Clerical Celibacy and Sexual Abuse

I've been reading quite a bit lately about the sexual abuse scandals in the Church, and I find it interesting how many people, including none other than Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, have raised questions about the role that celibacy has played in the abuse.1

I don't know what connection, if any, might exist between celibacy and sexual misconduct by clergymen. My hunch is that a lot of the men who prey on minors probably had some serious psychosexual issues long before they became a priests. For such men, celibacy is undoubtedly one of the major selling-points of the priesthood.

So how would changing the rule mitigate the abuse? The best we can hope for is that celibacy will be made optional -- but wouldn't the kind of men who are attracted to the priesthood precisely because of their unhealthy attitudes toward sex not avail themselves of this option? Why wouldn't they?

One might argue that opening the door to married priests would result in a greater number of candidates for the priesthood, and so bishops could be a bit choosier and weed out the ones with the serious issues. This sounds somewhat plausible, but I wonder if there would really be enough new (married) priests to make a serious enough dent in the priest shortage. I could be wrong, but I don't think the bar would be raised very much. It would make a modest difference at best.

One might take the long view, and argue that married priests would eventually help bring the official church teachings about sexuality out of the dark ages. That's a nice thought, but I'm not holding my breath. We may see married priests in our lifetimes, but we won't see married bishops -- the Vatican, in all likelihood, would follow the Orthodox tradition of appointing only celibates to the episcopacy. We won't see married men in high positions of authority, so we shouldn't expect to see changes to official teachings just because the celibacy rule is relaxed.

More later...


[1] "Cardinal Schönborn says celibacy partly to blame for clerical sex abuse," The Times, March 12, 2010.

A spokesman for Schönborn, as mentioned in this article, "issued a clarification later claiming that the cardinal was not 'in any way seeking to question the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule.'" This doesn't appear to mesh all that well with what the Cardinal wrote, however. He explicitly mentioned "the question of priest celibacy." But what question is there, apart from whether there should be a celibacy rule?

Indeed, the article then claims that "Sources in Rome said he had been obliged to issue his 'clarification' under pressure from the Holy See."



Blogger crystal said...

I've been reading a lot about this too. One post at Reuter's FaithWorld blog had some guys who mentioned what you did - that a celibate community might tend to attract people who have sexual problems and who think (wrongly) that mandatory will help them leave those problems behind.

I wonder how different things would be if instead of having optional celibacy for men, they had instead celibate men and women. One of the opinions I saw somewhere was that if women were more thick on the ground, it would be harder for men with sexual problems to act out.

And I wonder what the sexual abuse statistics look like for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

8:45 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Oops - I meant "mandatory celibacy"

8:46 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I don't think there is any question that the all-male clergy exacerbates the problem. Having an equal number of women in the priesthood would undoubtedly have an effect.

Realistically, though, we should expect to see married men becoming priests (in significant numbers) long before we see female priests, celibate or otherwise.

11:49 p.m.  
Blogger colkoch said...

As long as the current theology of the priesthood centers on the 'ontological spiritual' superiority of the priest over the laity it will always attact narcissistic predators. Women may help, but there is no guarantee. Mother Angelica comes to mind.

3:05 p.m.  

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