The question: Is the Catholic abuse crisis over?
The John Jay report into sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clerics, commissioned by the US church itself, is one of the most comprehensive documents that the church has published anywhere in the world on the sexual scandal that has caused it so much embarrassment and its victims so much grief.
The portrait it paints of the abusers themselves are of isolated, vulnerable individuals who had difficulties in bonding with others in normal relationships, who led stressful lives and were likely to have been abused themselves. And as the report itself says:
"Priest-abusers are similar to sex offenders in the general population. They had motivation to commit the abuse (for example, emotional congruence to adolescents), exhibited techniques of neutralization to excuse and justify their behaviour, took advantage of opportunities to abuse (for example, through socialization with the family), and used grooming techniques to gain compliance from potential victims."
So why has there been quite so much outrage about sexual abuse of minors by priests, more than, say, of sexual abuse of minors by scout masters, or doctors, or teachers?
Andrew Brown in Comment is free last week put paid to the notion that there are more abusers among the Catholic priesthood than among other groups. So it's not the frequency of occurrence that is the problem. The disgust, I would suggest, is rightly felt in one way because the exploitation and abuse of children is so terrible a deed.
But we also feel that disgust so intensely because we all – not just Catholics, but society at large – expect Catholic priests to be different, to not be so reprehensible in their behaviour.
And a major reason for that is that we have all bought into the problem: we have accepted the view that priests are different, that they are in an elevated position from the rest of us, that they are somehow holier.
And if they are holier, they are above the usual human frailties. Too many of us assumed that priests would not be capable of such actions, that they should be treated specially and differently from anybody else accused of heinous crimes.
Faith is essential to religion, but this was blind faith. The institution of the Catholic church for years promoted clericalism with this view of the elevated priest above the laity, and it was barely questioned.
In his 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland about the abuse scandal, the pope did go some way to acknowledge the situation, speaking of the shame and remorse that he feels. This was also the man who spoke of "the filth in the church" just before he was elected pope.
But Benedict's letter also showed the inherent weaknesses of the church's position, suggesting that the solution was greater spiritual devotion of the faithful. While he did acknowledge the role of clericalism, at least in the Irish context, he also shifted blame for the crisis on to secular culture as well.
For the Irish Catholics who love the church – and indeed those elsewhere who love the church – the idea that the clerical abuse crisis might be down to their lack of devotion is deeply depressing. As to the idea that the secular culture might be the cause – a view also promoted by the John Jay report – it is hard to understand why the church would come to this conclusion.
For while the report concludes that the rise in abuse cases mirrors changes in American society in the 1960s and the 1970s – the "Woodstock era" of increased sexual permissiveness – it also reveals that 70% of abusers were ordained before the 1970s, that more abusers were educated in the seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s than any other era, and that abuse cases have tailed off. So an external permissive culture seems unlikely to be a cause.
The sex abuse crisis is a test of the church's relationship with the secular world. Blaming the outside for its internal ills won't help. Nor will encouraging the idea that the laity and the priestly caste are separate and different.
The laity helped blow the whistle on what the church was keeping secret.
When Catholics hear sermons about Doubting Thomas, who wouldn't believe until he saw the evidence of the risen Christ with his own eyes, he is not usually described as a man to be admired.
But the sex abuse crisis shows us that Doubting Thomases, if they demand the evidence others keep hidden, are our heroes.