Pedophiles and Priests

--How widespread is pedophilia among priests?
--Did the Catholic hierarchy cover-up sexual abuse cases among priests?
--Does the celibacy requirement increase the likelihood a priest will be a sex offender?
--What is the actual long range effect of sexual abuse of a minor?

Pedophiles and Priests (Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis) by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996) 214 pp. $27.50

Here is a book which goes a long way toward answering the above questions--and others. Philip Jenkins has written a well documented study of a painful issue. He dispassionately exposes the misinformation and outright distortion on this topic. Using the concept of "social construct" he gives a broader context for understanding the crisis. While hardly a defense of the Catholic Church (the author is not a Catholic), it does challenge much of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Let me give a few examples. I do this more to whet your appetite in hopes you will read Pedophiles and Priests yourself. This summary can hardly do justice to the clarity and thoroughness of Jenkins' exposition.

1. How widespread is pedophilia among priests? Commentators have suggested between 5 and 10 percent. That figure has been presented by various "experts" and widely used by the media. However, true pedophilia--sexual contact between an adult and pre-pubescent child--is extremely rare in the priesthood. The best estimate is "0.3 percent of the whole body of clergy." (p 82) The most extensive study which considered 2,252 priests over a thirty year period found only one case of pedophilia. It involved a priest-uncle with two six-year-old nieces. The number of pederasts or ephebophiles (priests involved, usually homosexually, with an adolescent minor) was much larger, but still less than two percent. Jenkins traces how those figures were blown up and presented without nuance in the media.

2. Did the Catholic hierarchy cover-up sexual abuse cases among priests? On one level the answer is "yes." During the 60's and 70's priests involved in relationships with minors were chewed out, sent to counselors, told to make a retreat and moved from one assignment to another—but the police were not called. However, as Jenkins shows, that was the practice not only of the Church, but other major institutions like schools and hospitals. The societal consensus, for example as expressed by Harvard University, was that it was against the child's interest to treat sexual abuse as a crime. It was considered that police investigations and court procedures would be more traumatic, more damaging psychologically, than the incident itself.

3. Does the celibacy requirement increase the likelihood that a priest will be a sex offender? Jenkins details how the media accounts of clergy sex abuse emphasized not only "cover up" but the celibacy factor. The view presented repeatedly was that the type of formation around this unrealistic requirement contributed to the supposed widespread sex abuse among priests. However, the difficulty with the argument is that there is no proof the problem is greater among priests than Protestant ministers—or even other service professionals, like teachers or physicians. It is worth noting that while the case involving former priest James Porter received massive media attention, the equally scandalous case of Protestant minister Tony Leyva got only limited coverage.

The difference in coverage and the emphasis on the celibacy requirement cannot wholly be blamed on anti-Catholic bias in the secular media. In fact, as Jenkins documents, much of the fuel came from division within the Catholic Church. Those advocating married clergy and women priests jumped on this crisis to promote their cause. On the other side conservatives pointed out that most of the cases went back to the 60's, a time when the Church began to absorb the general laxness in sexual morality. Also since most of the cases involved homosexual activity, they questioned the wisdom of ordaining men with a gay orientation. However, as Jenkins shows, the conservatives had little success in promoting their view. The crisis was inevitably seen as a failure of a bankrupt all male hierarchy, repressive seminary formation, moral rigidity, anti-woman bias and other bete noires of liberal Catholics.

4. Finally there is a laundry list of further questions which Jenkins' study raises: What is the actual long range effect of sexual abuse of a child or minor? Experts have claimed that the effect is devastatingly profound. They point to the fact that most adult abusers were themselves abused as children. In other words, abuse can radically effect a person's sexual inclinations or orientation. However if someone who presumably would have been sexually attracted to adults can become oriented to children on account of abuse, what happens to the theory that sexual orientation cannot be significantly effected by environment? The conventional wisdom is that homosexuality is genetically determined, that you cannot make someone into a homosexual. The notion that homosexuals pose a danger to young people because they might "recruit" is rejected as impossible. But if a child's orientation can be changed so radically by abuse…? I think you see where I am going. I know people will claim they can have their cake and eat it too, but before making that claim, please read the book.

There is a myriad of questions about the self interest of different groups who have been involved in this issue. I already mentioned various ones within the Catholic Church. Beyond them the media has an interest in being able to print such sensational, even prurient, news. The legal profession found a gold mine: The Catholic Church was so much more vulnerable than say the Baptists because of our hierarchical structure which enabled them to sue not the offender himself, but the local bishop who conveniently has "deep pockets." Also they were able to subpoena our meticulously kept records from the 60's when the legal environment was radically different.

The question of self-interest must likewise be raised regarding therapists. They were looked to for expert opinions. They appeared in court, conducted workshops, made pronouncements on how this issue affected far-reaching aspects of our lives. They also gained clients who, because of successful litigation and out of court settlements, had a lot of money to spend on therapy. In fact, the law suits were often submitted primarily to get money for therapy. It would be too cynical to accuse the therapists of insincerity, but still one must ask the degree that self-interest could at least unconsciously effect ones view of the seriousness of abuse. Remember it was often asserted that practically nothing worse could happen to a human being.

Perhaps the most difficult question is about the self-interest of "survivors." Jenkins treats this area with the delicacy it rightly deserves. The question here is not so much regarding the cash settlements, even though they were sometimes quite substantial. The issue is more around how much of ones behavior and emotions can be ascribed to having been abused. It is tempting of course to discover an external cause for most of what is wrong inside oneself, especially if a professional psychologist suggests it or backs it up. It often brings instant community (survivors' groups) and great sympathy from others. Still…

Well, I have written enough in this book review. What I say will provoke deep rage from some people.* To anticipate some of the reaction, I want to assert I do not lack compassion for victims of abuse. I have talked with too many in the intimacy of pastoral counseling and confession. But true compassion involves searching for the truth. Before anyone reject what I write, please read Philip Jenkins' book. If you find him wrong—or if I have misrepresented him—let me know. I will post any comment (pro or con) on this website.


Footnote: One of the positive outcomes of the pedophilia crisis is that it has given us a language to describe the harmful effects of sexual misbehavior. "The problem," we are told "is violation of trust." The harm done is seen as a "betrayal of confidence" on the part of a more powerful person to a weaker one. Using this conceptual framework can help us understand that every use of sexuality between two people outside of marriage involves an element of betrayal. Our sexuality, after all, is oriented toward a total self-giving that can only be fully realized in marriage. Pope John Paul II has expressed that powerfully in his teaching on the "language of the body."

Not everyone grasps the full implications of this teaching. Especially in the area of sexuality, as I noted above, we desire to eat our cake and still have it on the table. We want to be able stand on high moral ground so as to judge others for their wrong doings and at the same time leave the door open to justify our own questionable behaviors. I saw a classic example of this in "Working Together" (The quarterly Newsjournal of the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence). Rev. Marie Fortune, the Center's director, made a remarkable statement about what should be policy of Christian denominations:

"An unequivocal policy which states that sexual boundaries
must not be crossed in a pastoral, professional,
relationship. (This is not an anti-sexual policy.
It affirms sexual activity in the personal, mutual
setting of a peer relationship.
)" (emphasis added)

While most would agree with the first sentence, the part in parentheses is pretty generous considering that Marie Fortune is a Christian minister. I assume she is talking about what in a less enlightened age were called fornication and sodomy. Is there not a betrayal of trust involved in presenting oneself as a Christian minister and proposing something so contary to Jesus teaching? Of course, I realize the concern here is not an objective standard of truth, but rather analyzing who has the power and redressing power imbalances.


Harvard doctor attends Vatican talks
Holy See's approach to treatment ''is quite reasonable and very positive.''

Scientific Meeting on Pedophilia Held at Vatican

Letter from Former Catholic on Boston Priest Pedophilia Scandal

Homily on Boston Scandal

For more on how betrayal of trust is affecting the Church please see review of Flawed Expectations.

Other Recommended Books.

Related Articles: Birth Control, Women Priests, Confession, and The Way to Salvation.

A question about Bible's teaching on pedophilia.

*Since posting this review a couple years ago I have received a considerable volume of e-mail. Much has been from people who believe this issue trumps all others because sexual abuse of a minor is the "worst thing that can happen to any human being." It is hard to sort the truth out from the emotion without being considered "soft on pedophilia." Still some sorting out is necessary and reading Jenkin's book would go a long way toward doing that. (March, 1999)

Germaine Greer on Birth Control

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church

Homily on Revenge & Forgiveness