Expert: Donohue's claim that most abusive priests are gay is "unwarranted"

Blog ››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

One of the researchers responsible for a landmark statistical study of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church says that Catholic League president William Donohue "drew an unwarranted conclusion" from her work when he claimed that "most" of the clergy who committed the abuse have been "gay."

In a March 30 ad published in The New York Times, Donohue described the sex abuse scandal as a "homosexual crisis." Donohue added: "Eighty percent of the victims of priestly sexual abuse are male and most of them are post-pubescent. While homosexuality does not cause predatory behavior, and most gay priests are not molesters, most of the molesters have been gay."

During a March 31 appearance on CNN, Donohue elaborated on his claim, specifically citing a 2004 study produced by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which found that 81 percent of the alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests were male. During the CNN segment, Donohue repeated his assertion that "most of the molesters have been gay."

But in an interview with Media Matters, Margaret Smith -- a John Jay College criminologist who worked on the 2004 study -- said that while Donohue "quoted the study's data correctly," he "drew an unwarranted conclusion" in asserting that most of the abusers were gay.

Explaining that it is an oversimplification to assume to that priests who abuse male victims are gay, Smith said: "The majority of the abusive acts were homosexual in nature. That participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man."

As an example, Smith pointed to the case of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a prominent Mexican priest who allegedly abused male children and also allegedly carried on affairs with multiple women. Smith noted that while Maciel allegedly abused boys, most people would not think of him as a gay man.

In a November 18, 2009, Politics Daily column about Smith's research, David Gibson reported:

"What we are suggesting is that the idea of sexual identity be separated from the problem of sexual abuse," said Margaret Smith, a researcher from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which is conducting an independent study of sexual abuse in the priesthood from 1950 up to 2002. "At this point, we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and an increased likelihood of sexual abuse."

A second researcher, Karen Terry, also cautioned the bishops against making a correlation between homosexuality in the priesthood and the high incidence of abuse by priests against boys rather than girls -- a ratio found to be about 80-20.

"It's important to separate the sexual identity and the behavior," Terry said. "Someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature but not have a homosexual identity." Terry said factors such as greater access to boys is one reason for the skewed ratio. Smith also raised the analogy of prison populations where homosexual behavior is common even though the prisoners are not necessarily homosexuals, or cultures where men are rigidly segregated from women until adulthood, and homosexual activity is accepted and then ceases after marriage.

Such conclusions, moreover, are not unique to analyses of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. As Think Progress noted, Gregory Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California-Davis, analyzed a number of studies and concluded: "The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. This is not to argue that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children. But there is no scientific basis for asserting that they are more likely than heterosexual men to do so."

Andrew Sandquist contributed to this report.

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Diversity & Discrimination, LGBT
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William Donohue
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