Given the numerous times that representatives of the Catholic Church hierarchy have denounced efforts to link compulsory celibacy to the terrible history of clergy sex abuse and cover-up, it was astonishing to hear Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles abuse allegations, do just that on PBS Newshourlast week.
Responding to a visiting Margaret Warner's questions about the clergy sex abuse scandal, Levada at one point said: "I think the causes we will see go back to changes in society that the church and priests were not prepared for, particularly changes involving how to be a celibate person in a time of the sexual revolution."
That is a stunning and extremely noteworthy admission, for several reasons. If we take Levada at his word and go the next step, it meant that as a result of the sexual revolution, there were Catholic priests who became involved in all kinds of sexual acting out, from pedophilia (though that is a psychiatric condition with its own etiology) to sex with minors to the sexual exploitation of young -- and not so young -- vulnerable adults.
In fact, a perfect example of this acting out in at least two regards is Marcial Maciel Degollado, the disgraced leader of the Legionaries of Christ -- the powerful religious order of which the Vatican just took control. He not only abused seminarians, some of whom were likely minors at the time, but also apparently sexually exploited women, fathering "several" children.
That acting out was a major problem in itself, inflicting horrendous suffering on the victims of those sexual exploits -- girls and boys, men and women. But the real way that celibacy caused this crisis is that it led the hierarchy to go to outrageous lengths to hide the truth: its failure to maintain a pristine celibate priesthood.
Indeed, a celibate Catholic priesthood has long been a myth rather than a reality. In his research, psychotherapist and former Catholic monk Richard Sipe found that an estimated half of all priests were involved in some kind of sexual activity at any one time. Of those, 15 percent were involved with men, 30 percent with women, and six percent with minors.
The National Lay Review Board established by the U.S. bishops made a similar observation, though it did not differentiate by gender. They reported having heard from "numerous witnesses" that there were "more incidents of sexual relationships between a priest and a consenting adult woman or man than between a priest and a minor." They characterized the women and men involved as "often vulnerable" and the priest's behavior as "gravely immoral."
According to a 2002 Los Angeles Times poll, only a third of priests surveyed in the U.S. and Puerto Rico said that celibacy was not a problem for them.
Sipe charges that despite the level of sexual activity that has existed among Catholic priests, the Church has blatantly and belligerently refused to deal seriously with breaches in celibacy.
"The inherent duplicity between the stated norm, belief and practice thrives on the denial of sexual reality," Sipe has said of the Church and celibacy. "This communal dishonesty sets the stage for sexual corruption and abuse."
In other words, by forbidding priests who choose to be sexual in mature ways that include commitment, responsibility and respect, and by protecting them from the costs of their sexual exploits, the church has effectively condoned a clerical sexual free-for-all. That heterosexual and homosexual behavior may thrive in the Catholic priesthood does not reflect anything inherent about homosexuality or heterosexuality but is rather an indictment of the hypocrisy and duplicity of an elite, closed, all-male system, that condones, indeed, demands, lying about the reality of one's sexual life at all costs.
So Levada is right. The challenge of compulsory celibacy in a sexually charged world has been a major contributor to the Church's clergy sex abuse scandal. Compulsory celibacy cloaked in a mantel of sexual superiority is very dangerous.
No compulsory celibacy means no hypocrisy, less duplicity, and, hopefully, safer congregants and safer kids.
Angela Bonavoglia is the author of Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church, soon to be released as an e-book. For more go to: www.goodcatholicgirls.com.
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