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Spotlight Report

No consensus on why abuse peaked in '60s

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 2/27/2004

Most of the sexual abuse reported to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston over the last half century took place between 1965 and 1982, and more than one-third of the archdiocesan priests accused of sexual abuse in that period were ordained between 1960 and 1969, raising more questions than answers about how and why the abuse peaked in that era.

Among the priests, victims, advocates, and clinicians interviewed, some suggest that the priests responsible for the bulk of abuse came of age in a more permissive era, when authority was being challenged at all levels and when the sexual revolution emboldened those who were attracted to children and teenagers.

Others say that seminaries -- especially St. John Seminary in Brighton, which is run by the Boston Archdiocese -- did a poor job of screening out potential abusers.

Still others say it was a simply a matter of demographics: The numbers of priests who sexually abused minors were highest when the total number of priests serving in the archdiocese was highest, and the number dwindled with the drop in priests and the growing awareness in the wider society of the dangers of the sexual abuse of children.

In its report issued yesterday, the archdiocese said that 216 priests who worked in the archdiocese were accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2003. Of that number, 162 were archdiocesan priests, rather than members of religious orders, and 59 of those 162 were ordained between 1960 and 1969.

The Rev. John Allan Loftus -- a Jesuit priest at Boston College who is a clinical psychologist and former director of Southdown, a facility in Auror, Ontario, that treats abusive priests -- cautioned against drawing conclusions about the apparent peak in the data released yesterday.

"I'm not sure anyone will know unless there is more research," Loftus said. "That kind of research has to start. It could be any of the reasons that come to mind anecdotally: `Hey, it was the '60s; everybody was going crazy. It was something at St. John's.'

"My fear is that everyone will talk about what they think the cause was without doing the research that's needed," he said.

The archdiocese did not report the ages of the victims, making it impossible to say how many priests may have been pedophiles, who abused prepubescent children, and how many may have been ephebophiles, those who abuse postpubescent children. The archdiocese supplied the ages to the National Review Board, whose report will be released today, but did not include the ages or gender of victims in yesterday's report.

In a statement, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said he took "some consolation in the fact that the number of incidents of abuse occurring within the last 20 years seems to have dropped so precipitously."

Some challenged that assessment, contending it is too early to say, given that children who are sexually abused typically do not report the abuse until many years later. Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer who has represented many abuse victims, said it is impossible to conclude that the incidence of abuse has declined dramatically, "because a lot of people haven't come out yet."

The numbers suggest that some of the worst abusers were ordained after studying at St. John's Seminary in the 1960s. The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman and a teacher at St. John's, said the seminary did not conduct psychological testing of applicants until the 1970s, making it easier for abusers to enter the priesthood.

MacLeish called the class of 1960 at St. John's "a cesspool" that produced some of the most vicious and prolific of abusive priests: John M. Cotter, Paul R. Shanley, Joseph E. Birmingham, Eugene M. O'Sullivan, and Bernard J. Lane.

One of Birmingham's victims, Gary Bergeron, said he and other victims call the class of 1960 "the Dirty Dozen," including not just abusers but those who enabled or protected them, including Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., who was a former top aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston.

There were 52 victims in a legal action that named Birmingham as an abuser, "but there were 86 kids from Lowell who came forward and named him as having abused them," Bergeron said. "I don't have any theories about that era, except that it was blatantly obvious that it was acceptable behavior, not just by the abusers, but by those who knew what was going on and didn't do anything about it."

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer who warned the Vatican in the mid-1980s that it was not doing enough to combat sexual abuse by priests, said the greatest number of cases in Boston were between 1965 and 1982 "because reporting peaked" for the victims from that period.

"The reason there are fewer cases in the last 20 years is because there are fewer priests, and you can't hide them," Doyle said.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said there has been a general decline in sexual abuse nationally since 1992. Finkelhor, author of a report on that phenomenon for the US Justice Department, said the drop is the result of a combination of abusers being caught and deterred, as well as a greater awareness about the dangers of abuse.

"Kids aren't as vulnerable as they were," he said.

Finkelhor was wary of blaming everything on the 1960s, but said the cultural changes can't be discounted.

"The sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s blindsided some people who had counted on traditional notions of morality to rein in their behavior," Finkelhor said. "There are those who rely on internal forms of morality, and others who rely more on external restraints. Those restraints were loosened in that period."

Still, Finkelhor said, the individual histories of abusers would be more telling in the search for explanations.

MacLeish and Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who represented most victims of the former priest John J. Geoghan, said that if the archdiocese releases the names of accused priests, more victims will step forward.

"There is no consolation to be taken from these numbers," MacLeish said.

But the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, a Sharon priest who was among those who asked Law to step down because of his mishandling of the sexual abuse scandal, said the numbers will help "good priests" who have labored under a shadow and want to help with healing among victims and other Catholics.

"The numbers show it's not endemic," he said. "People need to go beyond the numbers into the systemic causes and realities. We know what happened. We don't know how and why. We need to keep looking for those answers."

Michael Paulson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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