The Corner


Priestly Celibacy and the Sex-Abuse Crisis

“As a survey researcher who has studied Catholic reactions to news of allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors since 2002, I have noticed that there is a detail about the crisis that seems to get distorted at times,” Mark M. Gray wrote last week in a blog post for CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. “In 2012, the last time we asked Catholics about the crisis in a national poll,” only “21% of adult Catholics” in the United States “could correctly identify that the abuse cases were more common before 1985 than since.”

In 2018, the highly retrospective nature of most of the allegations still gets lost in the deserved and appropriate public wrath at each new wave of revelations. Those revelations are about sexual abuse that hundreds and perhaps thousands of priests in the United States committed over a long period but overwhelmingly in the 1960s through the 1980s. Gray notes that, in the John Jay report of 2004,

the most common decade of birth for alleged abusers was the 1930s and the most common decade of ordination was the 1960s. This profile has not changed in allegations that emerged in the 14 years that have followed — including the recent [Pennsylvania] grand jury report. No new wave of abuse has emerged in the United States.

“Wave,” of course, doesn’t mean “incidence.” CARA counts 22 cases of abuse that priests in the United States are alleged to have committed in 2015–17. That’s an average of about seven cases per year. Still too many. For perspective, however, compare that with the annual average of 271 cases of abuse that, since 2004 alone, has been alleged to have been committed by priests during the 1970s. Are the figures for the past few years so dramatically lower because accusers tend to come forward only many years after an incident? Will we have to wait until 2050 to have an adequate picture of what the rate of abuse might be now? Probably not, according to Gray:

The data regarding accusations in the Catholic Church specifically appear to be much more event-driven than age-driven. Rather than victims reaching a certain age and coming forward, it has more often been the case that abuse being in the news . . . has led victims to come forward in large numbers.

Gray refers to a graph showing that allegations rose more than tenfold from 2001 to 2002, the year that the Boston Globe, with its investigative series on sexual abuse by priests in the Boston archdiocese, raised by an order of magnitude the public’s awareness of the problem throughout the Church. “Regardless of when reports are made, the accusations often fit the existing pattern described above for when the abuse occurred,” Gray concludes, meaning that it occurred disproportionately during the quarter-century beginning around 1960.

While “new policies to prevent future abuse” may have contributed to the steep decline in the reported incidence of sexual abuse, they “are not a sufficient response to the legacy of what happened,” Gray adds. That is, the scandals that have shaken the Church in the United States this summer are not about sexual abuse being committed but about ongoing cover-ups of abuse committed last century:

It is time to lift the veil of any secrecy that remains. If not, the same cases will emerge again and again as if these were a wound that scabs but never heals. Every time that scab is removed it will bleed again and again. As painful as it is now, it is the time to deal with this great injury the Church brought upon itself. If anything, the re-emergence of these cases again and again should reveal that this wound has potentially deadly consequences if it is not dealt with completely once and for all.

Those who want the Church to ordain married men to the priesthood of the Latin Church are seizing the moment to promote their cause, but eliminating vows of celibacy wouldn’t undo the abuse crisis of last century or increase the Church’s transparency with respect to the scandals. Moreover, when we look at recent rather than historical data, we see priestly celibacy correlated with what appears to be a much lower rate of reported sexual abuse than is seen in many public school districts and other institutions that serve youth. So “to prevent further abuse” is not the most logical argument that advocates of a married priesthood can advance at this moment, although it has obvious appeal to our emotions.

Other arguments for eliminating priestly of celibacy are still viable. For example, admitting married men to the diocesan priesthood in the Latin Church could alleviate the priest shortage. If Rome took that measure, it might still retain the tradition of celibacy for bishops, as in Eastern Orthodox churches. Religious orders might also keep their requirement that members be celibate. Monastic orders in particular would almost have to. Celibacy to some degree has always had a place of honor among traditional Christians, West and East, as well as in other religions. You don’t have to be a Tibetan Buddhist to admire the asceticism of the Dalai Lama.


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