There is No Link between Celibacy and Clerical Sexual Abuse

The Independent newspaper reported last August that “the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said he dealt with issues of child sex abuse on a daily basis (my emphasis) and he anticipated that more ‘bad stories’ would emerge. He said: ‘I would love to say there weren’t, but I expect there are.’ He told the BBC that it was ‘becoming clearer and clearer that for many, many years things were not dealt with as they should [have been]’.”

Well, he has one consolation: the issue will not be clouded and confused, as it has been in the Catholic Church for years, by the non-issue of the marital status of the clergy involved. Most of them are married. This particular story had homed in on the now former Bishop of Gloucester (married, with four daughters) who had resigned suddenly after he was “placed at the centre of” a police inquiry over allegations of indecent assault on a child more than 30 years ago. The bishop had stepped down after nearly a decade as bishop on Friday citing “personal reasons”; these turned out to be that in the parish in south London where he was a curate in 1976, he is alleged to have been involved in “indecent assault on a child said to have occurred between 1980 and 1981.”

Next to THAT story, I place another, from Australia, where a report by something called the Truth, Justice and Healing Council (groan) has found (as in the Church of England) that “some Church institutions and their leaders turned a blind eye to what was going on for years.” Unlike the Church of England, however, the “Council” gave a possible reason for its clergy’s aberrant behavior: they weren’t simply doing something inherently bad and sinful (and for which there is NO CONCEIVABLE EXCUSE): they were under a particular pressure. Guess what?

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“Obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse in some circumstances,” the Truth, Justice and Healing Council said. The council is helping the Catholic Church respond to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was set up last year. The commission is investigating widespread allegations of paedophilia in religious organisations, schools and state care. Its hearings have covered harrowing allegations of child abuse involving places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools dating back decades.

There is in fact absolutely no evidence whatsoever that child sex abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy has anything at all to do with celibacy. The problem is just as bad—I repeat, just as bad—in the Church of England, most of whose clergy are married. It is worse in society at large. That is a conclusion confimed in a report commissioned by the American Catholic Bishops and published in 2011, carried out by the non-Catholic John Jay College of Criminal Justice (part of the City University of New York). The New York Times commented that “since the scandal broke, conservatives in the Church have blamed gay priests for perpetrating the abuse, while liberals have argued that the all-male, celibate culture of the priesthood was the cause. This report will satisfy neither flank.” The report concluded that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality were to blame. Rather, the report said, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and 70s. The problem in the American Church has in fact greatly diminished since then; furthermore, says the report, “despite the media focus on child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, it is clear that these abuse acts are a small percentage of all child sexual abuse incidents in the United States.”

However, as Dr Pravin Thevathasan, author of The Catholic Church & the Sex Abuse Crisis, published by the CTS in 2011, says of the situation here, “It is true that the abuse of minors is rife within society. But we claim, by the grace of God, to be members of the one Church founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and we are therefore called to a higher standard than that found in society at large. We are called by our Holy Father [Pope Benedict] to enter a period of purification and repentance.”

He opened his report with the same reflection: “In this work, no excuses will be offered in order to justify the appalling crime of sexual abuse perpetrated by a small number of Catholic priests—about two to four per cent credible accusations in the United States and less than this in the United Kingdom in the last forty years—nor for the pastoral negligence of some bishops. To quote Pope Benedict, sexual abuse has ‘profoundly wounded people in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime’.”

But he adds: “The Pope has also said that the crimes of priests, while reprehensible, should be seen in the context of the times in which these events took place. Citing the rise of child pornography and sexual tourism, he concludes that moral standards in society at large have broken down.”

That’s no excuse for Catholic priests involved in child sex abuse. Nor is the fact that the problem is just as bad in the Church of England (though surely THAT fact does dispose of the arguments of those who use the problem as part of their own anti-celibacy campaigns: married protestant clergy are just as likely to be involved as celibate Catholic clergy). We need of course to understand that though, as the American researcher Charol Shakeshaft reflected in a report for the US Department of Education, children are, as Dr Thevathasan also points out, “a hundred times more likely to be abused in school than by priests,” and though this “does indicate that the sexual abuse of minors is significantly higher in secular society than in the Church,” “this does not excuse the behaviour of abusive priests.” Pope Benedict’s clear guidance was that the Church at large is still called upon “to enter a period of purification and repentance and of prayer for the victims of clerical child abuse.”

All the same, he said, “one of the immense dangers of focussing unduly on clergy abuse is that we might fail to protect vulnerable children in the wider society.”

And this is indeed a real danger. For, the trouble with scapegoats is that they are set apart as such to make society feel better about itself, and not to cope with the real problem thus shuffled off into the wilderness. Child sex abuse is a problem for society at large which it has not begun seriously to address.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 19, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury. (Photo credit: CNA)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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