The article is accessible at this link, but you’ll need a subscription to Project Muse or institutional access to ACS.

pc project muse

Most historical research articles published in academic journals come between 8000 and 12,000 words each, notes included. They translate to approximately 16-30 pages long, depending on formatting. Occasionally, however, a journal may choose to publish a considerably longer article.  In the last three months, I’ve read three long ones at 49, 62, and 75 pages, respectively, and wrote up on one of them.

It’s an article by Alex-Thai Vo about land reform in North Vietnam published in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. The second article, also in JVS, comes from Sean Fear, graduate colleague of Vo at Cornell.  (Fear successfully defended his dissertation last week.) His is about a topic that no historian has ever addressed before: the posthumous impact of Ngô Đình Diệm during the Second Republic (1967-1975) in South Vietnam. Having read it twice, I can say that it is well grounded in South Vietnamese archives and offers an angle that I’d never really seen before in all the things I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

The third article is called “The Called, the Chosen, and the Tempted: Psychologists, the Church, and the Scandal.”  Its author is Tom McCarthy, professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy.  Although a good deal shorter than either of the JVS pieces, it is still twice longer than the majority of history articles. It came to my attention thanks to a conversation I had with Tom Rzeznik, whose last four years of grad school at Notre Dame were my first four years there. Tom has taught history at Seton Hall University since 2006 and co-edited the journal American Catholic Studies since 2013. The ACS publishes many historians, and the Tom McCarthy article indeed appears there.

Moving from the Vo and Fear articles to the McCarthy is leaping from one world into a very different one. There is overlap in time frame: the Vietnamese and their conflict from the 1950s to the 1970s, and American Catholicism and its clergy from the 1950s to the 1980s. Otherwise, the articles diverge vastly in subject matter and historiography.  Having read the McCarthy article twice, I think it makes an excellent mark on studies about this horrific phenomenon in the modern history of American (and global) Catholicism.

Although I am not a historian of religion, I have been interested in this particular history for a couple of reasons. The first reason is academic, as this subject is related to my broad field of twentieth-century American history.  Moreover, there have been a lot of Catholics among Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to the U.S. since 1975.  Sooner or later, students of Vietnamese Americans will have to engage the scholarship on the U.S. Catholic Church into their research.

The second reason has to do with my personal history, as all of my formal education in the U.S. came from Catholic schools: parochial schools from eighth to twelfth grades; undergraduate studies at a Christian Brothers liberal arts college; a semester of graduate courses at Catholic University of America; and of course Notre Dame.  (All that Catholic education, I’d like to joke, yet not a single Jesuit institution!) When I first came to the U.S., there was already one high-profile case of sex abuse by a priest in my then home diocese in southeastern Minnesota. As I learned years later, another priest (whose theology class was among the best classes I had in high school) would be accused of sexually abusing a number of boys prior to his time at my high school. He admitted to these allegations, was laicized, and died in disgrace two years ago as the diocese was settling lawsuits from victims.  Like the larger Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has dealt with many cases of clergy sexual abuse, there remains many issues related to this horrible history in my former diocese.

Given the combination of personal history and academic studies, I read the McCarthy article with great interest.  It begins with the John Jay reports issued in 2004 and 2011, which “found a thirty-year trend of rising incidents between 1950 and 1980, followed by a sharp decline during the 1980s.”  Numerically speaking, the incidents “involved nearly 4,500 accused priests and nearly 11,000 different alleged victims.” Notably, more “than eighty percent of the victims were male.”

Sorry for not citing page numbers. But you can easily locate them in the article because I largely follow it from top to bottom.

Comprehensive and impressive that the John Jay reports are, they of course could not account for all things.  As many scholars before, Tom McCarthy calls the reports “a landmark” and “without precedent,” especially as “a compilation of data on child sexual abuse within a large organization.”  Scholars other than those of Catholicism will no doubt study and reference them in the future.  But they “were less successful in providing a persuasive explanation for the problem.” This is where Tom McCarthy steps in.


The task of a historian is to historicize, and McCarthy historicizes from the vantage point of interactions between the Catholic hierarchy and modern psychology.  It is a complex and complicated history, and McCarthy ends up posing even more questions. But he also offers a starting point to approach the complexities.

McCarthy begins with the history of psychological candidate assessment.  In the 1930s, Thomas Verner Moore, a Carthusian priest and the “most important Catholic psychologist-psychiatrist of the first half of the twentieth century,” recommended psychological assessment for candidates to the seminary and the priesthood.  Besides teaching and directing dissertations at Catholic University, Moore worked as a clinician at a Catholic psychiatric hospital from 1923 to 1947.  Moore found that “priests had higher rates of schizophrenia, paranoia, manic-depression, and alcoholism than the general male patient population in mental hospitals.”  It is not to say that there were a lot of priests with very serious problems. But as McCarthy puts it, “there were large numbers with minor problems, more than one found in the general population.”  In any event, the Carthusian “hypothesized that the priesthood might attract people with psychological problems.”  Hence his recommendation for psychological assessment.

The next major figure in this story was the Jesuit William Bier, who indeed began to assess candidates for his order’s New York Province.  Like Moore, Bier obtained a PhD in psychology and taught college (Fordham).  He also founded the American Catholic Psychological Association (ACPA) in the late 1940s.  A number of other Catholic psychologists–both clergy and laity, mostly men but also women–also researched and advocated a similar line of thought.  Although psychological assessment for admittance was still far from universal in the mid-1950s, it was certainly more popular than the 1940s.  At the Vatican, Pope Pius XII even endorsed its use if with a certain qualification.  The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) was incorporated into assessment for candidates to the priesthood.

The story is straightforward so far, but here comes the first twist.  Prominent Catholic psychologists such as Bier and Thomas N. McCarthy, a lay counselor at La Salle University (a Christian Brothers institution in Philadelphia), recommended more stringent standards for admission. At the same time, “vocation directors understood the limitations of psychological assessment, so generally they ran the risk of accepting a few bad apples in order to get all of the good ones.”  Thomas N. McCarthy recommended admittance of 40-50% of applicants, but dioceses and religious orders accepted about 80%.

In the performance arts, the play “Doubt: A Parable” (2004) may be the best dramatic articulation on the theme of clergy sexual abuse.

Another twist occurred within the research of the ACPA.  At one of its meetings in the mid-1960s, Walter Coville, a psychologist at St. Vincent’s Hospital in NYC and assessor for the Archdiocese of New York, spoke about, among other things, “high incidence of effeminacy, heterosexual retardation, psychosexual immaturity, deviations or potential deviations of the homosexual type” (Coville’s own words).  It is a mistake, however, to think that he was concerned with homosexuality only.  As Tom McCarthy quotes Coville at length:

I am impressed in my own work with the high incidence of emotional immaturity and insecurity; with the great number of men and women who frankly admit that they fear to make decisions, want to avoid responsibility and prefer to be ‘followers.’  The frequent recurrence of these personality types underscores the great need that exists to provide candidates for the religious life with opportunities to gain insights and maturing experiences.

To his fellow psychologists, Coville wasn’t saying anything new there because they came to similar convictions in their own works.  The twist is “seminary training intentionally precluded” experiences related to “the typical life cycle.”  In the postwar years, most candidates entered the seminary straight from high school, and they were “experientially impoverished compared to their peers.” (McCarthy’s article doesn’t address women religious, but I believe it was also very common for women to enter religious orders right after high school during the same period.)

The second quarter of the article gives a lot of data  and discusses some very complex issues that I won’t do justice in summarizing them here.  It includes a discussion of the “Loyola Study” commissioned by the U.S. National Conference of Bishops and conducted by Eugene C. Kennedy and others.  This study was released in 1971 and published in book form the following year.  The study “was undertaken,” states McCarthy,

not with a sense that priests were an especially troubled group, but that they were likely to be average men with room for improvement. The implicit spirit of the project was that now was a great time to tap the assistance of psychologists to get on with these improvements.

The Loyola Study found that Catholic priests were comparable to American men overall: 7% of the priests were psychologically and emotionally “developed”; 18% “developing”; 66% “underdeveloped”; and 8% “maldeveloped.” However–and this is a big one–the study confirmed earlier studies by Coville and others regarding interpersonal relations and psychosexual immaturity.  McCarthy’s description includes many other things such as the background of Vatican II, the debate over celibacy, and American church politics.  There are several sub-threads here, but I’ll leave them out and summarize the rest below.

The remainder of the article discusses (a) opportunities to spot clergy sexual abuse as a systemic problem, (b) causes of clergy sexual abuse, (c) why the increase of incidents – plus a conclusion.

McCarthy argues that clergy sexual abuse could be identified and dealt with at three spots. First is the late 1930s, starting with Thomas Verner Moore’s clinical work and publications. McCarthy doesn’t say much about this opportunity, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was the least possible opportunity due to a host of factors and circumstances.

Second is the 1960s and early 1970s, when three groups dealt with priests with sexual abuse: bishops, treatment therapists, and assessment psychologists. McCarthy discusses each group and concludes that the bishops and treatment therapists were silent and even active at maintaining secrecy. In turn, they left the assessment psychologists “largely ignorant of the clergy sexual abuse problem.”

This section deserves close reading, especially on the rise of gay candidates and seminarians.  On the basis of available evidence, the phenomenon did not begin in the era of sexual liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.  Several Catholic psychologists already discussed it in the early 1960s and probably the late 1950s, thus suggesting an earlier starting date.

The last opportunity came during 1985-1986 after a Louisiana priest was prosecuted as a serial rapist of boys.  Three Catholics figured in this episode: Thomas P. Doyle, a young Dominican priest and canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, DC; Michael Peterson, a priest-psychiatrist and the founder of Saint Luke Institute, which treated priests; and F. Ray Mouton, the defense attorney of the prosecuted priest.  They came to know one another from the prosecution of the rapist and jointly authored a report called “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy.” In McCarthy’s description:

Framed in a manner meant to be helpful to the hierarchy, the confidential report recommended that the church “come clean” on the problem with a “victims’ needs first” strategy both to do the right thing and to reduce the church’s liability to criminal and civil penalties.  Rebuffed by their efforts to brief the U.S. bishops at their June 1985 meeting, Peterson in December 1985 mailed their “manual” to every American bishop. They received no direct response.

Given the considerable length of this article already, it is understandable that there isn’t a lot more on this episode (except for the limited action of Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, which unfortunately didn’t lead anywhere). I think–I hope–that this particular episode will be revisited and studied in depth by McCarthy or another historian in the future. (The story about Louisiana is included in this story from Minnesota Public Radio.  It should be added that the Dominican Thomas Doyle later became a representative for abuse victims and a fierce critic of the Catholic hierarchy.)

Scott Gastal, one of more than 300 victims abused by the Louisiana priest Louis Gauthé.  Gastal’s lawsuit against the predator was a turning point in this sordid history. It also led to the report ignored mostly by the bishops: a huge missed opportunity to deal with the crisis. ~ pc Minnesota Public Radio

Similarly, I find there is so much in the section on “causes of clergy sexual abuse” that historians will have to dig into particulars in the hope of stitching together a coherent explanation. McCarthy doesn’t offer a clear answer about causality–I don’t think anyone could at this point–but he does a great service to researchers by pointing out problems, complications, even contradictions regarding questions such as the following: Why minors? Why male? Why did activities with male minors increase between 1950 and 1980?

On age, McCarthy points out that the “pedophilia” label, or sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children, is not accurate.  More accurate is “ephebophilia,” or sexual attraction to adolescents.  The John Jay reports, he states, show that the sexual abuse scandal “overwhelmingly was one of ephebophilia.”

On gender and orientation, McCarthy also offers more questions than answers.  He problematizes, for instance, the assumption that priest-offenders of male minors were automatically gay men.  It is possible that up to one-third of abuse of male minors were perpetrated by priests who were not homosexual in orientation.  I find this section fascinating because it moves away from the reductionism that historians ought to avoid when tackling a complex topic like this one.

As for the question on why the rise of sexual abuse, McCarthy again answers by asking more questions:

This question–the historian’s question–cannot be answered definitely from the evidence produced by this review… But it certainly offers a rich set of further questions to explore.  Did psychosexual immaturity, age-focused paraphilias, or sociopathy among priests increase and, if so, why?  Did the dynamics in priests’ families of origin change? Did priests’ experiences and the perceptions of celibacy change during this period?  And, finally, why did the number of gay priests increase in the second half of the twentieth century?  Much of this terrain was (and remains) taboo, so it was little discussed and even less documented at the time.

In other words, historians get their work cut out for them.

I was exhausted after reading the JVS articles by Vo and Fear, and they are from a field of my specialization.  So you can imagine the double exhaustion I felt after reading the ACS article. In all three cases, though, I was also exhilarated by their scopes, sources, and arguments.

Set aside the still going (and deeply emotional) aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, the article by Tom McCarthy is terrific to read even though it poses a lot of questions.  His focus on psychology helps to sharpen the perspective.  Yet it also allows McCarthy to shape other questions for future inquiry, and to contribute to what may amount to a new direction in the historiography about modern American Catholicism. In the end, I am glad that McCarthy wrote it, that ASC published it at nearly fifty pages long, and that I read it twice. It is really an eye-opening and exceptional article.