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
Homosexuality in the Clergy
At the beginning of this series, I implied that both clericalism and homosexuality in the clergy are major proximate causes of the scandal. It’s not either-or; it’s both-and. That is why blaming one without the other is a form of ideological scapegoating which, in turn, both conceals and reveals the true root of the problem. But making such a criticism requires stating more of the relevant facts.
In fairness, I note that much of what progressive Catholics have to say about the SAAC (sex-abuse-and-cover-up) Scandal is what the rest of us have to say: It’s shocking, intolerable, more must be done to end it, etc. But I am struck by their tendency to deny that homosexuality in the clergy, precisely as such, has played a major and distinctive role.
Such denial is not of course limited to progressives. It has been a problem throughout the hierarchy for decades, even at the top. Pope St. Paul VI seems to have had a hear-no-evil attitude. For reasons widely discussed and speculated about elsewhere, Pope St. John Paul II came only very late to perceive any sex-abuse problem at all, homosexual or otherwise. (Joseph Ratzinger was quicker than most prelates to get out of denial; as CDF head and then as pope, he actually did more about clerical abusers than any of his predecessors had done. But it was not enough.) Pope Francis has attributed the SAAC Scandal to clericalism, but only recently—more than five years into his reign, and only after his mistake in rehabilitating Theodore McCarrick became manifest—has he openly expressed concern about homosexuality in the priesthood. He has also said virtually nothing about the sexual harassment and abuse by priests of adults, such as seminarians—who were McCarrick’s favorite targets. The latter oversight is understandable; like most people, the Pope is rightly more concerned with abuse of minors, which is a civil crime as well as a sin, than with sins in which the participants are adults who could have consented. But the facts show that Pope Francis and his predecessors have been too slow to perceive, specifically, the problem of homosexuality in the clergy. which strongly contributes to the abuse of minors too. Progressives largely refuse to perceive it at all.
According to the best studies available—which are described in the John Jay reports of 2004 and 2011—at least three-fourths of reported abuse cases since the mid-20th century have involved male victims between the ages of 12 and 17. The stats about what has happened since 2010 are sketchier, but for that very reason afford no basis for substantially altering prior conclusions about the makeup of the victim population. Most victims were, and perhaps still are, boys in either puberty or adolescence proper. Nobody denies that, because it is undeniable. Moreover, according to a careful, independent study by priest-sociologist Paul Sullins, there was a remarkably high correlation between the measurable increase in the proportion of homosexuals entering the priesthood from 1950-1980 and the measurable increase in the rate of abuse of pubescent and adolescent boys by priests over that same time period. As far as I know, that is not in dispute either.
In my observation, progressive Catholics have responded to the Sullins report—those, that is, who have bothered to acknowledge it—by repeating the critical-thinking mantra that “correlation does not equal causation.” I’ve heard more than one such person use the standard example of eating ice cream and committing murder, which I used myself when I taught critical thinking: Just because one can point to a striking correlation between the two doesn’t mean that either causes the other. As a point of deductive logic, that is true enough. Inductively speaking, there is another, plausible way to explain the correlation. But does it not also seem plausible that adult men having sex with teenage boys has something to do with —well, the men being sexually attracted to the boys? It is obvious that eating ice cream does not cause murder or vice-versa, but it is not all obvious that adult men seeking or having sex with teenage boys is not caused by their sexual orientation. On the contrary, it would be more surprising if it didn’t.
One way in which progressives tend to deal with that is to make a point that’s common in the secular media too: Most homosexuals do not sexually abuse minors, and that fact holds as much for homosexual priests as for the general male homosexual population. Again, true enough. It does not, however, follow that most abusers in the SAAC Scandal aren’t homosexuals. As a general point of logic, from the mere fact that most As are not Bs, one cannot validly infer that most Bs are not As. In point of fact, most abusers have been homosexual—even though at first blush it might seem not.
Males having sex with pubescent or adolescent males is called pederasty, not pedophilia, which latter is sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children. According to the studies already cited, cases of true pedophilia constitute only about 10% of overall cases of sexual abuse by priests. Cases of pederasty are more than seven times more common.
As for the term ‘pederasty’ itself, it applies even when both participants in the sex acts are adolescents. To read C.S. Lewis telling it in his autobiographical work Surprised by Joy, pederasty in all-male English boarding schools was not uncommon during his youth, and most of the sex acts took place among the boys themselves—usually older boys dispensing privileges or protection to younger ones in exchange for sexual favors. Since there are fewer all-male boarding schools today than back then, I doubt that pederasty among boys is that significant a problem today. But the same sort of dynamic, usually involving only adult men, is fairly common in prisons. It usually has less to do with homosexuality as an orientation than with the abuse of sex to exercise power. That is partly what prompts progressives to view priestly pederasty as a “crime of opportunity” rather than as an expression of sexual attraction to pubescents and adolescents, which latter is known as ephebophilia. And it does lend plausibility to the “clericalism” explanation. If priests in general had not been accorded excessive deference and trust, a rather small minority of priests would not have been in nearly as advantageous a position to abuse the vulnerable.
But once again, the conclusion progressives like to draw does not follow. Priestly pederasty usually is a crime of opportunity, to be sure, and thus an abuse of power. But it is not an abuse of power rather than an expression of ephebophilia. In most cases, I would argue, the opportunity is precisely an opportunity to indulge the ephebophilia. Cardinal Gerhard Müller has made the same point, and he should know: for five years (2012-17) he was prefect of the CDF, the dicastery in charge of handling cases of sexual abuse by priests, of which there were plenty.
To those who care to explore it, the historical and contemporary evidence is clear. The sexual pursuit and cultivation of pubescent and adolescent boys by adult men, motivated by the latter’s sexual attraction to the former, has always been with us in many cultures, and is one of the known subcultures within the “homosexual” community today. I have just put the word ‘homosexual’ in double quotation marks because it was not until the late 19th century that the word was coined to denote a sexual orientation that came to be seen as part of the personal identity of those so oriented. But leaving aside the philosophical debate about personal identity—in which Cardinal Müller takes the unfashionable side—there have always been men who are exclusively or primarily same-sex-attracted (SSA). Within that category, there have always been men who like to pursue and cultivate pubescent or adolescent boys. Ephebophilia and its expression in pederasty do not constitute the predominant subculture of the homosexual community today, and with a few possible exceptions in distant cultures, probably never have. But it certainly exists as a noticeable subculture thereof today. Think NAMBLA and its offshoots. Chances are they are the tip of an iceberg.
My own experience in Manhattan from 1969 until 1979—my high-school and college years, until I first married—confirms as much. Not only was I molested by a Jesuit priest, a high-school teacher and coach of mine, who even said he was attracted to boys when I asked him why; because of my looks, which were considered “pretty,” I was also actively pursued by several churchgoing men who were equally interested in boys. Until my early 20s, in fact, middle-aged gay men were more sexually interested in me than girls were. Naïvely, I found that puzzling as well as repellent and disappointing. At the time, I did not understand the cultural context in which I was living—still less how it affected the ecclesial context.
Partly for that reason, I deeply resented the attempts a few of the men made to convince me that I was “really” gay and should just admit it to myself. My abuser never tried that himself, at least not verbally. But decades later another Jesuit, who had come to know me through my first wife’s family, expressed his belief to my second wife that I had once been a “lolita” who seduced at least one vulnerable priest (my abuser) and could be up to equally disreputable, possibly dangerous things as an adult in my 40s. Since he did not know me when I was in high school or college, it seems likely he had got such rubbish from my abuser himself or one of the latter’s immediate colleagues. Perhaps they all just assumed I was homo- or bi-sexual; I don’t know for sure. But that would have provided a figleaf of rationalization for them—a tactic most of us use sometimes to excuse our own sins.
Like my abuser himself, the aforementioned Jesuit is deceased. Only one member of the Society, who had introduced me to the works of Lewis and Chesterton as my high-school English teacher, ever acknowledged that my abuser had a serious problem of which I was one of the victims. When that wise man died recently, I recalled that I respected him all the more for that admission. But by the time I had reached my 20s, I knew that the whole thing was merely self-serving on the part of the others, priests and laymen alike. I had never been confused about my sexual orientation. The problem was not me; it was they.
Specifically, I was the victim who was blamed even as he was being recruited. Fear that such a sick game would continue is why, a few years after my reversion, I stopped exploring a priestly vocation and decided soon thereafter to marry. Apparently solid and reputable priests had given me good reason to believe that I would undergo a similar experience in seminary or novitiate. That was why it took me decades to realize that I had had no such vocation regardless. I wanted to blamegay priests rather than get real about myself; I could not admit that it was both-and, not either-or. That is exactly the sort of mistake that many Catholics make today about the SAAC Scandal, when they imagine that the main cause is clericalism not homosexuality in the clergy, or vice-versa. It’s both—or more precisely, it’s something deeper which they both manifest, and which is within most of us “poor, banished children of Eve.”
Even so, I gradually learned not to feel burning hatred for homosexuals because of my experiences. The credit for that goes to one of my oldest and closest friends, a homosexual who, soon after befriending me for decidedly mixed motives, renounced the gay lifestyle he had lived for several years after leaving a Franciscan novitiate. My contempt for the others became cold, not hot, because I had learned not to expect better of them. My friend too died several years ago, when I had already worked successfully to forgive my abuser and the other men in question for reasons I set forth in another article for this site. I pray for them. That’s good for me, but it’s more important to keep in mind that their attitude was typical of what allowed the SAAC Scandal to develop for so long and eventually get out of hand. And that has been a disaster for the Church.
More lurid stories than mine about being pursued, groomed, and abused have been told by other men, gay or not, about their youthful experiences in cities with substantial gay communities. An example I heartily recommend is that of Catholic revert Joseph Sciambra. It is undeniable that, at least in the 1980s and 90s, many priests belonged to such communities. According to one informed professional estimate, hundreds of American Catholic priests died of AIDS during that period. That doesn’t show that most preferred boys, of course, and it’s unlikely that most did. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that few homosexual Catholic priests have preferred boys sexually. There have been demonstrably more than a few, and they used their positions to indulge their preference. That sort of thing is just part of the wider homosexual culture to which some priests belonged—and succumbed.
It should be equally evident that priests going after boys sexually would not have become as big a problem as it did if the percentage of Catholic priests who are SSA is far higher than the percentage of SSA men in the general population. Precise figures are impossible to compile, and no doubt many SSA priests have observed their vow of celibacy. But there can also be no doubt that many have not. Since “man-boy love” characterizes a homosexual subculture of long standing, it stands to reason that some of the SSA priests who have broken their vow have broken it with boys.
It is simply unreasonable to deny that homosexuality in the clergy has been the main proximate cause, though not of course the only such cause, in the prevailing pattern of sexual abuse going back to at least the mid-20th century. I lack space to go into more detail than I have, but for those who want and can stomach more detail, there are plenty of sources. I recommend in particular Leon Podles’ Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church(2008) and Philip Lawler’s The Smoke of Satan(2018).
If it’s unreasonable to deny the role of homosexuality in the clergy, which progressives typically do, then why do they try to explain it away by pointing instead to clericalism, as if that undermined the point about homosexuality? That such a move is ideological doesn’t make it implausible. Its basis
In the next part of this series, I’ll look at the other main cause given, this time by the other end of the ideological spectrum: clericalism.