WASHINGTON (AFP) – A study released Wednesday probing the causes of the long-running child sex scandal in the US Catholic church refused to call the abuser priests pedophiles and blamed the abuse on a moral decline in US society.
"Most of the priests who had allegations of abuse are not pedophiles," the lead investigator for the study, Karen Terry of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told reporters.
"Most of the priests who had allegations of abuse, abused pubescent or post-pubescent minors," said Terry, while the victims of pedophiles are defined in the study as being 10 years old or younger.
The study, commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops after the church was rocked by a sex scandal with the admission in 2002 by the archbishop of Boston that he had protected a priest he knew to have molested children, said the sex abuse crisis was largely a thing of the past.
"The 'crisis' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is a historical problem," with the rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and '70s "influenced by social factors in American society generally," said the report, which covered a 60-year span starting in 1950.
Terry said that the 1960s and '70s were a period that saw "patterns of increased deviance of society", and the church sex abuse scandal developed parallel to that decline in social mores.
"The social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of some individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time," Terry said.
But the report did not see the Catholic clergy's commitment to celibacy, or the church's exclusively male priesthood as causes of the sex scandal.
Diane Knight, chair of the body of lay Catholics which oversaw the study, said that even if the 1960s and '70s were "a time of upheaval in many areas of society... none of what is included in this report should be interpreted as making excuses for the terrible acts of abuse that occurred."
Bishop Blase Cupich, head of the USCCB Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, apologized for the "suffering caused when some priests took advantage of their moral authority and abused innocent children in a criminal way."
The church has "a position of zero tolerance" towards clerics who sexually abuse children, added Cupich, vowing to "take whatever action is needed to see that abuse does not recur in the church."
Outside the USCCB building in Washington where the report was presented, a small group of victims who were abused decades ago by priests said the reports tough words against rogue priests and vows to prevent a recurrence of the sex scandal rang hollow.
Becky Ianni, who was abused by a priest from when she was nine until she was 11, slammed the report for "minimizing" the abuse.
"Saying that it happened in the '60s and '70s, it's a product of what was going on at that time, it minimized my abuse," she told AFP.
"And saying pedophilia is only with victims 10 and under -- what about all the other minors that were abused?" she asked.
According to the report, more than 11,000 incidents of sexual abuse of children by priests have been reported since 1950.