Sexual abuse and the culture of clericalism

A grand jury’s recent revelation of decades of systematically entrenched and deeply sadistic levels of child abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses has pushed many Catholics into a bewildered rage. Why does the modern church—and the U.S. church in particular—continually find itself not merely falling short of Jesus’ community of love and solidarity but actually failing catastrophically to meet even the most rudimentary levels of human decency? What is the matter with Catholicism today?

One response to the problem reasonably highlights the need for better protocols and legal guardrails when it comes to sexual abuse. Too many bishops and representatives of the church treated abuse victims as legal opponents to be silenced and liabilities to be manipulated. Too often cases of abuse were handled in sinister and self-serving ways as internally resolvable without the need to involve civil authorities and investigation. The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” is only the beginning of a desperately needed process for legal oversight and reform.


Too many bishops treated abuse victims as legal opponents to be silenced and liabilities to be manipulated.

Although these demands are fundamental, they do not adequately address the deeper sources of the problem in the church. After all, legal reform, for all its virtues, is by its nature external to the daily life of the church and largely reactive to already existing crimes and abuses. In this sense, legal reforms are insufficient to address the conditions that generated a system of abuse in the first place. Indeed, Catholics still lack a persuasive story of what went wrong. And without a vigorous narrative about what led the church to such a dark place, it will be difficult to find a path that can lead us to a place where children rather than their abusers are protected.

False Narratives

Of course, there are many voices in society that are eager to supply a narrative for what is wrong with Catholicism. Some recent commentators have argued that the causes of such endemic abuse are simply intrinsic to Catholicism itself and its distinct spiritual practices. Often this criticism takes the form of a biologically reductive account of celibacy. In this neo-Freudian view, celibacy is an unlivable demand. Any human being asked to make promises of celibacy is driven to moral hypocrisy by the irrepressible nature of the sexual libido. As one former priest and survivor of abuse notes, relatively minor violations of chastity give cover to priests who are perpetrators of the worst kind of abuse:

A pastor, for example, has a relationship [with a consenting adult] when he’s professed to be celibate, but he has an assistant who is a child abuser, or has a friend who is a child abuser, he’s not going to blow the whistle on that criminal behavior, because his own behavior is going to be found out.

From such a view of celibacy and its relationship to abuse, it is easy to draw the conclusion that reform should include abolishing celibate vocations. By this reasoning, Catholicism itself and the life of celibacy lived by Jesus are incompatible with a healthy humanity.

Other commentators have argued that male-only leadership is intrinsically dysfunctional. Maleness as a biological phenomenon is thus said to be somehow driving and generating a particular social problem—as if males simply because they are in leadership roles are more given to neglect and sadistic acts of abuse. Yet another version of this search for the sources of the problem in the male psyche is the claim that male homosexual desire is the culprit, and anyone who has ever had such desires should be excluded from the priesthood. The latter argument conveniently allows certain Catholics to avoid an earnest effort at self-criticism in favor of focusing on a regularly vilified scapegoat (gay men) as the object of blame.

There are many voices in society that are eager to supply a narrative for what is wrong with Catholicism.

As different as these diagnoses are, they all share a common problem: Namely, they wrongly assume that abusive behavior is somehow essentially tied to either repressed male sexuality or the male psyche as such. Rather than a historically and culturally sensitive analysis of what went wrong with the church, these diagnoses require a broad dismissal of expressions of male sexuality (e.g., celibacy or homosexuality) that have not been properly tamed into heterosexual couplings. But statistics on the demographics of abuse perpetrators reveal that married, non-celibate men are a significant source of child abuse in the United States. Celibacy, homosexuality, heterosexuality or male leadership simply do not adequately mark off the problem of a culture of abuse. They seek formal, demographic and biological markers where what is needed is insight into a particular culture.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church.]

In the turn toward more historically sensitive explanations, Catholics might begin by asking questions like this: What, in particular, went wrong with Catholic culture in the United States during the 20th century? I do not pretend to have anything like an adequate answer to this question. But how successfully the church answers this conundrum will be crucial for eliminating future abuse. This will require listening carefully to the Catholic Church’s own history—to reporters and ethnographers, to historians and to the witness of the abused themselves.

Clerical Privilege

One (albeit still inadequate) starting point for answering this question was offered by Pope Francis when he recently repeated his warnings against what he calls the culture of “clericalism,” in which fullness of spiritual attainment is seen as largely reserved to ordained religious leaders. In this conception of church, clerics are viewed as the only real, full examples of religious life, while lay people mostly occupy a second-best, helper status.

Clericalism in the Catholic Church, Francis tells us, “nullifies the personality of Christians” and “leads to the functionalization of the laity, treating them as ‘errand boys [or girls].’” Clericalism does this by treating priests as beatified ministers merely by dint of the formal role that they occupy in the church. From the vantage point of clericalism, priests appear to be nearly magical beings, holier than the rest of us, capable of greater moral perfection, insight, wisdom and fortitude.

What, in particular, went wrong with Catholic culture in the United States during the 20th century?

Francis notes that clericalism is not only perpetuated by priests but also reinforced by many lay people. In an overly clericalized church, priests are not in open, equal, vulnerable human relationships with their flock. Instead, they are isolated by their own moral and spiritual status. Rather than a laity that might know its priests as human beings (and thereby see warning signs and intervene when abuse is suspected), parishioners see the priest as a shaman or a guru.

But Francis notes that this tendency subverts traditional Christianity, which holds that priests are servants of the laity and not the other way around. Clericalism is thus tied to a top-down, overly authoritarian configuration of church. For this reason, Francis sees a link between a culture of clericalism and the lack of transparency so characteristic of the abuse in Pennsylvania. As Francis wrote in his recent letter in response to the grand jury report: “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

Criticism of clericalism is difficult for many Catholics to accept because it moves past the (albeit fully justified) accusation of chief perpetrators and into questions of distributed responsibility. Clericalism poses the question: How are all Catholics complicit in a culture in which abuse is rampant? Perhaps all Catholics can do something about clericalism by creating church communities that are made up of real, thick relationships and not the guru-like distance created by clericalism.

Clericalism poses the question: How are all Catholics complicit in a culture in which abuse is rampant?

It will be important, in the effort to combat a culture of clericalism, to learn from past mistakes. One of these mistakes has been to assume that clericalism is overcome by simple, formal gestures of social inclusion. As the vivid and disturbing story of one abuse survivor teaches us, it is possible to invite the parish priest over for dinner several times a month and still have a completely clericalized and quasi-authoritarian set of relations.

Overcoming clericalism means creating open, transparent and equal relationships between priests and laity. Such a community is willing to allow moral correction of priests by the laity and not simply the correction of laity by priests. Such a community is open and willing to learn from all its members.

Only a community of greater human relationships and transparency will be able to spot and root out abusive behavior. Where clericalism hides the psychology of the priest behind a veil of pseudo-beatification, Francis asks us to look realistically at the human beings in front of us and respond accordingly. Likewise, priests seized by a mentality of clericalism need to renounce the pride of a special divinity or holiness and (like Christ) instead seek to become more deeply human.

It is also important to recognize that clericalism creates a culture in which nonabusing priests cannot openly apologize or be seen as morally flawed. In the effort to appear as immovably perfect as a Byzantine icon, priests no longer have a way to discuss their own moral limitations frankly. They become captives of their own false beatification. This is the real grain of truth behind the important insight that completely morally debased priests are able to blackmail those who have broken their promises of celibacy in consensual relations with adults. Only a priest who is the captive of an inflated notion of moral superiority is unable to live through the humiliation of the revelation of his own human flaws—and only a community that refuses to wrestle with the humanity of its priests is able to put the blinders up and therefore live amid unacceptable, intolerable abuses that are hidden from view.

I do not pretend this is a complete or adequate analysis of what went wrong with American Catholicism in the 20th century. But we must move past reductive and unhelpful accounts of the sources of abuse that scapegoat maleness, celibacy and homosexuality by turns. Pope Francis is offering one place for deeper inquiry into how to repair Catholic culture. A failure to heed the warning will lead to the reproduction of the very conditions that made this violence possible in the first place. As Francis exhorts, Catholics need to work together to generate a new culture and renew the church—to create “solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”

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Michael Barberi
1 year 9 months ago

The zero tolerance policy and the 2002 Dallas Charter is not working because the latest revelations (e.g., Cardinal McCarrick and the Grand Jury PA Report) demonstrates that this scandal was systemic and not isolated to a few priests and bishops. Additionally, the Dallas Charter does not deal with Bishops who sexually abuse minors and adults and/or coverup the crimes.

The causes of this sexual abuse scandal are complex, and whether some are a primary cause of or an important contributor to this problem, everything should be on the table for discussion. The following is only a partial list:

1. The root causes of the sexual abuse scandal, including a culture of clericalism, must be thoroughly investigated and significant measures and procedures must be implement to significant address this problem. Thus, the Dallas Charter must be expanded and this includes how to handle and bring to justice Bishops involved in sexual abuse or in the coverup.
2. Grounds for removal from the priesthood all clergy (priests, bishops and cardinals). This means a zero tolerance policy with teeth. Any priest or bishop/cardinal found guilty of sexually abusing a minor or having consensual sex with an adult should be removed from the priesthood. There should be some room for continuous psychological counseling, lifetime monitoring and oversight in some circumstances. All accusations of sexual abuse of minors or adults should be reported to local law enforcement authorities.
3. An end to secrecy especially in the deliberations of the Conference of Bishops. This includes very few or no closed sessions and complete transparency of the records of every session....the names of bishops who proposed what, who voted for what, what issues were discussed and what were not, who voted for what or did not vote, etc.
4. Lay and women religious should be advisors to each diocese and the meetings of US Conference of Bishops, and not a window-dressing committee whose recommendations are ignored. This means participation and attendance.
5. The US Conference of Bishops must implement significant reforms well beyond the Dallas Charter.
6. Voluntary Celibacy should be the subject of rethinking by the Pope and Worldwide Bishops; also Women Ordination. While these are contentious issues, we need a robust debate inclusive of theologians who should be permitted to issue reports, pro and con, to the Pope and Synod of Bishops.
7. The prohibition of well-adjusted and mature homosexual men from entering the priesthood should be revoked.

Rhett Segall
1 year 9 months ago

Clericalism is rooted in the archetype of the priest as the necessary go-between the community and God.. Dostoevsky showed its power in the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor sent Christ to death again noting that the people would not counter his decision because the Grand Inquisitor was God's (supposed) voice. Christianity should be able to tame this archetype by the recognition of the universal priesthood of the baptized. But that demands we accept the challenge and responsibility!

Leo Sprietsma
1 year 9 months ago

As long as we perpetuate our system of dividing the Catholic community into 'clerics' and 'laity', we will have Clericalism.
The solution is to ORDAIN LAITY.

The Bishop can appoint or ordain different lay people to 'extend the Bishop's functions. One person might lead the liturgy. Another preach. Another Reconcile or administer to the sick, etc. etc. One person does not need to do everything.
We are already tending in that direction, by necessity, because not all that many males find they have a vocation to full time, exclusive, perpetual being a 'cleric' professional. So we are already using laity for communion ministers, and many other jobs we used to relegate to 'the priest'.
We need to keep extending that, until ALL 'priest' functions are fulfilled by delegated LAITY rather than reserving everything to professional clerics'

We would begin to 'de-mystyfy' the function of priestly ministry, and perhaps even recognize that 'laity' involved might be either male or female, married or single.

rose-ellen caminer
1 year 9 months ago

Luke 14:26 "If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more then your father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters --- even more then your life."

This may be the basis for instituting a celibate clergy. The original apostles did leave everything to follow Jesus when they heard His call.

I understand that out of necessity due to the lack of vocations and a clamor to end this corruption, the church may need to reevaluate this tradition.

PJ Gee
1 year 9 months ago

Until the Jesuit order publicly and obviously removes James Martin, the order is out of God's order.
We don't need the spirit of homosexuality increasing in Christ's Church.
We don't want to watch the vile, polluted breakdown of theology in the Church.
I ask, what makes the Jesuit order Christian, or Catholic, for that matter.
Charging toward a schism that will be only avoided by Holy intervention.
Terrible when we have to pray against a disordered order, acting with such smug capriciousnes and hubris.

Susan Liang
1 year 9 months ago

This writer acts like the "all seeing eye" saying before it is actually researched, what the diagnosis is.

The problem is found by studying Jesus's relationship in heaven with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, as well as Jesus's relationships with human beings.

Why is it that Jesus who is God never abused women and children? He loved them with an agape love. That is, he respected them as whole human beings entitled to respect. Consider the woman at the well whom Jesus treated as a human being.

The "problem" with the church is that it thinks in terms of pre- Christian pagan dichotomies that separate mind from body, and then categorize males as "mind and spirit" and females and children as "body without spirit/soul".

With that kind of ancient distinction, females and children, and anyone and any species associated with the "body" or "matter" can be used as a resource, unilaterally -- "body without mind" or "matter" -- and disposed of as if an insignificant object.

Ancient Paganism's categorization of some humans as of less or no value, compared to men, still exists, and has resulted in the continuation of criminal acts against women and children.

It is also the origination of the destruction of the planet as mere resource or matter.

And it is truly an insult for lay people to be talked down to, especially if one can't possibly be sure what the problem is with the criminal enterprise that is the church.

Saying a priori that the people of Jesus are to blame for the acts of rapists is more than outrageous. It is a gross injustice on top of the practice of, and conspiracy to, commit child rape and cover it up.

Who is it that says "Follow Me!" These are priests and bishops in rebellion against the Lord God.

They chose rebellion. This has nothing to do with lay followers. Nothing.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 9 months ago

The following was excerpted from the Testimony of His Excellency Carlo Maria Vigano Apostolic Nuncio Washington D.C. from 2011-2016

"Regarding Cupich, one cannot fail to note his ostentatious arrogance, and the insolence with which he denies the evidence that is now obvious to all: that 80% of the abuses found were committed against young adults by homosexuals who were in a relationship of authority over their victims."
During the speech he gave when he took possession of the Chicago See, at which I was present as a representative of the Pope, Cupich quipped that one certainly should not expect the new Archbishop to walk on water. Perhaps it would be enough for him to be able to remain with his feet on the ground and not try to turn reality upside-down, blinded by his pro-gay ideology, as he stated in a recent interview with America Magazine. Extolling his particular expertise in the matter, having been President of the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People of the USCCB, he asserted that the main problem in the crisis of sexual abuse by clergy is not homosexuality, and that affirming this is only a way of diverting attention from the real problem which is clericalism. In support of this thesis, Cupich “oddly” made reference to the results of research carried out at the height of the sexual abuse of minors crisis in the early 2000s, while he “candidly” ignored that the results of that investigation were totally denied by the subsequent Independent Reports by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 and 2011, which concluded that, in cases of sexual abuse, 81% of the victims were male. In fact, Father Hans Zollner, S.J., Vice-Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, President of the Centre for Child Protection, and Member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, recently told the newspaper La Stampa that “in most cases it is a question of homosexual abuse.”

William Atkinson
1 year 9 months ago

All the prayers and rhetoric; good, bad, ugly are of no results if not followed by action. Read and study St. Pope John Paul II's epic book "The Acting Person" a great basis for what belief and faith as a Catholic called to a life of holiness and maturity. Abuse comes from trying to live a life that has it's roots against nature. Yes it is a drastic truth, but celibacy and chastity are lifestyles that are anti-natural. Sex is an integral part of humanity. God's direct first commandment to humans is "Be Fruitful and Multiply" and His Son, Jesus, in His very wise knowledge of humanity chose a married man with children to lead his church. All through Jesus's teachings we see his heavy emphasis on marriage. The great need for church leaders to get at the roots of Abuse and change the NORMS of Shepherds and their ministers. 1st: As drastic as it seems "No Child Left Alone" needs to be the NORM. 2nd: End the era of monastic like seminaries, breeding grounds for aloneness, return to early church training in communities. 3rd: Priesthood, Deacons (Male and Female), ministers all stepping grounds for Shepherds. Yes far more Shepherds (Bishops)especially in the Americas, organize the church around Shepherds in communities, not cities and groups of cities of thousands and millions. There are cities in America and around the world (except Ireland, France, Spain and Italy) of thousands with no Shepherd. 4th: Education, there is a real reluctance in church circles to address the issue of one of humans most natural drives SEX. when educating children and young adults, along with those who go into ministry, not only for their self, but the fact that they will lead others. Development and Deviant psychology should be mandatory for anybody entering in services that deal with people. To understand the forces involved that could alter the norms of human living. Abusers are not born that way, maligned behavior is learned and experienced in environments from early childhood, youth and young adulthood, getting rid of these roots to bad, ugly behavior is essential to moral and ethical adulthood where the norm is Goodness and Greatness

William Atkinson
1 year 9 months ago


Mike LaFrance
1 year 9 months ago

What if Catholics owned their Baptismal anointing as a Priest? What if Catholics depended on their own calling to be priest to one another? What if Catholics each became one with Mercy?

Karen Silver
1 year 9 months ago

It isn't celibacy nor is it homosexuality. The analysis of the in vivo beatification of priests seems spot on. They are men and they are prey to the needs and doubts all humans face. They are infantile in the seminary and bounced back to a latency in their development as people. They are made afraid of their sexuality be it gay or straight. Worse, they are made ashamed. One can be gay, celibate and a wonderful priest. Father Michael Judge OFM, was an example of a balance. He was trusted and loved by tough firefighters and died on 9/11. I would imagine that there are gay saints who sought and found the balance. Don't get led into homophobia or reductionism. Neither works well.

Karen Silver
1 year 9 months ago

It isn't celibacy nor is it homosexuality. The analysis of the in vivo beatification of priests seems spot on. They are men and they are prey to the needs and doubts all humans face. They are infantile in the seminary and bounced back to a latency in their development as people. They are made afraid of their sexuality be it gay or straight. Worse, they are made ashamed. One can be gay, celibate and a wonderful priest. Father Michael Judge OFM, was an example of a balance. He was trusted and loved by tough firefighters and died on 9/11. I would imagine that there are gay saints who sought and found the balance. Don't get led into homophobia or reductionism. Neither works well.

Donald Rohmer
1 year 9 months ago

The article makes good points but doesn't mention what would seem to be the main problem with priestly celibacy. It's not at all difficult to imagine that men with disordered sexuality could see a vow of celibacy as a way to escape that sexuality. That would seem to make the priesthood a magnet for sexual deviates with good intentions. But despite their good intentions, the temptation to molest vulnerable people in their care would become too great. The article says that the "majority of perpetrators were caregivers of their victims."

Phillip Stone
1 year 9 months ago

Let us analyse the issue and see if anything might come of the discussion.
My first prompting would be to separate the issue into two streams about offices and functions.
If we accept that "one, holy, universal and apostolic" actually means what it says, then the issue of apostolic office needs review.
Call to mind, episkopos and presbuteros are two offices and are hierarchical. In English - bishops and elders.

What are called priests these days were once bishop's helpers.

Now, what has become of the New Testament differentiation of functions or activities endowed upon the community of believers baptised into Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit? Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers: or first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors; after that miracles; then the graces of healing, helps, governments, kinds of tongues, interpretations of speeches.

Looks more like a team concept, a captain and specialists with different powers and duties meant to be universally available and locally present in full.
Also remember, each and every one of the above offices and functions will be filled or performed by sinners.

Life lived in public, not in privacy or secret, mutual support and accountability. Out in the open, visible and accountable.

Arthur Sullivan
1 year 9 months ago

A thoughtful, well-done commentary, Jason. I accept that clerical culture is a greater problem than sexual preference. But to accept the point is not to agree that celibacy and an all-male clergy are good for the church. Prohibitions on female ordinations is just plain wrong, and celibacy is just plain weird.

Anne Grady
1 year 9 months ago

I don't want to go back to church until we have women priests and women in leadership roles in the church.


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