Father James Martin SJ claims on HuffPo that clerical celibacy has nothing to do with the paedophilia scandal.
Celibacy does not cause pedophilia … 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 one 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 recent Newsweek article, 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.
I´ll buy Martin´s point that celibacy didn´t cause the abusers to get started. Though I´d like to see evidence on the serious caes: one in ten or twenty American males may have some degree of paedophile orientation or practice, but the latter covers a lot of moral ground from child rape to indecent touching and exposure, and even the disturbing but harmless photographs of the Rev. Charles Dodgson and his books that have enriched many a childhood, including mine.
But it had everything to do with the blindness of the Catholic hierarchy to the problem and the subsequent and ongoing cover-up. Remember that this was precisely the shield that allowed the abusers to carry on so long.
You don´t hear of similar cover-ups in the other religions mentioned. Why? I can think of three crucial differences.
- The power structure. Other religions and Christian denominations have far more decentralised ministries and give the laity greater authority. A child abused by a rabbi, imam or Baptist minister tells his parents, they talk to elders, and the offending cleric is I assume railroaded out in short order. Even in episcopal Protestant churches like the Lutheran or Anglican, the power balance between laity and clergy is quite different. Anglican churchwardens count, and always have.
- Sacerdotal mystique. Rabbis, imams and Protestant ministers have high standing in their communities, but it´s more or less that of educated professional workers, like teachers or lawyers. There´s bound to be a certain amount both of hero-worship from the congregation and and clubbiness and guild self-protection among fellow-clergy, but it´s largely social rather than theological and not unlimited. The Catholic priest is set apart, an heir to Peter and Melchisedek. He claims and often exercises great spiritual authority over his flock, exercised in particular through the confessional. When this power is over a child, and is abused in a way that the victim perceives as shameful, it is far, far, harder for that child to speak up at all. You would, whispers the monster, be undermining Holy Church! If he or she does find the courage to speak up, the chances of finding a protective adult prepared to challenge the hierarchy are far less. In this respect, Catholic vestries became like orphanages, boarding schools and cults, places where powerless children could far too often be abused without fear of discovery.
- Married superiors. All organised religions have to control errant ministers somehow, so there are going to be functionaries (almost always men) with a disciplinary responsibility for cases of alleged child abuse. Now a married bishop (etc) will approach them with a far different mindset than a professionally celibate one. The former, unless he´s one himself, have no sympathy with a paedophile, a deviant sexual other; the latter empathises from his own struggle to stay chaste. It´s clear that the Catholic hierarchy saw the abusive priests primarily as men failing to keep their vows, only secondarily as child abusers: exactly the wrong way round.
Now the Catholic rule of priestly celibacy is not peripheral to these three factors but quite essential. It was designed in the Middle Ages to set the clergy apart from society, enhance their mystique and authority, and reduce interference from the laity and the emerging state. Cf. Thomas a Becket. The argument was political rather than spiritual. For centuries beforehand, celibacy had been prized and sensibly supported through the voluntary structure of the monastic order. This provides heterosexuals with a society that offers alternative same-sex company and continuous reinforcement of the celibate norm. Extending the scheme to isolated parish priests and making it compulsory was reckless.
A celibate parish clergy may have brought spiritual and pastoral benefits to many. But the price to abused children alone has been far too high. Didn´t somebody make a remark about millstones?
The machine the Catholic Church created in the high Middle Ages to defend itself from predatory kings and barons is still mindlessly centralising more and more power in the Vatican. Louis XIV say would not have stood for a minute the total control by Rome over the appointment of bishops achieved only in the last century. Such an inherently absurd and unhistorical model of governance can only be justified by results, like the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, as Mark suggests, the Vatican increasingly resembles the dying CPSU.