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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

It's Not About Homosexuality: Blaming the Wrong People for the Sexual Abuse Crisis

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The comments from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone this week linking homosexuality and pedophilia, and implicitly blaming gay priests for sexual abuse, came in the midst of the gravest crisis to face the Church in the last 100 years: the rising tide of revelations of the crimes of sexual abuse of children, primarily boys and adolescent males. In a news conference in Chile, Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, said, "[M]any psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia." They do believe, however, "that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia," he said. "That is true. ... That is the problem."

Cardinal Bertone's comments are, to put it charitably, surprising, for several reasons.

First of all, nearly every reputable psychologist and psychiatrist definitively rejects the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, as well as any cause-and-effect relationship. The studies are almost too numerous to mention. Pedophilia, say experts, is more a question of a stunted (or arrested) sexuality, more a question of power, and more a question of proximity (among many other complicated psychological factors). Simply put, being gay does not make one a pedophile.

Indeed, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an extensive independent study in the wake of the American abuse crisis in 2002, undertaken by the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Last year, Margaret Smith, a researcher from John Jay, reported to the bishops, "What we are suggesting is that the idea of sexual identity be separated from the problem of sexual abuse. At this point, we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and the increased likelihood of subsequent abuse from the data that we have right now."

Second, there is an even stronger argument against the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia: the lived experience of emotionally mature and psychologically healthy gay men (and women) who have never, ever abused a child; are not tempted to do so; are not attracted to children at all; and would, in short, never think of doing so. Being gay does not make one a pedophile.

That is why two days after Cardinal Bertone's comments, the Rev. Marcus Stock, the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, released a statement saying, "To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical data which concludes that sexual orientation is connected to child sexual abuse. The consensus among researchers is that the sexual abuse of children is not a question of sexual 'orientation', whether heterosexual or homosexual, but of a disordered attraction or 'fixation.'"

But some bishops, and some Catholic commentators, still find that difficult to accept. If that were true, they ask, why would so many victims be not just young boys but adolescent males? Researchers suggest that, once again, this has to do with proximity: many priests were in the past responsible for the care of boys. In schools and parish settings, Catholic sisters cared for girls; priests for boys. But what about the possibility of ephebophilia? Many of the victims of priest abuse were adolescents. So there were clearly some gay priests who were attracted to adolescent boys, and who preyed on them.

But not the vast majority of gay priests, who never abused anyone. This is a critical point. And this is also where the situation grows more complex.

One of the primary reasons that many priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals persist in thinking that homosexuality is the root cause of pedophilia, and that gay priests are mainly pedophiles, is because there are so few public models of healthy, mature, loving celibate gay priests to rebut that argument. In my 2000 America magazine article "The Church and the Homosexual Priest," I looked at the reasons why.

Here is an important fact: There are in the Catholic priesthood, and there have always been, celibate gay priests and chaste gay members of religious orders. How do I know this? Because I know scores, maybe hundreds, of them. They are emotionally mature, psychologically healthy, genuinely loving, and beloved by those with whom they minister; they work hard on behalf of the "People of God," and they have never, ever abused a single child. There are also, by the way, celibate gay bishops and archbishops. They, too, have lived their promises of celibacy with fidelity and in dedicated service to the Church. Many of these men are among the holiest people I've ever known. I consider a few of them saints.

Many of these men are public about their orientations only with close friends or their spiritual directors. The reasons are easy to identify, even if they are not always defensible. First, they may be fearful of how their parishioners would react, especially if they are living in a parish where homophobia abounds. Second, they might feel that a public declaration might place more emphasis on the priest than on his ministry and, likewise, serve as a distraction and even a serious division within the parish. Third, they might be fearful of reprisals by bishops. Fourth, they may be unable or unwilling to do so for a variety of personal reasons. (For example, they may be of a generation where talk of sexuality simply wasn't done, or they may still be embarrassed by their orientation.) And, in the wake of the abuse crisis, when some Church leaders linked homosexuality with pedophilia, some of these fears intensified. Finally, priests may be explicitly forbidden by their bishops or religious superiors from speaking about their orientation publicly.

Much of this came to a boiling point with the release of the Vatican's 2004 letter, completed after a lengthy Vatican "visitation" of the U.S. seminaries in the wake of the abuse crisis. The document, with the lengthy title, "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders," stated that men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" could not be admitted to the priesthood. Among Catholic gay clergy there was widespread dismay at this document.

Since then the document has been interpreted in various ways in diocesan seminaries and in formation programs in religious orders. Just yesterday a diocesan seminarian wrote to tell me that in his seminary there was a "don't tell your brothers" policy, while in other seminaries any admission of one's homosexuality could lead to expulsion. On the other hand, some bishops and superiors of religious orders, recognizing the historical contributions of celibate gay priests, have interpreted the document to mean that "deep-seated" means that one cannot live celibately; ergo, if a gay man feels an authentic call to the priesthood, is emotionally mature and can live a celibate lifestyle, he can be ordained. One of the most pastoral approaches comes from Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, who said on the document's release that a man who is homosexual and feels a vocation to be a priest "shouldn't be discouraged." Other bishops and religious superiors have taken a similar approach.

Still, fear among many celibate gay clergy remains. Yesterday an experienced priest told me that the only way that things will change is when all the gay priests decide one Sunday to "come out" to their parishes. But that is unlikely, since the bonds that tie these men together are usually local, and mostly informal. Nonetheless, it would be a positive development and could serve as a significant "teaching moment" for the entire Church. Besides, most Catholic parishioners aren't that benighted: they know that some of their priests are gay, and as long as they're celibate and loving and generous and prayerful, parishioners are accepting of them, and usually grateful. The inspiring story of the Rev. Fred Daley, of Utica, New York, is one such example of this.

Most Catholics -- including most bishops and archbishops -- already know these things. They know that homosexuality and pedophilia are not the same thing. Perhaps this is why Pope Benedict XVI himself, en route to the United States for his visit in 2008, responded this way to a question about the abuse crisis: "I do not wish to talk about homosexuality, but about pedophilia, which is a different thing." And they know that there are thousands of celibate gay men in the priesthood and chaste men in religious orders who have never abused anyone and, moreover, lead generous, dedicated, and even holy lives.