Celibacy and sexual abuse

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Those on the Catholic left are not very happy that the Jay Report declines in no uncertain terms to blame clerical celibacy for the sexual abuse crisis. As the report puts it:

Factors that remained consistent over this time period, such as celibacy, do not explain the sexual abuse “crisis.” Celibacy has been constant in the Catholic Church since the eleventh century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.

is the way social scientists, bless their hearts, look at
causation. You’ve got a “factor”; it’s constant through a period of
change; therefore it cannot be a cause of the change. Case closed.

But this kind of factor analysis can be an unwieldy tool for grasping how the world changes. Consider, for
example, the rise and decline of divorce rates in America, which pretty
much mirror the rise and decline of child sexual abuse by priests.abuse.jpg


charts on the right, taken from the Jay Report, show the number of
sexual abuse incidents by all priests (blue lines) and by ordination
cohort (red lines). There’s the same big run-up in the sixties and
seventies, the same peaking around 1980, the same decline afterwards
(though steeper in the case of abuse).

Now, one can easily blame
the increase in divorce–including, of course, the rise of no-fault
divorce laws–on the cultural changes of “the sixties.” Marriage itself
was not the problem; something else was responsible for divorce going
off the chart. But whatever that something else was, it made marriage as it was
somewhat problematic. Lots of married people wanted out, and no doubt a
significant portion of them got out in inappropriate (immoral) ways.
And by the time divorce rates peaked, marriage as a social institution
had itself changed. No longer was there the same stigma attached to
living together and bearing children out of wedlock; no longer was there
the pressure to get married. For better or worse, marriage has ceased
to do as much work in American society as it once did.

So with
celibacy in the Catholic Church. In the sixties, it became problematic.
Many priests and nuns left the celibate life–and (it seems) a
significant number of priests got out of it by behaving badly. And by
the time abuse rates peaked, celibacy had come to function in a
different way in the church. A much higher proportion of church work was
being performed by the non-celibate–laymen and laywomen. Today, those
men who enter the priesthood do so better screened and more mature in
years–and, of course, in fewer numbers. Nuns are disappearing. And
child sexual abuse has declined.

The point is: It’s much too
simple to pretend that complex phenomena like marriage or faith-based
celibacy are constants in the life of a society or an institution like
the Catholic church. They are variables that interact with other
variables. None of this is to exonerate abusers and their episcopal
enablers. Nor is it to assert that all is well with celibacy
in today’s Catholicism. In the eleventh century, non-celibacy for
secular clergy (including bishops) became problematic for a number of
economic, social, and ideological reasons. And so, the church stamped it
out. A well functioning religious institution knows how to change with
the times.

  • In the bad old days, women were trapped in loveless, sexless marriages and it was the job of the priest to minister to their needs. Once women were freed to divorce and seek partners of their choice and liking, priestly functions were unnecessary—and many, many priests married and left the Catholic Church. This left the priesthood to people with serious sexual and psychosocial dysfunctions. Celibacy?

  • Jack B

    You omitted the increasing rates of homicide and robbery which the study also mentions (p.37) without making clear any actual relevance to anything of interest such as “Social Influences on Sexuality: Period Effects”.
    The most significant problem with these study assertions is the assumption you identify that an existing constant factor does not interact with and influence other factors that may be changing. Would that life were so simple. It brings to mind the Galileo problem, which persisted in part because the authorities declined to look out the window.

  • The numbers are all skewed by the bishops and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice! As a general rule psychologists use age 13 as the beginning of puberty — the report says it is 10 years of age. Naturally a LOT of the victims fell in the 10-13 years old category — so using the 10 year the numbers are all showing a lower percentage of pedophile priests.
    Who can trust the bishops to give ACCURATE and HONEST figures? Case in point, Philadelphia! For years we were told there are no priests with accusations against them in active ministry – and then suddenly last February the grand jury discovers thirty-seven!!! Bishops also try to tell us that 4% of priests were abusers — the actual numbers counted at http://www.bishopaccountability.org is closer to 10%!!!
    As for blaming society and “the 60’s!” I was raped in 1970 by a priest who was ordained in the early 1950’s — certainly his moral ethics were well established by the time the 60’s rolled around. His history of abuse runs from the 1950’s until just 2 months before his death in 2006 at the age of 82! After my rape I reported to my deacon supervisor — another priest in the same parish. Remember, this was 1970. Nothing happened because he was diagnosed in 1957 s having a psycho-pathological personality and was STILL playing with mentally ill teen aged girls. He, too, was ordained in the early 1950’s. By the time the 1960’s rolled around these two priests were WELL into their 40’s — and at that time would be considered “old” and not part of the “current age.”
    As for the bishops’ honesty in numbers — when I brought my case back to Boston I was informed that “I was the only one” — that there were no other accusations against my perp. I managed to get hold of the investigation and found THREE letters dating back to the 1990’s accusing him of sexual abuse. If the bishop (cardinal) can nget away with lying to me as a priest — how much easier is it to lie to a lay person?
    The Hierarchy of the church (all the way to Rome) needs to come clean, be honest, transparent etc. LIST THE NAMES of all perpetrators who have been credibly accused. They cannot be taken to court because of the statutes of limitations. They are still just as dangerous and society in general needs to know about them. Our society is is so migrant! A priest who abuses in Boston can also abuse in Minnesota, or Nevada or anywhere. The names need to be public and accessible.