Ethics Institutions

Australians suggest celibacy played a role in clergy abuse scandal

Photo courtesy Gregory Dean via Shutterstock

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Roman Catholic Church in Australia acknowledged that “obligatory celibacy” may have contributed to decades of clerical sexual abuse of children in what may be the first such admission by church officials around the world.

A number of women married to or wanting to be married to Catholic priests are petitioning Pope Francis to reconsider the church's stance on celibacy.

Photo courtesy Gregory Dean via Shutterstock

A Catholic Church advisory group in Australia has admitted that “obligatory celibacy” may have contributed to decades of clerical sexual abuse of children.

A church advisory group called the Truth, Justice and Healing Council made the startling admission Friday (Dec. 12) in a report to the government’s Royal Commission, which is examining thousands of cases of abuse in Australia.

The 44-page report by the council attacked church culture and the impact of what it called “obedience and closed environments” in some religious orders and institutions.

“Church institutions and their leaders, over many decades, seemed to turn a blind eye, either instinctively or deliberately, to the abuse happening within their diocese or religious order, protecting the institution rather than caring for the child,” the report said.

“Obedience and closed environments also seem to have had a role in the prevalence of abuse within some religious orders and dioceses. 
Obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse.”

The council’s CEO, Francis Sullivan, who has held various administrative roles in the health sector, including heading Catholic Health Australia, said clergy training should include “psychosexual development.”

“It’s a no-brainer,” Sullivan said. “You need to address how sexuality is understood and acted out by members of the clergy.”

But the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which represents around 20,000 victims worldwide, said the latest report did little to help protect those at risk from abuse.

“Decisive action is needed, not more reports,” SNAP national director David Clohessy said. “The church hierarchy knows what’s needed. It simply refuses to give up its power and enable secular authorities to investigate and prosecute those who commit and conceal sexual violence against the vulnerable.”

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, could not be reached for comment Friday. But Maltese Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor for abuse cases, tried to put the report in context in remarks to the Italian daily La Stampa.

“You mustn’t forget that most abuse occurs in the family,” he said. “Obviously I don’t exclude individual cases where celibacy is lived badly that may have psychological consequences. But it should be said clearly that it is certainly not the origin of this sad and very painful phenomenon and remember that there is no nexus between cause and effect.”

The suggestion of a link between celibacy and child sexual abuse has divided Australian Catholic leaders in the past.

Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney and now head of the Vatican’s powerful economic ministry, acknowledged there may be a connection when he testified before a separate government inquiry in Australia last year. He was unavailable for comment at the Vatican Friday.

The independent Australian council is made up of church and lay members and is supervised by some of the nation’s senior archbishops, though its views do not necessarily reflect those of all senior clergy.


About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.


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  • Our culture is so Freudian saturated it really can’t tolerate people who choose a celibate path for a higher purpose. That is why the NY public schools could have a practice of “moving the trash along” yet be basically left alone.
    On the other hand where is the negativism toward the Dalai Lama and Gandhi and their followers who follow a celibate path. Politically incorrect to say anything bad about Eastern celibacy practices

  • Deacon Bresnahan,

    Freud’s daughter remained “vestal” her whole life & Freud was supportive. To ascribe the sexual revolution to Freud is inaccurate.

    Even so, the sexual revolution did not cause the various forms of institutional child abuse…it’s something that has happened ever since the religious orders became heavily involved in child care…which dates back to The Rule of St. Benedict prescribing physical abuse for boys who didn’t act as expected (thank god child dedication was abolished centuries ago). In short, child abuse didn’t even start with orphanages in Ireland 200 years ago. It’s a longer concern than that. Christian teaching on human nature has fundamentally misunderstood child development and human sexuality for generations.

    There have been exposes in the media over government & institutional corruption, mismanagement and abuse as well as movements to resolve them. But, people expect government corruption. The government doesn’t claim to be pure or divine. It’s illusions and expectations of perfection which create scandal. The Church needs to be open and honest about its humanity.

    Eastern religions which have a hieratical structure are demographically smaller. Most eastern celibacy is not life-long and does not claim to have an incorruptible hierarchy to hold accountable those who claim to practice celibacy. Due to the counter-reformation and inquisition, the Catholic Church does.

    Finally, this article wasn’t about celibates…it’s about pseudo-celibates. A church which has not been able to encourage and support the celibacy it requires and which has perpetuated child abuse must learn from its mistakes and submit to correction, both temporally and spiritually, least in her error she drive her children away.

  • Surely it should be obvious that if you restrict the priesthood to those who are not the marrying kind, you will increase the proportion of those who will target underage children. Allow married people to join the priesthood and at the very least you might reduce the proportion of those in the priesthood who are drawn to juveniles as sex objects.

  • How about this as a far more likely explanation? I’ve met a few of these people personally, and have conversed with a few more, and have conversed with other people who have met a few.

    There are Men with sexual issues– and it usually appears to be men. They are attracted to children. OR– emphasize OR– they are gay. OR they have some sort of kink, like S&M. They see the priesthood as a means of escape: escape from their problems, escape from the social expectations of meeting a woman and settling down, escape from the world, escape from temptation.

    They don’t deal with their problems or their problematic sexuality. They think they are walking away from them. but of course they can’t walk away, because the problems are interior. They just carry them along. My friend, Terry, was such a one. He knew he was gay, and so he did what a good Irish catholic boy would do. He joined the priesthood. He found far more gay activity going on in the seminary than he had experienced before he went in, because there were a whole bunch of horny young men just like him. He realized he didn’t have a vocation after all.

    To me, that is the real question here. you CANNOT become a priest without a vocation, a literal calling from God. The church allegedly has the means of determining who has such a vocation, because many who think or claim they do actually don’t.

    The issue isn’t at all a question of the celibacy requirement– another gift from God– being onerous and causing the abuse. That is simply nonsense. Gifts from God don’t cause those problems, at least, not in theory.

    Either the omniscient God is calling gay men to the priesthood, gay men who cannot be celibate. AND God is calling child abusing sexual predators to the priesthood. (These are most emphatically not the same thing).


    The claims of the church about who has a vocation and how it knows this are completely bogus.

  • 1However, the inspired word clearly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to misleading inspired statements and teachings of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, whose conscience is seared as with a branding iron. 3 They forbid marriage and command people to abstain from foods that God created to be partaken of with thanksgiving by those who have faith and accurately know the truth. – 1Timothy 4:1-3
    You see, “forbidding marriage” is NOT from God. It’s not one of GOD’S requirements for someone in a position of oversight. See also the scriptural requirements at 1 Timothy 3:1-5 stated here: 1This statement is trustworthy: If a man is reaching out to be an overseer, he is desirous of a fine work. 2 The overseer should therefore be irreprehensible, a husband of one wife, moderate in habits, sound in mind, orderly, hospitable, qualified to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent, but reasonable, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money, 4 a man presiding over his own household in a fine manner, having his children in subjection with all seriousness 5 (for if any man does not know how to preside over his own household, how will he care for the congregation of God?)