Debate on the causes of clerical child abuse

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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[edit]

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

A report submitted to the General Assembly of 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, no implementation of the report's detailed recommendations followed. One of those most active in the Synod at the time was Cardinal Wojtyła, who on October 16, 1978 was elected Pope John Paul II.[citation needed]

Impact of psychology from previous decades[edit]

Some bishops and psychiatrists have asserted that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[1] Thomas G. Plante of Stanford University and Santa Clara University wrote: "Almost all the cases coming to light today are cases from 30 and 40 years ago. We did not know much about paedophilia and sexual abuse in general back then. In fact, the vast majority of the research on sexual abuse of minors didn't emerge until the early 1980's. So, it appeared reasonable at the time to treat these men and then return them to their priestly duties. In hindsight, this was a tragic mistake."[2] Robert S. Bennett, the Washington attorney who headed the National Review Board's research committee, named "too much faith in psychiatrists" as one of the key problems concerning Catholic sex abuse cases.[3] About 40% of the abusive priests had received counseling before being reassigned.[4]

Declining standards in the prevailing culture[edit]

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."[5]

Some 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 (director of The Passion of the Christ) 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[edit]

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.[6]

Philip Jenkins claims that the Roman Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out by 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.[7] Similar experiences are described in e.g. scouting sex abuse cases and Jehovah's Witnesses and child sex abuse.

Supply and demand theory[edit]

It has been argued that the shortage of priests in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand 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.[8][9][10] 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]

Pedophilia and ephebophilia[edit]

In Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, Cimbolic & Cartor (2006) noted that because of the large share of post-pubescent male minors among cleric victims there is need to further study the differential variables related to ephebophile versus pedophile offenders.[11] Cartor, Cimbolic & Tallon (2008) found that 6 percent of the cleric offenders in the John Jay Report are pedophiles; 32 percent ephebophiles, 15 percent 11 & 12 year olds only (both male and female), 20 percent indiscriminate, and 27 percent mildly indiscriminate.[12] They also found distinct differences between the pedophile and ephebophile groups. They reported that there may be “another group of offenders who are more indiscriminate in victim choice and represent a more heterogeneous, but still a distinct offender category” and suggested further research to determine “specific variables that are unique to this group and can differentiate these offenders from pedophile and ephebophile offenders” so as to improve the identification and treatment of both offenders and victims.[12]

Gay priests and homosexuality[edit]

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 and ephebophilia.[13]

In a statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi in 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.[14] The statement said that rather than pedophilia, "it would be more correct to speak of ephebophilia; being a homosexual attraction to adolescent males"[15] The move angered many gay rights organizations and sex abuse victims groups, who claimed it was an attempt by the Vatican to redefine the Church's past problems with pedophilia as problems with homosexuality.[16]

According to the John-Jay-Report 80.9% of the alleged abuse victims in the United States were male.[17] This fact led Catholic League's William Donohue, to opine: "The conventional wisdom maintains there is a pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church; I maintain it has been a homosexual crisis all along."[18] Margaret Smith, a John Jay College criminologist who worked on the report, pointed out that it is “an unwarranted conclusion” to assert that the majority of priests who abused male victims are gay. Though “the majority of the abusive acts were homosexual in nature [...] participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man.” She further stated that "the idea of sexual identity [should] be separated from the problem of sexual abuse...[A]t 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.”[19]

Another researcher, Louis Schlesinger, argued that the main problem was pedophilia or ephebophilia, not sexual orientation and claimed that some men who are married to adult women are attracted to adolescent males.[20]

“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.[19]

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.”[21]

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."[22]

Michael S. Rose, in his Goodbye, Good Men![23] book on the contrived shortage of Catholic priests, is the leading advocate of the theory that heterosexual seminarians are preferentially denied acceptance to seminary than homosexual ones and that this has set up a gay culture in some parts of the Catholic Church which in turn leads to clerical ephebophilia. This is counter to research that proves otherwise. All victims in the John Jay report were minors, the "vast majority" age 13 or younger, considered pre-pubescent by the American Psychiatric Association.[24] Research on pedophilia in general shows a majority of abusers identify themselves as heterosexual.[25][26] Additionally the John Jay report noted that "the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church."[27]

Clerical celibacy[edit]

Roman Catholic tradition for the last 1000 years, though not before,[28] dictates that only unmarried men can be ordained into the Catholic priesthood, a practice known as celibacy. In modern parlance, celibacy 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.[29]

A 2005 article in the Western People, a conservative Irish newspaper proposed that celibacy itself had contributed to the abuse problem. 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."[30] Christoph Schönborn and Hans Küng have also said that priestly celibacy could be one of the causes of the sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church.[31]

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.[32]

Advocacy for mandatory celibacy[edit]

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.[citation needed]

In the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, married men may become priests. 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] The reintroduction of a permanent diaconate means that married men may become deacons in the Western rite but not become priests.

Male culture of the church[edit]

Italian academic Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in L'Osservatore Romano that a greater presence of women in the Vatican could have prevented clerical sexual abuse from taking place.[31]


  1. ^ Steinfels, A People Adrift (2003). pp. 40–6
  2. ^ Plante, Thomas: A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse, San Jose Mercury News, March 24, 2002 (updated online version)
  3. ^ Filteau, Jerry (2004). "Report says clergy sexual abuse brought 'smoke of Satan' into church". Catholic News Service. Archived from the original on 2004-06-26. Retrieved 2008-03-10. 
  4. ^ Terry, Karen; et al. (2004). "John Jay Report". John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 2008-02-09. 
  5. ^ George Weigel on the Church Crisis in U.S
  6. ^ Down For Maintenance
  7. ^ Jenkins, Philip (2003). The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515480-0. 
  8. ^ Catholic Priests in India 'Outsourced' to Meet Clergy Shortage in West – 2004-06-11
  9. ^ retrieved on July 6, 2007
  10. ^ Catholic Priests in India 'Outsourced' to Meet Clergy Shortage in West - 2004-06-11
  11. ^ Cimbolic & Cartor (2006). Looking at ephebophilia through the lens of priest sexual abuse. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 13(4), 347–359.
  12. ^ a b Cartor, Cimbolic & Tallon (2008). Differentiating Pedophilia from Ephebophilia in Cleric Offenders. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, Volume 15, Issue 4, pages 311 - 319.
  13. ^ "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
  14. ^ 22 September 2009 statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi on behalf of the Holy See
  15. ^ Butt, Riazat (2009-09-28). "Sex abuse rife in other religions, says Vatican". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  16. ^ "The Vatican Would Prefer You Refer To Its Molesting Priests as Gay Molesting Priests / Queerty". Retrieved 2010-04-27. 
  17. ^ John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deaconsin the United States: 4.3 Characteristics of children who alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests. p. 69
  18. ^ Donohue, William (2010). "Catholic Church's issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-12-04. 
  19. ^ a b "New Catholic Sex Abuse Findings: Gay Priests Are Not the Problem". 2009-11-18. Retrieved 2010-04-23. 
  20. ^ Filteau, Jerry, "Sex abuse report pays special attention to homosexual priests" from Catholic News Service
  21. ^ "Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation". Retrieved 2010-04-22. 
  22. ^ "Gay outrage over cardinal's child abuse comment". CNN. 2010-04-15. 
  23. ^ Rose, Michael S. (2002-06-25). Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church. Regnery Publishing, Inc. ISBN 0-89526-144-8. 
  24. ^ John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2004), The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950–2002 (PDF), United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ISBN 1-57455-627-4, retrieved February 7, 2012 
  25. ^ Groth AN, Birnbaum HJ (May 1978). "Adult sexual orientation and attraction to underage persons". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 7 (3): 175–81. doi:10.1007/BF01542377. PMID 666571. There were no examples of regression to child victims among peer-oriented, homosexual males. Pedophiles who are attracted to young boys tend not to be attracted to adult men. And many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children. 
  26. ^ Abel, Gene G.; Nora Harlow (2001, study text revised 2002). "The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study" (PDF). The Stop Child Molestation Book. Xlibris. Retrieved 29 June 2012. More than 70 percent of the men who molest boys rate themselves as heterosexual in their adult sexual preferences. In addition, 9 percent report that they are equally heterosexual and homosexual. Only 8 percent report that they are exclusively homosexual  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  27. ^ Goodstein, Laurie (May 17, 2011). "Church Report Cites Social Tumult in Priest Scandals". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 June 2012. If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church. 
  28. ^ Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy. NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982, p. 45
  29. ^ Such exceptions are typically applied in the case of Protestant clergy who later convert to Catholicism, see Clerical celibacy (Catholic Church)
  30. ^ Western People, 2 Nov. 2005
  31. ^ a b The Guardian: Archbishop links priestly celibacy and Catholic sex abuse scandals - Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, calls for 'unflinching examination' of possible reasons for paedophilia, 11 March 2010
  32. ^ "Priest abuse cases focus on adolescents". The Boston Globe.