Criminal Justice and Behavior

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Persistent Sexual Abusers in the Catholic Church: An Examination of
Characteristics and Offense Patterns
Cynthia Calkins Mercado, Jennifer A. Tallon and Karen J. Terry
Criminal Justice and Behavior 2008; 35; 629
DOI: 10.1177/0093854808314389
The online version of this article can be found at:
http://cjb.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/5/629

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PERSISTENT SEXUAL ABUSERS IN
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
An Examination of Characteristics
and Offense Patterns
CYNTHIA CALKINS MERCADO
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

JENNIFER A. TALLON
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

KAREN J. TERRY
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

This study aims to enhance understanding of clergy offending patterns through a comparison of low-rate and high-rate clergy
offenders. Data for these re-analyses are derived from 3,674 cases from the Nature and Scope of Child Sexual Abuse in the
Catholic Church. This article compares those clerics who had just one allegation with those who had a moderate (2 to 3), high
(4 to 9), or exceptionally high (10-plus) number of allegations of sexual abuse. Findings reveal that the 3.7% (n =137) who
had 10 or more victims accounted for a disproportionate 24.8% of the abuse. Priests with the most victims began perpetrating offenses at an earlier age and were more likely to have male victims than those who abused fewer victims. The importance of research addressing the causes and situational correlates of sexual offending by priests, as well as the need for more
refined management strategies, are discussed.
Keywords:

sex offenders; priests; offending patterns; recidivism

T

he intense publicity surrounding the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has typically focused on the most predatory offenders and the most egregious actions (or inactions) of the Church. Some priests who sexually abused minors engaged in predatory and
persistent behavior, such as John Geoghan, a priest from the Boston archdiocese who
allegedly abused more than 130 boys during several decades. He was eventually defrocked,
convicted on one count of sexual assault, and sentenced to prison, where an inmate killed
him. Few clerics with allegations of abuse have such a prolific record of offending, however, as the majority have a single allegation of abuse (John Jay College, 2004; 2006).
The aim of this article is to enhance understanding of distinct clergy offending patterns
through a comparison of groups of low-rate and high-rate clergy offenders. Using data from
the study on the nature and scope of child sexual abuse by priests (John Jay College, 2004,
2006), this article provides a comparison of clerics with one allegation of abuse with those
who had a moderate (2 to 3), high (4 to 9), or exceptionally high (10-plus) number of allegations of sexual abuse. These groups are compared on a number of variables, including

AUTHORS’ NOTE: Please address all correspondence to Cynthia Mercado, Department of Psychology, John
Jay College of Criminal Justice, 445 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019; e-mail: cmercado@jjay.cuny.edu.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 35 No. 5, ay 2008 629-642
DOI: 10.1177/0093854808314389
© 2008 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology

629
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CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR

characteristics of abusers (e.g., age of clerics, role in the church), characteristics of incidents (e.g., location of abuse, age and gender of their victims), nature of the abusive acts
(e.g., grooming behaviors, severity of the acts), and diocesan and criminal justice interventions. This comparison of the characteristics and offending patterns of groups with lower
and higher rates of offending provides a picture of the parameters and range of clergy
offending patterns and diocesan responses.

PREVALENCE AND PORTRAYAL OF SEXUAL OFFENDERS

Although it is often presumed that sex offenders recidivate at very high rates, research has
shown that detected re-offense rates for sexual offenders are, in fact, quite low. Hanson and
Morton-Bourgon (2004, 2005), in a meta-analysis of 95 studies examining recidivism among
more than 31,000 sex offenders, found that 13.7% recidivated with a new sexual offense
within a 5- to 6-year follow-up period. Although using a slightly shorter follow-up period of
3 years, another examination of nearly 10,000 sex offenders across 15 states found that 5.3%
were rearrested for a new sexual crime (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003). Recidivism rates
increase as follow-up periods lengthen (Harris & Hanson, 2004) and as broader criteria are
used to determine whether an offense occurred, yet it is clear that reconvictions for new sexual
offenses tend to be more infrequent than commonly assumed. Indeed, though recidivism rates
increase to 36.2% when any (sexual or nonsexual) re-offense is included (Hanson & MortonBourgon, 2004, 2005), sex offenders are still more likely than not to avoid re-arrest. Moreover,
re-arrests or further convictions are more likely to be of a general (nonsexual) than of a sexual
nature (Hanson & Bussière, 1998; Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2004, 2005). That said, these
percentages should be considered underestimates as many sexual offenses go undetected, and
offenses that are reported do not always result in an arrest or conviction.
The media may, in part, be accountable for the public perception of all sex offenders as
highly predatory individuals. The portrayal of sex offenders in the media is often sensationalized or presented in a manner that seems to encourage fear or public misconception
surrounding the nature of sex offenses (Dowler, 2006; Levenson & D’Amora, 2007). Many
of the cases highlighted in the news are those involving the rape and murder of children,
such as the tragic case of Jessica Lundsford. However, even more “ordinary” sexual
offenses garner a great deal of media interest, especially those involving abuse by trusted
figures such as school teachers or scout leaders.
Clergy sexual abusers in particular have been subject to a unique and unprecedented level
of media exposure, with “allegations, convictions, resignations, and cover-ups of priest sex
offenders” capturing headlines in nearly every major newspaper across the United States
(Plante, 2004, p. xvii). Media accounts of clergy sexual abuse began occurring with some
regularity in the late 1980s and increased in the 1990s (Jenkins, 1996), with periodicals as
diverse as The National Catholic Reporter, Playboy, Rolling Stone, People, and Newsweek
publishing lengthy analyses of clergy sexual abuse (Jenkins, 1996). The new millennium
brought even more media activity. In 2002, for example, the front page of The New York
Times included reports on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal for 41 consecutive days
(Plante, 2004). The Boston Globe pioneered the most extensive journalistic inquiry into the
sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002, though media interest continued long
after the Boston Globe “broke” the story (“Betrayal: The Crisis,” 2002).
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Although media accounts of clergy abuse continue to flourish, many of the most highly
publicized accounts seem to portray clergy offenders as a singular, highly predatory group.
Cases like that of John Geoghan and Father James Porter who, like Geoghan, was alleged
to have perpetrated offenses on several hundred youth (Jenkins, 1996), have received the
majority of the media attention. Indeed, the media focus has often centered on priests who
had been molesting for years, in which the Church knew of the abuse and shuttled the priest
from one parish or diocese to another (Jenkins, 1996). Despite the attention on these highprofile cases, it stands to reason that clergy offenders are a heterogeneous group whose
motivation for perpetrating offenses and whose offending patterns vary considerably, as
does the population of nonclergy sex offenders.
Typologies, or classification schemes, created to explain the etiology of nonclergy sex
offenders may also be applicable to abusive priests. Early typology research identified as a
core distinction that child sexual abusers have either a primary attraction to children (they are
fixated) or they are primarily attracted to age mates and regress to abusing children in certain
situations (regressed offenders). First proposed by Cohen, Seghorn, and Calmus in 1969, this
still-prominent distinction asserts that some sex offenders perpetrate a sexual assault not because
their primary sexual attraction is toward children but, rather, because of situational or contextual
factors that weaken inhibitory controls. These regressed offenders sexually abuse children as a
result of situational stressors (e.g., loss of partner), negative affective states (e.g., feelings of
inadequacy), low social competence, or interpersonal rejection. In contrast, fixated sex offenders, whose exclusive sexual attraction is toward children, are thought to pose a much higher risk
of recidivism because of this primary and persistent interest in children (Terry, 2006).
Although Cohen et al. (1969) posed the earliest typology of this nature, Groth, Hobson,
and Gary (1982), Howells (1981), and Quinsey (1986) put forth comparable categorizations
that similarly distinguish between types of child sexual abusers. Research indicates that fixated offenders are more likely to engage in predatory and preparatory grooming behaviors,
to have a preference for male victims, and to have a later onset of these deviant child-focused
sexual interests as compared to regressed offenders (Groth et al., 1982; Johnston & Johnston,
1997). Some researchers (e.g., Bickley & Beech, 2001; Simon, Sales, Kaszniak, & Kahn,
1992) have noted that the regressed–fixated typology functions along a continuum rather
than as a dichotomy, with many offenders having both regressed and fixated characteristics.
Although this typology remains among the most commonly understood way of categorizing
deviant sexual behavior against children, later research (e.g., Knight & Prentky, 1990) more
fully explains the nature of child sexual abuse. Such classification schemes are a derivative
of the fixated–regressed typologies, but they analyze the behavior on multiple axes and take
into consideration factors such as social competence.
Despite the heterogeneity of sexual offenders, they are often portrayed as singularly as
“fiends”, “monsters”, and “predators” in the media (Jenkins, 1998). Jenkins (1998) has
argued that concern about sexual offenders has amounted to something of a moral panic, or
an exaggerated public fear, that has attracted “a vastly disproportionate share of official
attention” (p. 238). Douard (2007) has argued that this moral panic inflates the risk of sex
offending by misrepresenting recidivism rates and construing all sex offenses to be
pedophilic in nature. Along those same lines, Jenkins (1996) asserted that the media has
created the image of the “pedophile priest” by devoting excessive attention to sensationalized and stereotypical cases, when in fact not all religious offenders are priests and most
offenses are not pedophilic (against prepubescent children) in nature.
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CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR

These faulty or exaggerated media representations may result in the development of prototypes of clergy sexual abuse. Prototypes, which are best conceptualized as being the “central tendency” or average of the characteristics of the members in a category (Fiske &
Taylor, 1991), help facilitate the categorization of new information. Thus, individuals may
come to believe that these highly predatory and persistent clergy offenders featured in the
media, often mislabeled as “pedophile priests,” represent the typical sex offender.
Although there are certainly dangerous clergy offenders who recidivate at high rates, it follows that clergy offenders, like their nonclergy offender counterparts, would display a range
of offending patterns and, therefore, pose differential risk to the community. Little research to
date, however, has examined populations of clergy abusers and the existing research may not
be generalizable because of the small sample sizes. Using archival data review from a group
of clergy treated at a residential facility, Ukeritis (2005) found that nearly 38% of the 74
clergy who had perpetrated offenses against children were classified as pedophiles (which she
defined as having victimized children aged 13 or younger), whereas more than 62% were
classified as ephebophiles (having victimized children between the ages of 14 and 18).
Moreover, 17% of this child molester sample was found to have perpetrated repeat offenses.
Finally, Ukeritis reported that clergy child molesters as well as boundary violators, or clergy
who engage in sexual relations with adults, were more likely to be transferred to another ministerial position than were clergy who had sought treatment for something other than sexual
misconduct. Langevin, Curnoe, and Bain (2000) compared a group of 24 clerics accused of
sexual offenses to a group of 24 male sex-offender controls, finding that clerics tended to use
physical force more often than nonclerics and that clerics tended to face fewer criminal
charges than their noncleric matched counterparts. Loftus and Carmargo (1993) found that
the majority (88%) of those in their sample of clergy who had acted out sexually with
children, had perpetrated offenses against male victims, whereas 4% perpetrated against male
and female victims and only 8% perpetrated offenses against female victims only.
The portrayal of clergy offenders as a homogenous and highly recidivistic group may
have had some impact on their regulation and management by the Catholic Church. The
Church’s zero-tolerance policy mandates the permanent removal of clergy with even a single substantiated allegation of sexual abuse against a minor (United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops, 2002). This “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing clergy abusers may
ignore important typological and risk distinctions. As the Catholic Church and other religious communities struggle to understand and prevent further clergy abuse and manage
those known to have perpetrated sexual offenses, it will be increasingly necessary to distinguish among subtypes of offenders.

METHOD

The data in this article are derived from the study on the Nature and Scope of Child
Sexual Abuse by Priests and Deacons from 1950 to 2002 (John Jay College, 2004, 2006;
Terry, this issue). The study found that 4,392 priests had allegations of abuse against 10,667
victims. This article will use data from a sample of 3,674 clerics for whom full cleric and
victim data is available.
In the Nature and Scope study, The John Jay College research team sent three survey
instruments to the presiding bishops and major superiors in all Catholic dioceses, eparchies,
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and religious communities in the United States. The first survey (“Diocesan Profile”) collected demographic data at the institutional level on the unit of the Catholic Church. The
second survey (“Cleric Survey”) focused on individual characteristics of clergy alleged to
have abused minors and included questions about the cleric’s abuse history and the number
of allegations made against this cleric. The third survey (“Victim Survey”) was completed
from files and records of victims who had made formal complaints to the Catholic Church
and focused on characteristics of the victim and the incidents. Dioceses and religious communities of men were mandated to complete one survey for each accused priest and one
survey for each known victim.
The Cleric Survey reports total counts of all victims who had made allegations of abuse,
but victim surveys were completed for a smaller number of individual victims, presumably
as a result of deficiencies in the records of the incidents. The subsample of 3,674 priests in
this article is based solely on the victims for whom a completed Victim Survey was submitted. All surveys report incidents alleged to have occurred between 1950 and 2002.
Diocesan employees were selected to complete the surveys from files maintained in the
dioceses and religious institutes of men. To ensure the greatest level of uniformity possible,
the researchers provided each diocese multiple types of instructions, including written
instructions, a video explaining how to complete the surveys, a research participation statement that reviewed the confidentiality protocols of the study and provided information about
counseling, a Web site with a regularly updated list of frequently asked questions, and access
to a 1-800 number for these employees to call with questions about the survey instruments.
The research team employed strict confidentiality procedures for this study. The surveys
were sent in double envelopes through an independent auditor at a national accounting firm
who identified the diocese, matched it to a list of randomized numbers, coded the inner
envelope with that number and discarded the outer envelope (which had the postmark). He
mailed the envelope with only the code and no other identifying information to the
researchers. The surveys were completely anonymous in that they contained no identifying
information about the dioceses, clergy who had allegations of abuse, or the individuals who
reported the abuse. For a more detailed account of the methodology, see Terry (this issue).
PROCEDURE

Of the 3,674 priests who met the selection criteria for this subsample, the categorization of
our offender groups is as follows: clerics with 1 victim (n = 1,915), clerics with 2 to 3 victims
(n = 1,082), clerics with 4 to 9 victims (n = 540), and clerics with 10 or more victims (n = 137).
To test for mean differences among groups on a number of variables, a series of one-way
analysis of variance tests with Bonferroni post hoc procedures were used. Because chisquare analyses proved to be difficult because of the small size of the groups on certain categorical variables of interest, we have in some cases included just the descriptive data.

RESULTS

Completed survey packets were returned from 97% (n = 195) of the Catholic dioceses
and eparchies (representing 99% of that population) and by 64% (n = 142) of the Catholic
religious institutes of men in the United States (representing 83% of that population). This

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CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR

TABLE 1:

Cleric Status by Offender Groups

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

Status

Count

%

Count

%

Count

%

Count

%

Diocesan cleric
Religious cleric

1,436
479

74.99
25.01

849
233

78.47
21.53

435
105

80.56
19.44

123
14

89.78
10.22

Note. For full definitions of diocesan and religious clerics (see Introduction, this issue).

article uses 3,674 cases that contained complete cleric and victim data. This sample represents 83.7% of the 4,392 cases received by the John Jay research team. More than half of
the priests (n = 1,915; 52.1%) had one allegation of abuse, and no potential other victim(s)
identified. Although nearly a third of the cases (n = 1,082; 29.5%) had 2 to 3 victims, 14.7%
(n = 540) had 4 to 9 victims, and only 3.7% of the cases had 10 or more victims (n = 137).
Notably, findings revealed that the 3.7% (n =137) who had 10 or more victims accounted
for a disproportionate 24.8% of the abuse.
CHARACTERISTICS OF OFFENDER GROUPS

As seen in Table 1, the offenders in our sample were primarily diocesan clerics, though
a significant percentage of the total sample belonged to a monastic or other religious order.
Notably, findings showed an important linear trend, with diocesan clerics being overrepresented in the group having the most victims, whereas those with a religious order affiliation were underrepresented in the group having the most victims. With regard to clerical
duties, results indicate that the majority (56.24%) of the accused clergy were working as
pastors or associate pastors, while others worked as teachers (8.93%), served another
diocesan (17.23%) or religious order (9.50%) duty, there were also some whose role was otherwise unknown or not reported (8.10%). It should be noted, however, that the diocesan
priests working as pastors represented more than three quarters (75.91%) of the priests with
10 or more victims.
A significant difference was observed among the groups in terms of the age of the cleric
at the time of their first sexual offense, F (3, 3,170) = 76.03, p < .001). Bonferroni post hoc
analyses illustrated that all four groups are significantly different from one another, as the
higher the rate of offending behavior, the earlier the onset of the deviant behavior (see Table 2).
Based on data in the incident survey concerning the start date and end date of abuse for all
victims, duration of sexual offending was computed for each cleric by subtracting the maximum end date from the minimum start date. There was a significant difference among
the cleric groups in terms of the duration of their criminal careers, F (3, 3,280) = 792.56,
p < .001, with each group being significantly different from one another. As would be anticipated, clerics with the fewest victims had shorter criminal careers than clerics with more
victims (see Table 2).
CHARACTERISTICS OF INCIDENTS

We next examined the groups in terms of their abusive incidents and characteristics of
their victims. There was a significant relationship between the victim’s gender and the

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TABLE 2:

635

Cleric Characteristics by Offender Groups

Age of cleric at first offense
Duration of cleric’s criminal
career (years)

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

41.11a (11.90)
1.47a (2.28)

37.94ab (9.97)
6.03ab (6.65)

35.05abc (9.53)
11.48abc (7.82)

30.08abc (6.71)
18.76abc (8.56)

Note. Means in a row sharing the same superscripts are significantly different based on Bonferroni post hoc procedures. Standard deviations are in parentheses.

cleric offender groups, χ² = 487.00, df = 3, p < .001. Clerics with one allegation were the
most likely group to have a female victim (33.6% versus 22.0% for clerics with 2 to 3 victims, 14.0% for clerics with 4 to 9 victims, and 9.4% for clerics with 10 or more victims).
Clerics with 10 or more victims had the highest percentage of male victims (90.6% versus
66.4% for clerics with 1 victim, 78.0% for those with 2 to 3 victims, and 86.0% for those
with 4 to 9 victims).
The cleric groups also significantly differed from one another in terms of the average age
of their victims at the start of the abuse, F (3, 8,405) = 54.12, p < .001), with those clerics
having the most victims generally perpetrating offenses against younger victims than those
clerics who had fewer victims (see Table 3). In examining the duration of each abusive
event, significant differences once again emerged among our offender groups, F (3, 8,285) =
9.24, p < .001). Clerics with 1 victim had perpetrated each abusive act for a significantly
shorter period of time than did clerics with 4 to 9 victims or clerics with 10 or more victims. Clerics with 2 to 3 victims also had significantly shorter incidents of abuse than clerics with 4 to 9 victims (p = .022; see Table 3).
There was a significant relationship between the location in which the abuse occurred
and the offender groups (χ² = 23.60, df = 9, p = .005). For clerics with 1 victim, the abuse
was more likely to have occurred in the cleric’s place of work (28.7% versus 27.1% for
clerics with 2 to 3 victims, 24.8% for clerics with 4 to 9 victims, and 28.3% for clerics with
10 or more victims). Clerics with 2 to 3 victims were more likely to abuse their victims in
the cleric’s residence (33.6% versus 31.1% for clerics with 1 victim, 33.1% for clerics with
4 to 9 victims, and 31.1% for clerics with 10 or more victims). Clerics with 4 to 9 victims
were more likely to abuse their victims in a nonchurch public place (e.g., hotel room, car,
public recreation location, or residence of friend or family) as compared to the other groups
(31.3% versus 29.3% for clerics with 1 victim, 29.7% for clerics with 2 to 3 victims, and
27.7% for clerics 10 or more victims). Finally, clerics with 10 or more victims were more
likely to abuse their victims in the victim’s home as compared to the other groups (12.9%
versus 10.9% for clerics with 1 victim, 9.6% for clerics with 2 to 3 victims, and 10.8% for
clerics with 4 to 9 victims).
There was also a significant relationship between when the abuse occurred and the
offender groups (χ² = 38.77, df = 3, p < .001). Clerics with 1 victim were more likely to
abuse their victims during specific church-related business or social outings as compared
to the other groups (43.1% versus 32.9% for clerics with 2 to 3 victims, 33.2% for clerics
with 4 to 9 victims, and 37.3% for clerics with 10 or more victims). Clerics with 2 to 3 victims were more likely to abuse their victims during a general social gathering as compared
to the other groups (67.1% versus 56.9% for clerics with 1 victim, 66.8% for clerics with
4 to 9 victims, and 62.7% for clerics with 10 or more victims).
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CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR

TABLE 3:

Victim and Event Characteristics by Offender Groups

Age of victim at start of abuse
Duration of incidents (years)
Reporting delay (years)

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

12.96a (3.11)
1.47a (2.28)
20.79a (14.82)

12.80b (2.91)
1.64b (2.28)
18.88ab (13.67)

12.53abc (2.76)
1.84ab (2.41)
19.12ac (12.97)

11.91abc (2.59)
1.75a (2.08)
21.73bc (12.07)

Note. Means in a row sharing the same superscripts are significantly different based on Bonferroni post hoc procedures. Standard deviations are in parentheses.

TABLE 4:

Grooming, Socializing, or Threatening Behaviors by Offender Groups

Cleric offered enticements
Cleric socialized with victim’s family
Cleric threatened the victim

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

15.61% (36.31)
24.54%a (43.05)
6.99% (25.52)

14.57% (24.69)
28.74%a (38.12)
7.70% (21.19)

16.07% (17.47)
26.59% (31.71)
6.93% (17.38)

15.79% (11.63)
21.67% (22.79)
10.34% (18.12)

Note. Means in a row sharing the same superscripts are significantly different based on Bonferroni post hoc procedures. Standard deviations are in parentheses. Percentages refer to the average number of cases in which the
cleric engaged in this behavior.

Finally, the delay between the end of the abuse and when the victim reported the abuse
was computed. The offender groups significantly differ in the length of the delay in abuse
reporting, F (3, 8,114) = 22.23, p < .001. Post hoc analyses illustrate that the delay in
reporting time was longer for victims of the single-offender group as compared to the clerics who had 2 to 3 victims (p < .001) and clerics with 4 to 9 victims (p = .001). Victims of
the offender group with 2 to 3 victims and victims of clerics in the 4 to 9 victims group both
reported significantly earlier than victims of the 10 or more offender group (see Table 3).
GROOMING, NATURE OF ABUSIVE ACTS, AND POLICE CONTACT

Data were aggregated from the incident level to the cleric level through the use of the sum
function to examine differences between offender groups and among specialist groups in terms
of grooming behavior, nature of the abusive acts, and police contact. As a result of this aggregation, we were able to compute a percentage for each variable reflecting how often the cleric
engaged in a certain behavior with their victims. For example, if a cleric had 5 victims and used
threats 5 times, this new variable would illustrate that he used threats in 100% of incidents.
There were no differences among the groups in the use of enticements, F (3, 3,670) = .39, p =
.756; or threats, F (3, 3,670) = 1.06, p = .363, as grooming tactics. The offender groups did,
however, differ significantly in their socialization with the victim’s family, which may have
been one form of victim grooming, F (3, 3,670) = 3.19, p = .023. Clerics with 1 victim were
significantly less likely to socialize with the families of their victims than clerics with 2 to 3
victims (p = .031), though this trend did not continue in a linear fashion (see Table 4).
We next examined the types of sexual behaviors that the offender groups displayed. The
Victim Survey asked for information on all types of abuse known to have been perpetrated
against each victim, and we created three categories of abuse type for analysis. Invasive
sexual offenses were operationalized to include acts involving anal, vaginal, or oral penetration; contact offenses were defined as acts involving masturbation and/or inappropriate
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TABLE 5:

637

Nature of Sexual Offending by Offender Groups

Invasive sexual offenses
Contact offenses
Noncontact offenses

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

30.29% (45.96)
62.35%a (48.46)
32.59%a (46.88)

30.38% (32.35)
64.26% (35.52)
34.89% (36.29)

29.44% (23.77)
67.80%a (26.29)
37.83%a (30.20)

33.62% (18.48)
71.95%a (23.76)
37.09% (25.22)

Note. Means in a row sharing the same superscripts are significantly different based on Bonferroni post hoc procedures. Standard deviations are in parentheses. Percentages refer to the average number of cases in which this
type of activity was present.

touching above or beneath the victim’s clothing; and noncontact offenses were defined as
acts in which there was no physical contact between the cleric and victim (i.e., victim photographed, shown pornography, verbal harassment). The offender groups did not differ in
how often they engaged in invasive sexual offenses, F (3, 3,670) = .42, p = .736, but there
were significant differences among the groups in how often they engaged in contact
offenses, F (3, 3,670) = 4.22, p = .006. Clerics with 1 victim were less likely to engage in
contact offenses than clerics with 4 to 9 victims (p = .042) and clerics with 10 or more victims (p = .053). There were also significant group differences in how often they engaged in
noncontact offenses, F (3, 3,670) = 2.71, p = .043. Similarly, clerics with 1 victim were less
likely to engage in noncontact offenses than clerics 4 to 9 victims (p = .053; see Table 5).
We also examined how often the offender groups came into contact with the criminal
justice system. Although there were no significant group differences in how often the victim contacted the police, F (3, 3,670) = .08, p = .973; and how often the police investigated,
F (3, 3,670) = 1.13, p = .337, there was a significant difference among groups in how often
the cleric was charged with a crime, F (3, 3,670) = 5.83, p = .001. Clerics with 1 victim
were significantly less likely to be charged than clerics with 10 or more victims (p = .003).
There was also a significant difference among the groups in terms of how often the cleric
was convicted, F (3, 3,670) = 6.34, p < .001. Similar to the pattern noted above, clerics with
1 victim were less likely to be convicted than clerics with 4 to 9 victims (p = .055) and clerics with 10 or more victims (p = .002; see Table 6).
DIOCESAN INTERVENTIONS AND TREATMENT

Respondents were asked to report the types of diocesan actions taken, such as evaluation, reassignment, spiritual retreat, or notification of superiors, in response to learning of
the abuse. However, the data do not permit an evaluation of the order in which these actions
were applied or whether a certain action was applied more than once. To get an approximation of the extent of the actions taken against the clerics, the number of actions applicable for all clerics was summed. There was a significant difference among the groups in the
number of actions taken in response to the sexual abuse, F (3, 3,670) = 169.34, p < .001,
with clerics with fewer victims having less diocesan interventions than clerics with more
victims. The summary of diocesan actions by group is shown in Table 7, with a more
detailed account of how specific actions were applied in Table 8.
Respondents were asked to report the types of treatment that a cleric may have received.
However, because chronological order of treatment interventions was not available, the
number of treatment interventions received was summed (as with diocesan interventions).
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TABLE 6:

Police Contact by Offender Groups

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)
Victim contacted police
Police investigated
Cleric was charged
Cleric was convicted

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

18.64% (38.96)
17.59% (38.09)
5.79%a (23.37)
3.34%a (17.98)

19.16%
19.38%
7.90%
4.96%

(33.51)
(35.32)
(23.66)
(19.12)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

19.26% (30.92)
19.37% (32.66)
8.29% (22.08)
5.71%a (18.59)

18.48% (25.42)
21.98% (31.56)
13.09%a (27.97)
9.25%a (24.08)

Note. Means in a row sharing the same superscripts are significantly different based on Bonferroni post hoc procedures. Standard deviations are in parentheses. Percentages refer to the average number of cases in which this
type of action was taken.

TABLE 7:

Diocesan Actions by Offender Groups

Sum of diocesan interventions
Sum of treatment interventions
No. of diocesan transfers
No. of parish transfers

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

1.18a (1.57)
.45a (.91)
1.73 (1.37)
4.97a (3.22)

2.09a, b (1.87)
.84a, b (1.16)
1.78 (1.49)
5.48a, b (3.38)

2.79a, b (2.08)
1.28a, b, c (1.41)
1.87 (1.69)
6.07a, b (3.44)

3.11a, b (2.23)
1.49a, b, c (1.51)
1.81 (1.44)
5.84a (3.19)

Note. Means in a row sharing the same superscripts are significantly different based on Bonferroni post hoc procedures. Standard deviations are in parentheses.

TABLE 8:

Diocesan Actions Taken in Response to Sexual Abuse of Minors

1 Victim
(n = 1,915)

Reprimanded and returned
to service
Referred for evaluation
Administrative leave
Resigned or retired
Reinstated
Spiritual retreat
Treatment
Medical leave
Sought laicization
Removed from clergy
Suspended
No action taken
Other
Cleric dead/not active
Return to motherhouse
Superiors notified

2 to 3 Victims
(n = 1,082)

4 to 9 Victims
(n = 540)

10-Plus Victims
(n = 137)

Count

%

Count

%

Count

%

Count

%

57

4.42

78

9.18

64

13.62

30

24.79

434
334
230
180
59
425
60
38
39
374
262
388
624
45
76

33.62
25.87
17.82
13.94
4.57
32.92
4.65
2.94
3.02
28.97
20.29
30.05
32.58
3.49
5.89

425
305
259
156
68
441
66
47
42
379
65
234
232
20
32

50.00
35.88
30.47
18.35
8.00
51.88
7.76
5.53
4.94
44.59
7.65
27.53
21.44
2.35
3.76

263
210
164
103
53
287
59
30
34
239
18
126
70
11
12

55.96
44.68
34.89
21.91
11.28
61.06
12.55
6.38
7.23
50.85
3.83
26.81
12.96
2.34
2.55

72
53
40
36
10
81
19
13
14
58
3
37
16
7
1

59.50
43.80
33.06
29.75
8.26
66.94
15.70
10.74
11.57
47.93
2.48
30.58
11.68
5.79
0.83

Note. Percentages were computed after excluding the count of clerics who were dead or not active (NA) as no
action could be taken. The percentage of the cleric dead/NA reflects the percentage of the overall group.

There was a significant difference among groups in the total number of treatment interventions, F (3, 3,670) = 111.71, p < .001, and, in general, those with more victims receiving
more treatment.
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Transferring sexually abusive clerics to other dioceses or parishes may also be construed
as a potential response to the allegations of abuse. Respondents were asked to report the
number to dioceses and parishes in which each cleric had served while active. Although
there was no significant difference among the groups in the number of diocesan transfers,
F (3, 3,339) = 1.28, p = .279, we observed a significant difference in the number of parish
transfers, F (3, 3,169) = 16.38, p < .001. Clerics with a single victim had fewer parish transfers than clerics with 2 to 3 victims (p = .001), clerics with 4 to 9 victims (p < .001), and
clerics with 10 or more victims (p = .025). Clerics with 2 to 3 victims also had fewer transfers than clerics with 4 to 9 victims (p = .008).
DISCUSSION

Sensationalistic accounts of clergy sexual offenders dominated the media during the year
2002 and continue still to capture headlines. Finkelhor (2003) argued that this major media
focus served to reinforce and compound many of the most sinister stereotypes about priest
offenders. Quite aptly, Finkelhor (2003) noted that “the reality that most of the accused had
one or a couple of victims got lost” (p. 1226). This study set out to examine the characteristics and patterns of persistent offenders (i.e., those having 10 or more allegations of
abuse) by comparing them to groups of offenders that had a single (1), moderate (2 to 3),
or high (4 to 9) number of abuse accusations. More than half of the sample for whom we
had complete victim information (52.1%) had just one allegation of abuse. Although more
than a quarter of our sample (29.5%) had 2 to 3 documented or potential victims, a minority had 4 to 9 victims (14.7%) and only 3.7% had 10 or more victims. The findings show
that there are clear differences between high-rate and low-rate offenders; clergy abusers
with higher rates of offending behavior had an earlier onset of offending, younger victims,
a longer duration of offending behavior, and more male victims.
Accused clergy in this sample did appear to show some similarities to nonclergy sex
offenders. As noted, Groth et al. (1982) suggested that fixated offenders, who are more persistent in their offending behavior, have an earlier onset of deviant sexual interest and are
more likely to target male victims. Regressed offenders, in contrast, are less persistent in
their offending and abuse as a result of situational or other stressors. Rather than a dichotomous distinction between fixated and regressed offenders, however, the results from this
study show a linear trend that would support the unimodal continuum of behavior proposed
by Simon et al. (1992), with more persistent offending earlier and tending to have more
male victims. Also, as in the literature regarding non-clergy sex offenders, the highly predatory fixated offenders consisted of the smallest group of abusive clerics.1
With regard to the diocesan response, accused clergy with more victims were more
likely to receive treatment interventions. Indeed, this trend progressed in a linear fashion,
with those having more victims receiving more treatment. Similarly, there was a relationship between total diocesan interventions and number of victims, with the Church intervening more as the number of victims increased. Contrary to highly publicized accounts of
the Church transferring serial predators from one diocese to another, our data suggest that
there were no differences among clergy groups with regard to rates of transfer across
dioceses. There were, however, some differences between the groups with regard to transfers within the parish, although this trend was not uniformly linear. Most notably, accused
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clergy with only 1 victim were significantly less likely than the groups of clergy with 2 or
more victims to be transferred within the parish. What is unknown is whether these parish
transfers represent part of the “cover-up” alluded to by the media or, alternatively, whether
this may have been a mechanism through which to extricate clerics from a situation in
which they are causing harm but allowing the diocese to closely monitor the situation. With
regard to the criminal justice system response, those with more victims were more likely to
be charged or convicted for their acts than those with fewer victims, though this was not a
uniformly significant trend across groups. On the whole, only a small percentage of this
sample was charged or convicted for their alleged acts.
The findings with regard to grooming, enticements, and threatening behaviors were less
clear. Generally speaking, the groups with more victims were no more likely to have
groomed or threatened their victims than the groups with fewer or just 1 victim. If these
items did accurately measure grooming or preparatory behavior, then this may suggest that
the group having 10 or more victims may be less deliberative and predatory as Groth et al.
(1982) suggested that fixated, or otherwise persistent, offenders might be. Although there
were some differences between the groups with regard to the frequency with which they
socialized with their victims, this trend was not uniformly consistent. This finding suggests
that the most persistent offenders did not use socialization with most of their victims’
families as a grooming tactic.
Interestingly, the groups showed few differences with regard to the nature of the acts,
though there was some evidence that those with more victims were more likely to engage
in both contact and noncontact offenses than those with fewer or just one victim. Clergy
with 1 victim were equally as likely to engage in invasive sexual acts as clergy with several
or many victims, implying that although the number of individuals victimized varied, the
groups were no different with regard to propensity to engage in more serious, intrusive
types of offenses. Because those who abused more victims generally seemed no less likely
to perpetrate intrusive acts than those who abused fewer, or just 1, victim, the harm done to
the victim appeared to be more uniform across the offender groups.
This reanalysis of the Nature and Scope data provides a wealth of information about
priests who abused minors, their victims, the nature of the abusive acts, and the diocesan and
criminal justice interventions. However, it does have limitations. In particular, the definition
of groups (single victim, 2 to 3 victims, 4 to 9 victims, and 10-plus victims) is not based on
an empirical classification system, and other researchers may define the groups differently.
There may, for example, be few differences between someone who abuses 3 victims and
someone who abuses 4 victims, and yet those priests are classified differently in this study.
That said, the trends in most of the analyses are linear and show a clear difference in the
groups, particularly between those who are highly predatory (10-plus victims) and those
with single victims. The most significant strength of the study is undoubtedly the overwhelming response rate (and hence, large sample size), which allowed for meaningful comparisons in the analyses.
The Nature and Scope data are descriptive and therefore do not allow for a sophisticated
analysis of offender characteristics. They also do not provide complete information on the
chronology of events. Moreover, the abusive events in this study are accusations of abuse rather
than criminal justice responses, as typically relied on in the literature. Although this may limit
the comparison of these findings to other studies, we argue that these data are a more sensitive
measure of re-offense than are studies that rely only on acts that have resulted in a criminal
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justice response. Future research, which is currently being conducted with a study on the
causes and context of sexual abuse by priests, should incorporate a more comprehensive set of
individual (e.g., personality patterns, plethysomography results, social competence) and situational characteristics (e.g., access to potential victims, life stressors, isolation) toward the
development of a more comprehensive typological system. Such data could ultimately enhance
our understanding of clergy abusers to allow for an explanatory theory of clergy offending and
perhaps permit the development of a unique classification scheme.
Given that these findings reveal considerable variability with regard to clergy, victim,
and offense characteristics for groups with varied number of victims, these findings suggest
important typological distinctions for which differential management strategies may be
appropriate. Prevention of sexual abuse by priests might require situational crime prevention strategies (as discussed in Terry & Ackerman, this issue). Such strategies would likely
be most successful with priests who had a small number of victims. Alternatively, advanced
risk assessment protocols may be an important way to determine what sorts of clergy
offenders present the greatest risk of re-offending.
Although it is clear from the present data that the Church did employ differential management strategies, having shown an increased propensity to intervene or offer treatment
services to clergy who had been accused of a greater number of offenses, a more refined policy to manage potential risk by accused priests may be necessary. As noted, the Catholic
Church currently has enacted a broad-brushstrokes type of response, with the policy proposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2002) mandating that all clerics with allegations of sexual abuse be removed from ministry. Although protecting victims
from future sex crimes is of the utmost importance, a more balanced approach could allow
certain clergy to be returned to ministry if situational or other stressors were managed.
Marshall (n.d.) noted that a more progressive strategy that differentially manages and monitors clergy offenders might reduce overall re-offense risk and, thus, ultimately reduce the
number of victims harmed by sexual abuse. The “safe environments” training employed
recently by the Catholic Church is a good first step as a preventative strategy, though the policy must be empirically tested to understand the extent of its effectiveness.
NOTE
1. Unfortunately, the data do not allow for an analysis of the more sophisticated typologies with multidimensional axes
that take into account social competence and other such factors.

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