Editor’s Note: This week we are running a five-part series looking at the Catholic sex-abuse scandal from the perspective of an abuse victim. The parts include:

I: Searching for the Cause (Monday)
II: The Role of Ideology (Tuesday)
III: Homosexuality in the Clergy (Wednesday)
IV: Clericalism (Thursday)
V: Discovering the Root Cause (Friday)

Searching for the Cause

Almost fifty years ago, when I was 14, I was sexually molested by a priest. Like many such victims, I became depressed and drifted away from Catholic belief and practice. As I progressed through a double major in philosophy and religion at Columbia, I “reverted” with a more adult faith, which has since been tested in other ways. My faith has grown gradually stronger, in part through my painful recognition of how and why I failed certain tests. Even so, my reversion seems to be more the exception than the rule. Many of us know people who have left the Church indefinitely over the sex-abuse-and-coverup (SAAC) scandal even without having been abused themselves. Even among Catholics who remain, trust in the Church is down, and priests I know say donations are down accordingly. And yet, while abusers should of course be punished for their misdeeds, much of the outrage is misplaced. The purpose of this article is to help redirect it by raising awareness of the SAAC Scandal’s root cause. We need to be “woke” about this—not in a political or ideological way, but spiritually.

Mostly, though, we are not. Even faithful Catholics who refuse to leave or withdraw their support often channel their justifiable outrage into some-or-other version of the blame game. Catholics toward the “progressive” end of the spectrum generally blame “clericalism”; Catholics toward the “traditionalist” end generally blame “homosexuality” in the clergy. There’s more than a kernel of truth in each of those views, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. But when either is accepted as the explanation without including the other, they tend to reinforce ideological narratives that distort the truth. Relatively few people seem willing to look deeper. That’s because, in its full depth, the problem implicates most of us, lay as well as clerical—and people almost always prefer scapegoating to looking within. If we are ever to come to grips with the SAAC Scandal and the epochal crisis it has generated, we are going to have to admit that and resolve to change it.

I shall burrow down toward the fundamental problem by first considering various explanations for the scandal which, while each bearing some truth, are inadequate both severally and collectively. The most popular explanations, it turns out, are essentially ideological when offered as if any sufficed on their own. The ideological components at first conceal, then reveal, the real root of the problem.

Loss of Faith?

Let’s start with the least popular and least ideological explanation. One hears in some quarters that the root cause of the SAAC Scandal is “loss of faith.” The idea is that if complicit priests and bishops really believed the Gospel, they wouldn’t do or facilitate such things, and would be more interested in protecting the innocent than in trying (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to protect the reputation of the Church and the careers of their colleagues. Loss of faith certainly is one of the proximate causes. If a priest or bishop doesn’t really believe that certain sexual sins are grave matter or that the road to perdition is wide and easy, his inhibitions and safeguards will lessen. There certainly are such priests and bishops.

But loss of faith can’t be the root cause. For one thing, the scandal is truly global, while loss of faith is confined mostly to the developed West. For another, clergy uninterested in attaining sanctity are hardly unprecedented in Church history even during what we think of as ages of faith. The problem of clergy sexual sin, including and especially the abuse of minors, grew acute during the tenth and eleventh centuries. When things had got truly out of hand, St. Peter Damian conducted a difficult but ultimately effective campaign against clerical sodomy and concubinage. The problems became acute again during the time of the Renaissance popes when Rome, and not just Rome, became a sinkhole of worldliness, corruption, and cynicism that had sexual as well as financial components. That is what led to the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church lost a substantial portion of her membership for good, despite the gradually effective measures of the Counter-Reformation.

Such cycles are quite understandable. We are each of us in need of ongoing “conversion”— a translation of the Greek word metanoia, used in the New Testament and meaning, theologically, a complete change of mind and heart to conform oneself with Jesus Christ rather than “the world.” That can occur only when we “deny ourselves” and “take up the cross” so that we are no longer being ruled by our egos or passions but live the divine life of self-emptying love—the same love Jesus showed on the Cross. Such a process obviously runs against the grain of that fallen human nature which clergy share with laity.

That is why, despite Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness,” so many Catholics continue to assume that holiness is boring, or too hard for all but the special few, or (the opposite error, and possibly the worst) that being a “good person” is enough. Each of those mistakes either expresses or contributes to the deadly sin of sloth, which is far more pervasive than most Catholics realize and kills desire for spiritual growth. Certainly, many clergy avoid such errors in theory. But in practice, the problem of refusing to die to the world in oneself has become acute again since Vatican II even among clergy. That was because the Council took place just when the world, in both pertinent senses of the phrase, had gone crazy again. (Remember “the Sixties” and all that went with it.) Vatican II was used by many in service of the craziness, instead of being taken as an inspiration toward spiritual sanity in the midst of the craziness.

I shall return to that theme toward the end while showing how most of us are complicit, even as most of us can also do something about that. In the meantime, it turns out that examining other explanations for the scandal is highly useful for that very purpose.


One hears from many non-Christians, some Eastern Christians, and even a few Roman Catholics that the root of the SAAC Scandal is the celibacy requirement for priests in the Latin Church. If only such priests could be married, it is claimed, we wouldn’t have all these cases of sexual abuse. Their thinking seems to be that married priests would be less sexually frustrated than celibate ones, and thus less inclined to seek illicit sexual outlets. If that thought is correct, we would expect to find that the rate of sexual misconduct in general among married clergy of all churches is measurably lower than that among Roman-Catholic priests.

But that is not what we find. Indeed, a 2009 report from Baylor University indicates that sexual misconduct by male, non-RC clergy toward female congregants is roughly comparable to that of RC clergy. Other forms of sexual misconduct also occur among non-Catholic clergy; we just don’t have data about them as extensive as that about RC priests, which is quite possibly due to underreporting. Even the sexual abuse of minors, which is what people care most about, can be and is committed by married people: in many cases, the victims are their own children or stepchildren.

In face of all that, one might argue instead that the celibacy norm makes it likely that too many sexually deviant or immature men seek to become RC priests. Celibacy would enable them to either hide their malformed sexuality from others or find opportunities to indulge it. Prima facie, that is plausible; nobody disputes, for example, that the rate of same-sex-attracted (SSA) men in the RC priesthood is substantially higher than in the general population. And I have no doubt that, in the generation following World War II, too many men (and women) chose consecrated life partly to hide or indulge their malformed sexuality. But that is not a problem with celibacy per se; it is simply the bad reason some RC ordinands have, or did have, for being willing to take that vow. They are not psychologically normal men sacrificing the sacrament of matrimony for the good of the Church, so that they can be “married to the Church” and witness, by their sacrifice, to the eternal life they preach about. Rather, they are avoiding what they are ill-suited for anyhow. That is a very good reason why such men should not be admitted to seminaries. But abusus non tollit usum; and there is simply no reason to believe ordaining married men in the Latin Church would eliminate, or even substantially reduce, clergy sexual misconduct in that church.

So if celibacy is not the problem in itself, why do so many people still think it is? Well, many oppose the celibacy norm for RC priests because they cannot imagine how celibacy could be healthy for anybody capable of a normal sexual relationship. That reflects a complete misunderstanding of the theology of grace and the ascetical tradition of the Church. A prevalent ideological orientation seems to preclude such awareness.

In the next part of this series, I’ll look at the role ideology plays in the debate over the root cause of the Catholic SAAC scandal before looking more in-depth in Parts III and IV at the two most commonly-expressed theories: homosexuality in the clergy and clericalism.