Fact Check
Sexual Abuse of minors by U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops and Priests

May 3, 2010

No one today has to be convinced that sexual abuse of minors is a deadly serious problem. It is a longstanding and widespread crime—it knows no cultural, ethnic, economic or religious boundaries. The Roman Catholic Church has come under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism in the public forum over the last ten years after the publicity given its pattern and practice of hiding abusive clergy and covering up their crimes. Even the Pope is currently embroiled in the crisis. Some considerations follow:

1. Pedophilia is a psychiatric diagnostic term that is limited to sexual preoccupation or involvement with a prepubertal child (usually under 13 years old) by a person five years older than the victim.1 It is often misused in the media.

2. Ephebophilia is a lay-term that describes sexual preoccupation or activity with an adolescent (usually 13 to 17 years old) by a person at least five years older than the victim.

Sex with a minor can indicate either or both of the above terms. According to church records 71 percent of sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the U.S. occurred or began between 1960 and 1984.2 80 percent of abuse victims were boys.3 [Cf. Below: Incidence in U.S.] Figures from a study of Spanish priests also show a little larger abuse of boys than girls (14 to 12 %).4

3. Sexual activity of an adult with a minor (girl or boy under the age of 18 years) is criminal in most civil jurisdictions. This is true of Roman Catholic Church law.*

4. Documents and sources regarding the sexual abuse of minors exist from the early history of the Church until the present.5 Many of them involve clergy violation of young clerics or girls during confession. Notable is the declaration of the Council of Ancyra in 315 that prescribed modes of punishment that persisted into the Middle Ages.6

5. INCIDENTS of sexual abuse of minors in the U.S.

• Studies of the general population claim that one out of four girls and one out of nine boys is sexually abused prior to their eighteenth year.

• There are no accurate accounts of the number of abusers in the general population. It is the one behavior that Kinsey could not quantify partly due to its variety and frequency.

• A safe estimate is that 6 to 9 percent of active U.S. Roman Catholic clergy 1960 to 1985 became involved sexually with minors. The John-Jay College of Criminal Justice said that 6.5 percent of priests ordained between 1960 and 1984 were subsequently credibly alleged abusers of minors.7

• Other sources reinforce these figures: (6 percent nationally, Sipe 1990) (Los Angeles 11.5 percent of priests active in 1984) (Boston 7.6 to 10 percent) (New Hampshire 8.2 to 11 percent) (Tucson 23 percent in 1988)

• There are no solid comparative figures from the professional population or other ministerial groups.

• U.S. Church documents record reports of over 6,000 clergy who have abused minors.

6. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation and in its basic sense parallels heterosexuality; in themselves these terms say nothing about the age, style of behavior, frequency or strength of desire, preferential mode of interaction, or object of sexual excitation beyond a preference for a partner of the same or opposite gender.

• Homosexuality should not be confused with Pedophilia. (…any more than heterosexuality should be confused with rape. One is an orientation toward a gender preference the other a focus on a particular object of sexual excitation.)

• There is no causal connection between orientation—heterosexual or homosexual—and age of object of sexual excitation (i.e. pedophilia).

• Homosexual men are not more inclined to be sexually attracted to minors than heterosexuals.

• A 1961 Vatican document said that homosexually oriented men should not be allowed to enter seminary training nor be ordained.

• A 1975 Vatican document pronounced homosexual acts Intrinsically Disordered.9

• A 1986 document authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that homosexual orientation although not sinful in itself, “it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” 10

• Despite church declarations there is general and widespread agreement that a larger proportion of men in the Roman Catholic priesthood have a homosexual orientation than the general population.11

Between 30 and 50 percent of U.S. Catholic clergy are estimated to have a homosexual orientation.12

• Whatever the proportion of homosexual Catholic clergy half of them are estimated to be sexually active at least periodically.

• Homosexual men have always formed a large proportion of the clergy and many of them have not only been exemplary servants but even saints.13

30 percent of U.S. bishops have been estimated to have a homosexual orientation or been homosexually active at some point.14

7. Celibacy is the promise or vow required of a man prior to his ordination to the RC priesthood that he will not marry and will maintain perfect and perpetual continence.15

• The first church documentation that records mandated celibacy for priests is contained in the canons of the Council of Elvira in 309 CE.16

There were a number of priests, scholars and monks who embraced voluntary celibacy

• The Second Lateran Council in 1139 mandated the promise of celibacy for all men ordained to higher orders in the Latin rite. (The Council of Constantinople in 692 allowed married men to be ordained, but prohibited marriage after ordination. Bishops are required to remain celibate.)

• Pope John Paul II said that the rule of celibacy for priests is inviolable and the pope lacks the power to revoke it. The official interpretation is that the custom and rule has an apostolic origin.17

• The practice of clerical celibacy has always remained problematic. Church documents are rife with accounts and repeated prohibitions of concubinage.18

• Currently reports of celibate violations seem comparable to those recorded in former centuries.

1 DSM-IV, 1994.

2 I will generally accept this date range since it corresponds to my ethnological study.

3 CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) Georgetown University.

4 Pepe Rodriguez. Sexual Life of Clergy, 1995. He states that 7% abuse minors.

5 Doyle, Sipe & Wall, Sex, Priests & Secret Codes. 2008.

6 “Any cleric or monk who seduces young men or boys, or who is apprehended in kissing or in any shameful situation, shall be publicly flogged and shall lose his clerical tonsure. Thus shorn, he shall be disgraced by spitting in his face, bound in iron chains, wasted by six months of close confinement, and for three days each week put on barley bread given him toward evening. Following this period, he shall spend a further six months living in a small segregated courtyard in custody of a spiritual elder, kept busy with manual labor and prayer, subjected to vigils and prayers, forced to walk at all times in the company of two spiritual brothers, never again allowed to associate with young men.”

7 Report. February 27, 2004. Pp. 30-7.

8 Directive from the Vatican to all Religious superiors and Seminary Rectors.

9 CDF. Cardinal Franjo Seper. Persona Humana-Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 11/7/75.

10 CDF Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Letter to bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. 10/1/86.

11 Cf. Fr. Donald Cozzens and Fr. Michael Crosby, O.F.M.

12 Estimates from within the clerical ranks vary between 20 and 70 percent. 40 percent homosexual orientation is a safe and conservative baseline.

13 Cf. John Boswell. Same-Sex Unions, 1994; Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 1980;

14 This figure comes from a 2004 document compiled by a group of priests centered around Catholic University and Washington D.C.

15 Canon 277.

16 Cf. Laeuchli, Power and Sexuality. 1972.

17 Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 1990 trans.

18 Cf. Henry C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy. 1867.


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