Click & Learn

by A.W. Richard Sipe
Oct 5, 2005

"It was from sexual purity that the priesthood was believed to derive its power."

Mayke de Jong

The recent past has raised the subject of Catholic clerical celibacy to a level of public scrutiny beyond previously imagined dimensions. The subject exploded into public consciousness since January 6, 2002, when the Boston Globe published the first of over 1,200 articles on the subject of Catholic priests abusing minors, especially boys. 

Although Boston was the epicenter of revelations about a topic only whispered about behind closed chancery doors in the past, the blast from Boston reverberated throughout the United States and indeed around the world. Now celibate violations by priests and bishops are hardly news to anyone.

The Anatomy of the Crisis

It is now irrevocably imprinted on the public awareness that some Catholic clergy do indeed abuse minors and to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But like Pandora's box or the proverbial Genie in the bottle an astounding phenomenon escaped. Myriad of questions was released when the cork of child abusing priests was popped from the reserved vintage stored in clergy cellars. And the contents proved sour and undrinkable.

Inevitable questions about celibacy surfaced. What is celibacy, really in practice, not just in theory? The whole process of celibacy, always suspect in some minds, has been laid open to the questions by the believer and the cynic alike.  Sexual abuse of minors by priests, although a most egregious behavior proves to be only one way priests are sexually active. The revelations of long term consensual sexual relationships between clerics and women and other men plus allegations by women and men abused as adults are proving even more dangerous to the clerical establishment than the child sex abuse crisis itself.

Doubts about clergy celibacy are hazardous to the foundations of the Catholic structure. Clerical power and image are so intimately bound to celibacy that its demise threatens the collapse of the entire edifice.

Celibacy is Le Don, (The Gift) that is the basic contractual tie of the Catholic Church with its members. Clerical purity is the vital, inseparable core of the social exchange between the hierarchy/clergy and the members of the faith community. Anson Shupe explains the theory and practice in The Spoils of the Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct and Social Exchange in Religious Life.

The assurance of the celibacy of Catholic clergy is exchanged for the trust, respect, belief, support, obedience, and allegiance of the faithful. The faithful in return receive comfort, forgiveness, and salvation. In the Protestant ministry the gift is "servantship." In the rabbinate the gift is scholarship and interpretation.

The core gift of any religion is essential to maintain the commitment within communities of faith between the clergy elite and the faithful. Clergy misconduct in the form of celibate violations within the Catholic Church are betrayals of the most destructive kind to the structure of Catholicism. Celibate violations, like no other, obliterate the core commitment and invalidate the trust, respect, support, belief, obedience, and allegiance that the faithful willing exchange for what they have perceived as the ultimate sacrifice of their clergy—celibacy.

 Sexual betrayal destroys the exchange. As has become apparent in this twenty-first-century sex abuse crisis, all betrayals of the gift involve power inequities, conflict, emotional-physical harm, and often crime. No amount of forgiveness can heal the rift. The fracture can only be bridged my renegotiating the exchange. Only the most profound religious reformations have been able to deal with any past crisis of the magnitude that the Catholic Church now faces. 

The extent of repercussions from the betrayal of the commitment to celibacy have only been hinted at in the movements by lay Catholics: the victims' movements and their support groups like Linkup,         SNAP (Survivors of those Abused by Priests), Victims First, Bishops Accountability, VOTF (Voice of the Faithful). These voices are only added to the longer standing church reform groups that support a married clergy, women's ordination, and Rights of Catholic Laity.

Catholic bishops have tried a number of public relation maneuvers to contain and minimize the sex abuse crisis within its ranks. First they employed a counter attack that blamed the media for "causing the crisis." Then they labeled any report of abuse biased: "anti-Catholic, anti-religious, anti-celibacy." None of these claims have had substance, although they continue to be repeated.

A litany of counter claims by church authority has fulminated against every new revelation of clergy abuse since 1990. The first was a flat declaration: "It can't be true. There is no real problem." In light of growing reports the response was: "Abuse by clergy may exist, but it is very rare." As national press attention mounted the church felt it was being assaulted, and it denounced the "press" as the enemy that distorts everything.

In spite of resistance to revelations of abuse, evidence of clergy misconduct mounted. As it did, the church began an educational drive to show that sex abuse of minors was a societal problem and "more married men abuse minors than priests." Of course this was without comparative data. But this embarrassingly weak attempt at self-justification amounted to the declaration that the priest problem is no worse that in other religious groups or in the general population. Such an admission only undermined a clerical status that long had staunchly proclaimed its social and spiritual superiority.

As the number of victims of clergy abuse came forward publicly, the church began to attack their credibility and character, individually and collectively. Church officials claimed, "the victims "wanted the sexual involvement; they liked it; they were sick anyway; they were over seven years of age and could make a choice; the consequences are not all that dire; why can't these people (victims) just forgive and forget? Etc." A Catholic bishop or his representative mouthed every one of these unbelievable litanies of ignorant, fallacious, and insensitive assertions. (Betrayal, 2002)

The practice of intimidating and attacking the victims of abuse who complained to a bishop enjoyed a good deal of success when it was executed behind the secrecy of chancery doors. But naked under the spotlights of court and press examination bishops' responses appeared disgusting, negligent, reprehensible, and criminal.

The final series of maneuvers to protect abusing clergy was actually an expansion of techniques used for years to keep the clergy sex scandal under wraps. Priests were moved from one parish to another to cover a perpetrator's tracks. If scandal could not be contained by such a move within a diocese the offender was sent to another diocese, or a distant religious house or even a foreign country. (Edgerton)

Psychiatric facilities and out patient treatment with psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors have become ever more frequent refuges for offending priests, especially since 1950; but the precedent was set already in the 1930s. Responsibility for abuse seems to be diminished if evidence shows that, "father is sick." The psychological sciences have often been exploited to transfer responsibility for priests' behavior from bishops where it rightfully belongs to psychologists and psychiatric treatment centers.  

A frequent intra fraternal plea has been: "Father is only human." More than one priest who witnessed the act of sex abuse, but failed to intervene to protect the child, advanced that defense of perpetration and his own behavior. Some lay people also absolve priests with the same rationale. Offending priests who have destroyed many youngsters' lives can and often do rally sympathetic support from many parishioners who have benefited from the priest's kind and good ministry.

The ecclesiastical response via public revelations to obscure the facts that some bishops and priests have sexually abused minors has proved miserable, reprehensible, duplicitous, angering, and at the very least embarrassing to any believer and many priests who do not abuse.

The United States hierarchy is faced with a challenge to their image and integrity that they have never before confronted in the history of this country. The Catholic Church has not faced such a hazardous obstacle course since the Protestant Reformation. The scope of the damage to the clerical institution can only be a matter of speculation at this time. (I call our present era "Post Catholic.")

The agenda of sex and celibacy is as inevitable and unavoidable to our generation as the Copernican theory and implications were for Galileo's. Even by the most conservative calculation the final repercussions will be momentous. Sexual abuse of minors has cracked open the door to a clerical storehouse of living archives that record the true condition of clerical celibacy. The contents unravel before anyone who looks at the evidence. The church still strives to preserve its skeletons from review and its documents buried in dust, made more putrid by being shrouded in darkness and secrecy.

The legal battle bishops have waged against victims, who voice their just claims for acknowledgement, vindication, (and only finally for compensation and punitive damages) is a volume in itself. Movements of devote Catholic victims and their families, that began around 1988 out of attempts to get a pastoral hearing from bishops and religious superiors, were consolidated by church obstructionism, arrogance, and deviance equaled only in the most corrupt passages of Henry Lea's History of Clerical Celibacy.

The crisis of clergy sexual abuse was predictable and outlined by three concerned Catholics for all the American Bishops to consider at their summer meeting in 1985. In spite of fair warning the Chair of the United States Bishops' Conference would write in 1992 that the Doyle Report contained "nothing new of which the bishops are unaware." (Doyle et al 2005) In the light of subsequent developments, such resistance alerts any researcher to look for "hidden bodies." The curiosity of even the average inquiring mind is piqued.

Everything that the "Report" authors said about the extent and danger of the clergy child abuse problem has proven to be correct. Their predictions of the consequences of inaction have been fulfilled. Over one billion actual dollars have so far [by 2005] been price tag the church has had to pay to pick up the pieces of clergy malfeasance. And the legal and financial battles are not over. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles may well have to pay a billion dollars to settle more that 500 cases still pending against it. On December 2, 2004 the Diocese of Orange, California settled abuse claims of 84 victims for one hundred million dollars.

The amount of money the church has spent on its own lawyers is still uncalculated, but that sum certainly far exceeds the monies spent on legal services for all the victim plaintiffs combined.

The church's legal maneuvers to seal or keep relevant documents secret continue to be byzantine and are proving for the most part futile after repeated appeals to ever higher civil and federal courts. The Los Angeles Archdiocese threatens to appeal judgments against it the Supreme Court of the United States.

The 1985 Report also warned that the bishops and the church in America would suffer a severe blow to its image and credibility if they neglected to address the problem of bishops and priests abusing minors. And so it is. A 2004 study, commissioned by the University of Notre Dame and designed by sociologists Dean R. Hoge of Catholic University and James D. Davidson of Purdue, concluded that 85 per cent of Catholics believe that the sexual abuse problem is a serious concern and 77 percent do not think that bishops have done enough to curtail abuse by clergy. Fully 62 percent of Catholics believe bishops are still covering up the sex abuse by priests.  (America. 8/2/04 pp.4 & 5)

Even in the early 1990s it was obvious to many Catholics that sex abuse of minors by priests was the tip of an iceberg. "When traced to its foundations it will lead to the highest corridors of the Vatican."

In an effort to extricate itself from the interminable questions about the facts of abuse and the increasing distrust of church integrity, the Bishops Conference (USCCB) set up a National Review Board to report on the state of the question. They rendered their conclusions on February 27, 2004.

The crisis the Catholic Church faces is epic and as monumental as any that has challenged its existence in its history. The reason is that "sexual abuse of minors" is only a symptom of a threatened power structure built on a myth. Namely that priests are celibate.  I will address ten questions that inevitable confront persons interested in the dynamic of Catholic celibacy, clergy who abuse minors, the power structure that supports these men's development and behavior.

What does "celibacy" mean?

Currently bishops commonly assert that celibacy means that a priest is unmarried and therefore barred from legitimate sexual activity with a spouse. That is not the whole of its essence or expectation, either in history, law or in popular understanding. Celibacy as that term is popularly and rightly defined for priests and religious involves sexual "purity"—that is freedom from all sexual activity.

Canon Law—that set of regulations that govern Catholic religious procedures—clearly sets out the sexual standard for clergy:

"Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy…" (209 #1)

Christian celibacy demands a greater specificity than simply a state of non-marriage. A now classic definition of religious celibacy as a lived reality includes seven elements:

"Religious celibacy is a freely chosen, dynamic stated, usually vowed, that involves an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive." (Hastings, 2000)

The idea—and reality—of clerical purity is the core of the celibate dedication and power of a cleric. Non-marriage and the ecclesiastical law forbidding priests to marry are substantive issues, but not central to the current crisis, because changing the law leaves unresolved the whole sexual agenda at the center of the moral crisis facing religion. The deepest historical roots of the law restricting clerical marriage are grounded in "ritual purity," the readiness of the (Jewish) priest to offer sacrifice. (Heid, 2000) But the deeper roots are the unsolved problems of human sexual nature, and the tradition of "sex as evil."

The thought of solitary masturbation by a cleric might be tolerable for some Catholic lay persons to sustain without impinging on a bishop's or a priest's celibate dedication. However, I know of no one who can imagine that sexual activity with a minor is compatible with celibacy.

Any sexual activity by a proclaimed "celibate" naturally raises innumerable questions about moral teaching and practice of clergy. Those questions force one to address the whole celibate/sexual agenda of the church. That agenda includes the morality of masturbation, contraception, abortion, sex before marriage or after divorce, homosexuality, and women's ordination. A married priesthood is only one thread in this closely woven garment that threatens to unravel if any one issue is seriously altered. The effect of Galileo's theory changed cosmology forever. The current crisis will change religion's perception of human sexual nature—forever. That is what makes this crisis epic.

What is mythical about clerical celibacy?

It goes without saying that some clerics are, and throughout history have been, "celibate" in the full sense of the word. I have spent a lifetime encouraging religious persons who want to be celibate to be just that. (Sipe, 1996, 2004) I will not take time here to defend my regard for the spiritual ideal of celibacy or my admiration for those who follow it. The reality of celibacy lived, whether by Gandhi, Mother Teresa or an obscure priest, monk or nun, has power.

The myth that undermines the effectiveness of celibate power is the fallacy that "a priest equals a celibate." This is of course a myth that believers want to preserve. The alternative is frantically destabilizing to personal belief and to the power structure of the entire institution. Believers find it hard even to imagine that their bishops and priests are "fooling around" sexually—much like children who find it hard to realize that their parents are sexual beings.  Vatican documents repeatedly solidify this mythical presumption that "priest equals celibate" and foster the idea that cultic purity is a seamless reality.

Spiritual writers most frequently characterize the idealistic and positive aspects of celibate striving. Most religious commentators are loath to address the more practical realities and difficulties of becoming celibate and maintaining its practice.

Even priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley repeatedly fails to distinguish the difference between priests who may or may not be sexually abstinent. He identifies all priests as "celibates" and goes on to compare them with other men in the general population without regard for a priest's sexual practice. His claim that "priests are the happiest men in the country" leaves much to be explained by priests who by their self-report, are practicing celibacy. However neither he or any of the priests responding to the survey outlined what behaviors their definition of celibacy included or excluded. (Greeley 2004)

The dimensions of the celibate myth are being explored under the microscope of legal investigations and the process of bishops facing depositions. Gerald Kicanas, Bishop of Tucson, said under oath that sexual activity like masturbation and sex with others (even presumably with minors) were not violations of celibacy, but merely sins against chastity. He, too, defended the myth that celibacy means, "not being married." (In 1986 24 percent of the active priests in the diocese of Tucson were sexual abusers of minors.) Such a gross misunderstanding of the ideal, law, and even the history of religious celibacy is astounding from a prelate who had been Rector of one of the largest seminaries in the country—Mundelein of Chicago.

Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles claimed in deposition on November 23, 2004 that he knew of "no priest" who violated celibacy between 1962 and 1985. This unbelievable claim was accompanied by documents in the prelate's own hand that raised the question of his possible perjury during a 1998 deposition and trial involving a child abusing priest. The priest was convicted, jailed, and the two victims were awarded thirty million dollars in compensation. After the trial jurors said that they did not believe the testimony of Mahony at trial.

A New Jersey priest who was being investigated for misconduct demonstrated the absurdity of the myth in practice when he protested, "I am celibate. I have been ordained twelve years and I have had sex with only ten women and four men." Common sense whirls at such verbal gyrations.

Authentic religious celibacy must include celibate practice/sexual abstinence. Celibates are men and women who live celibacy. Anyone who attempts to justify alternatives, be he bishop, sociologist, priest or lawyer, undermines his own credibility and confidence in the honest commitment of religion.

How many Catholic priests are sexually active?

I conducted a twenty-five-year (Sipe, 1990) ethnographic study of clerical celibacy. A summary of the study was published originally in 1990. In 1995 and 2003 the same data was used to focus on the anatomy of the child abuse crisis and to understand the Catholic clerical culture.

I estimate that at any one time 50 percent of priests are practicing celibacy.

Sociologists Dean Hoge and Jacqueline reported on a 2001 survey of 1,200 priests that 87 percent of active diocesan priests and 74 percent of active religious priests were "satisfied with celibate life." This conclusion of self-satisfaction reveals nothing about the observance or practice.

Greeley's, study mentioned before used data from a 1992 and 2001 Los Angeles Times survey of 2,000 priests. On the strength of his data he estimated that 82 percent of priests "honor their celibacy." Honor of celibacy also says nothing about the practice.

On survey to "be satisfied with celibate life" or to "honor celibacy" is not the same thing as practicing celibacy/abstaining from sexual activity. In-depth long-term interviews and reports of actual sexual/celibate practice trace quite a different clerical topography. The mountain tops, hills and valleys, forests, caves, swamps and deserts of actual priestly struggles to achieve celibate integration cannot be mapped by a survey. Sex is not static. Neither is abstinent observance.

In one study of homosexually active priests, 88 percent of those interviewed said that they would "choose the priesthood again" had they the chance. (Wagner, 1981 & Wolf, 1989) Between 2002 and 2004 700 priests were dismissed from American dioceses because of allegations of sexual contact with minors. Their dismissal was not due to their dissatisfaction with "celibate life."

Perfect and perpetual chastity is an ideal of the highest order. I estimate that only 2 percent of priests achieve it in its fullest and most complete sense. The efforts of those who honestly and persistently try to practice celibacy are not to be denigrated. But sexual patterns and practices cannot be discounted as if they do not vitally effect celibacy. This is exactly what has happened in the church with regard to sex with minors. Bishops and priests have honored celibacy in word not in deed.   

Are sexually active priests a recent phenomenon?

From the beginning of Christianity most ministers were married. Celibacy slowly became the ideal for certain followers of Christ. Martyrdom and then celibacy became proof of complete devotion to the gospel message and the imitation of Christ. Hermits and anchorites who retreated to the desert to practice this asceticism of chastity and poverty became the models of perfection. The example of hermits led to the founding of monasteries where groups of men could support each other in seeking spiritual perfection. Most of these men were not ordained clerics even up to the ninth century.

The question of the necessity for bishops and priests to be chaste and unmarried remained a debate that was batted around and sometimes raged about for centuries. Requiring celibacy for clergy was debated at the first Church Council of Nicea in 325 CE. It was voted down. Tension between a married and celibate clergy waxed and waned until 1139 when celibacy was legislated for every priest in the Roman rite. Legislation did not solve the problem of clergy having mistresses or children. What it did was disenfranchise a priest's family from social status and inheritance.

The first recorded church legislation about sex and sexual violations took place in 309 CE at a council of the Spanish churches in Elvira. (Laeuchli, 1972) It produced 81 canons; 38 had to do with sexual behavior. Priests and clerics, even if they were married, had to abstain from sex with their wives. A list of sexual sins of bishops, priests and clerics were enumerated—including sex with minor boys—and severe penalties were imposed.

Beginning with this document and continuing through every century up to our time, there is a continuous and uninterrupted pattern of legislation aimed at containing the scandal of sexual activity of priests—including sex with minors. (Doyle, et al. 2005)

Some of the documents that record the prevalence and scope of celibate violations are worth noting. The Book of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damian, (1051 CE) reported the sexual immorality of the clergy directly to the Pope. Peter strongly condemned the frequency of homosexual activity even with boys. In 1568 Pope Pius V wrote Horrendum in which he updated the legislation against clerical crimes where clerics solicit sex with men, women and young boys. Sacramentum Poenitentiae was an instruction that Pope Benedict XIV wrote in 1741 that addressed the problem of priests soliciting sex from people—including children—who came to them in confession. Between 1723 and 1820 CE, The Roman Tribunal recorded 3775 cases of clerical solicitation. Most prominent are the cases of seduction of young people in the confessional and in seminaries. (Haliczer, 1996)

Secret instructions have been sent regularly from the Vatican to Bishops around the world directing them in the correct procedures to process investigations and disciplinary actions against priests who sexually abuse. (1890, 1922, 1962, etc.) Church officials know and have known for centuries that some (a large proportion) of priests and bishops are sexually active, and some sexually abuse minors.

What about homosexually oriented priests?

In discussing "homosexuality" one must remember that the word did not exist in the literature until 150 years ago. Prior centuries lacked the concept of "sexual orientation" that is available to most folks today. Sex, whether considered morally or poetically, was determined by the act: adultery, fornication, pollution (masturbation), sodomy (same sex activity), pederasty-corruption of youth (sex with boys), bestiality (sex with an animal), etc.

Having said that, it is clear that more homosexually oriented men inhabit the ranks of clergy than exist in the general population. It is true of the past as well as the present. Any historical review will validate that fact. After all, the basically homosocial structure of Catholic ministry offers social, economic, and spiritual advantages not otherwise available to a man in Western society who is not sexually attracted to women. Some saints, popes, and priests can be identified in this homosexually oriented group.

Same sex (homosexual) activity, love, and bonding are well known and recorded throughout the ages. All historical accounts about sexual behaviors make note of it. (Rogers, 2002) In the 1470s Florence maintained a population 70,000—half again as many as Rome. Charles Nicholl (2004) writes that "between 1430 and 1505 10,000 men in Florence were charged with sodomy." That included Leonardo da Vinci.

Sodomy has a number of definitions.  Most commonly it refers to sexual activity with a person of the same sex. Legally it means the penetration of a penis into the mouth or anus of another person, male or female. Sex with an animal has sometimes come under this rubric. Sodomy has been rightly distinguished from "corruption of youth." Although the latter usually meant same-sex contact, it is clear that sex with a man was of a distinct order than sex with a youth.

Today we can easily distinguish male sexual attraction to women (heterosexual orientation) and sexual excitation toward a minor girl. Sexual activity between a consenting male and female adult is termed fornication, even if it lacks civil censure. Sexual activity of a man with an underage girl constitutes "rape" or sexual abuse.

The best estimates of the numbers of homosexually oriented men in the American priesthood over the past 50 years run between 23 and 50 percent, with some estimates running as high as 70 percent. No one claims that more than half of these men is sexually active. (Wolf, P 60)

How long has sexual activity with minors existed in society and among Roman Catholic priests?

Sex of adult males with minors has been recorded for as long as records of sexual behavior have been kept. Various societies value this activity in widely different ways. In some societies where separation of the sexes are strictly maintained older men are commissioned to introduce boys into sexual life. This man-boy sexual contact was considered a normal and necessary part of the passage to mature heterosexual adjustment. (Sobo & Bell, 2001, P. 98)

A relationship of the master with his pupil that included a sexual element as an aspect of tutoring was part of the ideal of Greek philosophical learning. (Keuls, Pp. 274-277)

Roman and Hebrew law, and Christian moral law all condemned sexual activity of an adult male with a minor; at times it merited the death penalty. (Codex Theodosianus, IX, VII)

Teaching in the Christian tradition has been consistent—sex between an adult and minor is gravely sinful. It was often referred to as the "corruption of youth."  Church documents hold more disciplinary documents devoted to sexual misbehavior, including sex with minors, than any other recorded violation. (Doyle, et al, 2005) The penalty of death by beheading for a priest sodomizing a choirboy is recorded. (Sherr, 1991)

How many Priests in the US abuse minors?

A study commissioned by the US Bishops to answer the question of the occurrence of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy was put under the direction of the John Jay College of Criminal Law, an independent agency. The report released on February 27, 2004 stated that 4 percent of priests in the US had abused minors over the past 50 years. The reporters cautioned that that estimate was low because of self-reporting and under reporting. They concluded that between 3 and 6 percent of priests are abusers.

The fluidity of the percentages can be demonstrated by the more solid reports from specific areas. At the same time as the John Jay report came out Boston recorded 7.6 percent of its priests had abused during the previous 50 years. New Hampshire recorded 8.2 percent violations by its priests. Twenty-four percent of the priests active in the diocese of Tucson, Arizona in 1986 were credibly accused of abuse. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles had 56 abusers on its roster of 710 active priests in 1991. When more complete figures are in 8 to 10 percent may well be the more accurate count of abusers.                             

Who are these priest abusers?

An ever more complete psychological profile of the priest abuser is emerging from therapists who have treated many clergy for sexual problems. Elements in that configuration appear to portray a man who is a loner, socially isolated especially from peers, psychosexually immature, self- absorbed/narcissistic, who harbors a significant amount of hostility that he has difficulty in channeling. Abusers tend to be impulsive and affection-starved. They deny and minimize their actions and lack empathy for their victims, easily blaming others including their victims, for their actions or any harm suffered. Contrary to conventional wisdom these men are often sexually inhibited, highly rigid, and embrace a hyper-moral attitude.

This tangled core of personality constraints can be, and frequently is, wrapped in the cloak and ribbons of congeniality and service. What has been called "altruism in the service of narcissism."

Any psychological generalization about a group of people has to be applied cautiously. Men who sought celibacy within the priesthood were, in the 1930s and 40s, suspected of being either "depressive" or "schizophrenic" personalities. If they practiced celibacy with difficulty they were thought of as "obsessive/compulsive." If they masturbated they were labeled as "neurasthenic" and if they pretended to practice celibacy, "psychopaths." Labels are of limited and passing utility in understanding human behavior.

In my experience, most commentators on sexual abuse of minors do not take into account the unique culture of the priesthood when they consider priest abusers. Priesthood is a world apart. Examined, the Catholic clerical system unfolds as distinct and individual as any culture of the Amazon jungle. Appearances and the presumption that "priests are ordinary men" fool observers. Both chimeras carry enough truth to hide the inner dynamics that propel the trajectory of clerical development, power, and control.

The question is frequently raised: are men who are sexually enamored by children attracted to the priesthood? In a limited way, yes. Some men, whether consciously or unconsciously, are drawn to the priesthood for both the impulse constraints celibacy promises to offer or the power the role grants especially over the young and needy.

Attraction to children may be a factor in common with some men whose choice of work puts them in easy contact with children—teachers scoutmasters, athletic coaches. But the cover of religion and presumptive celibacy adds a dimension to clerical vocations that cannot be simply equated with single or married men who abuse whatever their work. Certainly abuse of minors occurs in a wide range of vocational choices, but does it transpire in the proportion and frequency that has been demonstrated in the Catholic clergy in the past half century?

No doubt some priests who abuse "were born that way." They would be sexually attracted to minors no matter what their marital status or work vocation. It is clear that there is a genetically predisposed sexual attraction to a certain age range and sex of partners. This factor is stronger and more circumscribed in some men than others.

Regardless of vocation, sexual impulses to have sex with minors have to be controlled. In my experience a significant proportion of priests who do not act out sexual any direct sexual contact with minors do, nonetheless, go through shorter or longer periods when that attraction is strong.

Some priests who are genetically predisposed toward a sexual fascination with minors do control themselves. This is their "cross." They carry it nobly, and they serve well. Celibacy practiced is their salvation and their protective shield.

Other priests who experience transient attraction to minors or some that do get involved sexually are not genetically geared to the behavior. The clerical system is more complex and influential in the etiology of minor abuse than genetics can explain.

Case upon case of sexual abuse by priests demonstrates factors of psychological conditioning that predispose some priests to sexual attraction and activity with minors. Genetics is not the main factor driving their behavior.

 Early affective deprivation, institutionalization (partially or wholly in orphanages or religiously protective settings), premature or prominent sexual activity as a youngster (especially with an older religious figure) are prominent features in the histories of priests who turn out to be abusive to minors.

Equally stultifying are systemic factors. When an institution is experienced as prizing the virtues of childhood and adolescence, namely: idealism, unbounded altruism, capacity for mortification and asceticism, eagerness for community (gang) contact, and a desire for certainty so great that one (at whatever age) is willing to conform to established rules and respect elders in order to get acceptance and approval he pays the price of development, independent judgment, and maturity.

The clerical system fosters and rewards this performance above all others.

When, however, this order is incorporated into ones adaptation and personality structure too firmly and prematurely adolescence is either prolonged or irrevocably perpetuated because it neglects a resolution of contrary impulses. Egotism, instinctual indulgence, isolation, skepticism, selfishness, and rebellion get buried alive. The lack of resolution will inevitably find expression. Too often the outlet will be sexual.

Adolescents are ordinarily attracted sexually to boys and girls on their own developmental level. Psychically stultified men are afraid of adult relationships. They easily turn to a boy or girl who parallels them in spirit rather than risk the perils of an unknown mature partner.

When the system on which a priest's self concept, security, sustenance, and future depends rewards him for his immaturity the need to split his loyalties between his security system and nature become overpoweringly loaded in favor of compromise.

The clerical system of the Catholic Church does produce, foster, and protect a certain number of men who are inclined to have sexually activity with minors. They are products of a system not genetics.

Deprivation of an appropriate sexual partner or outlet has been long recognized as one factor in the sexual abuse of minors by some men, married or not. There are situational factors that can determine the choice of a sexual partner or activity that otherwise would not be allowed.

I have been impressed by reports by some prisoners and military men who describe sexual involvement isolated to certain life circumstances. It is no surprise that a great deal of sexual activity rumbles among prisoners. It is deceptive and naïve to dismiss sex in prisons as the result of "weak men, prone to sin and perversion." Strongly heterosexually oriented men can indulge homosexual activity in the throes of deprivation. For instance there is a saying common in navy service. "It's not gay if the ship is under way." This coexists in the system that teaches, "what happens on the ship stays on the ship."

Priests exist in a unique situation, even those who come to priestly training without any genetic predisposition toward sexual attraction to minors, and those who do not bring a burden of early sexual and psychological trauma. Law commits them all to an existence of sexual deprivation. And that is lifelong situation. Celibacy is a demand of exquisite sexual refinement. Not all men, no matter how willing to sacrifice, are capable of the demands that the ideal of perfect and perpetual chastity imposes.

In the situation of expected celibacy, and its requirement (at least simulated) for continued clerical affiliation, some men find it impossible to compromise their sexual ambivalence with an adult woman or man. Within the system an affective/sexual/dedicated relationship with an adult woman is perceived as the greatest threat to clerical celibacy. Marriage and clerical affiliation are seen as incompatible. All other sexual activity can be "handled" under the rubric of "sin," and therefore easily forgiven and subject to repentance if not reform.

The current crisis of sexual abuse of minors by clergy in America has exposed a depth of moral depravity within the Catholic Church previously unbelievable to most Catholics. First, at the most basic level of perception, how many people could imagine, let alone articulate awareness that a significant proportion of priests abuse minors?

As the facts of abuse were revealed and the stories of the abusers were told in legal proceedings and media accounts a second level of astonishing awareness dawned on the public. Offending priests were only part of sexually active clergy. A remarkable number of abusers had themselves been sexually abused while they were children or even as young adults while they were in the seminary.

A system that hopes to project itself to be morally above reproach in all controversial sexual matters —abortion, contraception, homosexuality, premarital sex, etc.—became the emperor without any cloths. Other forms of sexual activity with adult men and women, even by bishops and cardinals were publicly registered. Some of the disappointment evoked by these revelations could be mitigated by a tolerance of human failure and balanced the fund of clergy good works, even by some offenders.

But the final levels of exposure destroyed any semblance of moral credibility in church authority regarding sexuality. A level of evil exemplified by moral indifference to the suffering and well-being of children and vulnerable adults, plus the effort to protect "image" and "resources" above all else exhausted the final reserves of good will and tolerance many Catholics could muster.  It has become clear that bishops and superiors conspired to cover up abuse. They protected abusers, endangered the welfare of children, lied about their knowledge and part in the problem turned disaster.

This moral bankruptcy is echoed in the threats and moves by some dioceses to file for bankruptcy protection. Questions about bishops' financial stewardship are just beginning to percolate to parishioners' consciousness. They have spent untold fortunes on lawyers to protect their assets and images. Bishops relentlessly resisted cooperation and compensation to victims. Bishops fought desperately to keep secreted the files that show the depths of their involvement with sexual abuse. They have spent millions to instigate public relations programs. Bishops register little moral indignation at sexual evil within the clerical system. "Hypocrites" is the most frequent and salient word registered by lay-people when they are asked about bishops and which priests abuse minors?

Moral leadership within the clerical community has not spearheaded any of the current reviews of clerical behaviors. In fact, overwhelming evidence exists about past and present church resistance and obstruction of legitimate investigation of illegal and destructive activity by clergy. The major reason for interference and this lack of leadership is the fear of exposing the extent of sexual activity within the clerical system. This prevails over and above the scandal of sexual abuse of minors

Grand juries empanelled in 12 jurisdictions and the reports from four of them, clearly expose a pattern of neglecting investigation, supervision, discipline, and reporting abusing priests to legitimate civil authority. Collusion to intimidate victims and conspiracy to conceal abuse is also prominent in the reports. In the judgment of all four reports so far made public. Reports conclude that Church authorities themselves are not capable of dealing with the problem of sexual abuse of minors by their clergy.

How is the sexual activity of priests kept secret?

Sexual activity by priests is an open secret. Literature is rife with stories and indications that some priests are sexually active. James Joyce, to mention only one prominent author, records priests who frequent brothels and abuse boys sexually and physically. Popular novels like the Thorn Birds and Cardinal Sins weave intriguing, believable tales about priests, bishops, and cardinals who have active sex lives.

Lay Catholics relegate popular knowledge to the realm of "good fiction." Most Catholics simply do not want to believe bad things about their priests. Too much emotional hope is invested in clerical ministrations to risk loss of security. The Catholic Church and our own ingrained fear of rejection (even eternal) are formidable opponents.  The forces and power of religion make cowards of us all. Denial is easier than possible retribution, damage to faith, and magical expectations. Catholics have conspired to keep the sexual activity of the clergy secret.

There is a wide spread and profound knowledge of sexual activity by Catholic priests within the clerical system. This includes knowledge of sexual abuse of minors.

Secrecy is an unwritten but strict code within the clerical system. The clerical system extends its prerogative of sacramental confidentiality beyond law or reason to include any material it wishes secret to preserve its image. At times secrecy is invoked for convenience. A bishop responded, "I only lie when I have to" when chided by a priest for denying abuse that the bishop knew about. That modus operendi and rationalization is common.

The motivation to save the reputation of the church and the priesthood from scandal has been paramount since the Protestant Reformation. Caution about scandal is frequent in canon law. The dictum  "not to give scandal" is impressed upon students in Catholic education as early as the first grade.

Cardinals make a vow of secrecy to the Pope: "I vow…not to reveal to anyone what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church." That promise of secrecy forms a template within the clerical system to keep internal scandalous behavior under wraps, "for the good of the Church."

Church authority and priests have been dedicated to preserve the image of the priesthood before the public and in the minds of the faithful since it is a fundamental source of power. That image is defined in the Catechism of the Council of Trent.

"Bishops and priests being, as they are, God's interpreters and ambassadors, empowered in His name to teach mankind the divine law and the rules of conduct, and holding, as they do, His place on earth, it is evident that no nobler function than theirs can be imagined. Justly, therefore, are they called not only angels, but even gods, because of the fact that they exercise in our midst the power and prerogatives of the immortal God."

Sexual violations by their nature are difficult to substantiate because the actions are most commonly executed without a third party observer. The means of determining the facts of an allegation or the truth of denial are usually derivative rather than direct.

Priests who abuse minors, frequently instruct or threaten their victims to keep silent. Those threats include warnings that the young person will go to hell, or he, she or parents will be harmed if the abuse is not kept secret. Other means of insuring secrecy is by connecting the abuse with a religious ritual. For instance the abuse takes place in church, or before or after Mass while the priest is still in his vestments, or forcing the youngster to make a sacramental confession.

Every bishop or religious superior has the oversight responsibility of the celibate observance of his priests. That duty means to be alert and to investigate all suspicions, rumors, complaints and reports of celibate violations. If personal investigation by the superior is not feasible, he must have a reliable system of discerning and monitoring the celibate practice of his priests.

For instance, even a suspicion of sexual abuse is the guideline established for physicians and health workers to protect minors. Suspicion is sufficient to trigger a report of sexual abuse to social agencies or civil authorities.

Denial and rationalization of sexual activity by priests and bishops is deeply engrained and institutionalized within the secret clerical system. These defenses result largely because sexual activities of various sorts are so common within the community of bishops and priests, not because they are rare phenomena.

Most of the sexual activity of priests and bishops is not contrary to the civil laws, namely, masturbation, cross gender dressing, viewing some pornographic materials, etc. and non-harassing consensual sexual activity with adult women and men who are free of any power differential or psychic vulnerability,

Bishops and priests are motivated to keep their own sexual activity secret, or try at least restrict knowledge to as few confidants as possible. The protective shroud of secrecy that shields them is threatened if they are too active in examining and exposing the behaviors of others.

Broad based sexual activity within the celibate system surrounds and protects priests who do abuse minors. It motivates other priests who clearly suspect abusers of their activity from responding to obvious signs, symptoms, red flags, and taking reasonable action and reporting the behavior. They fear their own sexual lives, albeit not illegal, will be exposed.

Suspicion by some responsible person can be traced in nearly every case history of minor sexual abuse by a priest. Rumors are common in most cases.

Rumors, hearsay, about abusing priests are common and a valid source of information and an important means of child protection if respected and adequately investigated. Rumors form a valid alert to danger and are frequently the most powerful indication to the Church officials of abuse. The source of these rumors often are grounded in the fact of abuse that can be shared by the victim only with one of his or her equally powerless friends or family members. At times it is as subtle as the abused telling friends or classmates to "watch out for him." Sometimes a minor who resists a sexual proposition by a priest, and tells others, "Father is a fag" starts the chain of exposure. Knowledge by rumor can be widespread and available for investigation within the clerical community for decades.

Bishops and superiors frequently dismiss rumors about sexual abuse without reasonable investigation. Many bishops also fear exposure of their own sexual activities. They have continued to exclude themselves from oversight in the directives they instituted in 2002 to deal with the problem of abuse by priests and other church employees.

Sexual activity by priests and bishops forms a network of priests sexually aware of each other's personal sexual proclivities, behaviors and past activity. This forms a formal and informal tangle for blackmail threats and power. I have seen that very word used in correspondence between a bishop and the Vatican.

In summary: Sexual activity, including abuse of minors, within a ministry that professes celibacy has a long-standing history.

The clerical system, in some cases, produces, fosters, protects, and defends priests and bishops who abuse minors.

The power of the Catholic Church rests on the presumption of the sexual purity of its ministers. This is unique among Christian churches.

The current crisis in the Catholic Church serves to break through denial about the celibate violations of priests and bishops.

The current crisis of the Catholic Church is epic and dire specifically because the power of the entire institution is threatened. A large group of the faithful is indignant and angry at what they experience as betrayal. Clerical sexual hypocrisy has fatally compromised authority and credibility.

Questions about sex and celibacy are the unfinished business of Christian theology and moral practice.

The celibate myth can only be resolved by open, unrestricted dialogue. That discussion forms the core of a fundamental reformation of an institution.


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