CHICAGO (Reuters) - A church-sponsored study on Wednesday blamed poorly trained priests and a deviant society for the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse crisis, but victims dismissed it as a whitewash of an institutional coverup.
The largest study ever done on youth sexual abuse by U.S. Catholic clergy concluded that priests were no more likely to abuse than anyone else, gay priests were not more likely than straight priests to abuse, and the priestly vow of celibacy was not directly to blame.
The study, conducted by researchers at John Jay College in New York and covering the past 50 years, also found clergy abuse cases have dropped since the 1980s.
"There's no single cause of the sexual abuse crisis ... and the problem is largely historical," study researcher Karen Terry told reporters at a Washington news conference.
"It is consistent with patterns of increased deviance in society during that time" in the 1960s and 1970s, she said, adding that rates of abuse within the Church were comparable to that of organizations like schools and clubs.
Priests unprepared for a life of celibacy turned mentoring relationships into abusive ones, she said.
Poor reporting of clergy abuse cases to civil authorities and a pattern of transferring of abusive priests to other parishes by some bishops have cast a cloud over the Church.
Pope Benedict and other leaders have offered apologies to victims, and this week the Vatican issued a directive to bishops around the world to make rooting out abuse a priority.
A group that represents victims of clergy abuse said bishops continue to cover up crimes, and that shame leaves many more victims of abuse silent.
"Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that tells them precisely what they want to hear: it was all unforeseeable, long ago, wasn't that bad and wasn't their fault," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"The reason this crisis is happening in the Church is because the criminals are hidden and coddled and promoted rather than ousted as in other institutions," Clohessy said.
He said the study was based on self-reporting by bishops who are "far more reluctant to report recent crimes by young priests who still face prosecution and litigation versus older priests for whom the criminal and civil statue of limitations has expired."
The U.S. Catholic Church has paid out some $3 billion to settle sexual abuse lawsuits, bankrupting some dioceses.
The report released by the sponsoring U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said progress had been made by the Church hierarchy in addressing the clergy abuse problem since it erupted in the Boston archdiocese more than a decade ago.
Millions of lay Catholics and clerics have undergone "safe environment" training, with seminarians educated about the issue and not ordained until they receive a background check.
Terry fended off questions about any bias toward the Church in the report, saying researchers also relied on information from victims and treatment centers.
The Church hierarchy previously mishandled abuse cases, she said, paying more attention to perpetrators than victims. "Rehabilitated" priests were returned to ministry only to abuse again, Terry said.
"The report encourages the bishops to increase the level of accountability and transparency," Terry said.
In the past half-century, the report said nearly 6,000 priests were accused of abuse, or about 5 percent of total serving priests. About 5 percent of abusive priests were confirmed pedophiles, defined as those whose victims were younger than age 11.
"While less than 5 percent of the priests were true pedophiles, 51 percent of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 14, which is still quite young. Why? My guess is because of access and vulnerability," commented Thomas Reese of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.
Reese called the 300-page study "extraordinary and sophisticated," but he urged a closer look at the 149 priests identified as serial abusers.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Xavier Briand