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Yearly Archives: 2015

Research Update – September 2015

Updates from the Clergy Abuse Research Consortium (CARC) have been few and far between as we transition into a new semester. That said, we have a few things in the pipeline:

  1. Jason will present at the annual conference of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association in Chicago in late September. The presentation, titled “Preliminary analysis of priests’ perceptions of the sexual abuse scandal,” will discuss what we have learned so far from survey data gathered from clergymen in three Wisconsin dioceses over the past six weeks. Admittedly, survey response rates are lower than expected, but clergy in the sample were mailed a reminder postcard within the last 10 days with the hope of increasing participation. Once finalized, we will post our key early findings.
  2. Kendra and Jason will present at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Washington DC in November. The presentation, titled “Examining diocesan sexual abuse files: A look at priests, church leaders, cover-up, and blame minimization,” will give an overview of the research that we have conducted on files from Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, and St. John’s Abbey, as well as concurrently on-going research with files from Joliet (to be discussed below).
  3. In our post from July 16, I mentioned that I submitted a Student-Faculty Research Collaboration grant proposal to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UWEC. In late-August, I learned that my student collaborator and I were awarded the grant in the amount of $1,998 (all money going to the student-researcher for her work on the project). This funding will help us analyze 16 publicly available files of priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet in Illinois who have been accused of sexual abuse of minors; these 16 files contain nearly 3,000 pages of documentation. As has been the case with most of our research to this point, we will code all instances of neutralization, justification, and deflection of self-blame by accused priests and others. We also will look for trends associated with offenders’ grooming of victims and all other victimization trends contained in the files. We hope to give our student collaborator ample opportunity to contribute to manuscript preparation and conference presentation, including MCJA in September 2016, the annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA) in April 2016 at UWEC, and perhaps the Posters in the Rotunda event that showcases undergraduate research and is held every spring in the Capitol Rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin.
  4. The manuscript that we submitted to the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse remains under review; hopefully positive news from that submission is on the horizon.

Letter to the Editor – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In early-August the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the creditors committee for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee felt the $21M settlement between the archdiocese and victim-survivors of priest sexual abuse was “the lesser of two evils” and that the committee felt “forced into a corner” in agreeing to the terms. The chairperson of the creditors committee also indicated that the archdiocese sought to throw out as many cases as possible. Altogether, 570 victims filed claims and the archdiocese agreed to compensate 330 of them; the chairperson noted, “We had to fight to get that number to 330.”

In reading this account, I was reminded of a statement in one of the priest files from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that we analyzed. The file contained information about an allegation of abuse against a priest who was already on court-ordered probation. In the file, an unnamed diocesan official wrote of “keeping the lid” on the accusation – essentially not telling anybody – so that formal law enforcement and other parishioners and parents would not be notified.

The connection between the past instance of covering up abuse and the current chairperson’s perception of the archdiocese’s legal strategy inspired me to write a Letter to the Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (As an aside, I have penned a commentary to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a letter to the editor of the New York Times that went unpublished, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything to come from my submission.) However, I was contacted by a representative of the Journal Sentinel yesterday and notified that the Letter would be published today.

Here is a link to the Letters page; my letter is the second one down: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/letters-b99562485z1-322885961.html

Research Update – July 2015

On July 13, 2015, cover letters were sent to 240 clergymen serving the three Catholic dioceses in the western and northern regions of Wisconsin. The letter briefly described the project, “The purpose of the questionnaire is to ask you about your perceptions and opinions of the allegations of sexual abuse that were directed towards the Church within the past 10-15 years,” and the respondents’ thoughts about the effectiveness of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in keeping minors safe. Standard language about the voluntariness of participation and maintaining confidentiality of the participants also was included; this information is expanded upon in the Informed Consent that will be mailed with the survey in approximately 10 days.

Today, July 16, 2015, I placed the order for the Informed Consent and Surveys from University Printing Services at UWEC. In addition to expanding the voluntariness and confidentiality sections, the Informed Consent also discusses the risks and benefits for the respondents. Members of the IRB at UWEC, especially Chair Axelrod, were very helpful in making suggestions for this section. Initial concerns that the IRB raised focused on my ability to identify participants based on certain responses. To assuage these concerns, the following language was added to the Informed Consent, “There are no identifiers on the survey, though some demographic questions may have the potential for indirect identification. I will not know who returns surveys and I have no interest in connecting responses to specific individuals.” Additionally, Chair Axelrod wrote the following, “The IRB concluded that you are required by law to contact Wisconsin Child Protective Services should details of sexual abuse of a minor (or suspected sexual abuse of a minor) be reported by a subject…The IRB would like your thoughts on this issue, including whether language in the Informed Consent form should state that should a subject identify himself or someone else, by name, that suggests some abuse of a minor, that you, as the researcher, are obligated to report the incident to Child Protective Services.”

After thinking about that question, I decided to add language to the Informed Consent detailing my obligation to report instances of sexual abuse of a minor to Child Protective Services. The language that I added is direct, but I tried to word it in a way that would not cause somebody to not reply. This section of the Informed Consent reads, “Please keep in mind that the Institutional Review Board at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire has concluded that I am required by law to contact Wisconsin Child Protective Services if details of sexual abuse (or suspected sexual abuse) of a minor is reported by a participant in this research, though no survey questions ask about specific instances of abuse.”

We have another project on the horizon. As I’ve written on multiple occasions, UWEC is renowned for the faculty-student research opportunities that are available for undergraduate students. Annually, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UWEC offers the Student-Faculty Research Collaboration grant opportunity; first call for proposals was due yesterday, July 15. Along with one of the Criminal Justice Program’s top students, I hope to retrospectively analyze content from the files of accused priests in the Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. This analysis will mirror prior research that the Clergy Abuse Research Consortium has conducted on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and with another entity (unnamed because the manuscript is under review).

Conducting and Presenting Clergy Abuse Research with Student Researchers

Each year, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire sponsors a university-wide week-long event dubbed: Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity (CERCA). As a condition of the Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant that we received last summer, my student researchers had to present at CERCA this spring. Preston graduated in December, so the responsibility fell to Byron. With a little help, he created the poster below. The poster details the work that Preston and Byron did examining the use of techniques of neutralization in priest files from archdioceses in Los Angeles and Chicago.

CERCA 2015 Poster
The pair also traveled with me to the annual Midwestern Criminal Justice Association (MCJA) conference in Chicago last fall to present a poster detailing the preliminary findings of our work.

Our abstract from CERCA 2015 can be found in the abstract book. Our abstract from MCJA 2014 can be viewed in the meeting program.

Eventually, Kendra and I will conduct a full analysis of this data, much like we have done with data from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and St. John’s Abbey.

What We’re Working On – Summer 2015

1. Kendra, Shavonne Arthurs (a doctoral candidate in Criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania), and I recently submitted a manuscript for publication consideration to the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. Because the manuscript is under review, I won’t detail its content here.

2. Thanks to a generous University Research and Creative Activity grant and stipend from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, we will be able to conduct survey research with current clergymen. Our plan is to mail cover letters describing the project to all ordained clergymen in three dioceses in Wisconsin by mid-July. We will send informed consent guidelines and the questionnaires to our sample one week later. Depending on the early response rate, preliminary analysis of the data will be presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association in late-September.

Unpublished Commentary Submitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Last Friday I submitted a “Commentary” to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. As is the case with a recent Letter to the Editor of The New York Times, the commentary hasn’t been published (and I don’t think it will be). So, I’m sharing it here:

Within the past week, two noteworthy events occurred in the ongoing battle to hold local diocesan-level leaders accountable for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. First, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for mishandling abuse claims and its failure to protect children from predatory priests; Choi noted that he will file civil charges too (“Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis charged with ‘failing to protect’ clergy abuse victims;” June 6). Second, Pope Francis announced the creation of a Vatican tribunal that will listen to cases against bishops who negligently failed to take appropriate action against priests and others in their diocese who sexually abused minors, though specific policies and punishments haven’t been solidified (“Pope creates tribunal for cases of bishops who fail to protect children from pedophile priests;” June 10).

The charges against the Archdiocese and the creation of the tribunal are important first steps in increased accountability for the Catholic Church, especially its leaders. In a 2008 article from Criminal Justice and Behavior, Alex Piquero and his coauthors noted that critics of the Church have long-perceived its officials as “secretive and inaccessible” even after the creation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by U.S. Bishops in 2002. With the new tribunal and his July 2014 apology to six victims of sexual abuse, it appears Pope Francis is trying to change that narrative. Though, more action must be taken by district attorneys throughout the United States because the culpability of upper-level officials is not unique to leaders from St. Paul and Minneapolis; it has been a systemic problem for generations in dioceses throughout the U.S.

Kendra Bowen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University, and I have conducted multiple retrospective analyses of Church documents from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN (Diocese of Saint Cloud). We also have conducted preliminary analyses of files from the archdioceses in Chicago and Los Angeles. In one analysis of the archdiocese in Milwaukee that Bowen and I conducted (along with James Bowers of Saginaw Valley State University), there were many instances of Church officials actively dissuading families or others within the Church from contacting personnel boards or law enforcement officers. The most shocking example involved a priest on court-ordered probation who allegedly violated that probation by molesting a young boy while fishing. In the priest’s file was correspondence from an unnamed diocesan official who wrote, “I would try to keep the lid on the thing, so no police record would be made.” Later in the entry the official wrote of attempts to convince the victim’s mother to not file a report with local law enforcement. Documentation from St. John’s Abbey reveals a similar decades-long pattern of concealment by Church leaders. In a 1976 letter from the Abbot to the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he expresses hope that details of a sexually abusive monk do not become public so that a scandal does not ensue. In 1990, the Chancellor sent a memo to several administrators that detailed allegations against a monk. The Chancellor warned of the negative ramifications that would come if the accusations were publicized; namely, one of the affected parishes was set to begin a capital fund drive in celebration of its 100th anniversary. Likely, the Chancellor did not want to disturb fundraising efforts.

In addition to containing evidence of cover-ups by high-ranking diocesan leaders, these files also detail the extent priests and Church officials went to in order to deflect blame for these crimes. Files show that in many instances, those affiliated with the Church would deny responsibility for the crimes that occurred. In some cases, it was the priests who attempted to justify their behaviors by blaming drugs, alcohol, their parents, or their immaturity. Yet, more systemically across dioceses, Church administrators did not attempt to hold offenders legally responsible for their crimes. Instead, the prevailing response was to send an abusive priest away for treatment and then transfer him to another parish, while failing to notify those in the new parish about past allegations. It can be hypothesized that by failing to hold individual priests responsible for their behaviors immediately, the bishops and other leaders engendered a sense of impregnability in the priests that led to future offending and countless victims. For this reason, the decisions by two wholly different oversight agencies – the Ramsey County Attorney and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – to address the historical lack of accountability that dioceses and their leaders are subjected to, comes as welcome news. I am hopeful that more prosecuting agencies follow Choi’s path and that the Pope’s newly-formed tribunal effectively punishes leaders whose failure to lead led to disastrous criminal consequences.

Unpublished Letter “To the Editor” of The New York Times

Last Thursday I submitted a letter to The New York Times. It wasn’t published, and I don’t think it will be. Thus, I’m sharing it here:

To the Editor:

Pope Creates Tribunal for Bishop Negligence in Child Sexual Abuse Cases” (June 10) discusses Pope Francis’ approval of a new board that can hold bishops accountable for concealing allegations of abuse against children. I applaud this announcement as well as the criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for mishandling sexual abuse claims (“Catholic Archdiocese in Minnesota Charged Over Sex Abuse by Priest;” June 5). These efforts are a long overdue first step at holding upper-level diocesan officials accountable for their lack of action, though I understand the skepticism of victim-survivors and their advocates who ask if it will really make a difference

I think it will. Scholarship by my colleagues and I suggests these cover-ups are not isolated to bishops in this one archdiocese; rather, it is systemic. Retrospective analyses of files of abusive priests in Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota provide ample evidence that some bishops knew of these offenses and did little to rectify them. I am hopeful that this policy and these criminal charges will help prevent future wrongs.

Recent Peer-Reviewed Publication in Journal of Crime & Justice

On December 23, 2014, the Journal of Crime & Justice published an article written by Kendra and I along with our colleague James Bowers of Saginaw Valley State University.

The manuscript is titled: “Neutralizations and a history of ‘keeping the lid’ on it: How church leaders handled and explained sexual abuse in one diocese.” The article abstract reads as follows:

While much is known about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, there are very few criminological studies on the topic. This research adds to that knowledge base. This study examines the techniques of neutralization used by diocesan personnel in their efforts to justify priests’ abusive behaviors and temper public knowledge of what was occurring behind closed doors. Over 4,000 pages of documentation, from 42 priest files, unsealed by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in July 2013 were analyzed retrospectively via qualitative content analysis of all statements consistent with neutralization techniques. Findings indicate that diocesan personnel were most likely to deny injury and responsibility, and that some were very forthright about covering up these crimes. The need for continued qualitative research using more recently released files, as well as surveys and interviews with Church leaders, also is discussed.

Special thanks to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire for providing funding through the Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant program and to Preston for his research assistance.

Recent Peer-Reviewed Publication in Journal of Interpersonal Violence

On April 8, 2015, Journal of Interpersonal Violence published via OnlineFirst a manuscript written by Kendra and I.

The article is titled: “Techniques of Neutralization and Persistent Sexual Abuse by Clergy: A Content Analysis of Priest Personnel Files from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.” The abstract of the manuscript reads as follows:

The sexual abuse problem in the Catholic Church has received considerable attention by the media in recent years and growing attention from empirical researchers. Despite this growth, there is a lack of theoretical research that uses neutralization techniques to examine clergy offending. Using Sykes’ and Matza’s theory, this study examines the techniques of neutralization used by accused priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Priests’ personnel files, which were made publicly available by the Archbishop of Milwaukee in July 2013, were analyzed retrospectively through a qualitative content analysis of all direct statements and correspondences from the accused. The findings indicate that many priests denied responsibility or injury in an effort to justify their sexually abusive behaviors, but that no discernible patterns of technique use emerged. The need for continued research using recently released personnel files from other dioceses also is discussed.

Special thanks to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire for providing funding through the Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant program and to Preston for his research assistance.