Ending Priestly Celibacy Would Not Stop Abuse

National Review [New York NY]

July 31, 2022

By Ed Condon

The Economist recently ran a lead article arguing that if the Catholics “want to reduce the scourge of sexual abuse by priests, they should demand an end to the rule requiring priestly celibacy.” I found myself checking the year of publication. Surely this must have been an article from 20 years ago. But no: In the same week in which the Catholic bishops of the United States published their annual report on the (still falling) number of abuse claims made in American dioceses, the Economist was running with a tired, discredited argument.

Trying to hang the deadly sin of abuse around the church’s policy of clerical celibacy was perhaps an understandable speculative endeavor in the aftermath of the horrific scandals reported by the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe in the early 2000s. But, with all we have learned in the decades since, and with the painful, continuing revelations of abuse of children in all manner of institutions, trotting out the canard that married priests would mean less abuse isn’t just ignorant. It’s a shocking disservice to victim-survivors.

The institutions of the Catholic Church have, for sure, stained themselves with the blasphemy of child abuse and, far too often, with the silencing of victims and the protection of predators. As a canon lawyer, I’ve seen up close the horrific suffering caused by these crimes, and sat with survivors simultaneously brimming with pain and righteous rage. I’ve been unsparing in my criticisms of the church institutions and leaders that created the opportunities for evil men to prey on the weakest of us. And, the progress made in the United States notwithstanding, real problems remain with the reflexive secrecy and clerical deference with which the Vatican continues to treat abuse allegations concerning bishops.

But the suggestion that abuse is caused, amplified, or sustained by the unmarried state of clergy isn’t just without evidence: It flies in the face of the experiences of so many survivors of abuse in other settings. No one who has followed the terrible reckoning the Southern Baptist Convention has had with its own institutional failure to protect children could cite the “successful” example of Protestant clergy as proof that married pastors mitigate the risk of abuse. Likewise, consider the heartbreaking experiences of survivors of abuse in families, schools, youth organizations, the Boy Scouts, and the child-welfare system.

The assertion, which the Economist is by no means first to make, that Catholic priests are more likely to be abusers because the practice of celibacy attracts pedophiles in the first place is based on a false premise. At its root is the conviction that there must be something suspect about the practice of celibacy in the first place.

In our society, which has saturated itself with sexuality as identity and with sexual practice as self-actualization, the idea that an entire class of people can offer a witness to a different means and end to human fulfillment is treated as necessarily sinister.

So far as this relates to the Catholic Church, it is neither inexplicable nor especially surprising. Although the church maintains clerical celibacy in the West as a matter of discipline, not doctrine, the value of celibacy as a prophetic witness has always been held up as a countersign to the world, one that knowingly courts a reaction.

But the greater problem with the notion that celibacy is linked to child abuse isn’t the misrepresentation of the Catholic Church. It’s the endangerment to children. It ignores the reality that abusers are often sexually active with adults, including spouses, even while they target, groom, and abuse minors, and it clouds the conversation about how to protect young people.

The Catholic Church doesn’t deserve, or ask for, any quarter in its reckoning with the atrocious crimes of abuse committed within its institutions and by its ministers. Attempting to tie those crimes to clerical celibacy seeks to paint abuse as a uniquely Catholic problem, which it demonstrably is not.

The Church owes to the survivors of clerical abuse a debt, moral and practical, that can never wholly satisfy survivors’ rightful demands for justice. What we as a wider society all owe survivors of child abuse, by anyone in any institution, is to listen to their experiences with profound respect and to give them our fullest commitment to protecting children. The urgent goal of fulfilling that commitment and building institutions that are ever safer for children is not served by the lazy conflation of clerical celibacy with sexual predation.

ED CONDON is the editor and a cofounder of The Pillar and a Media Fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.   @canonlawyered