Pedophilia in the Priesthood: Are Gays the Problem?

First Published in “Between the Lines.” March 28, 2002

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO I was a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood. One night during a candidate retreat I was alone in a monastery rec room with a youngish priest — let’s call him Fr. Jack — who was attempting to counsel me as I struggled with the difficult decision of whether to enter training that year. Fr. Jack, who seemed genuinely concerned about my emotional state, offered to give me a massage. The proposition was simultaneously strange and appealing, and I nervously accepted. He began with my back and proceeded slowly to cover virtually every inch of my body — except, notably, my genitals and buttocks. Fr. Jack then looked at me in an eager and suggestive manner and asked, “Is there any part of you that is still tense?” Quite uncomfortable at this point, I blurted, “Um, yes — my mind!” and then quickly gathered my shirt (which one of us had removed) and excused myself.

The current pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church reminded me of this event. I do not mean to suggest that Fr. Jack was a pedophile. The massage, though sexual at some not-very-hidden level, was not tantamount to sex. More to the point, I was about eighteen years old at the time — not a child, and not incapable of granting or withholding consent. But the story involves a number of issues that have been raised, often confusedly, in discussions of the ongoing scandal: priestly sexuality; priestly homosexuality; authority, secrecy, and vulnerability.

The scandal by now is familiar to anyone paying attention. In brief, there has been a disproportionately high incidence of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests, and the Church hierarchy have been going to great lengths to cover it up. These things by themselves would be bad enough, but in fact it’s worse: Not only have the hierarchy covered up the scandal, but they have repeatedly reassigned known pedophiles to posts which put them in contact with children. These reassignments are perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of the scandal. The pedophilia can be explained (to an extent) as a psychological disorder combined with moral weakness. The cover-up can be explained as a misguided attempt at damage-control. (To say that these two things can be explained is not to say that they should be excused — both involve culpable behavior.) But the reassignments are sheer reckless stupidity. The current priest-shortage notwithstanding, there are plenty of posts within the church that do not involve youth ministry. (Next time you’re in Church, consider the ratio of blue hair to baseball caps and you’ll see what I mean.) If these known pedophiles were to be reassigned at all (and that’s a big “if”), why not restrict them to working with older parishioners?

The Vatican’s response to this and other difficult questions has been — you guessed it — to change the subject and scapegoat gays. In a recent interview Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls contended that most of the sexual abuse cases involved teenage boys, not children, and thus did not really constitute pedophilia. He then inferred that gays must be unfit for the priesthood: “People with [homosexual] inclinations just cannot be ordained,” he concluded, suggesting that ordinations of gay men should perhaps be invalidated.

Navarro-Valls’ proposal, if implemented, would eliminate about half of the priests in the United States. (As a former candidate who spent a lot of time with priests and seminarians, I can confirm that this oft-repeated estimate is a reasonable one.) But does his argument for the proposal work? Even supposing (what seems likely from the reports) that the majority of the victims have been male, Navarro-Valls’ conclusion doesn’t follow. For the question to ask is not what percentage of sexual abusers are gays, but rather, what percentage of gays are sexual abusers. Consider an analogy: The vast majority of rapists are male. But it does not follow (and it is not true, pace Andrea Dworkin) that the vast majority of males are rapists. Thus, eliminating males from a given population would not be a fair or appropriate way of curtailing rape. Analogously, even if most sexual abusers within the priesthood were gay, it would not follow that most gays within the priesthood were sexual abusers. Eliminating gays from the priesthood would be horribly unjust to the vast majority of gay priests, who are innocent of sexual abuse and as horrified by it as the rest of us.

Thus, Navarro-Valls’ point about gays is a red herring. It is one thing to be attracted to persons of the same sex; it is quite another to be inclined to abuse persons of the same sex, be they children or otherwise. Conflating these distinctions not only slanders gays, it misdirects our attention away from the real problem, which is sexual abuse. Such scapegoating is a familiar tactic, sadly, and it is morally repugnant — far more so, I would contend, than the clumsy advances of Fr. Jack when I was eighteen.

Which brings me back to the age issue. Navarro-Valls is correct that in some of the cases, pedophilia is not the real problem. (It is difficult to know the percentages, since the Church has been stubbornly uncooperative in releasing data.) There’s a big difference — legally, psychologically, morally — between sex with an eight-year-old and sex with a seventeen-year-old. Cases of the latter type, which often involve seminarians and seminary candidates, may be an abuse of power and a violation of priestly vows, but they are not pedophilia.

Eliminating gays from the priesthood would, indeed, eliminate many of these latter cases. But it would also eliminate a good many decent priests, and needlessly so. For the real culprit here is not homosexuality, but rather the Church’s refusal to address the issue of sexuality directly and realistically. Human beings are sexual, and priests are no exception. Celibacy is demanding, and repression and denial are not helpful in mastering it. If the Church is serious about addressing sexual misconduct, it should focus on healthy ways for its priests to manage their sexuality, which does not disappear once they take vows.

Fr. Jack is a prime example, and my memory of him reminds me of the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Had I decided during that retreat to enter religious life, I would have done so as an eighteen-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience to speak of. I would have been thrust into an all-male environment where I would be forbidden not only to have sex but also to masturbate. And sooner or later my sexuality would have asserted itself — doubtlessly in the awkward manner characteristic of the sexually immature. Perhaps I, too, would have eventually found myself attracted to a naive and fresh-faced seminary candidate, and perhaps I too would have behaved like a creep. (For the record, I decided to enter when I was nineteen and then withdrew almost immediately, correctly believing that I needed more “life experience.”) Navarro-Valls’ scapegoating of gays doesn’t solve such problems; it perpetuates them — while ignoring far more serious ones. It is time for the Church to worry less about protecting its image and more about protecting the people it serves.