Celibacy and Sexual Abuse: Neither Correlation Nor Causation


Published: May 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, made remarks that linked homosexuality to sexual abuse of minors. Cardinal Bertone was responding to an assertion that celibacy is the culprit in the sex abuse crisis and that if priests were allowed to get married, the problem could be solved. This popular claim is one that is widely regarded as fact, though it is unsupported by any research.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, left, with Pope Benedict XVI, drew criticism for his remarks on homosexuality and pedophilia. (Kobi Gideon/MCT)

I cannot stress the absurdity of this claim enough. The number of cases of sexual abuse among married Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis, within families and among teachers should be enough to quell this groundless assertion. Sexual abuse of minors is rampant in these environments where celibacy is just not a factor. In a recent article by Insurance Journal, owned by Associate Press, it was reported that the three companies that insure the majority of Protestant churches in America receive more than 260 reports of sexual abuse of minors each year. This number, of course, does not include the many churches that are not insured by these three companies. In a study done by John Jay College, it was determined that, since 1950, there have been 13,000 “credible accusations” of sexual abuse against Catholic clerics. This works out to about 230 a year. Furthermore, the rate of sexual abuse of minors among Catholic clergy is less than the rate in the nation as a whole. The John Jay study reported that about four percent of American priests have been accused of abuse since 1950. A recent Newsweek article reported that Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at John Jay, has found that about one in five men have been accused of sexual abuse. Maybe the rest of the nation should adopt celibacy in order to bring its rate of sexual abuse down—just a thought.

The reasoning for the claim stems from a simple case of xenophobia. The vast majority of people are under the very false impression that sexual abuse is a problem that is particularly bad in the Catholic Church. When forced to rationalize some sort of explanation for that problem, they naturally turn to the practice that distinguishes Catholic priests from everybody else: celibacy. Besides the claim being completely groundless, it’s sort of—well—stupid. Paraphilia, or the sexual arousal by stimulants that are not considered normative (like objects or children), is a complex psychological sickness that can’t be simplistically chalked up to sexual frustration. Psychologically healthy but sexually frustrated priests don’t turn to children to satisfy their urges; they turn to illicit affairs, just like everyone else!
Paraphilia is a sickness, but it is one that appears to correlate with homosexual orientation.

Cardinal Bertone’s exact words were, “Many psychologists and many psychiatrists have shown no relationship between celibacy and pedophilia, but many others have demonstrated, and they have told me recently, that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.” While Bertone’s comments were badly timed and indelicately worded, they weren’t false.

Contrary to popular belief, this alleged connection has nothing to do with the fact that the majority of victims are male, but has everything to do with the self-appraised orientation of the abusers. In a study done by Gerard McGlone, a Johns Hopkins University research fellow, it was found that out of a group of offending clerics, 40 percent identified as heterosexual, 44 percent as homosexual, and 15 percent as bisexual. This slight majority is significant if you consider that this study cited several other studies of priests, all of which found that a significant majority of priests identify as heterosexual.

To be clear, I think Cardinal Bertone should keep quiet about things of this nature. He’s not a psychologist, he has not personally undertaken any research and his knowledge of the research is probably very basic. But in his defense, he merely pointed out a correlation that is in fact there. He didn’t say homosexuality causes pedophilia, because it doesn’t. He just pointed out the connection. Further research will develop this correlation. It could be that homosexual priests are more likely than heterosexual priests to have been abused themselves, or have suffered other psychological problems.  The fact is, paraphilia is a psychological sickness that any person can suffer from: male or female, married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual. That some people are slightly more likely to suffer from it than others is a detail that is being studied and explored.

Though I defend the truth of the Cardinal’s remarks, in the future the Church should stick to the spiritual and let psychologists and researchers do the talking when it comes to scientific developments.