There appears to be no evidence that priests are more likely to abuse children than other clergy from other religious traditions which permit marriage, writes David Quinn
The Vatican has just made a comprehensive response to an abuse commission in Australia. A bit of background is useful. In 2017, a Commission of Inquiry produced a huge report on the issue of child sex abuse in institutions – not just Catholic ones. It found that abuse was all too widespread, whether the institution was run by the Catholic Church, another denomination or religious organisation, or by a lay body.
But despite finding that abuse was widespread across all institutions, a very great deal of attention was paid to the Church, even though it is a minority religion in Australia.
The commission found that across all institutions there was a culture of cover-up and secrecy, but in the case of the Church, it decided to single out two special features of Catholicism, namely the Seal of Confession, and priestly celibacy.
It recommended that the Seal of Confession should go if child sex abuse was confessed to a priest, and it also recommended that celibacy for priests become voluntary.
The specific recommendation about celibacy said: “All Catholic religious institutes in Australia, in consultation with their international leadership and the Holy See as required, should implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life. This should include consideration of whether and how existing models of religious life could be modified to facilitate alternative forms of association, shorter terms of celibate commitment, and/or voluntary celibacy (where that is consistent with the form of association that has been chosen).”
There is a whole lot to unpack in that statement, but what jumps out for me is the association the commission makes between celibacy and “potential psychological and sexual dysfunction”.
It reminds the commission that Jesus himself was unmarried and, therefore, celibate”
The commission does allow that celibacy might not be directly responsible on its own for child abuse, but nonetheless concludes that it “contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse, especially when combined with other risk factors”.
Elsewhere the com-mission says: “For many Catholic clergy and religious, celibacy is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction, including psychosexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children”.
If celibacy really is that potentially harmful, then perhaps marriage should be made compulsory for priests, seeing as celibate priests, voluntary or not, are much more likely to abuse children, according to the Commission’s reasoning.
It is no surprise that the Vatican comprehensively rejects the commission’s recommendation and defends the value of celibacy.
It reminds the commission that Jesus himself was unmarried and, therefore, celibate. It also reminds the commission of the right of Churches to organise their own internal life without interference from the State.
Finally, it says: “With regard to any assertion of a link between celibacy and sexual abuse, a great deal of evidence demonstrates that no direct cause and effect exists. Sadly, the spectre of abuse appears across all sectors and types of society, and is found too in cultures where celibacy is hardly known or practiced.”
The very strange thing about the commission’s recommendation concerning celibacy is that it makes it despite the report itself showing the prevalence of abuse in other, non-Catholic institutional settings, and also without presenting any real direct evidence of its claims about the very serious potential harm caused by the celibate life.
Nor does it consider whether the celibate priesthood might be a force for good, in that a priest without a family of his own can devote himself more fully to the life of his community.
That is not to deny that sexually and emotionally immature individuals have become priests. But is celibacy the deciding factor? Is the same phenomenon found in other clergy and in other sections of society, after all, many very emotionally immature people marry?
The commission should also have pointed to direct evidence that celibacy increases the likelihood that someone will abuse a child. This would not apply only to celibate priests, but to anyone who is celibate, voluntarily or otherwise, lay or clerical, because if celibacy is so dangerous, then all celibates must come under a cloud of suspicion, and what a terrible suspicion it is.
In respect of Catholic priests there appears to be no evidence that they are more likely to abuse children than other clergy from other religious traditions, which permit marriage.
One good way to find out would be to ask insurance companies which assess risk. If a Catholic priest is more likely than a married cleric to abuse a child, and have a claim made against him and/or his Church, then insurance companies would charge a higher premium.
In the US, with its huge variety of religious traditions, this is not the case. Newsweek magazine looked into the matter in 2010, and concluded, “experts say there’s simply no data to support the claim at all” (that Catholic priests are more likely to abuse children than other clergy).
One insurance company in the US that has 40,000 Church clients told Newsweek: “We don’t see vast difference in the incidence rate between one denomination and another. It’s pretty even across the denominations.”
The religious traditions that are charged more for their insurance are the ones with lots of children’s outreaches, not those with lots of celibate clergy.
The reason so many people make a ready association between celibacy and child abuse is because the Catholic Church is so huge and it has run so many institutions and programmes aimed at children.
People then look at Catholic priests and ask themselves, “what is the difference between them and other groups?”, and they think “celibacy”.
But without hard evidence, and there appears to be none, this turns into a form of prejudice against celibacy and the celibate priesthood that even many Catholics harbour. We need to look instead at the facts, and the facts, as outlined, show celibacy is not to blame and we need to give up the very terrible prejudice that it is.