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Called by U.S. News and World Report an “unholy crisis,” a horrible shadow has fallen over the priesthood with the revelation that a Boston priest, John Geoghan, molested scores of children, including a 4-year-old boy and seven boys in one extended family. This scandal intensified with the revelation that his bishop knew of Geoghan’s problems and gave him further parochial assignments.

This lamentable action, and too many others, have cast a pall over the priesthood, the church and the credibility of bishops who are entrusted with the care of their flock. Numerous bishops have written apologies of profound sorrow and regret for priests who have abused children, many stating that there is now “zero tolerance” for priests who sexually abuse: they will be dealt with by civil and ecclesiastical law and will be removed from ministry.

America (3/4) extensively quoted Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who expressed “profound sorrow” for the sexual abuse of children by priests. Bishop Gregory acknowledged “the more than 40,000 wonderful priests in our country,” but realizes too the “shadow” that has been cast on the church by the crimes of a few. Kenneth L. Woodward commented in Newsweek two years ago (3/4/00) that a major problem now exists for the future of priestly vocations because of “the alliteration of priest and pedophile.” In the same issue of Newsweek, the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley acknowledged that while priesthood does not make a priest a pedophile, it allows a pedophile to have access to children, especially aggravated when the priest himself is emotionally a male child. There is a perfect match.

A major problem now exists for the future of priestly vocations because of “the alliteration of priest and pedophile.”

Many recent commentaries on this tragic problem have highlighted the point that the priesthood holds a dangerous attraction for pedophiles not only because it offers easy access to children, but also because some pedophiles might seek out the priesthood as a suitable place to control their sexual desires.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican’s official spokesman, may have further complicated this problem when he seemed to identify pedophiles with homosexuals and draw the conclusion that the priesthood should become less welcoming to homosexuals, and that their ordination should be considered invalid (The New York Times, 3/3).

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the sex abuse crisis]

Navarro-Valls’s remark, coupled with a legion of recent reports and commentaries, offers a panorama of reaction from sorrow, to regret, to judgment, to interpretation. Very little has been done, though, to analyze carefully the sexual meaning of pedophilia itself. This deficiency of clarity too easily leads to misunderstanding and the belief that pedophilia is widespread in the priesthood. The question of homosexuality itself deserves more study and refinement, but remarks here are focused primarily on the questions of pedophilia and ephebophilia. Some distinctions should be helpful in this context.

Studies in the area of sexuality and psychosexual development have demonstrated that there are five basic sexual orientations:

1. A heterosexual possesses a primary sexual desire toward persons of the opposite sex.

2. A homosexual possesses a primary sexual desire toward persons of the same sex.

3. A bisexual possesses a generally indiscriminate sexual desire toward persons of both sexes.

4. A fixated pedophile possesses a primary sexual desire toward children between 1 and 13, with the victim being at least five years younger than the perpetrator.

5. A fixated ephebophile possesses a primary sexual desire toward children between 14 and 17, with the adolescent victim being at least five years younger than the perpetrator. This category becomes especially complicated when the victim is a 14- to 17-year-old boy, and the adult male’s attraction might be one of homosexuality rather than ephebophilia. 

The fixated pedophile’s and the ephebophile’s sexual desire is intense and recurrent and represents a serious psychological and developmental impairment. By way of contrast, a regressed pedophile or ephebophile is usually a heterosexual, who under extreme stress regresses to developmentally impaired behavior and engages in sex with children—for example, a man whose wife is sexually unavailable turns to his daughter for sex.

These distinctions should help to clarify the definition of a pedophile and ephebophile and to show that a pedophile or ephebophile is normally not a homosexual, as he or she has no interest in adult sexual relations. Statistical data would be helpful in order to understand the prevalence of pedophilia and ephebophilia in American culture and to know the percentage of priests with these orientations as compared to the male population in general. But research limitations presently make this knowledge impossible. Some distinct points for further clarification are useful.

No single explanation can account for all the different pathways leading to pedophilia and ephebophilia.

First, no single explanation can account for all the different pathways leading to pedophilia and ephebophilia. Any theory must be multifaceted and account for a wide range of behaviors, fantasies and organic factors that may play a role in the development of this disorder. A comprehensive theory of pedophilia and ephebophilia must refer to psychological, familial, environmental, social, genetic, hormonal, organic and biological factors.

Second, clinical evaluation of pedophiles and ephebophiles reveals them to be a diverse group. They differ educationally, vocationally, religiously and socioeconomically. They vary in the amount of force or aggression used in their sexual acts. They may be involved in a wide variety of other variant sexual behaviors, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, frotteurism (sexually touching or fondling an unwilling person), masochism or sadism.

Third, differing theories are offered in an attempt to search out the origins of an individual pedophile or ephebophile.

Psychoanalytic theories look at deviant sexual behavior as stemming from early childhood trauma at ages 2 to 5. Sexual or physical abuse leaves the child in a state of overstimulation, confusion, separation anxiety and rage. Feeling helpless and powerless, this victim may sexually act out as a way of re-creating the original trauma with the hope of mastering the anxiety associated with it. The victim may also identify with the abusing adult and act out sexually with a younger child. This acting out makes the individual feel alive and vital and re-establishes a feeling of control and power. But the feeling of dominance soon dissipates and the re-enactment has to be repeated, forcing the individual to molest over and over again.

Family system theories stress the role of unresolved intergenerational family dynamics on specific family members—for example, an unconscious conflict that is unacceptable to a parent might be encouraged in a child.

Behaviorism and social learning theories stress the fact that sexual pleasure reinforces behavior, and a child who has been assaulted by an adult or other child feels guilt associated with the sexual pleasure. As an adult, this individual experiences internal conflict and ambivalence, which then takes the form of sexually acting out with children.

Biological theories stress the possibility of brain illness or damage as a cause of deviant sexual arousal. Research in this area takes several paths—for example, too much of the male hormone testosterone leads to violence and chaotic sexual behavior, caused, for instance, by a mother’s stress during pregnancy, or by her intake of specific drugs, or because of the presence of brain abnormalities that create specific behavioral problems.

Fourth, fixated pedophiles and ephebophiles are typically developmentally arrested, psychosexually immature, nonassertive, heterosexually inhibited, lacking in social skills and without a basic knowledge of sexuality. They have a need for control, and a child becomes for them a pliant and manipulative object. The pedophile or ephebophile is at the same psychosexual age as his victim. Generally, it is not a particular child who is arousing, but the sight, smell and sound of any child.

Celibacy is not the real issue when dealing with this problem, as child abusers are not interested in or capable of adult sexual relations.

Fifth, power and control are critical factors. The child is yielding and vulnerable and perceived as unthreatening, unassertive and lacking the ability to retaliate because of his size and lack of power. In a sense, the child molester does what the adult does with the prostitute: i.e., bypasses personal autonomy.

Sixth, pedophiles and ephebopiles often play games with their victims: e.g., wrestling, tickling or taking a “sex survey” of the victim. Pedophiles and ephebophiles often “court” their victim through these games and manipulate them through invitations to movies, trips and treats.

Seventh, the sexual acting out results in more pleasant emotional states, putting a psychological distance between the perpetrator’s feelings of loneliness, emptiness, despair and lack of connectedness to others and the sexual excitement. While pedophiles and ephebophiles very often rationalize their molestation as helping the victim (e.g., as caretaker, parent, teacher or friend), this sexual behavior is always an aggressive act, and the child is always a victim.

These factors can be properly contexualized when one realizes that pedophiles and ephebophiles sustain four basic personality dysfunctions:

Emotional congruence: for the pedophile and ephebophile, children have a special meaning because of their lack of dominance and power.

Sexual arousal: for the pedophile and ephebophile, children are the object of sexual stimulation with variational and specific needs—for example, boys must lack pubic hair, or girls must be blond and blue-eyed.

Blockage: the pedophile and ephebophile have no capacity for authentic heterosexual or homosexual relationships.

Disinhibition: the pedophile and ephebophile often use alcohol or other drugs to lower inhibitions prior to the sexual acting out with children.

The priest and psychiatrist James J. Gill, S.J., and others insist that seminaries must strengthen their entrance requirements and put into place ongoing formational programs to assist seminarians to understand and cope with their sexuality. The taking of a sexual history (see “Taking a Sexual History,”Human Development, Spring 1996) should become an integral part of these requirements, along with a deeper realization that pedophiles and ephebophiles share certain characteristics: cognitive distortions, deviant sexual fantasies, distorted sexual arousal patterns, interpersonal dependence, low self-esteem and low victim empathy. In addition, seminaries must create an atmosphere in which seminarians are comfortable talking about their sexuality to spiritual directors and mentors. Such an atmosphere is especially strengthened if the seminary has on staff a person well informed about sexuality and its many ramifications.

Seminaries must create an atmosphere in which seminarians are comfortable talking about their sexuality.

Celibacy is not the real issue when dealing with this problem, as child abusers are not interested in or capable of adult sexual relations. The real issue is the need to understand the true meaning of pedophilia and ephebophilia, remove priests with these sexual orientations from active ministry and heighten seminary requirements so that persons with these orientations will not be admitted to formation programs and will be dismissed if this orientation is discovered or seriously suspected.

Pope John XXIII chose as his motto Obedientia et pax. Peace comes from knowing oneself as given over and entrusted to the will of God. Among many other things, this self-knowing demands a rigorous honesty regarding one’s sexual health and integrity. True peace will not occur for the church or for individuals when those who experience a pedophilic or ephebophilic orientation enter the ranks of the clergy. Pedophiles and ephebophiles sustain a recurrent, intense sexual urge and sexually arousing fantasies involving prepubescent or adolescent children. This person will not find peace in the priesthood, nor can the church embrace such persons as priests.

No one has the right to be a priest; pedophiles and ephebophiles forfeit any possibility for entrance into a seminary formation program because of their characterological sexual dysfunction.

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