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Q&A: Understanding the Priest Scandal

Make no mistake: The ongoing crisis of priestly sexual abuse is the biggest scandal of our lifetime. If faithful Catholics are left to cringe at the mention of the scandal, if we are silenced or hampered in our evangelization efforts because of the sins of a few priests, the Church will suffer the consequences for decades to come. But if we understand the true nature of the problem, we can help those around us separate truth from distortion and hopefully bring about healing more quickly. We must step up and defend our faith. To do anything less would be a scandal in itself.

How serious is the priestly sex abuse scandal?

One of the best summaries is found in the preamble to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (Charter) , approved by the U.S. bishops in their June 2002 meeting: “The sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the ways in which we bishops addressed these crimes and sins, have caused enormous pain, anger, and confusion. Innocent victims and their families have suffered terribly. In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process and, in some cases, enabled sexually abusive behavior to be repeated.”

What is the true nature of the sex abuse problem? 

In significant ways the media’s coverage of the scandal has been misleading or inaccurate. For example, the media reported the scandal almost exclusively in terms of “pedophile priests.” This is not correct.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IVpedophilia is sexual attraction to children who have not yet arrived at puberty (DSM-IV, 528). While there have been priests who were pedophiles, the overwhelming majority of cases involved a disorder called ephebophilia, a term that refers to sexual attraction to minors who have arrived at puberty (i.e., teenagers). But we shouldn’t give a false emphasis to the clinical term ephebophilia, because it masks the real nature of what is occurring: priestly homosexual activity with under-aged males.

Why the distinction between pedophilia and homosexual activity with minors? They’re both horrible.

They are, but the distinction is important because there is a qualitative difference between having sex with a seven-year-old and having sex with a seventeen-year-old. Both actions are mortal sins, to say nothing of the damage they inflict on the victims. But a seven-year-old is totally unprepared for sex, both physically and psychologically. By contrast, a normal seventeen-year-old either is able to handle the reality of sex, however much more maturing he may still need.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law states, “A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age, and likewise a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age, cannot enter a valid marriage” (canon 1083, §1). The implication is obvious: After these ages, it is possible for young people to enter validly into marriage.

Are there other ways in which the media misreported the nature of the problem?

Yes. The overwhelming majority of the priests involved in these incidents are accused of sexual molestation of adolescent males, not females. This means that nature of the scandal is homosexual. The media downplayed or ignored this fact in its handling of the subject. But it has everything to do with the cause, the extent, and the cure of the problem.

How can we excuse the bishops and their actions in handling reports of sexual abuse?

Unquestionably bishops made mistakes. Nevertheless, media reports frequently painted the bishops’ actions and motives in the worst possible light. That some priests were assigned to new parishes was widely reported as the deliberate, systematic enabling of continued abuse. In fact, in many such cases psychological “experts” had assured bishops-in keeping with the thinking of the time-that the priests in question had been treated successfully, and they presented no further danger. Subsequent wisdom is that such sexual disorders are far too deep-seated to be cured by a month’s stay at a treatment facility. The Christian call to forgiveness and to giving someone a second chance following conversion from even grave sin also played a role.

What about the fact that bishops didn’t report allegations of abuse to the police?

The absence of reporting in particular cases is not de facto evidence of malice. Many victims and their families did not want the matter reported to the police and would share what they knew about a given priest with the diocese only on the condition that they not be put through the trauma of a civil investigation and trial.

So how can we explain the actual nature of the scandal?

Like this: A handful of pedophiliac priests and a much greater number of other priests, almost exclusively homosexuals, engaged in varying degrees of inappropriate contact with minors, up to and including coercive sex (rape). The problem was exacerbated by the fact that when many of these acts occurred they were regarded at first as moral matters only, then as matters involving curable or at least treatable psychological disorders.

How widespread is the problem? The press reports seemed to involve a large number of priests.

The Associated Press reported that 250 priests had been dismissed or had resigned by the time the bishops met last June, though it is not clear that all of the dismissals and resignations were due to abuse. Even if all 250 priests were abusers, it would still amount to about one-half of one percent (0.53 percent) of the 47,000 priests currently serving in America, a proportion far smaller than in most media accounts. Since some of the allegations involved priests who are now dead, the proportion of offenders within today’s priesthood is significantly smaller than one-half of one percent. Nevertheless, the numbers are profoundly disturbing.

What are the best statistics available about priestly sex abuse?

A 1992 study conducted in the Archdiocese of Chicago is the largest such study done to date. It examined the personnel files of all priests serving in the diocese. It found that out of the 2,252 priests who had served from 1951 to 1991, allegations of sexual abuse had been made against 59 of them, or 2.6 percent.

The study adopted a policy of favoring the accuser in cases of doubt, accepting hearsay testimony (which would not be allowed in court), and adopting a “preponderance of evidence” standard (as opposed to the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal trials). With this methodology, it concluded that 18 of the allegations of sexual abuse did not stand up, leaving 41 probable offenders, or 1.8 percent of the priests who had served in Chicago in four decades. Again, “the overwhelming number of cases . . . involved homosexual ephebophilia-in other words, priests sexually attracted to young teenage boys. . . . There was only one founded case of pedophilia, involving a priest-uncle with two six-year-old nieces” (Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis [1996], p. 81).

A recent study conducted in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania showed a 1.7 percent figure of priestly sexual abuse involving minors (cited by Philip Jenkins on “Catholic Answers Live,” May 17, 2002, archived at

While there may be new accusations in the future, the national percentage of priests accused of abuse-0.53 percent-likely will never approach these figures of 1.8 and 1.7 percent. It appears that the archdioceses of Chicago and Philadelphia have had levels of abuse more than three times higher than the national average.

How do these numbers compare against the general population?

It’s unclear, again because of inadequate scientific studies. To our knowledge no study has been conducted that isolates the primary problem: adult male homosexual abuse of adolescent boys. One expert in pedophilia, Dr. John Bradford, “estimates its [pedophilia’s] prevalence at maybe four percent of the population” (John Cloud, “Pedophilia,” Time, April 29, 2002).

If so, the percentage of pedophiles in the ranks of Catholic priests is significantly lower by all accounts than in the general population. This may be due to the psychological screening candidates for the priesthood are subject to prior to ordination-and to the practical fact that priests have less access to children than do typical pedophiles.

How do the numbers compare to sexual abuse by the clergy of other religious groups?

Though there is again an absence of proper studies, the numbers appear similar. The fact that most Catholic priests are celibate (unmarried) does not seem to make a difference.

In his book Pedophiles and Priests, Prof. Philip Jenkins—a Protestant and an expert in the subject of pedophilia—stated, “The most-quoted survey of sexual problems among Protestant clergy states that some ten percent are involved in sexual misconduct of some kind, and that ‘about two or three percent’ are pedophiles, a rate equal or higher than that suggested for Catholic priests. These figures should be viewed skeptically; the methodology on which they are based is not clear, and they seem to rely disproportionately on individuals already in therapy. However, it is striking to find such a relatively high number suggested for both celibate and non-celibate clergy” (pp. 50-51).

Then why do cases of Catholic clerical abuse attract more attention than non-Catholic cases?

Because the Church expects higher standards of its clergy and members than do other bodies. Because the requirement of celibacy in particular rankles contemporary mores. Because the Church keeps a detailed dossier on members of its clergy, giving prosecutors more extensive evidence to work with. It is not paranoia to suggest that anti-Catholicism also plays a role.

Jenkins points out also that journalists often interpret new stories in terms of existing archetypes. Once the “pedophile priest” became an archetype in the press’s mind, new accounts of priestly misconduct were poured into that mold. The fact that there is no corresponding “pedophile pastor” profile in the press’s mind tends to cause instances of non-Catholic clerical abuse to be viewed as isolated incidents rather than as symptoms of a larger social problem (Pedophiles and Priests, pp. 3-12).

What is the real cause of the sex abuse problem in the Church?

Human sinfulness is the real cause. But this isn’t helpful, since sin is the explanation for every problem in the world. The fact that the great majority of cases involved male homosexual abuse of adolescents suggests that if there were fewer homosexuals in the priesthood there would be fewer cases of clerical sexual abuse.

So it’s a homosexual problem? Why isn’t this talked about more in the press?

The secular media in the United States are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the homosexual movement. This was admitted recently by Al Rantel, a talk-show host on KABC, a major Los Angeles radio station, during a June 14 interview on CNN:

“I do not say this happily . . . because, as you may know, I happen to be gay myself. I’m openly gay here on the radio in Los Angeles and have been for many years.

“But I have to tell you that, you know, even if you are gay, two and two is still four, and there’s this proverbial 3,000-pound elephant sitting in the room that no one wants to talk about. This is not a pedophile issue, although the media called it a pedophile issue, because they do not want to insult the gay community. They do not want to be politically incorrect.

“But what you have here are not pedophiles. You have predatory gay men—and there are some of us, believe me. I do not happen to be one of them, but there are some, and we should all admit they’re there. And these predatory gay men found their way into the Catholic priesthood in inordinately large numbers—you know, it makes the Boy Scouts look prescient with what they did. And these gay men have gone after young males. And I think it’s disgraceful, and I think the media needs to address this. The gay community needs to address this.” (For the program transcript, see )

Have homosexuals found their way into the priesthood in disproportionately large numbers?

This is not clear, but it appears to be the case.

The most commonly cited figure—particularly by homosexual activists—is that ten percent of the population is homosexual. (This figure, based on a flawed 1948 study done by researcher Alfred Kinsey, was discredited years ago. Twenty-five percent of Kinsey’s study subjects were convicted criminals, though criminals make up less than one percent of the general population [Tony Marco, “Kinsey ‘10%’ Figure for Gays Doubtful,”].) Better, more recent studies have indicated that the percentage of the general population that is homosexual is between one and two percent.

One survey done by the Kansas City Star found that “three-fourths of [priests] responding described themselves as heterosexual, 15 percent said they were homosexual, and 5 percent bisexual” (Judy Thomas, “AIDS in the Priesthood,” Kansas City Star, Jan. 29, 2000; online at

The difficulty with this study, as with all others that have been done, is that it was unscientific. The Star mailed questionnaires randomly to 3,013 priests, of whom 801 responded. This means that almost three-quarters did not respond. Because responding to the survey involved time and inconvenience, only those most motivated tended to do respond. The newspaper issued the disclaimer, “The Star cannot ensure that the priests responding are demographically and geographically representative of all Roman Catholic priests” ( .

What is clear is that the powerful homosexual subculture that exists in some dioceses and seminaries-what liberal priest Andrew Greeley has dubbed “the Lavender Mafia”-remains a significant problem. When the U.S. cardinals met with the Pope at the Vatican this year , Bishop Wilton Gregory admitted, “It is an ongoing struggle . . . to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men-not only [that is it] not dominated by homosexual men but that the candidates that we receive are healthy in every possible way psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, [and] intellectually” (

Does Church law permit homosexuals to be ordained priests?

Yes, though Catholic practice has discouraged the ordination of homosexuals. A document released by the Sacred Congregation for Religious in 1961 stated, “Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers” (seeCanon Law Digest, vol. 5 [1963]). Common life refers to the fact that priests tend to live with other men. How this would constitute a danger for a homosexual is easy to see: Imagine a heterosexual man living with only women.

This document does not ban the ordination of homosexuals. It had force only for candidates being selected for ordination by religious orders. Furthermore, Church law regarding ordination was significantly restructured with the release of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which did not prohibit the ordination of homosexuals.

Why shouldn’t homosexuals be ordained so long as they observe the requirements of celibacy and chastity? 

While some homosexuals might be able to serve despite their orientation, the dangers mentioned above are real. Further, many such individuals have sought ordination as a way of avoiding their sexual temptations rather than dealing with them, only to find that ministry does not cure their problem. The “gay” lifestyle is inherently narcissistic, placing it at odds with the sacrifices of priestly life. Those tempted toward that lifestyle frequently are doctrinally unsound, they often have problems with obedience, and they tend to have a high defection rate.

I still get hammered by non-Catholic friends whenever the topic comes up. Is there a cheat-sheet way to best address it?

(1) Acknowledge the problem. Express your outrage at the priests and bishops who caused the problem. Acknowledge your compassion for the victims.

(2) Help people gain a sense of perspective. If they think that the problem is larger than it is, show them that it is not. If they think that the Church does not have reasonable proposals to deal with the problem, show them that it does. As big as the scandal has been, and as grave as is the problem at its core, there is still far more to the Church and to life than this. Help people see that.

(3) Do not blame the media. Without investigating by reporters, the Church in the U.S. might not have been prompted to address the problem as expeditiously as it has. As you help others get a sense of perspective on the matter by filtering out media distortion, make sure that you do not blame the media to the exclusion of the culprits who committed or enabled the abuse in the first place.

(4) Focus also on the great good in the Church. Point out that, as horrible as the acts of the abusers have been, the vast majority of priests and bishops are still the honest, faithful servants of Christ and ministers to his people that they always have been.

Do not forget what Pope John Paul II told the American cardinals in his address to them: “We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion—that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God—which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change.”

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