st vitus in hdrThe scandal of child abuse (including, but not limited to, sexual abuse) at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy has flashed around the globe since becoming an issue in the United States in the early 00s. Among the more recent countries where credible allegations are emerging, is Austria. At various points the complaint has been made that the Church’s celibacy requirement may be wholly or partially to blame for what has happened. To date the Church has generally denied that celibacy is an issue, although it has promised to do a better job of reviewing candidates for the priesthood to be sure they don’t have “problems” that might manifest after they are ordained. The New York Times Lede blog writes about some Austrian clergy suggesting that it might be more of a problem than the Church will admit (WebCite cached article):

Austrian Priests Suggest Celibacy May Be a Problem

On Thursday two senior Catholics in Austria, where reports of the sexual abuse of children by priests and nuns have been in the news, suggested that the role of priestly celibacy may need to be discussed as Catholics seek to understand and end scandals that have erupted across Europe and in the United States in recent years.

The Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, wrote in an article for a Catholic magazine that it was time for the Church to undertake an “unflinching examination” of what might be at the root of the problem of celibate clerics sexually abusing children.

As The Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, Riazat Butt, explained on Thursday, Archbishop Schönborn wrote that the discussion should “include the issue of priest training, as well as the question of what happened in the so-called sexual revolution,” as well as “the issue of priest celibacy and the issue of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the church and of society as a whole.”

Note the attempt at deflection here; the Archbishop is suggesting it’s not merely celibacy that’s the problem, but celibacy within the context of “the sexual revolution.” He’s indirectly saying that even if celibacy contributes to the problem, it’s not the Catholic Church nor even the celibacy requirement that are at fault, it’s society as a whole, and the “sexual revolution” that are to blame. He’s not going as far as saying celibacy of Catholic clergy should be ended:

In fact Archbishop Schönborn said on Friday that he was not saying that celibacy caused pedophilia. “If celibacy were the reason for sexual abuse,” he said, “there wouldn’t be any abuse in the rest of society.”

Needless to say, since at least some of the allegations — such as in Ireland — date back to before the “sexual revolution,” it can safely be ruled out as either a cause of the problem or a contributor to it. So Archbishop Schönborn is wrong on that count.

That said, at the risk of appearing to defend the R.C. Church (which I am not actually doing, as you will see), I also do not think celibacy has much, if anything, to do with this problem. Allow me to explain.

First, the Archbishop is correct that, if celibacy were the only cause of sexual abuse, one would never find it outside the celibate … and this is not the case at all. Sex crimes of all sorts are committed by the non-celibate as well as the celibate.

Second, many people in the occidental world think of celibacy as “unusual” or “strange,” especially since there are a lot of churches and religious traditions which don’t require celibacy from their own clergy, leaving Catholicism as one of the few remaining holdouts on that score. The truth is that celibacy as a spiritual ideal, is not at all “strange.” It existed in the pre-Christian Hellenic world e.g. among the Pythagoreans; it existed in the Roman institution of the Vestal virgins; it existed in the Judaic world of Jesus’ own time among the Essenes; it was an ideal that at least some Christians aspired to right from the start of Christianity, persisted through the Middle Ages, and continues today; and it also existed — and still does — in other, non-occidental religious traditions (e.g. among Buddhist monks and many others). If celibacy caused people to be sexual abusers, we’d find it rampant in all of those traditions as well … and we would find it much more often in celibate organizations than we would from non-celibate groups within the same tradition. I’m not sure this is the case either.

Third, not all of the allegations being made about Catholic clerical abuse are sexual in nature; some of the reports are of beatings and other kinds of abuse, where sexual motives appear not to come into play. It’s the sexual allegations that seem to get the most press attention, but they’re not all there is to this scandal.

Fourth, scandals of abuse of children at the hands of clergy and religious institutions who were to care for them, are not even unique to the R.C. Church and its celibate clergy … the Canadian residential-school scandal, which involved Catholic as well as non-Catholic institutions, demonstrate this conclusively.

No, the real cause of this long-running scandal — which again is borne out by comparison to the Canadian residential schools scandal — is not celibacy. It’s something else entirely: Impunity. The sad truth is that the perpetrators of the crimes did what they did, because they knew they would be able to get away with it.

Within the Catholic Church itself, the chief culprit here is the secrecy with which it operates, as well as the principle, long held by the R.C. Church, that it generally does not allow its priesthood to be prosecuted by secular authorities. Yes, there have been times where abuser-priests were prosecuted; in the US one of the most famous examples is that of the late defrocked Fr John Geoghan. But these prosecutions usually happen in spite of the Church and its hierarchy, not because of them. In fact, the various dioceses involved in individual cases usually spend a great deal of legal effort in attempting to block and/or derail such prosecutions. (The order of Christian Brothers in Ireland, for example, sued in court to shut down that government’s lengthy and extensive investigation, and almost succeeded.) Generally speaking, the Catholic Church does not believe its clergy should be subject to secular criminal prosecution, no matter the priest’s crime.

But the impunity also exists independently of the Church’s own secrecy policy and assumption of clerical privilege. In the examples of both Canada and Ireland, one of the discoveries has been that the abuses were actually known by secular officials — and in some cases by society at large — but were allowed to happen anyway. In other words, secular authorities generally looked the other way, without regard to the Church’s efforts to prevent prosecutions.

The cold truth of all this is that celibacy is the least of the worries here. Even if the Church were to repeal its celibacy policy, its secrecy and demand of immunity to prosecution still would get in the way of secular authorities holding priests accountable for anything they do. This means priests would still have incentive to commit crimes — of whatever type, whether sexual or not, or abuse of children or other things — because they know the Church will at least attempt to shield them from prosecution. That is what must change … celibacy is largely insignificant by comparison.

Photo credit: james_clear.

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