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In June 2002, responding to what has come to be called the greatest crisis to face the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation, the American hierarchy approved A Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  This mandated the creation of a National Review Board, which was to commission “a comprehensive study of the causes and context of the current crisis of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.”

The research conducted by the Board involved interviews with 85 individuals, both clerics and lay experts, and it paralleled a statistical analysis conducted through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Both an executive summary of the John Jay report and the Board’s own report were issued on the same day, February 27, 2004. The John Jay study made national headlines with the revelation that, according to the records of cooperating dioceses and religious congregations, from 1950 to 2002 more than four thousand priests, deacons, and religious were accused of abusing close to eleven thousand individuals.  Well over half a billion dollars had already been spent to settle claims made against the church.

By far the most typical claim did not involve young children but teenagers, most often males with whom the offender became involved in a social situation.  Abuse appears to have peaked in the 1970s, with relatively few cases occurring since 1990.  The report issued by the National Review Board suggested that the changing moral climate both in and out of the Catholic Church during the 1970s and 1980s was a contributing factor, and it is very specific in linking a failure to take disciplinary action against a so-called gay subculture present in certain seminaries and dioceses to “an atmosphere in which sexual abuse of adolescent boys by priests was more likely” (p. 81). 

The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, while respecting the good intentions of those who prepared this report, is concerned about what may well be a rush to judgment on why priests and religious engaged in criminal actions.  We have already seen a move on the part of the Vatican to ban homosexuals from the priesthood, and we fear that gay-bashing will replace an authentic effort to prevent future incidents that offend the basic right of any individual to be free of unwanted sexual advances.  Stereotyping homosexuals as having a greater tendency to be predators is quite possibly less likely to accomplish this goal even as it unjustifiably limits the right of a Catholic to honor a vocation regardless of sexual orientation.


The prevalence of sexual predation among the clergy was, until 2002 and the press revelations of misconduct in the
Boston archdiocese, one of those “dirty little secrets” that understandably was not allowed open discussion.  Even though groups such as the Servants of the Paraclete operated houses for priests and religious “who are experiencing difficulties and working through the specific developmental phases of life,” it was only slowly recognized how frequently bishops and superiors were sending on individuals who had been sexually involved with minors.  It was also only slowly recognized by the bishops and superiors that offenders might not ever be successfully rehabilitated, and where priests were concerned there was a special problem in that, despite a public perception to the contrary, “defrocking” a priest unwilling to accept laicization was a complex process akin to firing a tenured professor.  Reassignment was an easier course of action, and this is what allowed the true predator to resume his attacks.

If bishops and superiors were unduly optimistic that the repentant sinner would not sin again, a far more serious failing was their determination to avoid involving the criminal justice system, even when it was clear that the actions in question might actually mandate this.  Efforts to report abuse were systematically sidetracked, and when this did not work there were settlements made that called for an effective vow of silence on the part of those abused.

But who were the predators?  Typically, child abusers--actual pedophiles--are not  homosexuals, even though sexual acts with adolescent males, and these are what the John Jay study found as characteristic in the reported cases, are homosexual by definition.   The efforts to understand offending priests, such as the recent report by David France (Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal), suggest that the issue was more likely to be sexual confusion.  In the era before the Second Vatican Council, when most offenders were in the seminary, sex itself was not discussed except in a circumspect Latin.  Celibacy is not any easier for gays than it is for straights, and a priest, especially one less aware of his own sexual identity, could easily rationalize a romantic interest in attractive young men, even teenagers.

How many priests are gay?  Some estimates have put the number of gays and straights as about even, with a higher percentage of gays having gone to the seminary or entered religious life in the last three decades. The interesting note here, pointed out by
France, is that as the proportion of gays increased and at the same time there was a greater understanding and acceptance of homosexuality itself, the number of abuse incidents decreased.  Despite the suggestion in the National Review Board’s report, there seems to be good reason to think that the link between a self-accepting gay orientation and a predatory outlook is the exact reverse of what has been suggested.  As yet, though, there has not been any systematic effort to look at this, although it seems easy enough to test the hypothesis by looking at those dioceses in which priests who were part of this supposed “gay subculture” were assigned.


The first step should be a more clear definition of what the problem is.  It is obvious that it is a betrayal of trust for priests or religious to engage in sexual conduct with minors in their charge.  It was perhaps less obvious until the
Boston scandal how devastating this betrayal would be to those who were its victims.   The difficulty, however, lies in implementing a strict zero-tolerance policy that on the one hand fails to discriminate among various types of offenses and on the other accepts the outlook, sadly typical of abuse charges in general, that the accused should be seen as guilty until proven innocent. 

An initial assumption should be that, despite a greater effort to consider sexual maturity and a corresponding sense of responsibility in candidates for the priesthood or for religious vows, there will be those who cross the line in some manner.   Another should be that some individuals will be falsely accused.  Simply turning everything over to the criminal justice system to sort things out is not enough of an answer, although it seems clear enough that any priest or religious needs to understand that the days in which clerics were immune from civil punishment are long over.  However, present church regulations have created a parallel system that becomes a nightmare for those who are innocent.  

This suggests the need for a process, applying not just to clergy but to anyone else involved with minors, that allows a freedom to come forward to those who claim they have been abused while protecting those who are in fact innocent.  No adequate process exists, and creating it will be difficult.  Nonetheless, without it society faces the unacceptable dilemma of either allowing some predators to continue unchecked or compelling those falsely accused to accept a forced hiatus in their careers and a potentially irreversible loss to their reputations.

A second consideration is that the code of secrecy by which serial offenders have been permitted to continue their predations is ended once and for all. Parishioners and others have a right to know whether those assigned to their ministry have in any way been compromised.  It may well be that an ancient and minor offense will not matter to them, but this should be their choice, not just that of a bishop concerned with a shortage of priests.  For this reason, in place of the current draconian outlook already challenged by the
Vatican, we encourage an ecclesiastical version of Megan’s Law with a bishop or superior assuming legal liability for anyone reassigned following a verified claim of abuse.

Finally, we call on the hierarchy to recognize that sexual orientation is not a predictor of how well anyone may answer a divine call.  A moral theology that deals with the sexual drive in all its
manifestations is still in the process of development, but it seems clear that the emphasis on procreation characterizing a natural law approach is no longer adequate.  Gays, we insist, have a right to be considered for the ministry, and the suggestion that they be denied this we find completely unacceptable.

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

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