Inquiry The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010

Alternative Names
  • The John Jay Causes and Context Report
Inquiry Type
Commissioned research
United States of America

Key Dates

1950 - 2010
Period of investigation
2006 - 18 May 2011
Period of operation
18 May 2011
Final Report


The Causes and Context study examined the question of how and why clerical child sex abuse occurred. In its call for research proposals, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops requested a study that would investigate and analyse the causes of abuse, and put the abuse in the context of child sex abuse in the United States and the Catholic Church more broadly.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed the John Jay College of Criminal Justice through a competitive tender process to carry out the study, which continued an earlier study that the John Jay College had completed. The earlier study, "The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States" (commonly known as "The John Jay Report), was published in 2004. It was also commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Process
The research team used a variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches to investigate why clerical child sex abuse incidents increased in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, and declined from the 1980s.

The 'census' data collected through the 2004 Nature and Scope study provided the foundation of the investigation. That data provided information about the alleged perpetrators, victims and incidents in 97% of dioceses across the United States between 1950 and 2002. This information was drawn from diocesan files for 4,392 priests who had been accused of child sexual abuse and included data on more than 10,000 abuse victims. Researchers built on that information with a broad research agenda, bringing together data already collected and developing new surveys.

Primarily the additional information was drawn from:

  • The Loyola Psychological Study: Conducted by Dr Eugene Kennedy at Loyola University of Chicago in 1970 and 1971, this included in-depth psychoanalytic interviews with 271 priests who were still active, as well as assessments of their personalities and attitudes, and consideration of their life history data.
  • Clinical data surveys: Completed by staff at three centres that provide psychological treatment to Catholic priests, the surveys collected extensive information from priests' clinic files, including data about their personal histories, seminary and ordination data, sexual experience, and psychological problems. One centre provided surveys on 715 priests treated and evaluated between 1984 and 1999, while another provided surveys on 401 priests treated after 1999. A third used data on a targeted sample of 170 individuals treated for sexually abusing a child, mostly in the 1990s.
  • Identity and behaviour data surveys: Surveys were distributed to all dioceses for distribution to accused priests. 119 priests responded, representing 120 dioceses. For comparative purposes, a second set of surveys was also distributed for non-accused priests. 361 non-accused priests responded.

Governing Legislation
There was no governing legislation for this inquiry.

Governing Authority
This was research conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. John Jay College reported to the United States conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board, which had been mandated to investigate the issue of clergy and child sexual abuse through Article 9 of a Charter agreed to by the Bishops in June 2002. Although this organisation was the major funder, contributions were also made by a number of other organisations to which the researchers would have had to be accountable.

Inquiry Locations
Data for the study was collected across the United States. John Jay College, which conducted the study, is based in New York.

Public Hearings
There were no public hearings as part of this study.

Private Sessions
The study did not hold private sessions but did draw heavily from the Loyola Psychological Study that involved in-depth interviews with 271 priests.

Written Submissions
Although written submissions in the traditional sense were not collected, John Jay College received around 2,000 surveys from priests and medical staff.

The Inquiry was itself a major research program undertaken by John Jay College on behalf of the United States Catholic College of Bishops. It included qualitative and quantitative research methods, including large-scale surveys and literature reviews. It also drew on research that had already been conducted as part of earlier studies, including in-depth interviews with active priests.

Witnesses as they are traditionally understood in the inquiry context were not used in this study. However, close to 2,000 surveys were completed by or about individual priests. Interviews with almost 200 priests carried out in the early 1970s were also drawn on.

This study was too wide-ranging to allow specific numbers of witnesses and institutions to be quoted. Given the nature of the Inquiry, however, most survivors and all perpetrators considered were male.

The report does not quote the number of institutions considered, although this figure would be high given the study's broad remit.

The research team found that there was no single answer to the causes of the "crisis" in child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church but that there were a number of contributing factors including the massive social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, serious gaps in seminary education prior to the 1970s, and poor monitoring of priests. It suggested that the stress that priests were under also made them more likely to offend, while the Church's poor response to allegations compounded the problem.

The requirement of celibacy and the all-male environment of the priesthood were not to blame, according to researchers, as these factors remained consistent throughout the rise and fall of the crisis. Neither could it be blamed on homosexuality. Although there was an increase in homosexual men entering the priesthood in the mid-1980s, their arrival coincided with the fall in abuse reports. They suggested that the fact that the abuse was more frequently of boys rather than girls was a question of access.

The researchers found that it would have been difficult to predict which priests would abuse children as their developmental histories and psychological characteristics were statistically indistinguishable from priests without allegations and only 5 per cent of perpetrators behaved in a way that was consistent with the psychiatric disorder, paedophilia.

The report authors made several key recommendations for measures to prevent future child sex abuse, centring on three key areas: education; situational prevention models; and oversight and accountability.

Specific recommendations included:

  • More education about behavioural expectations and celibacy for priests and those responsible for training them, both during their time in the seminary and afterwards
  • Greater effort to reduce opportunities for abuse and triggers for abusing, while also increasing the likelihood perpetrators will be identified
  • Encouragement of the formation of age-appropriate social bonds
  • Acknowledgement that the Church had underperformed in this area
  • More regular refinements of response mechanisms

Further Action
Although the Catholic Church in the United States has implemented changes since the publication of this report, it is unclear if these were in response to the recommendations of this report.

Related Inquiries
It is not clear if this study lead to a related inquiry. It followed on, however, from an earlier inquiry also conducted by the John Jay college of Criminal Justice for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Nature and Scope study.

Cost is not mentioned in the report, but estimates over $1.5 million are quoted in The New York Times, the Catholic News Service and the CV of the principal researcher, Professor Karen Terry.


Final Reports

Journal Articles

Newspaper Articles


Acknowledgement: this summary was prepared by Fiona Davis, Australian Catholic University