Celibacy didn´t cause priestly paedophilia, but it was critical to the cover-up.

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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

26 thoughts on “Millstones”

  1. "…the sexual abuse of children has also occurred among … Buddhist monks, and Hare Krishna officials.

    Also celibate.

  2. Oh boy. Where to begin?

    1) "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." **** True, just as the cases of priestly sexual abuse cover a lot of moral ground. Only ~10% of abuse cases involving Catholic priests involve true paedophilia. About 60% involve abuse of post-pubescent males and 30% abuse of post-pubescent females. Some cases involve forced sexual activity, while some involve improper suggestions, groping, etc. All are of course wrong – deeply, deeply wrong. But to the extent that the 10-20% estimate of the rate of sexual abuse of minors among the population at large is true, its likely just as evenly distributed between the merely wrong and the heinously evil as is abuse commited by priests.

    2) "But it had everything to do with the blindness of the Catholic hierarchy to the problem" **** To what then do you attribute the relative blindness of broader society to the scale and seriousness of the problem until the mid 1980s? For example, in the much-discussed case of Fr. Stephen Kiesle, the abuser was given a sentence of 3 years probation in 1978 for sexually abusing two boys (and promised a completely clean record if he attended therapy – he did and the State of California destroyed the case files). He would certainly be given a much stronger punishment if convicted today. Hell, statutes of limitations for sexual crimes against minors used to be shockingly short. Just about everyone was blind to the problem by today's standards until the last ~25 years.

    3) "Other religions and Christian denominations have far more decentralised ministries and give the laity greater authority" and "The Catholic priest is set apart, an heir to Peter and Melchisedek. He claims and often exercises great spiritual authority over his flock" and "Now a married bishop (etc) will approach them with a far different mindset than a professionally celibate one" **** The Eastern Orthodox churches have highly centralized authority, an elevated, sacerdotal theology of the priesthood (and further, many if not most EO priests are celibate), and exclusively celibate bishops. Yet there is no corresponding abuse crisis in Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Further, if you think there aren't Protestant pastors who have builts cults of personality around their ministries that allow them to exercise tremendous influence over their flocks then you are remarkably naive.

    Further, some of the most "liberal" American bishops – those bishops who did the most in their diosceces to dismantle the elevated view of the priesthood both liturically and pastorally in favor of the emphasis on lay ministry in its various forms – have the worst records on abuse. Roger Mahoney and Rembert Weakland come to mind. If you look at which parts of the U.S. Church had the biggest problems with priestly sexual abuse or the subsequent recycling of offedning clergy by their bishops you see no pattern in terms of the theological and pastoral approach ("conservative" vs. "liberal") of the local bishops, and those approaches have a huge impact on whether the phenomena you single out here play out in a significant way or an insignificant way at the local level.

    I could go on. Your arguments on this question are remarkably bad "just so" stories.

    4) "Now the Catholic rule of priestly celibacy is not peripheral to these three factors but quite essential" How then do you account for the fact that rates of abuse and administrative malfeasence by Bishops varied wildly from dioscece to dioscece and from era to era? If there is something about mandatory celibacy that leads to widespread abuse, then we would of course expect to see high levels of abuse in every geography and every time period. Which we do not. Not by a long shot.

    5) "It was designed in the Middle Ages" **** A gross simplification bordering on outright falsehood. Priestly celibacy, among both religious and parish priests, was very common from the earliest centuries of Christendom in the West. It only became mandatory in the high Middle Ages, but it was by no means rare before then, even among priests who were not members of religious orders.

    6) "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." **** Now now James, don't be coy. Come right out and say what you're hinting at. Is it that Catholic practice with regard to priestly celibacy should be made illeagal, or just that Catholicism should be shunned by decent society? I mean, if you believe those things then by all means have the guts to say them.

    7) "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" **** You should chat with your co-blogger. Yesterday Mark was criticizng the Church for not having a universal policy mandating reporting of abuse to secular authorities (a decision which is left in the hands of local bishops' conferences). You could no doubt have a stimulating discussion about whether it would be good or bad for the Church to further centralize authority. Or maybe you could just agree that whatever the Church is doing is bad and leave it at that.

  3. The issue here is the coverups more than the abuse itself. If these guys had been defrocked and turned over to the police right away, much of the abuse would have been prevented.

    This is all about a hierarchy circling the wagons to protect their wealth and power. I think clerical celibacy is peripheral (though I think it's nutty, sure. But then I'm an agnostic who thinks all the religions are nutty in varying ways).

  4. The claim that empowered congregations would have gotten rid of the offending clergymen does not hold water. One of the problems in Boston was that some of the accused priests were wildly popular with their congregations.

    I am seeing in the coverage of this a pattern which is there in the general reportage on child abuse – report on the most horrible cases and on the largest estimate of all cases. Many of the cases were about one priest and one adolescent. It would not have been unreasonable for a bishop to think that simply breaking up the couple would solve things.

  5. I have to run to catch a flight so can´t respond to the comments, but thanks to all anyway.

  6. You're letting the non-Catholics off too easily. Ultra-orthodox Jews have had similar issues with their rabbis, for example. I think that some aspects of this problem are inherent to any hierarchical religion. The religious superiors will always be tempted to protect their troops from the parishioners.

  7. I wish I had the hours and hours of my life back that I have had to spend over the years reading a damned article that starts out on an interesting subject and finishes with a god damned acronym that would take far more time to defuckingcyper than the did reading the entire article.

  8. I think Joe S has it. It's the hierarchy and the authoritarianism. Celibacy strongly encourages and reinforces those traits, but is not necessary for them. (In fact, in the FLDS you see something of the opposite, where the religious leaders have an arbitrary number of spouses and still reportedly commit additional abuses.)

  9. I admit ignorance but I always thought that celibacy was introduced as a rule to prevent the clergy from becoming a hereditary aristocracy. Count comes from the same root as accountant. Offices became hereditary via nepotism. Now nepotism is derived from nephew as the canonical example is the efforts by popes to get jobs for their sons euphemistically called nipoti. The reason secular aristocrats were not accused of nepotism is that it was first standard practice then automatic by law.

    On the alleged rate of pedophilia in the general population of 10% !?! give me a break. Note the source. Advocacy organizations often (always?) make absurd numerical claims. I think that mr Allen's claim has no credibility whatsoever. Attention should be paid only to a number from an organization not dedicated to claiming the problem is large. Now 0 credibility does not mean closing one's ears. If Mr Allen can point to evidence from a less biased source, then that evidence is of interest.

    I am not at all criticizing Mr Allen. He is working on a very important cause. However his extraordinary dedication to that cause is presumably the result not only of public spirit and altruism but also a unusual perception of the severity of the plague he fights, that is of the frequency of the crime he fights. I similarly consider estimates of the homeless population to be completely incredible and did so before extremely sympathetic social scientists looked at hard data and came up with estimates ranging from one fifth to one tenth of the number (3 million) which was regularly repeated.

  10. Robert, more like, celibacy was introduced to avoid claims to church property by family members. Real property, of course, was the equivalent of livelihood for many, individuals as well as the church.

    As for sd, his stats are wrong. The median age of an abused child was 12.5 (or so) according to John Jay Report. Only 27% were 15 or older. To call pedophilia a "minor" part of the problem when half of those who were abused were under 13 is to wear dark colored blinders.

    I think this post is spot on, particularly regarding the empathy for abusive priests by other priests and their superiors, which is so inexplicable to the rest of us.

  11. I agree with Joe S.

    I am certainly aware of abuse and cover-up-of-abuse problems in the Orthodox Jewish community. (The most recent instance that I can recall is where a certain rabbi, internationally known for taking a right-wing-even-for-Orthodoxy stance regarding conversion to Judaism, was caught pressuring prospective female converts to have sex.) And in the right-wing segments of the community there is plenty of sacerdotal mystique to go around (we call it da`as Torah). But there is no one Orthodox Jewish Pope with an international network of institutions at his command that can be used to shuffle an offending rabbi from one haven to another; it’s more like there are dozens of bishops, some of whom don’t quite trust one another and some of whom have practically excommunicated one another. So an Orthodox rabbi who has committed abuse doesn’t have so many places to hide, and victims and their families can feel that there could be some other religious community that would take them in even if their neighborhood synagogue casts them out.

    So when I look at what’s going on in the Catholic Church I think power structure is really the most important factor, and everything else just pales in comparison.

  12. Celibacy may, to varying degrees in different times & places, reduce the number of vocations. When the number of candidates is smaller than the need, scrutiny may be relaxed. I dunno whether this plays any significant role here.

  13. RHH: CPSU = Communist Party of the Soviet Union

    Robert Waldmann: "Count comes from the same root as accountant." Problem of homonymns here. Which meaning of count are you referring to. From your previous sentence, "… celibacy was introduced as a rule to prevent the clergy from becoming a hereditary aristocracy," I would have thought you meant the title of nobility. And that does not have the same etymology as accountant. The online etymology dictionary relates accountant to the Latin computare, meaning to calculate. The title of nobility comes from a different word, comes, the Roman term for a provincial governor. If you are not referring to the title of nobility, your assertion is IMHO uninteresting and irrelevant.

  14. One in ten males are child-rapists? One in five? These numbers sound made up.

    "The median age of an abused child was 12.5 (or so) according to John Jay Report. Only 27% were 15 or older." Even if we believe these statistics, they're irrelevant for this argument. Accepting for the moment that raping a 13-year-old is somehow not so bad, the relevant fact is what percentage of child-raping priests raped older children, not how many victims each priest had. It could be that most child-raping priests assaulted younger children, but the priests preying on older children had more victims. Or it could be the other way around (and indeed anecdotally it is): priests preying on young boys typically assaulted dozens or hundreds, but priests having "relationships" with post-pubescent underage children only had a few victims.

  15. Barbara,

    Fair point. I was going from memory based on some old data, and some of the numbers I threw out were off. I apologize. My bad.

    That said, the John Jay study data still supports the thesis that the majority of abuse was of post-pubescent minors.

    The table listing incidence by age is here:

    This is in line with the notion that the median age is ~12.5 (the reports lists the average as 12.6, but the median and the average are different so close enough). However 2 things to keep in mind:

    1) The John Jay report lists victims by age of the FIRST incident. So in terms of the age of incidence of all incidents its biased slightly downward.

    2) Second, we obviously don't know with 100% accuracy whether a victim was post-pubescent at the time of the abuse from the John Jay report (this would be exceptionally difficult to measure for anyone). Children enter puberty at different ages. But the data in the report suggests that most abusers were drawn to post-pubescent victims. The reason I say that is that there is a clear discontinuity in incidence rates in the 10-11-12 age range. Incidence rates double between ages 9 and 10, and go up another ~75% between ages 10 and 12. Clearly something happens around those ages to dramatically increase the chances of abuse, and I would propose that the most likely explanation is that children are reaching puberty and that priests who are attracted to post-pubescent, but not pre-pubescent victims are thus increasingly likely to abuse them.

    Indeed, if the median age of abuse is 12.5, this itself suggests a skew toward older victims. If we assume that very few children are in situations where abuse is a possibility before age 5 (and eyeballing the data this looks reasonable), then there are 7.5 years bewteen ages 5 and 12.5, but only 5.5 years between ages 12.5 and 18.

    Finally, I'd note (as the John Jay report does) that the age of first incidence has been creeping up over time (and I believe, though I don't have data at hand, that age of puberty has been creeping down over time as well). I'm not sure about the timing of the data in the report that Fr. Martin cites as a comparative, but if it samples more recent abuse cases, then you would want to benchmark these against only those incidents reported in the last X years, rather than the full database of cases in the John Jay report.

    P.S. I should of course point out that none of this excuses in any way the abuse of post-pubescent minors. It is clearly and unambiguously wrong to pursue sexual relations with anyone in one's sphere of professional influence or authority, even more so minors (Hell, as a Catholic I believe that its gravely wrong for a priest who has made a solemn promise of celibacy to have sex with anyone, much as it would be wrong for me to have sex with anyone other than my wife). But the abuse of pre-pubescent children is indeed in another categtory altogether, both in terms of the gravity of the moral evil and the difficulty in pursuing corrective action with the abuser.

    I made the original point about the age distribution of victims not to suggest that abuse of older minors is "no big deal," but in response to James' suggestion that even if the rate of abuse among the general population is higher than the rate of abuse among priests then that might be mitigated by the fact that many of the abusers in the general population are guilty of less severe acts of abuse and of acts of abuse directed at post-pubescent victims. Which is certainly true, but its true of priests as well.

  16. sd, I would be only to happy if the Church just started talking about what it is doing to protect children and adolescents and stopped trying to parse the difference between pedophilia and other kinds of sexual abuse in order to engage in the incredibly crude exercise of trying to blame abuse on gay men (thus "using" the incidence of scandal in its midst to further rather than to reform the clerical structure). I realize that there is defensiveness, but as Seth says, the power structure of the Church makes it uniquely capable of covering for abusers in ways that other organizations could not. We all need to know that to whatever extent this structure existed to protect abusers, it doesn't anymore. And then I will be only to happy to stop throwing darts at inaccurate statistics.

    And if you want to know why the rate of abuse "picks up" at age 9 or so, ask yourself what the lowest age is for serving at the altar and I think you have a large part of your answer.

  17. K said:

    "Celibacy may, to varying degrees in different times & places, reduce the number of vocations. When the number of candidates is smaller than the need, scrutiny may be relaxed. I dunno whether this plays any significant role here."

    This argument is, I think, sort of on to something in terms of explaining why so many (many – not all) bishops behaved very badly. The worst cases of "reshuffling" abusers occured during a period in which the priesthood was being depleted at exceptionally high rates. The Church generally, and in the U.S. in particular, experienced a huge boom in vocations to the priesthood throughout the middle decades of the 20th century. Indeed, people complain about the low numbers of priests today, but today's numbers are actually not that low by historical standards. Its the roughly 1930s-1960s that are the anomoly. Bishops had gotten used to a world in which there was a pastor and 2 or 3 associate pastors in every single parish, plus plenty of priests and vowed religious teaching in Catholic schools and staffing charitible programs. However as the priesthood and religious congregations began to thin out, many diosceces went very quickly from that kind of world to a world in which a pastor might have to cover 2 parishes by himself and where Catholic school budgets balooned because there weren't enough religious under a vow of poverty teaching. This created enormous pressure to retain active priests.

    This is not to excuse what the bishops did. It was wrong to retain in active ministry priests who had harmed minors. But it does provide some context.

  18. sd:

    If you kept your posts a bit shorter, people might have an easier time seeing your points (which seem reasonable enough). Fisking is fun to write, but hard to read.

  19. Robert Waldmann: Count comes from the same root as accountant.

    Max Bialystock: You're an accountant! You're in a noble profession! The word "count" is part of your title!

    You missed your calling.

    More seriously, isn't part of the problem caused by the claim that the Church is the guardian of absolute truth?

    My impression is that the rationalization goes like this: If you expose a priest as a pedophile, you create a "scandal in the Church." This causes some believers, unwisely, to turn away from the Church, at the peril of their souls. Thus it is preferable to keep the matter quiet.

  20. Barbara:

    I actually tracked down the source for my recollected data on abuse rates. The 10% pre-pubescent children, 60% post-pubescent males, 30% post-pubescent females breakdown is in fact the breakdown of allegations received by the CDF in Rome since 2001 when new procedures mandated the reporting of all new credible abuse allegations to the vatican (allegations received by the CDF run from 50-year-old but only recently reported incidents to contemporary incidents).

    The difference between these numbers and the John Jay report numbers is, presumably, the difference between a U.S.-only sample and a global sample, plus some differences related to the timing of both the abuse and the reporting thereof.

  21. I'm guessing that the 1 in 10 is actually a reference to the percentage of males who were molested as children.

  22. The reason for celibacy outside of monasteries was that married priests or priests with a mistress tended to take care of their offspring. The only place that the money could come from was the church coffers. The sole intention of the catholic leaders was to cut down on diversion of money from the papacy to the heirs of the priests.

    There is always a simple explanation of any churches policies. Just follow the money.

  23. I don't know if this makes me a cynical believer in original sin, but I am skeptical of the idea that there is somehow more abuse happening now.

    I think it much more likely that we are just hearing more about it. Human nature hasn't changed. And it's probably happening all over the world, so again I ask, who's going to stop it?

    I agree more with the people who think this is a problem of power structure and group dynamics, rather than celibacy per se. But I also think celibacy should be voluntary. And obviously we should have women priests. I think the way the Church treats priests often is emotionally abusive and backwards. Celibacy is a way to isolate someone and make them more dependent. Same with transferring them around all the time. No wonder so few people feel called to such a life. I am amazed we have so many good ones as we do.

    Referring to "couples": ouch.

  24. I'm not willing to let the celibacy requirement off the hook.

    "Dr. LESLIE LOTHSTEIN (Director of Clinical Psychology, Institute of Living): The difficulty in treating priests who are accused of these actions is that they often don't come with any accompanying documentation, and they really don't have a narrative to talk about the sexual kinds of ways in which they identify in the world, so many of the priests tend to be very psychosexually immature.

    They've never really taken a course in healthy sexuality. They haven't either dated or partnered or had a normative sexual line of development where there would be healthy narratives of engaging in sexual behavior.

    If you look at the Sipe research, he is the former monk who wrote a book on celibacy in the Catholic Church, that the study he did of about well over a thousand priests was that only two percent of them were celibate. Eighteen percent tried to be celibate and 80 percent were not celibate.

    So when you have people who are not being celibate, who are immature, who have not gone through the normal lines of development, some of whom went into major seminary – minor seminary at age 14, sometimes younger, and develop a sense of self without having appropriate lines of dating, meeting other people, experimenting with touch, kissing, ordinary sexuality, you're dealing with a little bit of a different person."

  25. If they are not celibate, can we still blame celibacy? Now, if we instead said, let's blame the Church's whacked attitude toward sex — all sex, had by anyone anywhere — maybe we'd be getting somewhere. And towards bodies, especially women's bodies.

    But I still say, no matter whether you've ever taken a class on sex (?) or not, I think we all know about consent, coercion and bullying. That's what this is really about. The use of a position of power to abuse people regarded as less important. Have you ever noticed that people don't "lose their temper" with Mike Tyson?

    I'm sorry but I'm not buying the psychobabble justifications. Maybe they might theoretically apply to the post-pubescent cases, but even then I doubt it.

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