Distorted view of celibacy leads to abuse

With the release of a shocking report from Australia on accusations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, the old question is bound to arise: “Is the discipline of celibacy to blame for sexual abuse of minors?”

The complicated question is dealt with in historian Philip Jenkins’s excellent study on the problem. Published in 2001, Pedophiles and Priests looks at the problem objectively, and his basic findings on the American church can probably be applied to the Australian situation.

Jenkins summarizes his findings in this article. He acknowledges the problem, but also points out press exaggeration and popular flawed understanding of the causes and possible solutions.

Jenkins also points out how the sexual abuse crisis spurred on progressive critics of the Catholic Church. “What else can we expect from a Church that keeps its clergy in a lifelong state of sexual immaturity,” they inveighed… “that denies the spiritual gifts of women, that preserves an authoritarian system?”

“The abuse issue illustrates the secretive workings of the hierarchy, the neglect of the laity, and the pernicious effect of celibacy,” he wrote. “For feminists, epidemic clerical abuse is precisely what their theories would predict of a patriarchal institution that permits unchecked sexual exploitation.”

The whole crisis is too complex to deal with in a short article, but it is worth examining one repeated and popular critique: that sexual abuse of children is caused by the discipline of celibacy. The usual formulation of this charge is the simplistic viewpoint that if the priests were able to have a proper, sexual relationship with a wife, they would not have abused children.

However, one only needs to nudge this seemingly obvious critique slightly and it collapses. Outside of Catholic clergy circles the majority of child sex abuse happens within the family—the perpetrators being married men. It is clear therefore that marriage, on its own, does not cure the problem of the sexual abuse of children. Continue reading


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