Santa Clara University
The Crisis of Sexual Abuse And
The Celibate Agenda of the Church

by A.W. Richard Sipe


Human sexuality was a major topic of universal concern not addressed at the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). At the beginning of the twenty-first century irresistible forces are in place demanding attention and dialogue about the topic. The current crisis centers on the revelation of sexually abusing clergy and the hierarchical system that has covered up, supported, and fostered a pattern of abuse by some clergy.

Sexual abuse of minors has a history as long as records of clergy have been kept. What is unique about considerations of clergy abuse now is the recognition that it is a symptom of a deeper - fundamental - theological, psychological, and power struggle at the heart of Catholicism.

Progeny, Property & Power are threads woven together throughout the centuries to form a mantle of whole cloth to cover all questions about sex and celibacy. That tapestry is tattered and in some regards irreparable.

Just as Copernican theory challenged a biblical cosmology, present day knowledge about human sexuality, derived even from biology—genetics, embryology, evolutionary psychology—and social theory, demands a reckoning with the pre-Copernican views of sexuality espoused by the Church.

A reconsideration of the foundations of Church teaching on sex and celibacy is resisted as a destabilizing threat, but it is inevitable and can be addressed only by open dialogue and an epoch making reformation.

The Church gets involved in politics when She ceases to produce enough Saints.

Francois Mauriac

The chronicle of the Roman Catholic Church's response to the historic revelations about sexual abuse among its ranks has not yet been recorded. When that story is told the account will be rife with public relation maneuvers, power plays, legal pressures and pleadings of astounding logistics. It will record deception. It will reveal a frightening skeleton of raw secular and financial power devoid of any spirituality, but protected under a cloak of genuine religious value and beauty. So far the church has not produced a saint to be part of the narrative.

I leave that saga for other writers. What I attempt here is to show the connection of clergy sexual abuse of minors with its inevitable destiny--reconsideration of the celibate/sexual agenda facing the church. That is the real crisis.

The Crisis of Avoidance

Remarkably, Vatican II (1962-1965) in its broad-ranging consideration of the church in the modern world failed to address the practical questions of clerical celibacy or any aspect of human sexuality. Replete with genuinely inspiring and idealistic statements about love, both celibate and married, the documents side stepped the questions of contraception and the practice of clerical celibacy including any debate about a married priesthood. (*1) The questions about contraception and "artificial birth control" were addressed in Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical of Pope Paul VI. In preparing his letter the pope dismissed out right a majority report prepared by a commission of experts he had appointed that recommended approval of contraceptives (the Pill). Repercussions from that document--an openly negative reaction among lay people and some hierarchy--created a fundamental doubt about the credibility of the church in matters of human sexuality.

In the 1970 Synod of Bishops held in Rome, the same pope pledged to abide by the vote of the bishops regarding a married priesthood. The vote was only 45% in favor. This time he did side with the majority.

From that time, throughout the papacy of John Paul II, bishops have been given personal and explicit directives that they may not discuss issues of contraception, abortion, masturbation, sex prior to marriage or after divorce, homosexuality, a married priesthood or women's ordination to the priesthood, in any terms other than those restating the official teachings of the church.

Inadvertently his sanctions outlined the celibate/sexual agenda fundamental to the current crisis in the church. Avoidance of open discussion of this agenda creates a pressure cooker atmosphere that will eventually blow.

The Rhythm of the Crisis

The issue of sexual abuse of minors by priests was ushered into public awareness in the United States during the 1984-85 criminal trial of a priest, Fr. Gilbert Gauthe, in Lafayette, Louisiana. The papal nuncio in Washington, D.C.

marked the unique importance of the event by sending an emissary from his office, Fr. Thomas Doyle, to contain any damaging fall out. It was an impossible task. Father Doyle, Ray Mouton, Gauthe's church appointed lawyer, and Fr, Michael Peterson a board certified psychiatrist drew up a confidential report for all bishops and religious superiors to provide information about "a growing problem of sexual abuse of children and adolescents by clerics." Each American bishop received a copy. The year was 1985.

However, as late as November 18, 1992 the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, wrote to Doyle, "the fact remains that your report presented no new issue of which the NCCB was unaware or presented information that required some materially different response."

This was in the same time frame in which the notorious case of Fr. James Porter of Fall River, Massachusetts was coming to national attention. He admitted to abusing 200 minors during his assignments in 5 dioceses. He was sentenced to 18 years in a Massachusetts prison. Meanwhile allegations against priest abusers multiplied throughout the country and total financial settlements already mounted beyond the 300 millions.

A sensationally publicized allegation of sexual abuse by an American Cardinal fizzled badly when the accuser withdrew his civil case. Although the accusation was never retracted and there remains a complicated set of negotiations still wrapped in secrecy, publicly the case was labeled a "false allegation." The political and public relations efforts to limit investigation turned the event into an effective damper on the witness of other victims' stories of abuse.

The incident lent temporary credence to the theory that exposure of clergy abuse was simply over blown hype by the media.

In July 1997 a jury in Dallas deliberating a case against Fr. Rudy Kos and the Archdiocese delivered a blockbuster judgement of 119.6 million dollars.

Clearly the jury perceived the negligence of the bishop and the conspiracy of the diocese to conceal their knowledge of abuse.

After that aspects of the crisis seemed to cool across the country as the church became more eager to settle cases silently and seal the documents. Bishops delivered apologies for the harm done, but hoped, "that the victims are willing also to hear our pain." They did all they could to diffuse the focus from clergy and spoke about the "tragedy" of abuse occurring in "all" of society.

Their program Restoring Trust had slight impact, was generally unconvincing and ineffectual in stemming the tide of reports of violations and civil cases. The crisis of exposure was brewing but partially contained in 2001.

The Crisis of Exposure

Nothing in the history of the American Catholic Church can compare with the effect of the investigation of clergy abuse by The Boston Globe's Spotlight Team that published it's first of over 1,000 articles on January 6, 2002. They had requested, and received secret church documents by court order. Those papers revealed beyond any doubt that one archdiocese--Boston--had over 150 of its priests (diocesan and religious) who had a record of abuse.

Beyond individuals, the investigators traced via the documents the collusion of the chief church authorities in covering up for abusing priests, and in fact, aiding and abetting their behavior by frequent assignment transfers without warning either priests or people of the potential danger. They did not report crimes they of which they were well aware. The same officials intimidated or ignored victims.

The Globe investigation catapulted the crisis to an entirely new level. It unmasked a SYSTEM that tolerated, excused, covered up and essentially fostered sexual abuse. Victims came forward in unprecedented numbers in Boston, and across the nation to tell their sad, sordid stories of betrayal and violation.

Previously shy and intimidated they now had a voice and hope of being believed, two things the church had long denied them. Lawyers and victims filing civil cases against priests in wide spread jurisdictions began to understand that Boston formed a template of the pattern and process the church uses in dealing with sex by its members.

Exposure of abuse forced the church to take increasing notice of legal challenges, and the agitation and disgust of people in the pews. The pope called all the American cardinals to Rome. The bishops met to pound out a new policy to deal with offending priests (but not bishops). Within a year over 400 priests were dismissed from active ministry. Still, mass attendance and contributions fell dramatically. Grand Jury investigations were instituted in nine jurisdictions from New Hampshire to California. The church's most closely guarded secret closet was blasted open. Rome's expectation of bishops is that they exert significant "control over the courts and the media" in their nations was hopelessly eroded. All traditional modes of authoritarian control were failing to stem the tide against a dynamic that could not be reversed.

The Globe investigation penetrated the massive, well defended barricades surrounding the sacred and secret celibate culture. Once the fact of sexual activity by some priests was undeniably established in the popular awareness, where could questioning end? Merely with priests who abuse minors? What of the abuse suffered by adult women and men? What is there to know about sexual experimentation by priests and bishops? What of clergy on every level of ministry who maintain long-term consensual sexual relationships of every stripe?

These questions are no longer impertinent or irrelevant to the issue of abuse of minors. Documents and investigations are uncovering proof of sexual activity by cardinals and bishops. Although these activities are not illegal, they provide mounting evidence that such behavior contributes to a web of concealment that tolerates even criminal activity in order to protect major authorities from public exposure and embarrassment.

Deep Roots of a Modern Crisis: Celibacy and Sex

Sexual abuse of minors by clergy is not a new problem. But Vatican voices blame the recent culture of sexual awareness and permissiveness that can corrupt even lofty minded clerics. Moreover, current commentators accuse the press of running wild; chasing sensational bits and pieces of scandal, made all the more juicy because they involve men of the cloth. (Press not priests cause the Crisis) "Church bashing, Priest bashing, Catholic bashing" became the public relations mantra of the American bishops as each new allegation of abuse became public. Other commentators claimed abusers were the subject of a "witch hunt." Even church spokesmen who reluctantly acknowledge that clergy abuse is a tragic problem for the church still minimize it, (No larger than any other group) and its effects on victims and on the culture of celibacy.

The demographics and epidemiology of sex abuse by catholic clergy in the US inevitably will be undertaken. Scientific methods will be used. It is not yet clear how much church authority will help or hinder such investigations. The bishops have appointed a lay board to monitor bishops' compliance with the norms they set up in 2002 to regulate abusing priests. Hoping that lay people would be reassured, several FBI agents coordinate the study. But that investigation reviews compliance only since 2002 and is dependent on self-reporting.

Another study that is meant to probe the causes and extent of clergy abuse also is dependent on bishops' reports. The record of bishops concealing documents and their legal maneuvers to keep records from legitimate civil authority does not bode well for a truly transparent accounting. Only completely independent reviews, like Grand Jury reports, will be able to be trusted.

No matter what studies show about the current parameters of the problem in the American church, the long historical account of the sexual problems of catholic clergy stands firm in the annals of church history and law. Accounts of those problems consistently include, but are not limited to sexual activity with minor boys. And the history of clergy sexual malfeasance and abuse is commingled with questions about clerical celibacy.

The earliest written record of any church council is that of the provincial council of Elvira (Spain, 309). Thirty-eight of the 82 canons deal with sex and celibacy. Bishops, priests, and deacons were forbidden to have sexual relations, even with their wife if married. This rigorist stance is one that the Council of Nicea (325) was not willing to take--and one that Rome was not able to decree until 1139 (Lateran II). Elvira, however, is a clear example of the essential ecclesiastical legalistic reasoning about the connection between priesthood and celibacy.

Asceticism--self sacrifice for the love of God, the imitation of Christ and freedom for the service of others--is the most frequently cited reason for the practice of celibacy. And indeed, that rationale is valid and has ancient roots, not primarily in the priesthood, but as a separate vocation of isolation and spiritual concentration. Because the excellence of spiritual witness exhibited by celibate ascetics their tradition melded easily with a parallel tradition of celibacy that did exist among some clergy.

But when celibacy came to be legislated, asceticism was not the primary practical force behind codification. In every instance of regulating clerical celibacy by law three elements echo Elvira's thinking: Paternity, Property and Power . Bishops and priests should not father children. Generativity should be restricted in the service of social, political, and institutional simplicity.

Preservation of church property for the community and the perpetuation of the local church should remain unquestioned by spouse or children. Control of clergy is assured when dependence, and accountability rests on a relationship with a single superior. The system of power is consolidated by legislated celibacy--a system of checks and balances becomes an elegant bond of rewards purchased by a simple sacrifice of one's sexuality. Power over a person's sexuality confers unprecedented individual and institutional control.

This first council listed a catalogue of sexual violations along with prescriptions for the offending cleric--the heaviest penalties reserved for bishops.

Up to 10 years of fasting and even excommunication (with no hope of forgiveness even at the point of death) were the severest, but not uncommon in cases of abuse of minor boys.

Canon lawyer Thomas Doyle traces the history of clerical sexual violations from 7th and 8th century Penitential Books (hand-books containing descriptions of particular sins and recommended penances) through the middle ages to current church law. Several advise that clerics who abuse young boys and girls receive up to 12 years of penance: again abusing bishops receiving the harshest punishment.

Saint Peter Damian wrote the Book of Gomorrah around 1015--a scathing rebuke of sexually offending clergy. He is particularly hard on superiors who countenance offenders. He recommends that sinning priests be dismissed from the priesthood. He regards contemptuously priests who defile men or boys who come to them for confession or who use the sacrament to absolve their sexual partners.

The author detailed the harm that offending clerics inflict on the church, and pleaded with the pope to clean house. However, "The pope decided to exclude only those (clerics) who had offended repeatedly and over a long period of time. Although Peter Damian had paid significant attention to the impact of the offending clerics on their victims, the pope made no mention of this and focused only on the sinfulness of clerics and their need to repent." (*) That 11th century scenario sounds an excruciatingly familiar ring to those who have had to play any part in sorting out the current drama.

The Decretum Gratiani was published in 1140. It includes specific references "to sexual violation of boys…and offers the opinion that clerics guilty of pederasty should suffer the same penalties as lay men, including the death penalty." (*) The Corpus Iuris Canonici published in 1234 contained all of Gratian's work besides the collection of laws enacted by a wide range of bishops. Those legislative pronouncements comprise the primary source of church law and accurately reflect the problems of the time.

The history of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent

(1545-1563) record the rampant corruption of bishops and priests. It is not hyperbole to speculate that sexually and financially the church is equally corrupt today.

Reform laws then dealt directly with sexually active clerics. Sexual abuse of minors was a major concern for the council bishops who were well aware that even some recent popes had minor protegees. Two of the council canons forbidding sexual contact with minors were the primary source for current canon law.  Canon #1395 specifically names sexual contact with a minor by a cleric an ecclesiastical crime.

Doyle summarizes the record: The historical development of legislation concerning clergy sexual abuse verifies that it has been a serious problem from the earliest years of the church. The documentation also shows that the official Church has repeatedly attempted to deal effectively with the problem. Church leaders, especially certain popes, had acknowledged the terrible impact of sexual abuse on children and on Church membership in general. What is remarkable about these attempts is that they were made openly and memorialized in official Church documents. Such official mention of sexual abuse is clearly an indicator of the existence of the problem. There is no sense of the extent of clergy sexual abuse but one can surmise that the official notification betrays a problem of significant proportion. (*) Church pronouncements today about clerical sexual abuse from pope and bishops ring hollow, self-serving and frankly deceptive given the explicitness of history and their awareness of the real circumstances proven by documents wrested from secret archives. Whatever rationalization employed, there is not one American bishop who has not known that sexual activity of a priest with a minor was non-celibate behavior. Every bishop knows it is criminal activity. Clergy sexual abuse is neither rare nor recent in origin. Most importantly it is not a phenomenon isolated from celibate culture nor, unfortunately, inimical to it. Celibate culture as it presently exists harbors and fosters abusers. That is why the crisis is epic.

Another Cosmic Crisis

Without a doubt, sexual abuse of minors by clergy is an urgent issue, but it is only the symptom of a deeper and more pervasive, fundamental crisis facing the Catholic Church. The theological and scientific basis for its custom and teachings on celibacy and sexuality are inadequate and false. In spite of revised statements since Vatican II, sex remains less perfect, less noble, more tainted, spiritually suspect and, fundamentally sinful in comparison to virginity and sexual abstinence. Sexuality in clerical thought remains intrinsically flawed. Simply note the roster of men and women canonized by the church.

Clerical celibacy is under attack not because it lacks idealism, but because it lacks sufficient reality to make it convincing. It is stultified by an incomplete recognition of the gospel tradition and retarded because of insufficient consideration of human sexual nature. This does not mean that the requirement of celibacy should be abrogated, but it does mean that it has to be structured so that it becomes a lived reality, not a sham.

There is no theology of sex in the christian tradition, in spite of manifold moral treatises and the personal attention John Paul II has given the subject.

(*) The consistent mistake theological musings persist in making is identical with the flaw in the Copernican crisis--using scripture as a basis for making scientific judgments. Scripture is inspired. It is a perpetual fountain of spiritual insight. It is not a text in biology, endocrinology, sexual or evolutionary psychology and more. Just as it is not a text in cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics and more.

Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy in 1600.

Prominent among his errors was his assertion that the earth traveled around the sun; he insisted it was neither static nor the center of the universe. The Roman church authorities decreed that anyone who held such a doctrine should be "anathema." In 1633 Galileo was on his knees before a Vatican court on the same charge, pleading for mercy because of his ill health. As Galileo rose--his sentence for heresy being commuted having agreed that he "might have erred" to hold that proposition--tradition has it that he whispered under his breath, "E pur si muove." (nonetheless, it does move).

The condemnation of Galileo remained on the ecclesiastical books until 1992 when Pope John Paul II exonerated Galileo, and made his own the philosophical principle that, "intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis to that transcendent and primordial thought imprinted on all things." (*)

"Those marvelous discoveries of science" and reason itself have been ignored when the church talks about human sexual development in all of its ramifications--sexual identity, premarital, extramarital sex, marriage and family relationships. The loss of credibility of church authority in matters sexual is almost irreversible. The revelations surrounding clergy sexual activity is merely the crowning blow that has helped people articulate their conviction, "See, you can't trust them. They do not live what they preach. They do not understand."

The challenge of the abuse crisis cannot be contained as if it were an isolated phenomenon unrelated to the problems of clerical celibacy, and indeed, questions of the church's sexual teaching. The teaching in question is the official moral doctrine (against which any dissent is anathema). Namely: Every sexual thought, word, desire or action outside marriage is mortally sinful. Any sexual act within marriage not open to conception is also mortally sinful. And in sexual matters there is no poverty of matter.

According to this moral norm every unmarried person is held to the same level of chaste behavior as a vowed religious or an ordained cleric. When I pointed out in a journal article that the law was "impossible"--it made everyone a sinner--the editor said that he had to "edit out" that statement since it was a "Catholic Journal." Here is the hitch in the church's inability to deal responsibly with sexuality. Celibacy is the Norm. Not just for clerics. Celibacy is the basis of church teaching about sex. It ignores all that is most obvious about human development. Those who point out the irrationality of the church teaching on sex are called heretics or worse.

Whatever the church response to dissent, its teachings about sex remain at a pre-Copernican stage of understanding. Certainly the crisis is dire because the current moral and intellectual challenge matches that of the Reformation and Galileo. It is difficult to buck the church and say, "You're wrong." But we no longer have to say it on our knees and whisper it under our breath.

The Inextricable Agenda

The church cannot now avoid the daunting and monumental task to confront SEX. Religious leaders when threatened with unsettling questions usually respond with pronouncements. That tactic will not work in the face of the current crisis. Quite simply, the Roman Catholic Church's official teaching on human sexuality in its present state in not credible--that is, the teaching cannot be validated by an act of faith, by human experience, or by the sincere informed conscience of believing Christians. Robert Vitillo, S.J. put it simply, "Theologians have not yet faced the daunting task of elaborating a substantive theology of human sexuality as a creation of God who willed this to be such a strong, dominant, and constitutive element of human nature." And that theology when it is articulated must be rational, in conformity with nature, straightforward and credible. It must be a theology that can be lived by clergy and lay people alike.

Theologian William M. Shea of St. Louis University already in 1986 with eloquence and economy outlined the celibate/sexual agenda of the church. He called it a tangle of issues that the Roman Catholic leadership has failed to deal with:

Family life, divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, the role of women in ministry, their ordination to the priesthood, celibacy of the clergy, and the male monopoly of leadership.(*) Shea steered clear of the word crisis, but he was clear that sex (fear and hatred of women) is the issue that "clogs" up the catholic system.

The confusion surrounding human sexuality will not be clarified by acts of faith in official papal pronouncements. Believing the earth is the center of the universe will never make it so. No amount of emotional and spiritual empathy toward an institution grappling to absorb and incorporate new knowledge can absolve it from its obligation to renew itself and lead credibly. The opposition to Galileo rested more on theological insecurity and political controversy than on science. Changes threaten authority. But no amount of political power can turn back the demand that the celibate/sexual agenda be faced. It is the crisis of our time. Sexual abuse of minors has simply made the agenda unavoidable and inevitable.