Reforms enacted in the training and formation of American Catholic priests, some of which took place 20 years ago, may be responsible for the sharp decline in child abuse cases in the last decade, according to an article in the Jesuit America magazine (January 2–9).
The most reliable studies that have been conducted, such as the in-depth survey conducted by John Jay College, found that most cases of abuse occurred between 1960 and 1985, after which the numbers dropped substantially and remained low (although most of the abuse cases were reported after 1995).
Sociologist Katarina Schuth finds that church documents about preparation for the priesthood only began to treat celibacy in a serious way in the 1980s, culminating in the fifth edition of the key document “The Program of Priestly Formation” in 2005, which paid extensive attention to celibacy, with instructions of how seminarians should develop a theological rationale for celibate life and cultivate a moral character and conscience through ascetic practices. Paralleling these changes were shifts in seminary formation. Before the mid-1990s, seminarians who might have identified their struggles with celibacy and sexuality did so only under strict confidence with a spiritual director and not with other formation personnel who could have acted on the information. By the mid-1990s, the confidential nature of spiritual direction was balanced by each student also being provided with a formation advisor.
By the mid-2000s, a separate “human formation” program was incorporated in seminaries, which included extensive instruction on celibacy, admission processes paid closer attention to matters involving life-long celibacy, and the Vatican initiated visitation to seminaries in 2005–06. There are anecdotal signs that these changes have helped lower the abuse rate, according to Schuth. The few seminaries that already introduced some of these innovations in the 1960s, such as instruction in celibacy, showed a lower rate of abuse among their graduates. As these few early programs have mushroomed, the accusations of abuse have likewise dropped—from 975 accusations in 1985–89 to 73 in 2004–08.
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