May 18, 2011 -- Research commissioned by the nation's Catholic bishops suggests that the sexual promiscuity and widespread drug use of the 1960s and '70s in America may have played a role in an increase in child sexual abuse at the hands of priests, concluding that a rise in "deviant" behavior in the country tracks with a higher rate of abuse by priests.
The report says that no single factor causes priests to become sexual abusers of children, but it claims that abuse cases were "influenced by social factors in American society" during the Vietnam era.
"The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s is consistent with patterns of increased deviance in society at that time," said Karen Terry, the study's lead author and the dean of research and strategic partnerships at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
Terry told reporters in Washington today that those "deviant" behaviors -- including drug use, crime, premarital sex and divorce -- "intersected with vulnerabilities of some individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time."
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But a decline in reported cases of sex abuse by the mid-1980s, Terry says, tracks with an increased societal awareness of the sexual abuse of children and an increased effort by the church to teach priests about "human formation" while in seminary.
The report calls sexual abuse at the hands of priests a "historical problem."
The study is also likely to provoke controversy for its determination that priests who abused children over the age of 10 are not to be considered "pedophiles," because the victims -- by the authors' broad definition -- had already reached puberty.
"Most of the priests who had allegations of abuse abused pubescent and post-pubescent minors, not prepubescent children, and as such, the phrase 'pedophile priest' is a misnomer," Terry said, asserting that fewer than 5 percent of priests accused of abusing children could be described as pedophiles.
The American Psychiatric Association defines prepubescent children as those under the age of 13.
A small group of protesters that gathered outside the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before the report's release today included D.C. resident Kevin Higgins, who said he was abused as a young boy in Kansas City at age 11. Higgins held a sign reading: "Bishops Claim: Not Our Fault."
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"It sounds like a very unspiritual practice, to blame others for your own faults," Higgins said. "I think there are scriptures that talk about pulling a log out of your own eye before you blame others, and I think they should practice what they preach."
His brother, who Higgins says was also abused by the same priest, committed suicide as a teenager.
"I wasn't even really sure what had happened until I was old enough to really understand," Higgins told ABC News as he held a picture of himself as a boy. "It pretty much destroyed our family."
Mary Corzine, a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says she remains a devout Catholic despite being abused by a priest as a young girl. But she called the new report "more of the same."
"There are no protections for children and it's very, very disappointing," Corzine said.
Critics also noted that the report was commissioned by the bishops' conference, using data collected by the church.
"When you have the bishops doing the self-reporting, I mean, it's sort of like the fox is watching the henhouse," said Robert Stewart of the group Voice of the Faithful.
But Terry said the academic integrity of the report had not been compromised by its backers and primary source of funding.
"All of the work that we did was ours, all of the writing was ours, all of the conclusions were ours and none of the bishops had any influence on the findings of the study," Terry said.