It’s not about celibacy: Blaming the wrong thing for sexual abuse in the church

On Friday Dec. 15 an Australian commission assigned to investigate child sexual abuse recommended that the Catholic Church lift its demand of celibacy from clergy and that priests be prosecuted for failing to report evidence of pedophilia heard in the confessional. In 2010, Father James Martin wrote an article making the case why celibacy is not to blame for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Many factors underlie the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Here is an extremely brief (and therefore incomplete) summary. First, improper screening of candidates for seminaries led to some psychologically sick men being ordained as priests. When some bishops received reports of sexual abuse, the reports were tragically downplayed, dismissed or ignored. Second, the crimes of sexual abuse often went unreported to civil authorities, out of a misguided concern among church officials for “avoiding scandal,” the fear of litigation, or an unwillingness to confront the abusive priest. Third, grossly misunderstanding the severity of the effects of abuse, overly relying on advice from psychologists regarding rehabilitation, and privileging the concerns of priests over the pastoral care for victims, some bishops moved abusive priests from one parish to another where they repeatedly offended.

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That is an enormous simplification that leaves out many important causes. In general, though, that is a fair summary of some underlying reasons for these crimes. (Note that I say “reasons” and not “excuses.” There are no excuses for these crimes.)

In an abbreviated form, this was also the conclusion of an extensive study by the National Review Board, an independent group of Catholic laypersons who reported to the U.S. Catholic bishops in the wake of the abuse crisis that engulfed the American Church beginning in 2002. The board’s analysis led to the “zero-tolerance” policy adopted by the American hierarchy.

Blaming celibacy is an enormous simplification that leaves out many important causes.

One thing you don’t see on the list of factors is celibacy. Because celibacy does not cause pedophilia. But that hasn’t stopped otherwise thoughtful pundits and commentators, and among them even some Catholics, from opining on celibacy as a cause of the crisis.

Around the same time as the National Review Board released their findings, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded a nationwide study, reporting that around four percent of American priests between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of abuse. Even a single case of sexual abuse is too much, but that figure is half that of the overall percentage for American males, which, according to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is one in ten. (In a Newsweek article in 2010, Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at John Jay, estimated that the figure is closer to one in five.) “We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,” Mr. Allen told Newsweek.

And, as Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a psychologist and expert on child sexual abuse, and Virginia Goldner, also a psychologist, noted in a hard-hitting book entitled Predatory Priests, Silenced Victims, the sexual abuse of children has also occurred among Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, Islamic clerics, Buddhist monks and Hare Krishna officials.

None of this has stopped commentators from excoriating priestly celibacy as a primary cause of sexual abuse.

But doing so makes little sense. For one thing, if four percent of American priests were accused of abuse, it means that 96 percent of priests have not been accused of anything and are leading healthy, productive lives in the community. (Bluntly put: if celibacy causes abuse, why aren’t the other 96 percent of priests pedophiles?) For another, 30 percent of abuse takes place within families, yet few sane people point to marriage as a cause of child abuse. When school teachers abuse children, few sane people say that teaching leads to pedophilia. Many widows and widowers, not to mention some single men and women, are celibate. No one suspects them of pedophilia.

So why is the celibacy of Catholic priests singled out?

The critique of priestly celibacy has to do mainly with its unfamiliarity. Voluntarily refraining from sex is unnatural, so the thinking goes; it shuts down a natural part of life and thus leads to unhealthy behaviors. It is unhealthy, critics say; therefore, priesthood attracts only unhealthy people. It is impossible, others aver, so any priest who says he is celibate must be lying. Most people don’t know priests, sisters or brothers, and we sometimes demonize those whom we don’t know. It’s easy to stereotype out of frustration and fear.

So let me speak about celibacy as a celibate male. (Technically, diocesan priests make a promise of celibacy—a promise not to marry. Members of religious orders vow chastity. But in essence, the two commitments work the same way, and the terms can be used interchangeably.)

One of the many goals of celibacy is to love people as freely as possible and as profoundly as possible.

One of the many goals of celibacy is to love people as freely as possible and as profoundly as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining religious chastity negatively—that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the church. Besides its other roots, religious chastity was meant as another way to love others and serve the community. As such, it may have something to teach everyone, not just priests, brothers, and sisters.

For Jesuits—to take the religious order to which I belong—chastity frees us to serve people more readily. We’re not attached to one person exclusively, so it’s easier for us to move to another assignment. As the Jesuit Constitutions say, chastity is “essentially apostolic.” It is supposed to help us be better “apostles,” to be freer to respond to the needs of those around us. So chastity is supposed to be about both love and freedom.

Obviously, celibacy is not for everyone. (If it were, the world would be a much smaller place.) The overwhelming majority of people are called to romantic love, marriage, sexual intimacy, children, and family life. Their primary way of loving is through their spouses and children. It is a more focused, more exclusive, loving. That is not to say that married couples and parents do not love others outside their families. Rather, the main focus of their love is their family.

For the Catholic priest or person in a religious order, the situation is the opposite. You make a promise of celibacy or pronounce a vow of chastity to offer yourself to God as fully as possible and to make yourself available to love as many others as possible. Once again, this is not to say that married and single men and women cannot do the same. Or that clergy in other religions cannot do so. Rather, this is the way that seems to work for us. It is simply another way.

This may even offer an insight for a culture that sees sex as the best way, or the only way, to express love. Chastity and celibacy say that there are other ways. Some of the most loving people I know are chaste men and women, who show me their love through nonsexual ways: spending time with me when I’m down, sharing their joys and sorrows with me, even listening to me complain. Healthy chastity is a reminder that it is possible to love without being in an exclusive relationship and without being sexually active. There are many ways of loving, besides sex, through actions just as meaningful.

Who is more loving: the head-over-heels couple with an active sex life; the committed middle-aged couple who have sex less frequently due to the demands of family life; or the tender elderly couple who, because of illness, are not sexually active at all? Who is more loving: the married man who loves his wife, or the single woman who loves her close friends? Who is more loving: the healthy celibate priest who works long hours for his parishioners, or the sexually active wife who adores her husband?

The answer is that they are all loving. In different ways.

This is not to deny that some priests were clearly tempted to “hide” their sick sexual predilections and designs to prey on children by retreating to a celibate lifestyle as a kind of protective ecclesial cocoon. But that doesn’t mean celibacy causes pedophilia, any more than marriage does, or parenting does, or teaching does. Nor does it mean that celibacy is the best way of organizing the priesthood, or that it will always be the rule for diocesan priests; the Catholic Church has already begun to accept married male clergy from the Anglican Communion as priests. Nor does it mean that an all-male clergy hasn’t over the centuries fostered a secretive culture that privileged concerns for priests over those of lay people. But that has more to do with power than celibacy per se. Nor does it mean that having women, and married men and women, in church leadership roles would not have forced a more vigorous prosecution of sexual abuse cases.

Jesus was celibate. That doesn’t mean he was a pedophile. Neither am I.

But once again, none of that means that celibacy per se leads to an individual becoming an abuser.

Stereotypes about celibacy are more confounding when one reflects—even for a moment—on the lives of some of history’s most beloved celibate religious figures: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and, for much of his life, Mahatma Gandhi.

More to the point: by most accounts, Jesus himself was celibate. (One indication: the Gospels talk freely about his mother, his brothers, and his sisters. If he had a wife, not mentioning her would be odd.) Jesus may have done so to express his personal commitment to his mission; perhaps out of knowledge that his peripatetic life would have been difficult on a spouse; or even to spare his wife from the eventual suffering he may have foreseen.

Jesus was celibate. That doesn’t mean he was a pedophile. Neither am I. And neither are the vast majority of priests.

Stereotypes about celibate priests are as wrongheaded and even dangerous as those about any other religious practice that people don’t fully understand, or stereotypes about any other unfamiliar group of people. You probably don’t practice celibacy, you may not agree with it as a way of life for the clergy, and you may not understand it completely, but that doesn’t mean you should condemn it— much less blame it for a problem with far more complex roots.

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Kester Ratcliff
7 months ago

There's another way to show that that assumption or argument is wrong:

Data - http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/uploa… especially look at the charts on page 8 and page 11.

and on page 3:

"Most priests who had allegations of sexual abuse
against minors were educated in freestanding seminaries
or schools of theology. They were not significantly
more likely than non-abusers to attend minor seminaries
or foreign seminaries. "

and more detail about that on page 40.

The data show that frequency of sexual abuse of minors:
peaked in about 1982 and lasted about 2 generations and since fallen to a minimal level.

Frequencies of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and by men in authority positions in other institutions were very similar. It wasn't just a Catholic clergy thing, it was a men of a certain generation or two in powerful positions thing.

Comparing the clergy populations from US or anglophone seminaries and foreign seminaries it doesn't appear to be a result of seminary formation in a particular culture, it seems to be a cultural trend of a generation or two generally.

This is a semi-speculative interpretation beyond what the data show but not incompatible:

I think most likely context to look for the causes of the epidemic of sexual abuse of minors in the post-war generation which began to decline in the 1980s and reduced to a baseline level in the late 1990s is probably in the childhood enculturation of adolescents of that generation when they were about 11-14 years old themselves (compare chart on page 11).

Rhett Segall
7 months ago

Fr. Martin's article is excellent-the best synthesis and insightful reflections I've read on the topic of vowed celibacy.
I have two qualifiers regarding his perspective:First, I think describing pedophilia as a "sickness"can become an escape clause for avoiding responsibility. I know Fr. Martin energetically rejects excuses in this area, but the metaphor of sickness lends itself to excuse-"I couldn't help the accident for I was under the influence of malaria." A better medical metaphor, I would suggest, is "weakness', something debilitating that we can definitely counter.
Secondly, by underscoring religious celibacy as "essentially apostolic" the thread of it's radical personal commitment to Christ, as well as its essentially eschatological significance, can be lost sight of.These should be stressed along with and intrinsically connected with apostolicity.
But these are minor concerns in a superb understanding! Well done!

Eileen Malloy
7 months ago

The Catholic Church has a homosexual NAMBLA problem among a percentage of its priests. Tolerance of homosexual leadership had led to abuse of minors and bankruptcies of many dioceses. Cardinal Pell doesn’t strike me as a homosexual pederast, and I predict he’s innocent of the charges being brought against him. I hope I’m right.

Carol Cox
7 months ago

Cardinal Pell doesn't strike you as a homosexual pederast? Cardinal Pell offered refuge for every single pedarast in the diocese that he ran in Australia. Cardinal Pell protected every single one of the accused pedarasts in his jurisdiction. One of Australia's most notorious pedophile priests was Gerald Risdale. Cardinal Pell told Sky News that he lived with Risdale for 10 months at the Ballarat East presbytery where Ridsdale molested an 11-year-old girl in the 1970s. Risdale sexually abused more than 50 children over the course of 30 years. Cardinal Pell even personally escorted the most deplorable pedarast , Gerald Risdale into court for his trial. Can you venture a guess as to how many survivors of priest-sexual abuse, Cardinal Pell escorted into court? NONE! Many of these vile sexual acts against children were performed in the rectory of which Cardinal Pell was the pastor. These abusive priests lived under his roof1 Pell had a history of moving the accused priests from parish to parish, without notifying the new parish of the abusers past! This is a "scheme" that seems quite consistent across the board for clergy who protect pedarasts. It happens time and again in country after country.
Pope Francis ordered Pell back to Australia to "clean up this mess." when the Australian Commission looked into sexual abuse of children by clergy. (N.B.: They have just this month published their findings.)
I am praying that Cardinal Pell receives his "just desserts" for allowing the sexual abuse of children to go unpunished. Cardinal Pell provided refuge for the attackers and offered no solace to the victims. As a matter of fact, Cardinal Pell attempted to coerce the accusers into withdrawing their stories. All of this is true! One only need look at which priests Cardinal Pell had living in his rectory and cross-check this list with the legally identified priest sexual abusers to find the truth. While you predict that the Cardinal will be found innocent, I pray, every day, that he will be defrocked by the Pope himself. Pell was complicit in the painful torture of innocent children. Many of these children became adults who later committed suicide because of the pain that Pell's priests inflicted upon them. They never recovered from what these pedarasts did to them. The Archdiocese of New York has just paid out $40. million dollars to 189 victims of clergy sexual abuse. And, this is not about money! It is about acknowledging wrong-doing. This problem is not unique to New York. In Australia, according to Broken Rites, a support and advocacy group for church-related sex abuse victims, as of 2011 there have been over one hundred cases in which Catholic priests have been charged for child sex offenses.
Gerald Risdale remains behind bars. He is now 87 years old and he has at least 12 years of his sentence left to serve. Then, upon his death, I am sure that his sentence in hell will begin.

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