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Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church: It’s NOT the Celibacy

Whenever someone argues that the Catholic Church’s celibacy requirement of clergy is the reason sick, twisted men molest defenseless children (or confused adolescents) I want to smack them in the shoulder. Celibacy doesn’t cause child sexual abuse; if it did, all the Demented Daddies out there wouldn’t be grabbing after their own sons and daughters (or more likely, their step-sons and step-daughters). The practice of celibacy is the argument given in this op-ed in yesterday’s NYTimes and it is an argument that lets the Church off the hook in a number of ways.

The sexual abuse of children happens because certain people (I like to call them criminals) get their jollies off of a power differential in sexual encounters. And, frankly, aside from the power differential between a parent and child, the most powerful of these differentials is between clergy and child. (Followed closely by teacher and child and Boy Scout Leader and child.)

Ergo, what we’ve got blowing up (again!) in the Catholic Church – this time on the other side of the Atlantic – ain’t a celibacy issue, it’s a power issue. First there is the power differential between the priest and child, of which the Roman collar-wearing snake takes advantage. But then – and far worse – is the power present in a Church hierarchy that is beholden to no one except (shock!) other men in the hierarchy. When you’ve got a closed system, bad things happen. When you’ve got a system that survives on making sure that the only people who rise through the ranks are “loyal to the Magisterium,” you’ve got yourself a problem — because anyone daring enough to call a spade a spade is quickly marginalized. (Note: Some people are taking responsibility for the abuse in Ireland; a bishop resigned today, begging forgiveness from the children harmed in his diocese.)

Each parish is a little fiefdom with Father in charge. Each diocese is a little fiefdom with Bishop in charge. And Holy Mother Church is a fiefdom writ large with the Pope (and some Cardinals) in charge. Until we make it so that the People of God are in charge, we’re going to have issues of abuse because a closed system protects its own, instead of protecting the vulnerable.

But, you might ask, what about all those diocesan commissions set up after the sex abuse crisis got press (all hail the Boston Globe!) 10 years ago? Aren’t they helping bring more transparency to the system? Well, let’s see – are the people on those commissions elected by the people? Can anyone who wants join the commission? Or are all the members appointed by local bishops and is one of the requirements (save for exceptions made for a handful of survivors on commissions) fidelity to the Magisterium? See the problem?

So, let those who dare, say it out loud: Sexual abuse by priests is not due to celibacy, it is not due to a secularization of society – as Pope Pope Benedict XVI said in his scathing letter to the Church in Ireland last week (see #4 here) – it is not due to poor seminary formation, it is not due to a rise in child pornography and the sexualization of children (where are their parents???!!!). The sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church is primarily due to an institution built as a monarchy, full of male-only power and privilege, that marginalizes those who challenge it and is steeped in a culture of what one priest calls, “I don’t call you on your sins and you don’t call me on mine.”

The aforementioned (celibacy, porn, etc.) can and do contribute to situations in which sexual abuse occur, just as allowing any Tom, Dick or Harry into seminary because of the priest shortage does. (Segue: That problem could be at least partially solved by returning to the Catholic roots of married priesthood or ordaining women, but God forbid we think outside the closed box.) But while those things might “trigger” a beastly response from a sinful man, those things are not the reason sexual abuse of children in the Church lasted as long as it did. That continuation – through many years for some of the victims – was/is caused by a powerful, closed system that protects its own in the name of protecting the Church.

B16 does shame the abusers in no uncertain terms – and the bishops who protected them – in his letter to Ireland. Yet he remains silent on the allegations in Germany and, even in his Ireland letter, refrains from doing what would really help people come to trust the Church again: He doesn’t demand resignations, he doesn’t even demand the bishops spend one day each week meeting with victims – for as long as those victims want – to hear their pain and attempt to heal the soul-murder committed in the name of God. (He could be doing these things in private – but they need to be done in public for transparency’s sake.) And most notably, he doesn’t say, “After careful thought, I’ve realized we’ve obviously screwed up and we need some outside advice, so I propose we rework Canon Law to involve the laity in our operations, particularly parents, and particularly those who have proven to be prophetically challenging to the Church. Maybe we should be listening to them.”

Instead, it is just more of the same – seminary visits by (who else?) priests and bishops (let’s keep it all in the Club, fellas) to see if the problem is seminary formation and a further call for people to return to practices that will lead them closer to God (and, by inference, more “in union” with Rome). Has it ever occurred to anyone in the hierarchy that maybe people aren’t in union with Rome because they think Rome is wrong? It is enough to make me want to bang my head against a wall.

I’m hot under the collar about this because I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and know the damage abuse by an elder does to a child. It is the gift that keeps on giving, and when I hear of children being abused, I lose all sense of mercy for the abuser and those who might protect him/her. You harm a child, I believe you should be harmed. This doesn’t fit with the Christian tenets of repentance and forgiveness, but research shows child abusers rationalize their actions, they don’t repent for them. And, as any good Catholic can tell you, without true repentance, there is no forgiveness – a fact the Catholic heirarchy should keep in mind when figuring out how to respond to yet more revelations of sexual abuse.

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18 thoughts on “Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church: It’s NOT the Celibacy

  1. Anyone wishing to become a priest in this church should be required to be castrated, physically or chemically.

  2. Renee, this is an amazingly well-written, well-argued post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. There aren’t enough fellow Catholics (that I know of, anyway) weighing in on this. Most Catholics I know seem to choose to avoid this topic altogether.  I’ve been in faith crisis mode for a couple years now and can see that checking out your blog may help me organize my thoughts.

  3. In 300 years the Roman Catholic Church will refer to these times as one in which the church was falsely and malignantly attacked by atheists, non-believers, government and Satanic enemies of Christianity.
    “Against a massive effort to discredit the piety and chasteness of the clergy with accusations of heinous crimes, the church and her followers fought a protracted battle against this evil… eventually triumphing in the name of Jesus and to the greater glory of the mother church.”

    I assure you that this will come to pass…this has always been the strategy of the criminal enterprise called Catholicism.
    May the light of knowledge shine on your path,
    May your path lead to truth,
    and the LIE die.

  4. So, let those who dare, say it out loud: Sexual abuse by priests is not due to celibacy, it is not due to a secularization of society – as Pope Pope Benedict XVI said in his scathing letter to the Church in Ireland last week (see #4 here) – it is not due to poor seminary formation, it is not due to a rise in child pornography and the sexualization of children (where are their parents???!!!). The sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church is primarily due to an institution built as a monarchy, full of male-only power and privilege, that marginalizes those who challenge it and is steeped in a culture of what one priest calls, “I don’t call you on your sins and you don’t call me on mine.”

    Yes, exactly!  Religious pathology is often linked to sexual pathology–look at Philip Garrido and the abusers of Elizabeth Smart.  Sociopathy is often attracted to cults and religions because within those hierarchical, ‘sick’ systems, the sociopath can prey at will.

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