Sexual abuse, celibacy and vocations: a response to the Church's critics

Sexual abuse, celibacy and vocations: a response to the Church's critics

Fr Paul Stuart

In January this year I undertook a course in Chicago for those whose work includes seminaries or vocations ministry. The course is sponsored by the Jesuit Centre for Human Development under the supervision of the renowned Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Rev Dr James Gill SJ. Inter alia, the course aims to provide participants with knowledge and skills in the area of human sexuality, most especially as it relates to students who are preparing for a life-long commitment to celibacy and ordained ministry.

The course helped me to gain new insights into the complex nature of human maturation and the myriad of possibilities for growth, but also retardation in human and sexual development. The difficult issue of child sex abuse besetting the Church was an unavoidable one.


These scandals have given rise to a plethora of media articles that argue the rule of celibacy for Catholic priests is the main culprit for causing priests to offend sexually. Such writers perpetuate the same myths about celibacy and ignore evidence to the contrary and sound research on psycho-sexual pathology.

Joanne McGeary's article from Time magazine (1 April 2002) is an unpleasant one to read but it does provide true stories and information showing the terrible injury caused to children by some Catholic clergy who should have known better, and by bishops with the power to deal more effectively with the perpetrators. Such an article makes us more aware that the problem exists widely, that it is serious, and must be dealt with openly.

But the Time article presents the issue as a Catholic one, almost identifying Catholicism itself, its structures and institutions, as the cause or at least as a collaborating facilitator for pedophilia.

Like so many other commentaries on the issue, Time neglects to identify this problem as a world-wide social one that exists - on an even greater scale I would argue - outside of the Catholic Church. Pedophiles have been found in every religion, country, culture, trade and profession, including journalism, politics, law, medicine, teaching, social work, the military, the Scouting movement, the entertainment and sporting industries, even among members of parliament.

This is a social problem that is not treated by scape-goating the Catholic Church, and pouring into the Church's pain and the pain of the victims, the chips on one's own shoulder against the Church - as a number of media commentators have done.

I do not ask that abusive Catholic priests be treated leniently by the law or that the leaders in the Catholic Church receive soft-treatment by the media. I do ask that the issue be treated for what it is, one that transcends Catholicism and the Church, and where all religions, cultures, professions, organisations and institutions receive equal scrutiny when an active paedophile is discovered in their ranks.

In the worst cases across the United States, we are seeing between 0.4 and 1.5 per cent of Catholic clergy being exposed for any form of sexual misconduct over a 50 year period, or 225 out of 46,000. This is shameful but it is hardly the epidemic being suggested by the current media frenzy. Recently the Herald Sun, Melbourne, reported (2 June 2002, p.28) that up to 400 doctors in the Australian state of Victoria had been reported for sexual misconduct in the last five years. This is 13 per cent in just one Australian State!

The Church should have zero tolerance to sexual abuse. But if we do have a government inquiry into sexual abuse in the community, I wager that the Catholic priesthood would come out of it looking a lot better than other institutions and professions that have not received the same media scrutiny.

Maureen Dowd's article from The New York Times (27 March 2002), republished in The Age, Melbourne, contains her justifiable revulsion and anger over the abuse of children, but it is blended with her personal grudge against the Catholic Church. Her article seems more to serve a radical feminist agenda for the Church than treating the issue with balance. Her solution to the problem includes women priests and the abolition of celibacy. She says, "in a weird way, celibacy italicises sex and instills an obsession with sex at the very heart of the identity of priesthood."


The available research (see Philip Jenkins' Pedophiles & Priests) reveals that the overwhelming majority of those convicted of child molestation are married. Celibacy has as much to do with pedophilia as homosexuality. I'm sure Justice Kirby and social liberals, especially those who justifiably rushed to Justice Kirby's defense against Senator Heffernan's charges, might agree?

I am puzzled why those voices in society that readily cried foul against homophobia in relation to linking sexual orientation to pedophilia, do not in equal justice cry foul at celibacy-phobia. Do I sniff correctly good old-fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry?

Ray Cassin of The Age is one of these regular critics of Church who has bought into the debate on the clerical scandals and celibacy. He calls defenders of celibacy "apologists for the cover-up," and flippantly refers to 2,000 years of magnificent Christian witness by celibate men and women, beginning with Jesus himself, as a "dying culture" that he implies he is glad to bid good riddance to.

What a put-down of those 98 per cent of clergy who live and work with integrity - but those whom Cassin calls a bunch of "Father Teds, without the jokes." Such critics who want celibacy abolished cite priestly sexual misconduct as good a reason as any. Following that logic, should we abolish the laws against speeding, or even murder and theft because they are not always obeyed?


Another Catholic journalist, Terry Monagle, also from The Age, adopts a similar line against celibacy. As a parish council president, he laments the structures and celibacy of the priesthood, and with insulting tones, attempts to psychoanalyse celibates.

I wonder if Jesus Christ, a celibate, and therefore, according to Monagle, a lonely, under-developed power-hungry man prone to perversions, would get a job at his parish?

Matthew Pinkney of the Herald Sun is another journalist who has repeated many myths about celibacy in the Catholic Church. One of his claims is that celibacy is causing vocations to the priesthood to decrease. But vocations world-wide have been increasing, although not uniformly. For the last three years, the total number of ordinations and diocesan seminarians in the world have increased. In Melbourne, this has been the case for the last five years.

The present sex-abuse scandal has demoralised clergy and laity. Damage, almost irreparable, has been done. However, unlike some comments I have heard or read, this is not the time for the Church, Catholics, or priests to be silenced (on important social and ethical issues) or hide and go under-ground. Rather, this is a time to unite, close ranks and be all the more visible in living the Gospel, especially in deed as much as in word.

Moral corruption in the clergy is not new - remember the pre-Trent state of the Church. Then, as now, our deliverance will be through the moral example and holiness of Catholics and Catholic leaders present and future.

It remains true that some Catholic bishops, priests, religious sisters and brothers have failed God, the Church, fellow Catholics and, most especially, the young. Please God, these sins and neglect will not undo the great work of the vast majority of bishops, priests, religious and lay Catholics who help, guide and inspire young people. The two million youth from around the world who turned up to be with the Pope at Tor Vergada for World Youth Day in 2000 can't be wrong!

The future of the Church is not in the hands of sex-abusers or its enemies that smell her blood in the water like sharks. It is in the hands of these young people - among whom are future priests and religious, future leaders and parents; and, most of all, it is in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Paul Stuart B.Th, STL, is the Director of Vocations, Archdiocese of Melbourne, and Dean of Studies and Students, Corpus Christi College Seminary, Melbourne.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.