Questions of Recidivism
Recidivism # 1 Recidivism # 2 Recidivism # 3
Moral Dimensions
of the Clerical Culture
November 15, 2005  -  THE CLERICAL CULTURE OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH forms a unique dimension in which an inordinate and disproportionate number of sexual abusers of minors develop, perpetuate their behavior, and are protected from ordinary and expectable consequences for their actions. There is a long history of this culture in action. Recent court documents provide a treasure trove of facts that demonstrates the current function of this culture in regard to clergy abusers and their victims. To understand how so many priests can repeatedly victimize minors

(Cf. Thomas P. Doyle. Religious Duress as an Impediment to the Disclosure of Clergy Sexual Abuse, October 31, 2005) also (Religious Duress: The Power of the Priesthood, Pp. 229-257, in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. Volt Press, Los Angeles, 2005.)

The Catholic priesthood is often mistaken as just a variation of American religious culture—not unlike the Protestant ministry. This is not so. It is even more misleading to merge Catholic clerics with the general population of American males. Priests may be “ordinary men” as author Eugene Kennedy calls them, but the dynamic and culture that forms them and in which they live is not ordinary.

Certainly, the homogeneity of the priesthood (clerical culture) is not represented by one personality type, but Catholic clergy are united by a unique culture that forms these men and binds them together. Professed celibacy is only one element that distinguishes Catholic clerics from others.

Eight elements—four structural and four consequential —of the clerical culture set it apart. Some of these elements can be found singly or in some combination in other institutions, but no other culture contains them all in concert and in a “total institution.” (There is no vacation or partial participation.)


bulletCelibate profession
bulletHomosocial organization
bulletMonarchical authority system


bullet Superiority
bullet Entitlement
bullet Small numbers versus extensive power and wealth
bullet Freedom from personal accountability

Part I



Catholic priests and bishops are enmeshed in a sexual bifurcated moral dimension that applies specifically to clergy abusers of minors: first, the behavior involves a serious moral transgression (sin) against chastity that applies to all Christians. Second, sex with anyone—certainly a child or adolescent, boy or girl—is a grave violation of the promise or vow of celibacy that is a necessary condition for ordination to priesthood in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. These two dimensions cannot be separated for a Catholic priest or bishop because they are intrinsically bound together in their commitment to celibacy. Sexual abuse is a betrayal of all that a priest or bishop stands for and professes that he is before society and the church.

Celibacy in the religious tradition and law of the Catholic Church means more than being unmarried. Of its essence religious celibacy is a vow or promise of “perfect and perpetual chastity.” (Cf. canon 277)

A current and authoritative definition of religious celibacy is: a freely chosen, dynamic state, 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.

(Cf. Celibacy, Pp. 104-105 in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. Adrian Hastings, Ed. Oxford University, 2000)

It is clear that one act of sex with a minor is a violation of celibacy and repeated acts defy any sustained attempt to live without sexual gratification. It is important to emphasize this fact—one that is considered common sense by the average layperson—because many bishops in deposition have claimed that sexual abuse of a minor is not a violation of celibacy

Historian Mayke de Jong said that, It was from sexual purity that the priesthood was believed to derive its power. And, in truth, celibacy is the basic social exchange of the Catholic Church with its members. It is the core of the social contract between the hierarchy/clergy and the members of the faith community. The assurance of the celibacy of Catholic clergy is exchanged for the trust, respect, belief, support, obedience, and allegiance of the faithful. Church members in turn receive comfort, forgiveness, and salvation. Sociologist Anson Shupe, a recognized expert on the dynamics of clergy malfeasance, has defined this basic social exchange as le don-the gift.

(Cf. Spoils of the Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct and Social Exchange in Religious Life. The University of Illinois Press, 2005.) also (In the Name of All That’s Holy: A Theory of Clergy Malfeasance. Greenwood, 1995.)

The practical consequences of the requirement of celibacy for entrance into a profession—an unquestioned right for legitimate church authority to demand—can be seen if lawyers or physicians were required to pledge celibacy before they were granted the rights and privileges of their profession. And if this were coupled with an absolute restriction to one gender the cultural transmogrification of those professions can only be imagined.


The Catholic clergy form a homosocial organization where admittance is restricted to men. Here only men can hold power (pope/bishop/priest). That power structure is based on a theological hierarchy that is all male: Father/Son/and Holy Spirit (usually, but not exclusively, presented as a male principal.) 

Catholic clergy are all trained in a standard required curriculum; educated and supervised in institutions under male control; each man takes an identical oath of belief; and dedicates himself to lifelong obedience and celibacy.

Priests enter into an eternal bond with their church. The promise of obedience a diocesan priest takes, reads: I bind myself to carry out with devotion, according to the laws of the Church, all that my superiors may command, or the service of the Church may ask.

As a result of the promises of obedience and chastity— prerequisites for ordination—priests are guaranteed immediate social recognition and status not based on individual achievement, but conferred merely by their acceptance into the clerical group. They are assured employment, lifelong sustenance, health care, and a basic standard of living even if they are put under some ecclesiastical penalty. (Cf. canon 1350)

The question sexual orientation as a condition for ordination to the priesthood was not raised, to my knowledge, before 1961. In fact, the word homosexual as a substantive noun was only first used in German in 1869 (Homosexualitat) and in English circa 1890.

Sex between clerics and between clergy and minor boys—and its dangers—has been recorded for centuries.

(Cf. Ludovicus Milis. Angelic Monks and Earthly Men, commenting on fourth century advice of St. Basil) an extensive bibliography is available.

Same sex activity in earlier centuries cannot be precisely equated with our current understanding of psychological and genetic development as they relate to the questions about sexual orientation. A good deal of translation needs to be accomplished before we fully understand the constants and variables in evolutionary biology, psychology, and sociology.

We know that some former popes, bishops, and priests indulged in same sex activity. We know that others, even saints, possessed all the qualities that we now equate with homosexual orientation. (Cardinal John Henry Newman, priest-poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, S.J. and hosts of others too numerous to name)  But it can be questioned whether they were homosexual in our present understanding of “persons who are conscious of erotic preference for their own gender.”

Sexual activity by a cleric was clearly labeled a sin. Sexual tendencies (temptations) were not imputed to a defect, and when overcome were a proof of virtue. Distinctions were not made about the sexual “being” of a cleric.  Observance of celibacy was the measure of the man.

Nevertheless, the question of homosexual orientation and the priesthood is now on the front burner. Evidence of its importance is the Vatican approved visitation of all American seminaries to determine their orthodoxy including the teaching about, and abstinence from, homosexual activity and tendencies. Navarro Vaals, Pope John Paul II’s press secretary, once expressed the apogee of critical concern when he stated that the ordination of homosexual men might be invalid since the promise of celibacy (non marriage) had no efficacious meaning for them.

Even the highest ecclesiastical levels know that a larger proportion of homosexually oriented men inhabit the ranks of clergy than exist in the general population. Estimates of gays among the American clergy range between 25 and 60 percent. It is logical to assume that this same ratio exists in the episcopate. This should not come as a shock to anyone who understands the homosocial organization and culture of the Catholic priesthood. In what better place could a Catholic homosexual man imagine to save his soul than in a culture where he could experience acceptance, companionship, recognition, advancement, opportunity for education, and a chance to serve others and express high ideals?

Although sexual orientation is a concept that has been blowing in the clerical wind for five or more decades the sexual abuse crisis of clergy in the United States (and the world) brought the question into prominent focus especially when the John Jay report, concluded that 81 percent of the victims reported were boys, mostly adolescents. (Cf. The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States. A Research Study Conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. February 27, 2004)

The John Jay report has resulted in several dubious and false conclusions have been bandied about in its wake. Among them:


The crisis is history. The problem of sexual abuse by clergy has not ended, as Bishop Wilton Gregory proclaimed, because the culture and structure of the Catholic priesthood persists. We still do not know all of the elements that foster and protect abuse within that culture. The disproportionate number of psychosexually under developed and mal developed priests is one unquestionable factor in the ongoing sexual dysfunction displayed in the Catholic priesthood. (Cf.  Kennedy & Heckler, The American Priesthood: Psychological Considerations, 1972)


Homosexual priests are the cause of the problem. Some people wrongly concluded that sexual abuse of minors by priests is essentially a result of homosexual priests. That assumption is false; it fails to distinguish orientation and object of sexual excitation. (Cf. Gays, Priests & Pedophiles. October 24, 2005)


Mandatory celibacy has nothing to do with abuse. The relationship between required celibacy and this particular manner of violation is not yet fully understood. But it is vital that this relationship be explored if minors are to be protected and priests who want to be celibate are helped in their pursuit.


Celibacy causes abuse. This statement cannot be defended. Lack of celibacy causes abuse. It is more accurate to say that more and more evidence is coming forth that shows that bishops and religious superiors did not insist on celibate behavior and, in fact, tolerated celibate violations and concealed repeated patterns of abuse (Cf. the Grand Jury reports: Philadelphia, September 19, 2005; AG of Massachusetts, July 23, 2003; D of J, New Hampshire, March 3, 2003; Suffolk County, NY, May 6, 2002. And the agreements between the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona and the Maricopa County Attorney, May 3, 2003 and the District Attorney and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)


We now know the extent of the problem and have accurate figures of clergy abusers. The John Jay report is a notable contribution to determining the extent of minor abuse by clergy over a 50-year period. It does not claim to have a complete count of all abusing priests or all victims of abuse, only those who were reported and on diocesan files. Allegations were made against 4,392 priests, which amounts to 4.0 percent of priests active 1950 to 2002. (An additional 700+ priests were named in the 2 years, after the report was completed.) When taken individually and with more reliable counts dioceses record a higher percentage than the JJ report. For instance Boston admits 7.6 percent; New Hampshire, 8.2 percent; 24 percent of Tucson’s active priests were abusers in 1986; 11.2 percent of active priests in 1983 are known abusers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that had at least one abusing priest on the staff of 75 percent of its parishes. (One parish had 8 abusers on its staff over the years and others had 5 or more.) Because the denominator was extended to 50 years the percentage is diminished from a true reflection of the problem. If the denominator had been calculated at 60,000 priests a truer picture of the problem would come into focus. The reported incidents from the 60s through the 80s are probably closer to the accurate occurrence of abuse—7 to 10 percent. (Cf. Jean Guccione, the LA Times, October 13, 2005) and (Ferns Inquiry, Ireland. October 25, 2005)


We now know that priest and bishop abusers have only one or two victims.  The inaccuracy of this statement is obvious to anyone with the slightest knowledge about abusers and of abuse victims. “Because many victims of sexual abuse never tell anybody about the abuse.” Church records given to the John Jay investigators reveal 10,667 persons made allegations of abuse. Church officials discounted 10 percent of the allegations, meaning that they (not civil authorities) dismissed reports for lack of proof. Although the criminal justice system reports high numbers of victims for each sexual abuser (265 in Abel study), I do not believe that average holds for bishops and priests in the United States. But from my experience I conclude that the average clergy child molester abuses between 20 and 50 victims. Likewise the recidivism rates in the general population of child molesters is calculated between 9.9 and 36.9 percent depending on study method and other factors and “many sexual offenses remain undetected.” We still need to know how studies of the general male population relate to clergy. Since only a small group of clergy offenders have been subjected to the criminal justice system (128 priests convicted) the majority of alleged clergy abusers (over 5,000) have escaped the supervision and consequences of the justice system. (Cf. Predicting Relapse: A meta-Analysis of Sexual Offender Recidivism Studies. Hanson & Bussiere, 1998) and (Abel et. al. Self-reported sex crimes of non-incarcerated paraphiliacs, 1987)

Consideration of sexual “molestation” of minors by clergy in its moral dimension alone has not proved sufficient to detour offenders from repeating their actions. *NOTE how infrequently the term molestation is used in describing clerical sexual activity with minors; “alleged abuse” is a term that has helped to cover up and water down the actual force and consequences of sex by clerics.

Forgiveness is an important moral imperative, but it is not the first line of defense against the repetition of abuse by clergy. It is not effective without a practical and effective resolution of amendment. Such assurance has been demonstrably lacking among clergy abusers.   


The power structure and operation of the Catholic Church is unique even among major religions, and distinct from the essential operation and function of major worldwide corporations, however much the church does incorporate modern financial and communication techniques.

The Catholic Church is a monarchy. All ultimate power rests with the Pope. Bishops are granted power within their assigned territories (archdiocese, diocese) they in turn delegate power within parishes and institutions to priests. Church associations bask in the radiance of this central authoritarianism and reflect it in the operation of their areas of power that they into fiefdoms. This structure affects the living and operational circumstances of every bishop and priest within clerical culture and has implications for the personality development of many clerics. (Cf. Thomas Reese, S.J. Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Cambridge, Harvard University. 1996) and (Thomas Reese, S.J. Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Church. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1989.

One among the factors that persist, although in a modern disguise and permutation, is the ancient belief that religion—that represents God’s law—is above civil jurisdiction. Multiple depositions of bishops, achieves of various dioceses, and even trial testimony give witness to this reality in the everyday operation of church authorities.

(Cf. the transcriptions of the Oliver O’Grady trial, Stockton, California, 1997) also (the deposition of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Nov. 24, 2004 and others)

Those who know the structure of the church can comment with authority on what effect the monarchical operation has when it comes to dealing with the crisis of abuse—“consciousness of the impact of traumas on those who suffer from being sexually abused is relatively recent. Only as the Space and Information Age destroyed the foundations of a hierarchical system that immunized the powerful on top of its pyramids did we even examine the rights, much less the human suffering, endured by the powerless at its lowest level.”

(Eugene Cullen Kennedy, Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2005)

One of the most oft quoted phrases uttered by bishops, superiors, vicars, and pastors to whom reports or complaints of abuse were made was: “I’ll take care of it.” This imperial promise led to transfers, cover-ups, empty gestures of empathy, and even eliciting devotion from the reporter not to cause the church scandal or the priest harm. Before the Dallas conference of bishops in June 2002, taking care of it never involved informing police of the crime, or the search for other victims of abuse.


The rules of communication within the clerical community are built on secrecy. Central to this secret system is sacramental confession, an exercise that subjects the ministering priest to inviolable secrecy. The regulation that every Catholic must confess his or her sins to a priest at least once a year was mandated at the IV Lateran Council in 1215. This was one among many church reform laws promulgated that consolidated power. This particular law and custom insured the church and a priest with authority over the most intimate part of peoples’ lives. The priests—sexually unfettered from spouse and family and presumed chaste—became privy to the sexual struggles and failures of those around him. Every priest held secret dominance over many people.

Even civil law today respects the unique form of priest-penitent communication in sacramental confession and exempts it from inquiry. The content or existence of sacramental confession can never be memorialized in writing, dictation, note, or shared in any manner. It cannot be kept in any file.

But the operative culture of the church does not limit its prerogatives to the boundaries of this carefully defined exchange. Some claim that the manifestation of conscience—a regular custom in certain religious orders—carries the same weight as a sacramental exchange. This is legally an exaggeration since the content of some of the material exchanged can be memorialized and used in the practical assignment and administrative decisions of a superior. This would not be possible from material confided in the sacrament of confession.

Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles in 2003-04 postulated the idea of a “pastoral prerogative” that would carry the same weight as the confessional. The rationale given by his secular lawyers was that such a privilege was necessary to carry out his pastoral duties toward his priests and thus a religious function protected by the First Amendment. California law did not recognize this claim that has no president in canon law or legal custom. (Cf. Opinion of Thomas Doyle and the commentary by Judge Nuss)

Church documents and correspondence give repeated evidence that “secrecy” beyond ordinary confidentiality was an expectation of the bishops’ or religious superiors’ office. Sometimes the admonition, “keep this as confessional” is used to emphasize their control over the material. At times a priest uses sacramental confession as a ruse to reveal guilt and keep the confessor (bishop, superior) silent. It is a conspiracy between the two.

Secrecy is memorialized in the oath that a man takes when he is created a cardinal. That vow contains this phrase: I…promise and swear…never to reveal to anyone whatever has been confided in me to keep secret and the revelation of which could cause damage or dishonor to the Holy Church. Neither truth nor charity is the criterion, but avoiding scandal.

A large element in the clergy sex abuse crisis has been secrecy to spare the church scandal. Every grand jury report has noted that victims were sacrificed on the altar of damage control. As a result abuse continued, abusers repeated their activity, some with the inconvenience of reassignment or an attempt of some treatment regimen. It is yet to be determined how effective mental health treatment has been is stemming the tide of re-offence by clergy.