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.

Moral relativism[edit]

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI published a letter[1] (in German and then translated into English) in which he provided a unified perspective on several issues that, together, he believes contributed to the sexual abuse scandal. One of the chief reasons put forth by the Pope was the push by several prominent theologians for a relativistic perspective on morality where "there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments."

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.[2] 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 practice of returning pedophile priests to their position in the clergy may have been due to the prevailing psychological theories of the time, which suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[3] 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 1980s. 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."[4] 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.[5] About 40 percent of the abusive priests had received counseling before being reassigned.[6]

A report done as part of the Australian government's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that "the most notorious cases of sexual abuse in the Australian church occurred in institutional settings in the 1940s–60s by men (and sometimes women) who were thoroughly trained in the strict morality and rigorous piety of the pre-Vatican II church," noting that "the ranks of abusers cuts right across the lines of conservatives and liberals, with both sides having their fair share of abusive clergy."[7][8]

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.[9][10][11]

Pedophilia and ephebophilia[edit]

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.[12] 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 and 12 year olds only (both male and female), 20 percent indiscriminate, and 27 percent mildly indiscriminate.[13] 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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15] The statement said that rather than pedophilia, "it would be more correct to speak of ephebophilia, being a homosexual attraction to adolescent males."[16] 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.[17]

According to the John Jay Report 80.9% of the alleged abuse victims in the United States were male.[18] 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."[19] 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."[20]

All victims in the John Jay Report were minors, the "vast majority" age 13 or younger, considered prepubescent by the American Psychiatric Association.[21] Research on pedophilia in general shows a majority of abusers identify themselves as heterosexual.[22] Additionally the John Jay report noted that "the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church."[23]

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.[24]

Karen Terry, a second researcher, nonetheless stresses the importance of separating sexual identity and behavior. "Someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature but not have a homosexual identity", says Terry. 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.[20]

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."[25]

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."[26]

Clerical celibacy[edit]

Roman Catholic tradition for the last 1000 years, though not before,[27] dictates that only unmarried men can be ordained into the Catholic priesthood, a practice known as clerical 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 to this rule are sometimes made in very specific instances, such as married converts.[28]

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."[29] 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.[30]

Most information available involves male 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.[31] An Australian public inquiry panel in 2015 claimed that priests being celibate may have also contributed to abuse.[32] Expert witness at the Royal Commission, Dr Carolyn Quadrio said at the time that she did not believe celibacy drives child abuse, but rather men who see children as sex objects are drawn to the priesthood as a profession.[33][34][35]

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 a doctrine 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.

Revelations of widespread heterosexual sex among clergy[edit]

On February 19, 2019, the Vatican acknowledged that some clergy maintained their clerical state after violating their vow of celibacy and engaging in heterosexual sex.[36][37] Some of these clergy had also fathered children.[36][37] During the course of history, the Vatican also adopted rules to protect these clergy as well.[36][37]

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; however, due to its nature of religious values, women are limited in its influence, so this is only a hypothesis.[30]


  1. ^ "Full text of Benedict XVI essay: 'The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse'". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  2. ^ Baars, Conrad W. (1972). "The Role of the Church in the Causation, Treatment and Prevention of the Crisis in the Priesthood". The Linacre Quarterly. 39 (1). ISSN 0024-3639. Retrieved 2 July 2018.
  3. ^ Steinfels, A People Adrift (2003). pp. 40–6
  4. ^ Plante, Thomas: A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse, San Jose Mercury News, March 24, 2002 (updated online version)
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Terry, Karen; et al. (2004). "John Jay Report". John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 2008-02-09.
  7. ^ Ormerod, Neil. "Clergy Sexual Abuse: What Difference Did Vatican II Make?" (PDF). Retrieved 2 July 2018.
  8. ^ Doyle, Thomas. "A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church". Retrieved 2 July 2018.
  9. ^ Catholic Priests in India 'Outsourced' to Meet Clergy Shortage in West – 2004-06-11 Archived 2011-01-14 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Retrieved July 6, 2007. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  11. ^ Catholic Priests in India 'Outsourced' to Meet Clergy Shortage in West - 2004-06-11 Archived 2011-01-14 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b Cartor, Cimbolic & Tallon (2008). Differentiating Pedophilia from Ephebophilia in Cleric Offenders. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, Volume 15, Issue 4, pages 311 - 319.
  14. ^ "Statement From The Board Of Directors and Staff of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries" Archived 2009-03-25 at the Wayback Machine November 29, 2005. Accessed June 18, 2007
  15. ^ 22 September 2009 statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi on behalf of the Holy See
  16. ^ Butt, Riazat (2009-09-28). "Sex abuse rife in other religions, says Vatican". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-04-01.
  17. ^ "The Vatican Would Prefer You Refer To Its Molesting Priests as Gay Molesting Priests / Queerty". 30 September 2009. Retrieved 2010-04-27.
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ Donohue, William (2010). "Catholic Church's issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2010-07-23. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
  20. ^ a b "New Catholic Sex Abuse Findings: Gay Priests Are Not the Problem". 2009-11-18. Archived from the original on 2009-11-19. Retrieved 2010-04-23.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ 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. S2CID 11477434. 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.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-10-04. Retrieved 2013-02-17.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  25. ^ "Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation". Archived from the original on 2010-04-19. Retrieved 2010-04-22.
  26. ^ "Gay outrage over cardinal's child abuse comment". CNN. 2010-04-15.
  27. ^ Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy. NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982, p. 45
  28. ^ Such exceptions are typically applied in the case of Protestant clergy who later convert to Catholicism, see Clerical celibacy (Catholic Church)
  29. ^ Western People, 2 Nov. 2005 Archived 2009-02-09 at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^ a b Butt, Riazat; correspondent, religious affairs (2010-03-11). "Archbishop links priestly celibacy and Catholic sex abuse scandals". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  31. ^ "Priest abuse cases focus on adolescents". The Boston Globe.
  32. ^ "Australia has an unusual recommendation to prevent child sex abuse". 2017-12-15. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  33. ^ "Psychiatrist thinks celibacy not major cause of abuse in Catholic institutions". 2015-05-25. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  34. ^ Press, Australian Associated (2015-05-25). "Catholic celibacy does not drive child abuse, royal commission hears". the Guardian. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  35. ^ "Celibacy not driving clergy abuse: expert". SBS News. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  36. ^ a b c "Vatican reveals it has secret rules for priests who father children". 19 February 2019.
  37. ^ a b c "Vatican confirms secret Catholic Church guidelines for priests who father children". CBS News.