Sipe Comments

Gays, Priests & Pedophiles

October 24, 2005

I get a lot of questions about the relationship between homosexual orientation, gays in the priesthood, and sexual abuse of minors by clergy. All difficult questions. It is important to address the range of distinctions between these subjects. Sexuality is an immense area for exploration. There are some very important basic points that have to be made in order to begin dialogue about orientation, priesthood and abuse of minors.

1. Sexual Orientation has to be recognized as an area of reality in itself. It can be related, but it is distinct from behavior. Orientation is a given, either by nature or by earliest experience so profound that it is irreversible. Behavior involves choice. Alfred Kinsey (1948) was on the right track when he said that orientation is not a clear, clean, and rigid separation between heterosexual and homosexual—one's orientation is on a spectrum.

Clerics within the clerical system (like Father Don Cozzens) estimate that homosexually oriented men in American seminaries now range upward to 50 percent and beyond. I will trust others to estimate the number of seminarians who may have a gay orientation. My estimate about men within the priesthood remains at 30 percent precisely because of the lack of precision in identifying orientation-even for the person himself.

2. Behavior in itself is not an absolute proof of the preponderance of one orientation or the other. Some heterosexually oriented (men for example) can and do get involved with same-sex behavior under circumstances of isolation and pressure. Prisons are a good example. Seminaries and certain religious cultures are another. Some homosexually oriented men can and do get involved with a range of heterosexual behaviors under some circumstances. Colleges and the armed services are situations where the social pressure to prove one's manhood by having sex with a woman can be experienced as a requirement. Some men can be opportunistic and seek sexual gratification where ever and when ever they can. Even a few priests - a sad truth. But, all things being equal, which they never completely are, a mature person will know and seek sex with a person of his predominant gender preference.

3. Sexual orientation is not only distinct from behavior generally, it is distinct from the "object of sexual excitation." Who (and what) excites a person sexually is part of a person's make up and is not a choice. Everyone has a certain range of persons, images, and circumstances that he experiences as sexually exciting. Or to put it another way: Whether one is homosexual or heterosexual in orientation there are an unlimited number of people within a person's sexual preference who simply are not sexually appealing. Personality, looks, religion, social class, gender, and age are only a few of the factors that affect a person's sexual responses. Sexual excitation is spontaneous and only partially controllable.

Sexual behavior in a mature person is a considered choice. Sexual education should be centered on helping people make rational, responsible, and wise choices based on accurate information and informed self-knowledge.

4. Persistent sexual attraction or involvement with a youngster by an adult is considered beyond the range of acceptable  (normal) objects of sexual attraction (in spite of the fact that the excitation may not be controllable). Sexual activity with a minor is a crime. Most religions consider it a sin. Mental health people diagnose it as an illness, especially if the activity is with a prepubescent girl or boy. Therefore society requires that a person control this inclination and refrain from this behavior that is always exploitative because it is impossible to establish it on an equal and mutually consenting basis. The consequences of this sexual behavior are generally negative, and often devastating for the psychosexual development of the minor.

There is not one scientific investigation that justifies a conclusion that there is a connection between orientation and sexual abuse of minors (homosexuality and pedophilia).

5. No one knows for sure the number of abusers, victims or frequency of sexual abuse of minors in the general population. The John Jay study of the Catholic priesthood in the United States claims that 4.3 percent of priests between 1950 and 2002 were reported to have abused a minor. Reports from various dioceses ranged between 3 and 6 percent priest abusers, however, Boston admitted to 7.6 percent, New Hampshire to 8.2 percent. These self-reports are probably more accurate than that of New York that reported 1.4 percent. In 1983, 11.4 percent of the active diocesan priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were sexual abusers; 4 percent of the religious priests there also abused minors. Over 75 percent of all the parishes in that archdiocese had at least one sexually abusing priest on their staffs during the period 1950-2002.

Estimates vary greatly about the number of victims in the general population, but one national center claims that 38 percent of all women and 19 percent of all men are sexually abused by the end of their adolescence. There is no question that more girls in the general population report abuse than boys. This is in contrast to the victims of Catholic clergy abuse where the 2004 report claims that 78 percent of the victims claiming abuse by priests are boys. And the criminal justice system (the source of most statistics about sexual abuse) reports that the most recalcitrant sexual abusers are homosexually oriented men who are fixated on prepubescent boys. That is probably true of all populations, clergy or not, but that situation does not reflect the preponderance of priests who have been reported for abuse.

6. Confusion and error become inevitable if one equates orientation with behaviors or equates orientation with the object of sexual excitation. And this is what church officials are doing when they attack gay priests as if homosexuality is the cause of the abuse of boys. Orientation, object of excitation, and behavior are separate entities and engage distinct drives.

7. So we have to deal with what we know are facts: Some priests and bishops are gay. (Estimates range between 25 and 70 percent). Some priests and bishops are sexually active in a whole range of behaviors, heterosexual and homosexual. Pepe Rodriguez, (1995) writing about priests in Spain found that among practicing priests 95 percent masturbate; 60 percent have sexual relations; 20 percent experiment with homosexual practices; 12 percent are exclusively homosexual in orientation and behavior; 26 percent have attachments to minors; 7 percent have been sexually active with minors. Father Victor Krotze (1991) in a two-year study of priests in South Africa found that 42 percent of priests had been sexually active during that time. In my own 25-year study (published 1990 & 2003) I estimate, that at anyone time, 50 percent of priests in the US are sexually active. I also estimated that between 1960 and 1985 6 percent of priests had sexual contact with minors.

8. The practice of celibacy is the basic problem for bishops and priests. The Vatican focus on homosexual orientation is a smoke screen to cover the pervasive and greater danger of exposing the sexual behavior of clerics generally. Gay priests and bishops practice celibacy (or fail at it) in the same proportions as straight priests and bishops do.

I know that this is only a beginning of discussion. Much more needs to be considered—not simply numbers or percentages—to come to grips with the issues of sexuality in its physical, social, moral, and spiritual dimensions. Such a discussion is crucial not only because it affects priests, but also all Christians.

A huge danger during this crisis, that manifests its most prominent symptom in the abuse of minors by clergy, is to over-simplify, blame, or scapegoat anyone to minimize or hide the real problems that face the church.

All the studies (even those commissioned by the hierarchy) and every grand jury report so far made public identify the "bad guys."  Bishops, gay and straight, who tolerated, covered up, and in the end, fostered the abuse of girls and boys are the men responsible and accountable for the crisis. This is an old story. Saint Peter Damian made the same claim to Pope Leo IX in 1051.