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updated 5/18/2011 5:59:00 PM ET 2011-05-18T21:59:00

Researchers hired by the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to determine the causes of the sex crisis that convulsed the church dismissed all the usual suspects:

Few of the offenders were pedophiles. The abusers were not acting on their homosexuality. Mandatory celibacy did not turn clerics into molesters.

Instead, most of the priest-offenders came from seminary classes of the 1940s and 1950s who were not properly trained to confront the upheavals of the 1960s, when behavioral norms were upended and crime overall in the United States spiked, the researchers said.

"There's no indication in our data that priests are any more likely to abuse children than anyone else in society," said Karen Terry, principal investigator for the report, at a news conference where the report was released Wednesday.

The analysis by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was the last of three studies authorized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, when the scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston and created what bishops have called the worst crisis in American Catholicism.

The findings contained both good and bad news for a church hierarchy beaten down by years of criticism.

Church leaders hoped to learn how dioceses could identify offenders before they acted. Researchers, however, said they could find no single cause of the abuse, and said molesters generally have not specialized in victims according to age or gender.

The study's authors said that U.S. bishops did, in fact, begin to respond to molestation cases starting in the 1980s as they learned the scope of the problem. Yet, until recent years, after victims began their advocacy, church leaders were more concerned with rehabilitating priests than with helping victims.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests dismissed the report as "garbage in, garbage out" because the bishops paid for much of the $1.8 million study, along with Catholic foundations, individual donors and a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Terry insisted the findings were independent. Researchers spoke with victims and their advocates, conducted surveys of bishops and diocesan officials who work with victims, and reviewed thousands of records, including a 1970s-era study on the psychology of priests and more than 1,000 case files of three treatment centers where abusive clerics received counseling. John Jay College and others also have been collecting data from bishops about the number of abuse claims and victims since 1950.

"We did the writing," Terry said. "This is our report. None of the bishops had any influence on the findings of the study."

The authors said they found no "psychological characteristics" or "developmental histories" that distinguished guilty priests from clergy who did not molest children.

The majority of abusive priests were instead what social scientists call "generalists," meaning offenders who did not specialize in a type of victim by age or gender or other characteristics. As an example, Terry pointed to the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, who was recently revealed to have sexually abused young seminarians and also fathered three children.

Only a tiny percentage of the accused priests — less than 5 percent — could be technically defined as pedophiles, meaning adults with a primary, intense attraction to children who have not yet gone through puberty. The bulk of victims were ages 11 to 14. That finding was criticized by victims and others as minimizing the problem, since the American Psychiatric Association defines pedophilia as an attraction to children age 13 or younger.

David Finkelhor, who leads the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said nitpicking with the researchers over their criteria for abuse was pointless, since clearly the overwhelming majority of guilty priests were not pedophiles. Half the victims were age 13 or older when they were molested.

"Even some offenders who abuse prepubescent kids are not pedophiles," Finkelhor said.

About 80 percent of the more than 15,700 people who said they had been abused since 1950 were male. Catholics upset by the presence of gays in American seminaries blamed them for the scandal, but the John Jay researchers said that the offenders chose to victimize boys mainly because clergy had greater access to them.

"We looked at behavior of men before they entered seminary, in seminary and once they were ordained," Terry said. "Those who participated in same-sex behavior were not significantly more likely to abuse children than men who had not had that same-sex behavior."

The bishops have said they will use the results of the report to guide them as they consider possible revisions this year to their child protection plan, called the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The policy bars credibly accused priests from any public church work, although it contains no penalty for bishops who keep the men in ministry. In February, a Philadelphia grand jury said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had failed to remove some accused priests. Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali responded by temporarily suspending about two dozen of the clergy and hiring a prosecutor to review their cases. Bishop Blase Cupich, head of the U.S. bishops' child protection committee, dismissed Philadelphia as "an anomaly."

In fact, the researchers called the crisis "history." They found abuse claims peaked in the 1970s, then began declining sharply in 1985, as the bishops and society in general gained awareness about molestation and its impact on children. Most of the hundreds of claims being made now involve allegations from decades ago by adults who have only recently come forward.

David O'Brien, a historian of American Catholicism at the University of Dayton, said the report was dangerous because it seemed to exonerate bishops. Researchers said that when bishops sent accused priests for treatment, then returned the clerics to ministry over the decades, they were following the best advice available to them at the time.

"This recalls an old tabloid banner headline from an early pre-Boston stage of this crisis — 'Bishops Blame Society,'" said O'Brien, an advocate for a greater lay involvement in the church.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Bishop's sex abuse report passes the buck

  1. Transcript of: Bishop's sex abuse report passes the buck

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: In this country, news tonight about a very difficult subject, the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church . And it's about a new study commissioned by the church and how few people will be satisfied when they hear the conclusions. The question was, what caused the crisis? Why did so many priests abuse children? Our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers reports tonight on these controversial findings.

    LISA MYERS reporting: The report's most significant finding that the permissive sexual culture of the '60s and '70s created stress for priests poorly trained to deal with it, and that the surge and sexual abuse of children by priests mirrored transient society. Some call it "Blaming Woodstock."

    Ms. KAREN TERRY (Principal Investigator for Report): There was a number of types of deviant behavior that increased in the '60s and '70s, and we saw that the increase in abuse cases in the church was consistent with some of these other patterns of behavior.

    MYERS: Researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice also found that neither celibacy nor homosexuality were to blame, that gay priests "were not significantly more likely to abuse minors" than heterosexual priests . Surprisingly, the report takes issue with the term "pedophile priest," saying less than 5 percent of the thousands of priests accused of abuse met the definition of pedophile. Researchers say reports of abuse have dropped sharply since the mid-'80s. The bishops credit their reforms. Bishop BLASE CUPICH ( United States Bishop 's Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People ): The study shows that what we are doing works.

    MYERS: But some victims of abuse say the report is flawed because it relies on numbers provided by the Catholic Church and undercounts victims.

    Ms. BARBARA BLAINE (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests): The bishops are using this moment to push responsibility off on someone else.

    MYERS: Some say the church hierarchy has turned a blind eye to abuse .

    Mr. JASON BERRY (Investigative Reporter): The problem is the power structure and the fact that bishops are not punished, cardinals are not removed. And yet this report avoids that reality like the plague.

    MYERS: All sides agree that for decades the church failed to put children first. Lisa Myers , NBC News, Washington.

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