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Rev. James Martin, S.J.

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It's Not About Celibacy: Blaming the Wrong Thing for the Sexual Abuse Crisis

Posted: 04/10/10 08:57 PM ET

Many factors underlie the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Here is an extremely brief summary. 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. The crimes of abuse often went unreported to civil authorities, out of a misguided concern for "avoiding scandal," the fear of litigation, or an unwillingness to confront the priest. 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.

That is an enormous simplification that leaves out many important causes. In general, though, that is a fair summary of some underlying reasons for these crimes. (Note that I say "reasons" and not "excuses." There are no excuses.)

In an abbreviated form, this was also the conclusion of an extensive study by the National Review Board, an independent group of Catholic laypersons who reported to the U.S. Catholic bishops in the wake of the abuse crisis that engulfed the American Church beginning in 2002. The Board's analysis led to the "zero-tolerance" policy adopted by the American hierarchy.

One thing you don't see on the list of factors is celibacy. Because celibacy does not cause pedophilia. But that hasn't stopped otherwise thoughtful pundits and commentators, and among them even some Catholics, from opining on celibacy as a cause of the crisis.

Around the same time as the National Review Board released their findings, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded a nationwide study, reporting that around four percent of American priests between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of abuse. Even one case of sexual abuse is too much, but that figure is half that of the overall percentage for American males, which, according to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is one in ten. (In a recent Newsweek article, Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at John Jay, estimated that the figure is closer to one in five.) "We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," Mr. Allen told Newsweek.

And, as Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychologist and expert on child sexual abuse, and Virginia Goldner, also a psychologist, noted in a hard-hitting book entitled Predatory Priests, Silenced Victims, the sexual abuse of children has also occurred among Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, Islamic clerics, Buddhist monks, and Hare Krishna officials.

None of this has stopped commentators from excoriating priestly celibacy as a primary cause of sexual abuse.

But doing so makes little sense. For one thing, if four percent of American priests were accused of abuse, it means that 96 percent of priests have not been accused of anything and are leading healthy, productive lives in the community. (Bluntly put: if celibacy causes abuse, why aren't the other 96 percent of priests pedophiles?) For another, 30 percent of abuse takes place within families, yet few sane people point to marriage as a cause of child abuse. When schoolteachers abuse children, few sane people say that teaching leads to pedophilia. Many widows and widowers, not to mention some single men and women, are celibate. No one suspects them of pedophilia.

So why is the celibacy of Catholic priests singled out?

The critique of priestly celibacy has to do mainly with its unfamiliarity. Voluntarily refraining from sex is unnatural, so the thinking goes; it shuts down a natural part of life and thus leads to unhealthy behaviors. It is unhealthy, critics say; therefore, priesthood attracts only unhealthy people. It is impossible, others aver, so any priest who says he is celibate must be lying. Most people don't know priests, sisters, or brothers, and we sometimes demonize those whom we don't know. It's easy to stereotype out of frustration and fear.

So let me speak about celibacy as a celibate male. (Technically, diocesan priests make a promise of celibacy -- a promise not to marry. Members of religious orders vow chastity. But in essence, the two commitments work the same way, and the terms can be used interchangeably.)

One of the many goals of celibacy is to love people as freely as possible and as profoundly as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining religious chastity negatively -- that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the Church. Besides its other roots, religious chastity was meant as another way to love others and serve the community. As such, it may have something to teach everyone, not just priests, brothers, and sisters.

For Jesuits -- to take the religious order to which I belong -- chastity frees us to serve people more readily. We're not attached to one person exclusively, so it's easier for us to move to another assignment. As the Jesuit Constitutions say, chastity is "essentially apostolic." It is supposed to help us be better "apostles," to be freer to respond to the needs of those around us. So chastity is supposed to be about both love and freedom.

Obviously, celibacy is not for everyone. (If it were, the world would be a much smaller place.) The overwhelming majority of people are called to romantic love, marriage, sexual intimacy, children, and family life. Their primary way of loving is through their spouses and children. It is a more focused, more exclusive, loving. That is not to say that married couples and parents do not love others outside their families. Rather, the main focus of their love is their family.

For the Catholic priest or person in a religious order, the situation is the opposite. You make a promise of celibacy or pronounce a vow of chastity to offer yourself to God as fully as possible and to make yourself available to love as many others as possible. Once again, this is not to say that married and single men and women cannot do the same. Or that clergy in other religions cannot do so. Rather, this is the way that seems to work for us. It is simply another way.

This may even offer an insight for a culture that sees sex as the best way, or the only way, to express love. Chastity and celibacy say that there are other ways. Some of the most loving people I know are chaste men and women, who show me their love through nonsexual ways: spending time with me when I'm down, sharing their joys and sorrows with me, even listening to me complain. Healthy chastity is a reminder that it is possible to love without being in an exclusive relationship and without being sexually active. There are many ways of loving, besides sex, through actions just as meaningful.

Who is more loving: the head-over-heels couple with an active sex life; the committed middle-aged couple who have sex less frequently due to the demands of family life; or the tender elderly couple who, because of illness, are not sexually active at all? Who is more loving: the married man who loves his wife, or the single woman who loves her close friends? Who is more loving: the healthy celibate priest who works long hours for his parishioners, or the sexually active wife who adores her husband?

The answer is that they are all loving. In different ways.

This is not to deny that some priests were clearly tempted to "hide" their sick sexual predilections and designs to prey on children by retreating to a celibate lifestyle as a kind of protective ecclesial cocoon. But that doesn't mean celibacy causes pedophilia, any more than marriage does, or parenting does, or teaching does. Nor does it mean that celibacy is the best way of organizing the priesthood, or that it will always be the rule for diocesan priests; the Catholic Church has already begun to accept married male clergy from the Anglican Communion as priests. Nor does it mean that an all-male clergy hasn't over the centuries fostered a secretive culture that privileged concerns for priests over those of lay people. But that has more to do with power than celibacy per se. Nor does it mean that having women, and married men and women, in Church leadership roles would not have forced a more vigorous prosecution of sexual abuse cases. But once again, none of that means that celibacy per se leads to an individual becoming an abuser.

Stereotypes about celibacy are more confounding when one reflects -- even for a moment -- on the lives of some of history's most beloved celibate religious figures: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and, for much of his life, Mahatma Gandhi. More to the point: by most accounts, Jesus himself was celibate. (One indication: the Gospels talk freely about his mother, his brothers, and his sisters. If he had a wife, not mentioning her would be odd.) Jesus may have done so to express his personal commitment to his mission; perhaps out of knowledge that his peripatetic life would have been difficult on a spouse; or even to spare his wife from the eventual suffering he may have foreseen.

Jesus was celibate. That doesn't mean he was a pedophile. Neither am I. And neither are the vast majority of priests.

Stereotypes about celibate priests are as wrongheaded as those about any other religious practice that people don't fully understand, or stereotypes about any other unfamiliar group of people. You probably don't practice celibacy, you may not agree with it as a way of life for the clergy, and you may not understand it completely, but that doesn't mean you should condemn it -- much less blame it for a problem with far more complex roots.

The Rev. James Martin is a Catholic priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.