Why Celibacy is a Major Contributory Factor to Catholic Clerical Sexual Abuse

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The current popular view on the persistence of Clerical sexual abuse (CSA) in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) puts emphasis on the moral and psychological weaknesses of the individual priests rather than on the structural loopholes of the Church’s social network and control systems as a result of the imposition of celibacy to priestly life. What surfaced in many lawsuits against predator priests is the admission of many bishops think of CSA solely in terms of moral fault and sin (Doyle 2006).

Despite the growing scandals of CSA abuse involving priests and bishops around the world, the Catholic hierarchy still refuses to view the mandatory clerical celibacy as a disorganizing factor in the diocesan priestly life which deprives the secular clergy of social support and direct social control of their behavior which can resist CSA. Church authorities continue to understand clerical sexual abuse as mere moral and psychological aberrations of some problematic priests and bishops that need clinical treatment and spiritual direction.

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Some prominent writers on CSA do not view the mandatory celibacy as connected to sexual misconduct by priests. Father Stephen Rosetti (2002), Father James Martin (2017), and Andrew Greely (2004), for instance, argued that celibacy is not the cause of the current CSA, especially child clerical sexual abuse (cCSA). Responding to the views that priests are more likely to be child molesters than others because they are celibate and that a celibate priesthood attracts a larger proportion of men with sexual problems, the priest-research professor and consultant to the papal Commission on the Protection of Minors Father Stephen Rosetti did not see mandatory celibacy as the cause of CSA and cCSA. He argued that researchers and clinicians have generally accepted the fact that celibacy does not cause child sexual abuse because the sexual difficulties and inner psychological problems that give rise to cCSA are largely in place long before a person enters into the formation process for a celibate priesthood.

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Father Martin too argued, celibacy is not the cause of CSA since celibacy does not cause pedophilia. To him, blaming celibacy is an enormous simplification that leaves out many important causes. He then enumerated some major causes of the Clerical sexual abuse: First, improper screening of candidates for seminaries led to some psychologically sick men being ordained as priests. When some bishops received reports of sexual abuse, the reports were tragically downplayed, dismissed or ignored. Second, the crimes of sexual abuse often went unreported to civil authorities, out of a misguided concern among church officials for “avoiding scandal,” the fear of litigation, or an unwillingness to confront the abusive priest. Third, grossly misunderstanding the severity of the effects of abuse, overly relying on advice from psychologists regarding rehabilitation, and privileging the concerns of priests over the pastoral care for victims, some bishops moved abusive priests from one parish to another where they repeatedly offended (Martin, 2017).

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Finally, the sociologist-priest Andrew Greely (2004) also dismissed the view that celibacy is to be blamed for the current CSA and cCSA in the RCC. This is his reaction to the argument to what he considered a simplistic view: “4 percent of Catholic priests are abusers. Priests are committed to celibacy. Therefore, the frustrations of celibate life led to abuse. Therefore, celibacy must be abolished.” He argued that most experts in sexual abuse of minors and children attribute CSA to a deep and incurable syndrome acquired early in life. Married priesthood won’t cure it. An abuser who marries is a married abuser (Greely, 2003).

These three clerical authors have rightly argued that clerical celibacy is not the direct cause of CSA in the RCC. Thus, abolishing celibacy for priests won’t stop the current clerical sexual misconduct. The obligatory celibacy is not the immediate cause of the CSA. They are right to say that celibacy does not produce pedophilia. But these authors were just responding to the view that simplifies a complex issue. This post argues that clerical celibacy is not the proximate and immediate cause of CSA but its main contributory factor for the persistence of CSA in the RCC, whether it involves minors or adolescents and adults both male and female. Celibacy provides diocesan clerics absolute privacy and deprives them of direct social control by family members if married priesthood is allowed in the Church which can greatly regulate priestly behavior and minimize opportunities for CSA. Pedophilia and child clerical sexual abuse could not be resolved by married priesthood but by a strict screening of candidates to the priesthood in the seminary and immediate dismissal from the clerical state for those guilty of cCSA.

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The causes mentioned above by Fr. Martin only underscores the lack of lay participation in the internal affairs of the Church. The screening of candidates, downplaying, dismissal, or ignoring of clerical sexual crimes are not done by the laity but bishops who have the sole authority to discipline erring priests in the Church. Furthermore, the avoidance of scandal by covering up CSA cases as well as reliance on psychologists and psychiatrists are common patterns done by bishops and clerics and not by the laity who have no authority to deal with abusive priests.

Celibacy is not the proximate cause of sexual abuse but can be considered as its ultimate cause. But from the point of view law enforcement or behavioral control, celibacy hinders the wider regulation of clerical behavior by the laity which can minimize opportunities for sexual deviance. It ultimately prevents effective clerical behavior as it disables the laity to participate in the internal management of the Church and monitor clerical behavior to prevent sexual misconduct in the Christian community.

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The Catholic Church requires ordination which is inseparable to celibacy to participate in ecclesiastical governance. This celibacy requirement obstructs the genuine lay empowerment in the Church which can greatly minimize CSA. Celibacy is the main stumbling block to the laity’s capability, as Vatican II recognized the realm of “secular world” such as surveillance of behavior, as experts in secular affairs who can effectively supervise priestly behavior and sanction sexual abuse. It also facilitates absolute privacy for clerical life and, thus, prone to clerical deviance with the lack of active regulation of priestly behavior by the laity which constitutes 99.9 percent of the total Catholic population.

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CSA is usually done in absolute privacy with priests who are usually alone with their victims. Compared to the religious priesthood, diocesan priesthood lacks an immediate clerical community which can provide mutual support and direct monitoring of clerical behavior. Child sexual abuse by pedophile priests is only a small percentage of the total cases of clerical sexual abuses in which the most common type is sexual abuse is done heterosexual or homosexual priests against adolescents and adults, such as rapes of nuns by priests which is not the focus of the current clerical sexual abuse investigations and media reports. Thus, a married priesthood is the appropriate response to this type of sexual abuse as family life can provide direct supervision or behavioral control of clerical behavior.

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