Complicit Clergy
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Punishing the Guilty Is Justice, Not a Witch Hunt

There is no “witch hunt.” I don’t know anyone who wants to drive from the priesthood any celibate holy man who is true to Church teaching.

In the fallout from the revelations of former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s serial sexual predation, some have worried about an “anti-gay witch hunt.”

Recently, a headline in America magazine all but shouted, “Homosexuality is not a risk factor for sexual abuse of children.” Yet, the Pennsylvania grand jury report that came out in August found about 80% of the teenage victims of clerical sexual abuse were male, just as the John Jay Report found more than 10 years ago. This fact cries out for explanation. But many in the media and in the Church seem reluctant to focus on this obvious connection. We must come up with an explanation that is true to the known facts, without harming any innocent person.

Before we tackle this explosive topic, let us clarify some important issues. Let’s think first about individual cases of sexual predation, by one specified person against another specified person.

Every decent person wants the criminal justice system to gather the facts and come to an accurate verdict. Whether this individual perpetrator is “straight” or “gay” is not germane. Percentages and probabilities don’t matter. Only one issue matters in an individual case: guilt or innocence.

Presumably everyone, from every point on the political, ideological or religious compass, agrees on this. Punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent is not anyone’s definition of a “witch hunt.” Behind individual cases, however, lies a whole realm of institutions and structures and rules and incentives. The big-picture institutional question is this: Is an increase in the number of same-sex attracted men in the Catholic priesthood correlated with an increase in the number of incidents of abuse of minor boys? This is the question to which the John Jay Report replied, “No.” (pg. 102.) The answer to this question has potential implications for a whole series of other questions, including but not limited to:

  • Should men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies be admitted to the priesthood? The Church already says “No” to this.
  • Should such men currently in the priesthood be automatically laicized? Not only “No,” but I don’t even know anyone who says “Yes.”
  • Should seminary and parish life be more highly structured to limit temptations for sexual activity? Obviously Yes.
  • How should bishops and religious superiors handle non-criminal violations of celibacy? Many answers are possible, but religious authorities certainly need to take this issue more seriously than they evidently have been.

Let’s get a couple of preliminary points out of the way. First, let us set aside the question of true pedophilia, that is, adults having sex with pre-pubescent children. True pedophilia accounts for about 5% of the cases in the John Jay Report. I’m focusing exclusively on priests having sex with sexually mature, but legally under-aged boys. Let us also set aside the important question of sexual harassment of seminarians, as we have no systematic data on the matter.

Let’s also stipulate that an increase in the number of celibate same-sex attracted men would have a negligible impact on abuse. By definition, a celibate priest is unmarried and therefore is to live the virtue of chastity by not having sex of any kind with anybody. A celibate priest, regardless of his preferred partners, has renounced marriage and sexual relations for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

On the other hand, a person who defines celibacy as something other than complete sexual abstinence is playing word games, which is a problem of its own.

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