was the youngest of the seven, maybe 25 or 30 years old, and he was in charge of the youth groups. The other altar boys were spread throughout the theater. I felt his knee against my leg; I didn’t move away. It felt very nice, all through the movie. Next week, the same thing, only I put on a lot more pressure. I started leaning against him. He took my hand and drew it into his robes and into his pants, and I grabbed his dick, and I have to say it was the best thing I ever felt in my life. I didn’t want to let go of it for the rest of my life. I didn’t move it, I just held it. I felt that I had either died and gone to heaven or that I was home.”

He goes on about developing a relationship with the man, and he says he was the aggressor.

He goes on, “I was absolutely not abused. After the first contact, I was going after that priest more than he was going after me. That’s the truth. There’s no doubt in my mind: I wanted it, and wanted it more than he did.”

DT: I think you bring up the issue that a lot of gay men had positive sexual relationships with older guys when they were growing up, but that testimony of that voice is totally obliterated in the media when they label all this type of interaction “abuse.”

BA: Right. We’re dealing with a whole range of phenomena, but we do know some things. We know that the kinds of activities that went on were typically very mild: they were touching, fondling; they were, as far as anyone can tell from the lugubrious descent into the empirical data that the folks at John Jay have treated us to, that they involved activities that were very often oriented toward pleasuring the younger partner. Now, was all of this consensual? Are there issues involved when priests make approaches to youngsters? Absolutely, it’s a complex thing, but the question is: is this best handled through ordinary human smarts about what’s appropriate, about how boundaries of what’s appropriate change as people get to know each other, about overall affect? Is it best handled that way, or with a technical vocabulary which, in reading this report, I find immensely dehumanizing?

DT: But were you please that they did try to distinguish between the different terms, at least?

BA: Right, and they’ve gotten into a lot of trouble for that, or they’ve gotten a lot of criticism. I know that the Boston Globe had an editorial damning this report, the Globe which has been behind a lot of the hysteria.

DT: Yeah, especially in the Boston cases.

BA: I think the John Jay report does some very interesting things. It is very nuanced. It tries to makes some distinctions that are completely lost in the media. It makes a big distinction between pedophilia, attraction to pre-adolescents, and hebephilia, attraction to adolescents. One trouble with this report is that it takes all these term that sound like they refer to absolute, clear, crystalline things, and it misses how fuzzy and hazy they are in relation to the actuality of people’s erotic lives.

DT: It reminds me of studies in the 50s or before that that looked at homosexuals as criminals. They were talking about all these deviant acts, but with the benefit of hindsight you see that they were actually human beings. So that’s important to bear in mind.

BA: Right, and the other thing to bear in mind here is that the pedophilic and hebephilic interest, that is, adult male sexual attraction to children and adolescents is incredibly common. We know this from some scientific studies that have been done with community samples, that is, people not in prison, not in trouble for anything, completely normal people. In one study from 1995, 25% reported pedophilic interest or showed plethysmographic arousal – you know, that’s when they strap a meter on the male’s penis to judge his arousal when exposed to some sort of stimulus. Another study, done in Czechoslovakia back in 1970, looked at 48 young Czech soldiers; all 48 showed penile response to adult females; 40 of the 48 did to adolescent females; and 28 of the 48 showed penile response to females aged 4 to 10, with penile responsivity to the last category, female children, intermediate to adolescent and adult females. So we’re dealing with feelings that are just basic to male sexuality. I mean, not every male has them, but a huge proportion of the people in the population do, and that’s fodder for this sort of hysteria. It’s long been known that people who crusade against homosexuals are much more likely to have some sort of homosexual feelings that they’re struggling with themselves. So rather than use the tragedy of this abuse crisis as an opportunity to have a wise discussion of the fact of this desire and ask why it exists, in what forms can it be expressed, what role does this sort of desire have in ordinary adult male affection for children. You know, there’s no question that young mothers have enormous erotic connections with their infants. Why can’t we talk about the possible good ways in which these erotic feelings can feed, not into sexual acts, but into affection and attention?

DT: It seems that, because everything is considered abuse, there’s no room for this other kind of observation or discussion.

BA: There isn’t, and what’s really sad to me is that the Catholic Church to me – you know, I’m a leftist, I’m pro-sex, a sex radical, I’ve worked in the gay media all of my life, but I’m not anti-church. I think it is so important that the Catholic Church continues to exist, continues to have a voice. It represents two millennia and more of thinking about human morality and the problems of life and sex. It’s an enormously successful – whatever you want to think of it – it’s an enormously successful franchise. It’s been enormously adaptive to different cultures and different eras. It’s kind of America avant la lettre; it’s this melting-pot; there are so many facets, it’s rich, there are so many dimensions, so much conflict within its boundaries, so much discussion that people from vastly different parts of the world and cultures and backgrounds have found a home in it. The Catholics have been dealing with this issue since the beginning of the church. I was talking to a historian the other day; he was telling me that one of the first monastic rules that was laid down in the early hundreds was that the boy novices had to sleep between the oldest monks because they wanted to put a damper on any tomfoolery at night.

DT: So as a kind of barrier, huh?

BA: Exactly right. So the traditional Catholic way of dealing with this, which was to treat the errant priest as an individual and to look at the whole context and to give him help and to give him support, maybe even move him to another parish and say, “Don’t do this again” – there’s so much wisdom in that. This is the policy our present pope was following when he was in charge of priests. So compare that to the demonizing language of this report, the refusal to consider that the current ideology, the current, au courant “scientific terms” cannot fully describe this phenomenon, when the church brings thousands of years of awareness of the crooked timber which is humanity to this question.

DT: How about this whole issue of looking at the same-sex behavior rather than identity, gay identity, because they seem to be divorcing identity from the behavior in some sense?

BA: Well, even the report grants that it’s on slippery ground here. I think it wants to make the claim that there’s more representation of homosexuals in the priesthood post-1980 and that that cohort didn’t show so much of a propensity to (quote unquote) “abuse.” But I find it really hard to believe that in the 40s and 50s, when there wasn’t much of a chance of an open gay life, the priesthood wasn’t very tempting place to go for young Catholic males who had same-sex propensities. I mean, that’s been a sort of traditional place where same-sex or asexual or non-heterosexually oriented young men go and have a career, have standing, have a good purpose in life.

DT: I know you’ve looked into this whole discussion about the Diagnostic Manual that psychologists and psychiatrists use, and there’s a revision in the works. How is this revision to the DSM-V going to affect how the state deals or how these institutions deal with this issue?

BA: Well, there’s a move afoot to expand the definition of pedophilia and to rename it “pedophilia / hebephilia” and to make people with attraction to non-sexually-mature adolescents – I guess somewhere between 11 and 14 – to make them fall into this diagnostic category. It’s being opposed by many people within and beyond psychiatry. The former editor of the DSM opposes it very vociferously. Richard Greene, the well-known psychiatrist in London, wrote in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, saying that this is absolute madness, because so many males would fall under this category. You know, if you scratch a typical adult male, you find someone who is attracted to adolescents.

DT: Look at all the interest in teenage beauty contests. I mean, isn’t that a pretty prevalent thing among heterosexuals as well?

BA: Right, you know, there’s always been sort of an erotic dimension to adult interaction with young people. I’m inclined to think that if something is that common, it’s probably natural and we should not be so quick to condemn it. We should ask: what function does it serve? what function did it serve? how can we mobilize and contain these impulses today? – rather than demonizing the impulses, rather than demonizing people who show them.

DT: You know, the question I asked Karen Terry, who headed the research team looking into this from John Jay College – I asked what difference lower age-of-consent laws would have had on this situation. Of course, in the U.S. they are pretty much now set at 18, right?

BA: That’s certainly the tendency. Many states have slightly lower ages of consent, but because of increased federal involvement in small-scale sex offenses, there’s an effective national age of consent of 18. If you’re 20 and you call your 17-year old girl friend on your cell phone, you’re suddenly in violation of the Mann Act.

DT: With texting, or sexting especially, as they call it.

BA: Right.

DT: Although I think some jurisdictions in the past, I remember – or have they changed? – some police jurisdictions would decline to prosecute if the age difference was too small. Is that right?

BA: We’ve gotten so draconian in our sex laws regarding anything to do with minors that that’s had a lot of (quote unquote) “unintended consequences.” So a lot of 15-, 16-, 17-year olds are suddenly facing 30, 40, 50 years in prison for casual sex games or for exhibitionism that they might have recorded on their cell phones.

DT: Especially being labeled a sex offender for life.

BA: Right, federal law requires now all offenders 14 and up to be exposed for life, very often on online sex registries.

DT: Yeah, and they give the addresses even.

BA: Yes, in many states. Part of what’s so frustrating about this report is that it is missing the whole political context here. It’s missing how sex has become this real flashpoint in American society and throughout the west for massive criminalization, for massive incarceration, for massive demonization, all sort of under the guise of entertainment. You know, it’s sort of a spin on Marcuse’s repressive tolerance, except there’s no tolerance. It’s repression for entertainment, you know, shows like “To Catch a Predator,” or the utter spectacle around Dominique Strauss-Kahn. You know, it’s a very dangerous situation. Naomi Klein has a great column on Reuters today – let me read a passage from it:

“We now live in a world in which men like former New York-governor Eliot Spitzer, who was investigating financial wrongdoing by insurance giant AIG; Wikileaks founder Julian Assange; and Strauss-Kahn, whose efforts to reform the IMF gained him powerful opponents, can be and are kept under constant surveillance. Indeed, Strauss-Kahn, who had been the odds-on favorite to defeat Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election in France, probably interested more than one intelligence agency. This doesn’t mean that Strauss-Kahn is innocent or that he’s guilty, it means that policy outcomes can be advanced nowadays in a surveillance society by exploiting or manipulating sex-crime charges, whether real or inflated.”

You know, when there are billions of dollars at stake, when saying that a priest did something to me thirty years ago, something that could be neither proven nor unproven, means that you get hundreds of thousands of dollars, then there’s no way to find out what actually happened. You can have a truth commission, you can have people tell their stories, but as soon as you pay people off for being victims, then you lose any understanding of what’s going on. And that’s what’s the fundamental flaw of this report. There’s simply no awareness of this basic fact of human motivation.

DT: Like you said in your quote from the gay paper, there’s a whole world out of there of gay guys who had positive relationships with older guys when they were growing up, and that’s just totally ignored.

BA: Right. The study purports to be a literature review, and it misses key academic papers in the literature. It’s just sort of breathtaking. For instance, let me quote a study done in the mid-60s, if I can find it here. I mean, there have just been many studies. There was the study of a man in Australia who had something like a thousand contacts with boys and kept a very detailed record of each one. He’s hardly a model citizen, but a sociologist in Australia went and tracked down as many of those boys as he could. Not one had ever made a complaint against him, and very few of them had anything but positive things to say about their encounters. The 1965 study by Gebhardt of the Kinsey Institute examined 91 forensic cases of boys close to 15 who had sexual encounters with men. They are cases that came to official court attention, so it’s already highly negatively skewed, right? The boys were encouraging 70% of the time, passive 11%, resistant 16%. These are boys 12 to 15. He remarked in the paper that if 12- to 15-year old girls had as developed libidos as boys of the same age, our penal institutions would burst at the seams. So this is stuff you could say in 1965. Oddly, the John Jay report quotes Susan Clancy, who came out the year before last with a book that got lots of attention, The Trauma Myth. She, a Harvard-educated psychologist, points out that the idea that sexual abuse causes terrible trauma just isn’t true. She’s hardly for it; she says it’s bad for all kinds of reasons, but the claim it causes trauma just is not substantiated. A study done in the late 90s, that was condemned by the U.S. Congress, by a researcher from Temple University, found that if you take a community sample, a non-clinical sample, of people who have had experienced child sexual abuse, you find that three out of a hundred of them have psychological problems serious enough to warrant attention by standard criteria, but in the general population it’s two out of hundred. So just this tiny, tiny difference – it’s breathtaking to me that the John Jay report, supposedly objective social science, doesn’t consider those factors.

DT: So basically you’re saying the literature review was kind of limited.

BA: Well, it was extensive, but it was politically a very smart report. They said some things that haven’t been said elsewhere. They made some distinctions, but they couldn’t bring themselves to say other things. I mean, literally the church would probably face hundreds of millions of dollars more in damages if they were seen as not absolutely towing the current ideological line on this.

DT: You know, they do have little snippets, paragraphs on other groups like the Boy Scouts and other social institutions, for instance, and what happened there, but most of those seem to be from journalistic accounts. They included some data from that.

BA: Right. I think the difference between those other institutions and the church, which isn’t mentioned in the report, is that the church is a sitting duck. Church membership has been declining, the number of nuns and monks has been declining, the number of priests has been declining, so the Catholic Church is sitting upon a huge amount of property and wealth accumulated over the centuries, and so they’re a very tempting target. I mean, what does the Boy Scouts own? Do they even own the camps where they go? So the money is the real story here, just as it’s the real story in American politics. It’s the real story behind the scandal and behind all the journalistic attention, all the Pulitzer prizes. It’s a self-feeding cycle of lawyers and (quote unquote) “victims” and media, and billions of dollars have been made free to circulate in the process.

DT: It seems you’re either a perpetrator or a survivor. We’ve come to see this interaction in those terms, so the whole world is divided into victims or survivors and perpetrators.

BA: Right, it’s a very black-and-white situation. If this stuff was going to be talked about, there was a chance to have a nuanced discussion, but obviously the Catholic approach to this has been not to talk about it. Now, post-sexual revolution, we feel we can talk about anything, and certainly the media exploit our fascination with sex and accidents and death and so forth. This scandal makes me think sometimes that there’s perhaps a wisdom in keeping a lid on things, that once everything’s up for discussion, it’s possible to foment these hysterias that feed on money and greed and really distort the underlying human reality.

DT: Are you surprised at the reaction of the established gay groups to the report?

BA: Well, a few bones were thrown to them, right? I think that was also part of the politics here. Since I don’t really believe in these categories – I don’t think there’s an absolute form of gay identity that absolutely excludes attraction to adolescents. I think a lot of people whose main attraction is to men or women also feel some sort of erotic feelings for people younger. So I have a hard time buying into this very safe way of looking at the world: that there are these sexual monsters out there, and they are not us. But yeah, the report, coming from a very politically correct, liberal ideological perspective, underscores that gays in the priesthood are no more likely to molest boys than anybody else.

DT: You know, that’s why I was wondering why this report didn’t even deal with the issue of punishment, because there is this group called Reform Sex Offender Laws, but none of that is addressed in this report. The fact is that these laws are becoming more and more draconian, as you say, and none of that is being discussed.

BA: Yes, it’s very sad to read this report and see a mention of Fr. John Geoghan, for instance, whose case was one of the major cases exploited in the Boston Globe. He was convicted of one charge: he was convicted of patting a boy on his behind in a public pool. Now there were other allegations made against him, but they have to be colored by the fact that there was a $30 million settlement in that case. I’m not sure if it was actually that – I’m looking at Wikipedia here – it might have ended up being $10 million, but it says, “negotiations are still in progress with other victims.” So that testimony is certainly dubious given the fact that it was testimony for money. We know he did one thing, but he ended up getting strangled and stomped to death in prison in 2003 – so the report mentions him, but it doesn’t mention his fate. Now the report also mentions Father Paul Shanley, the prize conviction in Boston. He was someone who was convicted on the basis of recovered memories. Two men suddenly recalled things that went on when they were six – no one else upon the scene in the Catholic school, the church, recalled anything like what these young men said happened. Shanley had a long history of gay relationships with adult men; it’s very unlikely he did these things with these six-year olds. Recovered memory testimony is not allowed in most courts, in most states, but it was allowed in this case, and he was convicted and basically given a life sentence. So it mentions him and it mentions Geoghan, but it doesn’t mention their fates. That is part of the cold-bloodedness of this report, I think.

DT: The professor from UC Irvine, Beth Loftus, actually testified on Shanley’s behalf in the case, against recovered memory, but her testimony was dismissed, was discounted in that case. Orange County also had a recent case in which an accused offender was actually beaten to death by sheriff’s deputies – or a sheriff’s deputy ordered him beaten to death. So these are the consequences of all these draconian sex-panic laws that are prevalent. But you know, it seems to me that it’s surprising, if what you say is true – that there’s actually a lot of gay men who had positive relationships – how come they’re not going to sue the Catholic Church and try to get money from the Catholic Church?

BA: Well, I’m sure some of them are and some of them have, but whether they’re gay or not, I don’t know how relevant that is. But if someone offers you $500,000 for saying something happened 20 years ago and cooking up a report with a lawyer, then it’s going to be something that’s awfully tempting to do.

DT: Right, well that might still happen. Well, thank you very much. We’ve been talking with Bill Andriette, a critic of this report, it turns out. And earlier we had Karen Terry on, who is the head of the research team that put out this report submitted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The title is The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010. Well, thanks very much, Bill. Bye-bye.

BA: Thanks, bye.

DT: So that was our analysis, pro and con, of this new report on child sexuality by Catholic priests that was issued last week. We talked with the chief researcher on this report and also with a critic from the gay media about this report. This is Dan Tsang, signing off for “Subversity.”

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