Clerical Sexual Abuse: Exploring Deeper Issues. (Analysis)

By Ferder, Fran; Heagle, John | National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

Clerical Sexual Abuse: Exploring Deeper Issues. (Analysis)


Ferder, Fran, Heagle, John, National Catholic Reporter


Dealing with clergy sexual abuse was not exactly how either of us planned to spend Holy Week. But here it was in front us--nightly news broadcasts, feature articles in newspapers across the country, and calls from reporters looking for one more lead on how to understand how this could have happened. "Does celibacy cause pedophilia?" No. But mandatory celibacy is undeniably linked to the crisis. "Are Catholic priests more likely than men in general to molest children?" Good question. As anxious as some people are to defend the church, this issue has not been seriously examined using available statistical data. "If homosexuality does not cause child molesting and pedophilia," asked one reporter, "how does the Catholic church explain the fact that most victims of priests are boys?" Another good question. Complex. But, nonetheless, one that has not been studied.

In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of this scandal--in addition to the tragedy of leaving so many victims in its wake--is the reality that the U.S. and Canadian bishops did not commission an in-depth study of clergy sexual abuse as early as 1985 when they were first made aware of the burgeoning problem. Nearly 20 years later, many church leaders are still fumbling for answers without having fully explored the tough questions themselves, much less having enlisted the help of the scientific community to study the situation and release their findings to the public.

So, for almost two decades, a distraught church community continues to be in the dark about the scope and significance of the crisis. Attorneys for victims of clergy abuse try to subpoena secret files, while reporters hunt for answers to questions that should have been clarified by solid research dozens of studies ago. But so far, we are left with only speculative answers often conditioned as much by the agenda of the various responders as by any actual data. How do we explain the sexual abuse of minors by priests?

Common theories

The following are common theories used to account for clerical sexual abuse:

The ancient history theory: Most of these are old cases. They happened 20 or 30 years ago. Implied in this response is the assumption that fewer more recently ordained men have abused minors or are likely to do so.

The rotten fruit theory: Every organization has a few "bad apples" in the bushel. The vast majority of priests (usually cited close to 98 percent) are dedicated individuals who would never abuse a child.

The ontological sameness theory: Priests are only human. They can be expected to have the same weaknesses and dysfunctions that characterize other males in our culture.

The Vatican theory: This is primarily a problem of materialistic, self-indulgent industrialized cultures such as the United States, Canada and Europe.

The "gays did it" theory: Since most victims of clergy sexual abuse are boys, homosexual priests must be responsible.

The lax morals theory: Priests who sexually abuse minors represent a logical outcome of a permissive attitude toward sexual morals fostered by liberal theologians.

The media conspiracy theory: The press is out to get Catholics. When Protestant ministers, teachers, scout leaders, and athletic coaches molest minors, it doesn't attract the same national attention. (It might, if 2,000 of them were reported for doing it.)

The celibacy theory: Some priests are driven to molest minors because of the frustrations caused by imposing a lifetime of sexual abstinence on them.

While a few of these responses contain some elements of truth, they all have serious limitations when used in isolation to explain (or explain away) the crisis. The first three minimize the gravity of the problem--and the anguish of victims--by subtly suggesting that our reaction to clergy sexual abuse ought to be tempered by the fact that it's either old news, involves only a tiny percentage of otherwise good priests or is just another sad commentary on the human condition.

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