If priests were permitted to marry, would it solve the Catholic clergy sexual crisis? If women were ordained, would we reduce sexual problems among clergy? If homosexual priests were ousted from ministry, would that improve matters? Should we place the blame primarily on celibacy, the all-male clergy, or the fact that some priests are gay?
Perhaps each of these realities plays a role in the problems that have been revealed in shocking and embarrassing reports over the past quarter century but none of them is to blame for what has transpired. Sexual abuse is only one part—albeit a big part—of a larger matter: abuse of power and authority in the church. If the Catholic priesthood is to regain its dignity and restore its integrity, it will need to reestablish and redefine itself; and it will need help from the Holy Spirit.
Pedophiles, ephebophiles, and other sexual deviants exist in every religion and every walk of life. They are spread out among Catholic clergy and clergy of other religions, among celibates and married persons, and among every career and vocation under the sun. The percentage of abuse cases by priests occur in numbers similar to that of the general populace. In no way does this excuse sexual abuse among clergy but it merely puts the problem in perspective; certainly higher standards should be held for those who vow their lives to God. Allowing priests to marry is peripheral to the discussion of clergy sexual malfeasance. Similarly, with the numerous stories of female teachers and other women charged with crimes of sexual exploitation, the question of women’s ordination should probably also be kept separate from this issue. The same can be said of sexual crimes committed by straight people compared to those by gay people. Put simply, the issue of clergy sex abuse cannot be blamed on marital status, gender, or same sex attraction. It is bigger than them.
Most men and women who seek a religious life do so for good reasons. They respond to a divine call in good faith after weighing it against other calls, desires, and motivations. I suspect, in most cases, their sexual libido is lower and their relationship with God is stronger. Nevertheless, we are all sexual beings, just as we are all social and spiritual beings. None of us can or should escape our sexuality. We each have impulses and we each possess a capacity to control those impulses. This applies not only to sexual impulse but the impulse to be good, to be successful, to be faithful, to be holy and wholesome, and to lead others toward God.
The devastating revelations in the past twenty-five years of sickening acts over the past fifty years (and most of our history) will help us to become a better church and a healthier, holier clergy. Fifty years ago, people usually did not deal with sexual abuse: we denied it and hid it. Priests did not discuss sexuality or admit to sexual impulses: we repressed them. That was wrong. It may not seem that we are in a better place now but we are. The good ole days weren’t all that good and the old boys’ club is probably not the right group to lead us in correcting this problem. An all-male, celibate clergy may not be what is best for the Catholic Church. I don’t know. I do know that the sexual abuse crisis in the church today is part of a bigger crisis of abuse that ought to be the target of our problem-solving efforts.
What can we do and what should we not do? Well, we shouldn’t blame our modern times or the sexual revolution: they brought into the light what was hidden in the darkness. We shouldn’t oversimplify this mess by blaming celibacy, homosexuality, or the refusal to ordain women—even though these issues are part of the bigger one and need to be addressed separately. So who can we blame? Let’s blame the devil. The pope does. Other bishops have. People in the pew do, also. Let’s also blame ourselves because evil exists within individuals, communities, and institutes. But the real issue is not who to blame.
More important is how we respond to this horrible situation. Like a person on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean who discovers a tiny hole in the boat, it doesn’t matter how it got there. It only matters that s/he does something about it or drowns. Once ashore, the cause can be better examined and fixed for future sailing. Hopefully, our bishops are savvy enough to realize that if they’re not the right leadership body to restore the priesthood, they will get out of the way to allow others to take the helm on this. As the clergy sex crisis is much bigger than one factor and points to a larger abuse of power, so is the solution much wider than any single response by any one group of Catholics.
So how can we respond? In addition to prayer, in addition to being active participants who help heal the church through this recovery process, in addition to supporting bishops who’re working to bring about structural changes in episcopal accountability and seminary formation, let us also encourage those who’re willing to step aside to allow other people who, also, by the way, possess the Holy Spirit, to take the lead—sharing their authority and power—through this crisis. This will help us redefine (a healthier, holier) priesthood and restore it to its proper role and dignity.