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The debate on the causes of clerical child abuse is a major aspect of the academic literature surrounding Catholic sex abuse cases.

Seminary training/admissions

Clergy themselves have suggested their seminary training offered little to prepare them for a lifetime of celibate sexuality.

A report submitted to the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1971, called The Role of the Church in the Causation, Treatment and Prevention of the Crisis in the Priesthood by Dr. Conrad Baars, a Roman Catholic psychiatrist, and based on a study of 1500 priests, suggested that some clergy had "psychosexual" problems.[citation needed] Though the report suggested that immediate corrective action was needed, making ten recommendations, and one of those most active in the Synod was Cardinal Wojtyła, who on October 16, 1978 was elected Pope John Paul II, no implementation of the report's detailed recommendations followed.[citation needed]

Rome's Congregation for Catholic Education issued an official document, the Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders (2005). The document has attracted criticism based on an interpretation that the document implies that homosexuality is associated with pedophilia or ephebophilia.[1]

Declining standards in the prevailing culture

In the book, The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, George Weigel holds that it was the infidelity to orthodox Roman Catholic teaching, the "culture of dissent", which was mainly responsible for this problem. By "culture of dissent" he meant priests, women religious, bishops, theologians, catechists, Church bureaucrats, and activists who "believed that what the Church proposed as true was actually false."[2]

Ultra-conservative Roman Catholics have made the charge that the Second Vatican Council itself (1962–1965) fostered a climate that encouraged priests to abuse children.[citation needed] The council essentially directed an opening of the doors to meet the world. This was considered an appropriate way of going forth and spreading Roman Catholicism. However traditional Roman Catholics believe that this led to a conversion of Roman Catholics to secularism rather than vice versa.[citation needed] In the January 27, 2003 edition of Time magazine, actor and traditionalist Catholic Mel Gibson charged that "...Vatican II corrupted the institution of the church. Look at the main fruits: dwindling numbers and pedophilia." However, others respond that abuse by priests was occurring long before the start of Vatican II and that many of the Roman Catholic sex abuse cases did not, strictly speaking, involve pedophilia. For instance the apostolic constitution Sacramentum Poenitentiae which established general notice of the problem of sexual abuse among the clergy was published by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741.

Rise in reporting

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington, blamed the declining morals of the late 20th century as a cause of the high number of sexually abusive priests.[3] However others assert that the increased reporting of abuse in child-care institutions during this time was concomitant with rising police interest, investigation and prosecution of such crimes. As such it is not certain that a sudden "crisis of abuse" ever existed, instead the dramatic increase in reported abuse cases may simply have heralded the end of a long-term endemic problem found throughout a number of institutions, both secular and religious, prior to the introduction of quality control measures specifically aimed at preventing such abuses from occurring.[4]

Philip Jenkins claims that the Roman Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out by a secular media which he claims fails to highlight similar sexual accusations in other religious groups, such as the Anglican Communion, Islam and Judaism, and various Protestant churches, communities. Jenkins later authored the book The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice in 2003, touching on some of the same issues.[5] Similar experiences are described in e.g. scouting sex abuse cases and Jehovah's Witnesses and child sex abuse.

In 2005, a controversy developed over comments about Boston, Massachusetts, that the US Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, made in a 2002 article about the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Santorum wrote:

It is startling that those in the media and academia appear most disturbed by this aberrant behavior, since they have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning "private" moral matters such as alternative lifestyles. Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.[6]

Supply and demand theory

It has been argued that the shortage of priests in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand[7][8] caused the Roman Catholic hierarchy to act in such a way to preserve the number of clergy and ensure that sufficient numbers were available to serve the congregation despite serious allegations that these priests were unfit for duty. It has been claimed that Roman Catholic doctrines and this under-staffing combined to make Roman Catholic clergy extraordinarily valuable.[citation needed]

Others disagree and believe that the Church hierarchy's mishandling of the sex abuse cases merely reflected their prevailing attitude at the time towards any illegal or immoral activity by clergy. Hierarchs usually suppressed any information which could cause scandal or loss of trust in the Church.[citation needed]

Homosexuality theory

In a statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi on 22 September 2009, the Holy See stated that the majority of Catholic clergy who had committed acts of sexual abuse against under 18 year olds should not be viewed as pedophiles, but as homosexuals. The statement said that rather than pedophilia, "it would be more correct to speak of ephebophilia; being a homosexual attraction to adolescent males"[9] The move angered many gay rights organisations, who claimed it was an attempt by the Vatican to redefine the Church's past problems with pedophilia as problems with homosexuality.[10]

In an interview with CNN, James Cantor, Editor-in-Chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment said, "It's quite solidly shown in the scientific literature that there is absolutely no association between being a gay man and being a pedophile."[11]

In advertisement published in The New York Times, Catholic League president William Donohue described the sex abuse scandal as a “homosexual crisis” and claimed that most victims were postpubescents[12] - knowingly neglecting of fact that according to the John Jay Report only 15% of the victims reached 16 years of age at the time they were abused.[13] During a March 31 appearance on CNN, Donohue, citing the John Jay Report, claimed that since 81 percent of the alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests were male “most of the molesters have been gay”.

An “unwarranted assumption”, as Margaret Smith, a John Jay College criminologist who worked on the report, pointed out in an interview with Media Matters. Explaining that it is an oversimplification to assume that priests who abuse male victims are gay, Smith said: “The majority of the abusive acts were homosexual in nature. That participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man.”[14] “What we are suggesting is that the idea of sexual identity be separated from the problem of sexual abuse,” said Margaret Smith in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “At this point, we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and the increased likelihood of subsequent abuse from the data that we have right now.”[14]

“It's important to separate the sexual identity and the behavior,” said Karen Terry, a second researcher. “Someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature but not have a homosexual identity.” Terry said factors such as greater access to boys is one reason for the skewed ratio. Smith also raised the analogy of prison populations where homosexual behavior is common even though the prisoners are not necessarily homosexuals, or cultures where men are rigidly segregated from women until adulthood, and homosexual activity is accepted and then ceases after marriage.[14]

Analyzing a number of studies, Gregory M. Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, concluded: “The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. This is not to argue that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children. But there is no scientific basis for asserting that they are more likely than heterosexual men to do so... Many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children.”[15]

Celibacy theory

Roman Catholic tradition (for the last 1000 years, though not before) dictates that normally only unmarried men can be ordained into the Catholic priesthood, a practice known as celibacy. It should be noted that in its original context the word 'celibacy' strictly implies unmarried. However in modern parlance this word has come to be associated with the very specific practice of abstaining from sexuality. According to modern church teachings, clergy are expected to adhere to both these practices. Exceptions are sometimes made to this rule but this is a relatively rare occurrence[16].

Seeking an explanation for the rash of abuse cases uncovered in the Church some authors[17] have suggested a direct causal link between the Catholic requirement for celibacy in ordained clergy and incidences of sexual abuse.

These authors typically claim that sexual desire is a strong, fundamental, almost overwhelming tendency in human behaviour that cannot easily be overcome, apart from a great force of will on the part of the individual priest. Thus, it is argued that the Church's requirement for priests to resist or repress their sexual drive or urge to reproduce, will inevitably lead to deviant sexual behavior, when for a minority of clergy their self-imposed denial of, or resistance to 'normal' human sexual behavior breaks down. The assumption is that for this minority of clergy their innate sexual drive, denied 'conventional' or 'normal' means of expression may find an alternate outlet or form of expression in 'unhealthy' or exploitative sexual behavior such as pedophilia or abuse.

A 2005 article in the Western People, a conservative Irish newspaper proposed that celibacy itself had contributed to the abuse problem in a different way. There is a suggestion that the institution of celibacy has created a "morally superior" status that is easily misapplied by abusive priests. According to this paper, "The Irish Church’s prospect of a recovery is zero for as long as bishops continue blindly to toe the Vatican line of Pope Benedict XVI that a male celibate priesthood is morally superior to other sections of society."[18]

Sexual scandals among priests, the defenders say, are a breach of the Church's discipline, not a result of it, especially since only a small percentage of priests have been implicated. Furthermore there is no data supporting a higher rate of child-oriented sexual activity among the unmarried Roman Catholic clergy than that of the married clergy of other denominations[19] and of schoolteachers.[20]. One should be cautious however when making such comparisons between professions. Accurate statistical analysis of such behaviors are inevitably difficult to obtain for a number of practical reasons, and consequently few such studies exist. One key reason for this is that sexual abuse is almost inevitably a traumatic event. Consequently not all instances may be reported to the relevant authorities.[citation needed]. Thus there is reason to believe that actual cases of abuse may well be under-reported.

Most information available involves adolescents of the age of 11 years and older which is the age group most frequently abused. It has been asserted that for some priests the development of their sexual feelings stopped changing when they entered celibacy, so they act as if they were adolescents themselves.[21].

Opinion remains divided on whether there is any definite link or connection between the Roman Catholic institution of celibacy and incidences of child abuse by Catholic clergy.

Studies comparing sexual abuse among married Protestant and Jewish clergy and celibate Catholic clergy show similar rates.[22]

Advocacy for mandatory celibacy

Supporters of celibacy claim that Roman Catholic priests suffering sexual temptations are not likely to turn immediately to a teenage boy simply because Church discipline does not permit clergy to marry. Supporters of clerical celibacy suggest, then, that there is some other factor at work. Both supporters and many detractors of clerical celibacy state that Roman Catholic priests suffering sexual temptations are not likely to turn immediately to children simply because Church discipline does not permit clergy to marry.[citation needed]

In the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, priests are permitted to marry. Because priestly celibacy is a discipline, and not an infallible dogma of the Church, the discipline of celibacy within the Latin Rite may be lifted in the future, although that is currently unlikely. In the Latin Rite now, only a dispensation from the Vatican can allow clergy within the Latin Rite to marry, and such occasions are rare.[citation needed]


  1. "Statement From The Board Of Directors and Staff of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries" November 29, 2005. Accessed June 18, 2007
  2. George Weigel on the Church Crisis in U.S
  3. Down For Maintenance
  4. "Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA)" Wise to Social Issues article quoting PCAA
  5. Jenkins, Philip (2003). The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195154800.
  6. Rick Santorum (July 12, 2002). "Fishers of Men". Catholic Online. Retrieved 2006-08-23.
  7. retrieved on July 6, 2007
  8. Catholic Priests in India 'Outsourced' to Meet Clergy Shortage in West - 2004-06-11
  9. Butt, Riazat (2009-09-28). "Sex abuse rife in other religions, says Vatican". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-04-01.
  10. "The Vatican Would Prefer You Refer To Its Molesting Priests as Gay Molesting Priests / Queerty". Retrieved 2010-04-27.
  11. "Gay outrage over cardinal's child abuse comment". CNN. 2010-04-15.
  12. "Study: Catholic League: Church Abuse Scandal Is A Crisis Of ‘Homosexuality,’ Not ‘Pedophilia’". 2010-03-31. Retrieved 2010-04-22.
  13. America: The National Catholic Weekly
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 "Study: Expert: Donohue's claim that most abusive priests are gay is "unwarranted"". 2010-04-02. Retrieved 2010-04-22.
  15. "Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation". Retrieved 2010-04-22.
  16. Such exceptions are typically applied in the case of Protestant clergy who later convert to Catholicism, see Clerical celibacy (Catholic Church)
  18. Western People, 2 Nov. 2005
  19. Indeed an estimate in Protestant clergy of 2 to 3 percent was made Lloyd Rediger, Ministry and Sexuality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990). p55
  20. Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2001). p50
  21. The Boston Globe.
  22. Sexual abuse in social context retrieved May 21, 2009

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