Column: Papal bull

By Sam Harding-Forrester

The Catholic Church is still reeling in the wake of an outpouring of sexual abuse claims which peaked in 2002, bringing the number of US priests accused of sexual misconduct to around four percent of all U.S. priests, or about 2,125. This scandal was exacerbated by revelations that the Church often shuffled offending priests between parishes until statutes of limitations had expired, or new victims had been abused.

In the wake of the scandal, the late Pope John Paul II initiated an investigation into Church policy on homosexuality, which has now culminated into a draft document banning homosexual men from ordination as priests. As Catholics await Pope Benedict XVI’s imminent publication of the directive, there is also word of an “apostolic visitation” to American seminaries, during which Church investigators will search out “evidence of homosexuality” even in the form of “particular friendships.”

While official Church policy has technically rejected homosexual candidates for the priesthood since 1961, these developments reflect an unprecedented effort to enforce such exclusions, departing from the previously dominant practice of accepting homosexuals on the condition of celibacy. The new directives are in large part responses to a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which found that 81 percent of the victims molested by a priest from 1950 to 2002 were male. The percentage of priests who are homosexual is often estimated at upwards of 30 percent, and Catholic leaders have increasingly invoked such figures in explaining the scope of priestly abuse.

It is tempting to condemn the Church’s post-scandal initiatives as bigoted conflations of homosexuality with pedophilia. Yet pedophilia, strictly defined, was only part of the abuse scandal. The John Jay study found that 51 percent of victims were aged 11 to 14, while 27 percent were aged 15 to 17. The Church must be faulted for seeking to address the entire spectrum of priestly misconduct by concentrating on homosexuality alone and also for producing a directive that targets all prospective homosexual priests rather than focusing on the minority likely to abuse. Countless studies confirm that no connection exists between healthy homosexuality and same-sex child abuse, and many homosexual priests have harmlessly put Catholicism’s notorious eroticism to good use with other adult men. But it seems clear that some sizeable minority of the Church’s abuse cases were expressions of troubled homosexuality, as opposed to pedophilia.

The question, then, is why the priesthood has attracted pedophiles and troubled homosexuals in such disproportionate numbers. Significantly, Catholic teaching has promoted a view of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.” One can thus only guess at the number of men who entered the priesthood having been convinced that a life of celibate service was the only feasible response to their sexual urges – whether these were genuinely problematic child-directed desires or unnecessarily repressed homosexual inclinations. Moreover, the seminary system in the past often recruited young men in their early teens, locking them into a lifetime of sexual and emotional immaturity before they had tasted adult existence in the outside world. Such sexual immaturity can make the unilateral power structure of abusive relationships seem reassuringly unthreatening.

It is therefore not surprising that 89 percent of allegations in the John Jay study were leveled against priests ordained before 1979, and that a full three-quarters of reported incidents occurred between 1960 and 1984. Abuse rates apparently decreased as attitudes towards sexuality became more tolerant, as the practice of early recruitment waned and as priesthood candidates who were themselves abused became more likely to have received appropriate care (7 percent of abusing priests reported that they were sexually abused themselves).

The irony of the Church’s new directives, then, is that they reassert the psychologically destructive homophobia that seems to have contributed to the abuse of past decades while simultaneously betraying many homosexual priests who have served with astounding dedication. It is to be hoped that progressive priests, and progressive Catholics in general, will recognize that change is not on Benedict’s agenda and eventually abandon his stagnating Church for less corrupted institutions of faith. By staying with the Church, whatever their hopes for reform, they only further the survival of its arcane attitudes to sexuality and gender.

Sam Harding-Forrester is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]