clergy abuse crisis sexuality

Ban Abuse Survivors from Seminary

One feature stood out as a predictor of post-ordination sexual abuse of a minor: experiencing sexual abuse as a child.

A number of individuals have made calls recently to ban all gay/homosexual/same-sex attracted persons from seminaries, from Dan Mattson of Courage International to Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. in First Things to Bishop Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin. The arguments have largely been twofold. First, some have argued that homosexual men, by nature, are unfit for the priesthood. I will not go into detail now on the ways in which I find this to be theologically and canonically erroneous, as well as anthropologically at odds with Catholic teaching and tradition. At the very least, this string of arguments has no explicit foundation in theology or canon law prior to the last half century.

However, the second argument merits consideration. The argument goes that because homosexual men would be tempted to have sexual experiences with their cohorts, then they should be excluded from ministry. This is a matter of risk tolerance, similar to a corporate risk management strategy (I say this as someone who works in corporate risk management). Mattson says that that, though some homosexual priests are good and holy men, they too should have been excluded because the risks are too great in general. He includes one friend that he says should have been prohibited from seminary, even though he has done good ministry as a priest:

“I broach the subject with trepidation. I am convinced that most homosexual priests are good and holy men. One example of many I know is a priest who serves as a hospital chaplain. He regularly accompanies families through the pain of physical trauma, illness, and the death of loved ones. He has a special charism for men dying with AIDS, which I’m certain comes from his love for others with deep-seated homosexual tendencies like him. He has helped many of them reconcile with Christ before death… [But b]ecause the sex scandals of the Church are overwhelmingly homosexual, the Church can no longer risk ordaining men with homosexual inclinations in the hopes that those inclinations turn out to be transitory.” [1]

Certainly, the revelations concerning Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual exploitation of younger priests and seminarians are scandalous and appalling, as are the increasingly credible rumors of networks of priests not-so-secretly engaging in sexual liaisons. As one of the Catholics to whom these priests made promises of celibacy, I take these pursuits as a form of infidelity against me. For my parish priest to engage in these acts would be betraying the promises he made to me and my community when we celebrated his commitment at his ordination. It’s cheating. It’s cheating on the people who celebrate you, listen to you every week from the pews, and fund and volunteer in your parish. If you’re going to cheat on us, let us know so we can encourage you to get help or so we can kick you out of our house.

But the argument goes that gay priests are at such a high risk of cheating that they shouldn’t be allowed to make the promise of celibacy at all. Perhaps.

But consider the John Jay report, which looked at the sexual practices of priests before, during, and after seminary. The study found that men who had engaged in same-sex sexual behavior while in seminary were significantly more likely to have post-ordination sexual behavior. But those who had only engaged in such behavior prior to seminary were not. So that’s what the data shows us. It may be that, as with the abuse of minors, the majority of sexual misconduct (cheating) has been committed by a minority of men (4% of priests are believed to have been child abusers, and of these, 3.5% were responsible for 26% of the victims).

And according to the data, a “homosexual identity” doesn’t seem to correlate with either sexual abuse of minors or with same-sex sexual activity after ordination. (As an interesting aside, those who had negative views of homosexuality were more likely to abuse minors than those with either positive or neutral views, and those with a “confused sexual identity” were more likely to abuse than those with a defined sexual identity, whether homosexual or heterosexual [1].) But, ignoring the data, let’s presume that “homosexuality” does correlate with post-ordination cheating, and that, while there may be exemplary gay priests, such priests are statistically more likely to violate their vows of celibacy after ordination.

If we decide that such priests should be precluded from seminary admission because of this risk, we ought to preclude another group: those who had been victims of sexual abuse as children. The collected data of the John Jay report, spanning sixty years and covering every diocese in the United States and thousands of priests, found that, considered as a whole, one feature stood out as a predictor of post-ordination sexual abuse of a minor: experiencing sexual abuse as a child. This coheres with other studies of child abuse as well.

So if we apply the rhetoric used to ban gay priests from seminary admission, we should also ban all those who had been abused as minors. Studies show that you are at a significantly higher risk to abuse minors if you were abused by a minor. The logic is clean.

But no one is calling for a total ban from seminary entrance if you were a victim of abuse in your past. It would be shame-inducing, callous, re-victimizing, and simply appalling.

The abused are more than a statistic. And so are we.

“Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” -CCC 2358

More of my thoughts on the abuse crisis here.


[1] One might also wonder whether Mattson, Bishop Morlino, and others believe that all gay/homosexual/LGBT persons should be barred from teaching at schools, from participating in ministries that work with children and vulnerable adults, and from living with members of the same sex, particularly for those who are pursuing celibacy. Mattson draws on a priest and psychologist associated with Courage, Fr. James Lloyd, C.S.P., who writes: “It is clear enough from clinical evidence that the psychic energy needed to contain homosexual drives is far greater than that needed by the straying heterosexual.” Mattson uses this statement to argue that the risk of abuse associated with such “containing” (a term I would associate with certain neo-Freudian accounts of sexuality) is too great for celibate “same-sex-attracted” persons and that, thus, they should be precluded from priestly ministry. One might explore the implications of these arguments in wondering whether it would lead to barring “same-sex-attracted” persons from other opportunities for work and service.

[2] Some argue that “homosexuality” is a primary cause of clerical abuse, since the majority of victims are male. However, this statistic shouldn’t be surprising, given the most recent research on abuse. Most abusers don’t specialize in a particular type of victim, but are “generalists” who seek out victims from the best available pool of candidates. In the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Karen Terry discusses the role of access when it comes to the clerical abuse of minors:

“The data from both the ‘Nature and Scope’ and ‘Causes and Context’ studies indicate that access to victims played a critical role in victim choice as well as when and in what circumstances the victims were abused. There was no significant difference between the locations in which boys and girls were abused when access to boys and girls was equal (e.g., in the home of the victim). However, boys were significantly more likely to be abused in social situations (e.g., at outings, on retreats, on vacation) or in the church setting (e.g., in the parish residence). Historically, priests have spent more time with boys in such settings, and, thus, would be expected to have higher rates of abuse in these settings. Table 3 shows the odds ratios of likelihood of abuse in various settings. The only location in which girls were more likely to be abused than boys was in a school setting. The reason for this finding is not clear and should be explored further.”

So while not denying that homosexuality can play a role in abuse (in a way analogous to heterosexuality in abuse of an opposite-sex victim), we can’t just assume it has a primary role simply because the victims are male. At the very least, we should be cautious about blaming homosexuality, because the evidence that homosexuality plays a primary role is about as robust as the evidence that celibacy does.

1 comment on “Ban Abuse Survivors from Seminary

  1. Pingback: Homosexuality and the clergy abuse crisis: an overview – Chris Damian

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