That 70s Woe: Why the 70s was the Catholic Church’s worst decade of abuse

I f you’ve ever seen the movie Spotlight, which, if you haven’t, *roll my eyes*, you’re by now familiar with the endemic incidence of child molestation that plagued Catholic eparchies in the US in the decades preceding the early 2000s. In fairness, you don’t really need to have seen the movie to be familiar with the abuse scandals that have ravaged the Church, but the film does a pretty nice job of encapsulating decades of malfeasance in just two hours and nine minutes.

With systemic abuse as rampant as it was, it’s easy to sort of gloss over the crisis in the Catholic church as a period in time where those in charge just sort of looked the other way. That’s fair, but if you look at any of the stats that explain the extent to which abuse was taking place in the Church, you notice something odd.

While there was no such thing as a “good” decade in terms of sexual abuse incidence, there were certainly some that were far worse than others. More specifically, the 1970s was open season for abuse-inclined priests in just about every diocese in the nation.

Catholic Church 1How bad was it? Allegation incidence figures from the 70s nearly quadrupled those from the 1950s, sextupled rates from the 1990s, and amounted to nearly 1000 more cases of alleged abuse than those reported during the neighboring 60s and 80s decades. You get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right in the 70s.

Prevalence figures from that era weren’t much better. In 1970, 11% of all diocesan priests were accused of having sexually abused a minor–presumably in thought, word, or deed. A mere decade prior, the rate was half that, and by the 1990s, the prevalence of diocesan priests being accused of molestation had plummeted to roughly 10% of 1970 levels.

Catholic church 3Were this just a one-off thing, perhaps you shrug it off as a blip on the radar and think nothing more of it. The reality, however, is that the better part of the 70s saw near or more than 10% of priests being accused of abuse–a figure that dwarfed corresponding rates from years in other decades. Logically, the question then follows: “What was going on?” What was so unique about the 1970s that abuse rates within the church went through the roof, standing out head and shoulders above those from other decades? The answer, believe it or not, is nothing.

Formation in Catholic seminaries

Understanding the glut of abuse that stained the Church during the 70s requires us to first make sense of a phenomenon that was happening two decades prior. During the 1950s, seminaries experienced an unprecedented increase in candidates seeking admission into the priesthood. Though a number of factors, including idleness, likely played some part in contributing to the surge of young men leaving the ranks of the laity, seminary rectors and other senior-ranking members of the church that witnessed the mass-migration firsthand commonly observed that the new seminarians were being put under immense pressure by their families to become men of the cloth.
Whatever the cause of the seminary’s sudden inundation, what resulted was a generation of soon-to-be ordained priests, the majority of whom weren’t all that passionate about the job they’d signed up for.

Even so, a crop of indifferent clergymen in and of itself isn’t really cause for alarm. All that would have been needed, in theory, was for the priesthood’s gatekeepers to sift through the riff-raff, weeding out those that weren’t suited to wear the collar, and carrying on with those that were. That’s not what happened.

The deluge of young men seeking admission so overwhelmed seminaries that bishops weren’t able to pay sufficient attention to the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. In turn, the intake of not-so-hopeful holy men throughout the 50s and 60s featured candidates with at least 18 distinct behavioral issues, ranging from substance abuse to bipolar symptoms, which rendered them unfit to serve in the roles that they would later assume. Those identified as having suffered from disorders (many were afflicted by more than one), numbered roughly 680, nearly 35% of all priests ordained in the 50s or 60s that would wind up being the subject of abuse allegations.

Assuming you were one of the priests that entered the seminary as non-damaged goods, there was still another chasmic flaw in the admissions procedures of the time that contributed immensely to the decay of a once-healthy Catholic cadre.

To refer to newly-admitted seminarians at the time as “young men” is startlingly accurate. Vetting criteria were so lax at the time that it was common to see adolescent candidates brought into the fold as early as 13 or 14 years old. Why teens and young boys were admitted with so little in the way of screening seems to be a matter of some conjecture, though a common thread reported by rectory heads was the notion that denying a candidate who believed himself to have been called by God to serve in the priesthood would, in effect, be like denying God herself. The resultant “minor seminaries” that existed solely for the training of non-adult seminarians, ended up serving as ideal incubators for future offenders.

As adolescent boys became immersed in seminary life, they were subjected to a level of isolation the likes of which most were completely unaccustomed to. Social interaction with secular peers–female and male–was entirely cut off, consequently depriving young entrants of critical opportunities to continue social and emotional development.

Types of Abuse for PriestsWhat was worse, a child’s entrance into seminary coincided directly with the onset of the genital stage of psychosexual development, a period underscored by leading psychologists as among the most formative in establishing sexual goals for the rest of a child’s life. Surrounded by other boys attempting to navigate the same phase of development, it was not uncommon for younger seminarians to either be abused by or engage in consensual sexual acts with older teens in the same seminary. That, spread out over the roughly eight-year span during which seminarians underwent formation for the priesthood, did a lot to foster a phenomenon known as ‘fixation,’ which occurs when someone is unable to move on from an attachment to a person or thing characteristic of the stage of psychosexual developmental in which they find themselves.

Sans adequate treatment, fixation sticks with the fixated person into their adult lives. In the case of the adolescent seminarians, such experiences carry with them an imprinting effect in which an attraction to other adolescents is established. The aforementioned isolation that characterized the better part of their lives in seminary limited their ability to develop emotionally and resulted in crop after crop of developmentally-immature priests that sought companionship and subsequent sexual gratification from people whose emotional maturity matched their own: children.

That widespread immaturity and subsequent yearning for emotionally-similar partners, known as emotional congruence, was confirmed through a study conducted in the early 70s by Loyola University psychologist, Eugene Kennedy. In assessing 217 active American priests that had been exposed to seminary culture, Kennedy concluded that only 6 percent were emotionally and psychologically developed, while all others were either still developing (29%), underdeveloped (57%), or “maldeveloped” (8%). The 94% of inadequately developed priests were consistently more comfortable with teenagers than with adults and exhibited severe psychosexual immaturity.

We’re probably beating a dead horse by mentioning any other flaws associated with 50s-era seminaries and the final products they routinely spat out for ordination. For good measure, though, we’d be remiss to ignore the fact that the actual formation of priests, in addition to the psychosexual terraforming that resulted from eight years of simply being present in a seminary, left a bit to be desired. In large part, this was because priestly formation in the 50s–and even the early 60s in some cases–was largely based on theological and intellectual development, with little, if any, attention paid to human development.

Priests familiar with training from that era noted the absence of meaningful discussion surrounding sexuality and the seminary’s decision to cover all things sixth commandment (chastity, adultery, homosexuality, etc.) in Latin, as opposed to English, the language that was used for all other subjects.

That sort of sweeping under the rug of what arguably constituted the most important moral issues that ordained priests bound to celibacy would face ended up becoming a major issue with the arrival of the 60s and the Vatican’s ideological shift on a number of pressing matters related to sexuality.

Vatican II and it’s effects

I n October of 1962, Pope John XXIII formally initiated the second Vatican council by convening more than 2,600 priests at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Rome, to “open the windows [of the Church] and let in some fresh air.” The express purpose of the three-year convention was to provide the Church a facelift for the modern age, updating its official stance on matters with implications ranging from religious tolerance to the training and lifestyle of priests.

What came out of Vatican II was pretty vanilla, all things considered. The Church called on its faithful to recommit themselves to living a religious life, acknowledge the extraordinary spiritual gifts with which God had endowed them for the benefit of their community, and recognize the “paschal mystery,” as the center of what it is to be a Catholic.

Not-so-vanilla among the edicts issued by the clergy in attendance were a series of changes made to the worship experience of those attending mass. These included replacing Latin with commonly-spoken languages, the revision of eucharistic prayers, having the celebrant face his congregation, and the doing away with ornate clerical robes, classical artwork, and liturgical music in favor of more contemporary replacements.

Objectively, these changes were relatively inoccuous moves with a nod to modernity. For the orthodox old-guard, however, the transition represented a troubling embrace of informality and secularism. Taken together, the changes served as an unofficial wink and nod for priests everywhere to metaphorically (and perhaps literally) loosen their clerical collars.

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“For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it.”

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In the wake of the changes, parishioners’ responses to and reception of the new-look Catholic church were effectively split down the middle. In the years that followed Vatican II’s conclusion, traditionalists cited “the modernizing reforms as having contributed to heretical acts as well as indifference to the customs, beliefs, and pious practices of the Church prior to the changes.” Specifically, those critical of the reforms highlighted contradictions between the council and earlier papal statements regarding faith, morals, and doctrine declared prior to the second convention itself.

On the other side of the aisle were those that embraced the so-called “spirit of Vatican II,” which was really just a euphemism for discrediting teachings or authorities that championed strict rather than open interpretations of Catholic scripture.

One Catholic philosopher noted: “Everything ‘pre’ [Vatican II] was then pretty much dismissed so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it.”

priests meeting for the second vatican council

Less than three years later, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical entitled Humana Vitae (On Human Life), which affirmed the Church’s stance on issues of sexual morality including, most notably, condemnation of any forms of contraception–including those used by married couples. Rarely, if ever, in the history of the Church had a letter penned by a pope been as roundly criticized as Paul VI’s would be.

In the Vatican, Cardinals were publicly lambasting the Pope’s stance on birth control as characteristic of the same primitive closed-mindedness exhibited by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in response to Galileo’s promotion of heliocentrism. In Canada and the US, you had priests encouraging their congregations to ‘use contraception in good conscience’ without fear of being exiled from the Church. Even an intellectual publication in the Soviet Union featured an editorial written by Russian physicians that came out against the encyclical, likely concluding that: “In Soviet Russia, contraception uses you.”

The widespread pushback garnered by the Pope’s epistle was indicative of more than just a disagreement about his stance on contraception, it was the manifestation of a culture of dissent that had begun to fester in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Newly-ordained priests were already enjoying the freedom of interpreting dogmatic doctrine as they saw fit and had long anticipated the arrival of a ruling that would enable them to shamelessly shed their cumbersome vows of celibacy. That ruling never came. As it turned out, what they were anticipating had been right under their noses for the better part of the decade.

Abuse and the sexual revolution

T he sexual revolution of the 1960s was an integral piece of a larger counterculture movement that brought sex-related social issues to public consciousness’ front door while making significant inroads for women’s rights, gay rights, and access to contraception. More pronounced than any of those gains, however, was the shift in social norms that took place over the course of the decade and in the decades that followed.

Pornography experienced its golden age at a time marked by Traditional Family Values’ vice grip on society; the number of women having premarital sex increased markedly; and, above all, seemingly every established convention about what constituted normalcy in sex was challenged.

The tricky thing about an “everybody’s doing it” phenomenon, though, is that everyone–priests included–gets in on the act.

Starting in the early 60s, a series of precedents challenged centuries of dogma and opened the door to the interpretation of rigid rules and structures as priests saw fit. From there, the figure whose word had been tantamount to religious writ became the subject of everyone’s criticism, despite the fact that those doing the criticizing were in no hierarchical position to do so. That bolstered the instincts of clergymen to challenge what they’d been told, while simultaneously thumbing their collective noses at those who had been saying it to them. Finally, the social culture that enveloped priests as leaders of the laity effectively reinforced the impulses they’d been struggling to repress from the moment they assumed the role, which, again, they didn’t really want in the first place.

Clergymen that witnessed the seminary’s piecemeal deterioration from the 60s onward seemed to all arrive at the same conclusion with respect to what was likely its most damaging cause:

the fact that the Church allowed such drastic changes in the formation of the priesthood within such a short timespan undoubtedly led to widespread confusion among priests of all levels. This is particularly true for those ordained in the late 50s and 60s that departed a military-like, pre-Vatican II seminary culture, only to transition to a role (as assistant pastor) in which they were immediately respected, trusted unconditionally, and put in charge of youth groups with zero oversight whatsoever. That’s a lot like being thrust into a Formula One Grand Prix right after completing driver’s ed and expecting not to crash.cases of abuse by decade of priest's ordination

A tidal wave of shifts in seminary culture, scriptural interpretation, moral alignment, and social norms left the Church with no semblance of an anchor or moral compass to guide what was already a sinking ship of psychologically and socio-emotionally immature priests. By the start of the 70s, nothing else needed to happen to trigger the cascade of abuse that ravaged dioceses throughout the US. The dominoes from previous decades had already been lined up and set into motion.


We mentioned the stats that paint a picture of just how bad abuse was throughout different decades. Looking at graphs that accompany that data, you notice a clear bell-shaped curve, indicating a decline that mirrors the rise of abuses. Just as the outbreak of molestation cases didn’t happen overnight, the same can be said about the decline of abuse incidence in the decades that followed the 70s.cases of abuse reported in 2002 by decade in which they began

Frustration from both sides of the aisle regarding Vatican II-inspired changes that were either too liberal or not liberal enough precipitated a mass-exodus of priests from the Church in the late 70s and early 80s. That, in tandem with more stringent seminarian vetting standards, community-centric living accommodations for priests, human development-inspired training practices, and arrests of active offenders did a lot to contribute to the progressive decline in abuse seen from the 80s to now.

Biases aside, it would have been next to impossible to foresee the changing of clerical robes or removal of classical art in chapels as something that would lead to a spike in child molestation by priests. Likewise, if someone were to tell you–in those days–that the admission of adolescents into a seminary would lead to irreparable psychological and socio-emotional damage, you’d probably have been skeptical. Apprenticeships and vocational programs have existed for as long as there have been tradesmen in need of a helping hand, and little, if any, evidence exists to suggest that such experiences had damaging effects on the apprentices.

alleged cases of abuse by decadeThe outbreak of adolescent abuse wasn’t something that happened overnight, it required the coming together of a variety of factors. That priests with emotional issues were being admitted to the priesthood without any vetting wasn’t anything especially new–scores of molestation allegations from the 40s and 50s will attest to that. What was different, however, were the social and cultural issues that characterized the mid-to-late 60s, which, along with the aforementioned laxity in seminary admissions standards, paved the way in ultimately creating the widespread phenomenon that occurred a decade later.

Just how much blame the Church deserves for the 70s outbreak is likely a contentious point. Beyond that, though, specific outrage about that decade in particular–considering the fact that it was ultimately just a moderately larger piece of an era of moral abdication–is missing the forest for the trees.

Regardless of how much blame is due, theirs is the textbook case of little things adding up to create something major. Given the influence that the Church levies everywhere, it would have done better to consider more carefully how what they were doing in one area could have reverberations in others. But as an institution that likes to remind others about reaping what they sow, they probably already knew that.

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