Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

The recent report of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic church has once again brought reflection on what it is about the Catholic church that has resulted in this tragic state of affairs. According to the report, 7 percent of the priests in Pennsylvania over the period of the study were accused of involvement in the abuse and its cover up. And this follows of course on recent investigations of similar systemic abuses within the church in Australia, Chile, and Ireland, among other places.

The issue is of particular interest to me because my own experience within Catholic institutions which, while perhaps anecdotal, also provides some evidence of the severity of the problem.  Among my decades of working and studying at Catholic institutions, I was a seminarian at a Benedictine monastery for two years in the early- to mid-1980s. At that institution, of the eight clergy who were faculty members at the college, five had believable allegations of sexual misconduct brought against them: Two were brought to court for pedaphilia charges against children under 12. Three had allegations brought against them for misconduct with young seminarians. That’s 62.5%. Though it is often maintained that the degree of pedophilia in the church is about the national average, I doubt you would find another organization with similar levels of abuse to that of the monastic seminary. If that institution is anything like the norm of that time, then the Pennsylvania study could also be massively under-reporting.  

The question is, why is this such a problem in the church? There is of course no simple answer to this question. However, there are an array of cultural and structural factors that play a role.

One factor often pointed to is the requirement of celibacy for priests. As a gay former priest told me years ago: He and his generation of Catholics grew up thinking that you would either get married or become a priest. Many, like him, who had sexual orientations outside the norm, thought the priesthood was their calling, since marriage clearly wasn’t. Given that nearly all of these individuals have consciences formed by the moral teachings of the church on such sexual issues, most of these men also felt very guilty about their sexual desire, which they thought of as sinful. 

Given the prevalence of thinking like this, the fact that the institution of the church has ended up in its mess should hardly be surprising. It is against this backdrop, of course, that not only the clergy generally, but the hierarchy as well, has been filled with people very often gay or pedophilic, and also very uncomfortable with their own sexuality. Despite the guilt most of these individuals feel about their own sexual inclinations, many of them lack the ability to control their sexual drives. Twisting themselves ever more tightly into their own emotional knots generally has not served to make them well and whole. Quite the opposite.

Structurally, it is of course a problem that very often the fates of those in the hierarchy who make the most important decisions on this issue are tied up with those who have been involved in the most heinous of crimes at the local parishes or have been involved in abuse power relationships at the countries Catholic seminaries, or have been sexually abusive at the nation’s minor seminaries, where 14 to 18 year olds come under the tutelage of their loving mentors — often in ways as unsavory as that may sound. All bishops have passed through some of these institutions. Some of them passed through all of them. And their decision-making on the sexual abuse cases can hardly be thought to be non-self-interested. In many cases, some of these young men were clearly exploring their own sexuality, sometimes failing in their own eyes to live up to their aspirations while in these institutions.

Tied to this is the further structural issue that the promotions within the church come top-down. Those who cooperate with the authorities of the institution are those who move into the hierarchy of the institution. Unfortunately, dark chapters probably remain to be written about how many in the hierarchy have put in words for their own lovers for promotions within the church. But that aside, when it comes to the issue of how to handle sexual abuse issues within the church, those in power have very much rewarded “discretion” — in this case, that means, they have rewarded individuals who would cover up enormous injustices.

The rationales appealed to in defense of the cover up are of course a strong part of the culture of the church. The cover up always has a background moral justification. The good of the church (keeping up the morale of the majority of congregants and ensuring their continued participation in the church, as well as ensuring the financial viability of the institution) trumps the good of the alter boy molested, or the good of the minor seminarian, who is too often viewed as just discovering what he really likes anyway.

Beyond that, another fundamental element of the culture is a belief common among Catholics (and the decision-makers in the church) that those with power in the church are those who God has blessed and chosen. There is an assumption that the Holy Spirit guides the church in its decisions on the election of the Pope and the appointment of the hierarchy, and that those in the priesthood have been called to their vocations. Consequently, not only is it presumed that all of these clerics are due respect and honor, but it is very often assumed that to question them is to question God’s providence. It is really a very strange mental knot to tie. But many have tied it, and those benefitting from it, just pull the knot tighter and tighter.

The congregants themselves want to trust the authority of those who have spiritually advised them, who have been their confessors and accompanied them through their lives in some of their most pivotal moments, from birth and baptism, through growth into adulthood, with confirmation, to marriage and funerals — all moments where the church officials, including many of those guilty of the crimes, have played a key role in helping congregants make sense of questions of meaning, overcome emotional travails, deal with life’s difficulties and celebrate its joys. The abusers clearly abused this trust, but so did those bishops who were not themselves the abusers but who were involved in the cover-up. How many of them sent reassuring mails or had reassuring phone calls in which they communicated their remorse at the tragedy of the situation but told the abused and their families that the church was handling this internally, that appropriate steps would be taken and, of course, that those so unfortunately abused and their families would be in the prayers of the church? In its reaction to these scandals, the church again and again played on the eagerness of the congregants to accept the decisions of authorities. It again and again abused their trust.

The church has made certain reforms since the 1990s and early 2000s when so many of the abuses of the church surfaced. But none of those have been sufficient. As the Pennsylvania report makes clear, the church’s self-monitoring is insufficient. Since we can unfortunately expect only insufficient movement on the issues I’ve mentioned, or on other means of self-monitoring, external controls are needed. More investigations are needed. Statutes of limitations need to be extended. Some of those involved need to go to prison. Maybe external controls will help move the recalcitrant institution to make the needed changes. Let’s hope so — for the good of the children. Those in the church, I assume, would also want such changes for the more general good of the church.


My own view is that nothing short of rethinking the celibacy requirement for priests and/or rethinking the question of women priests will adequately address this problem. Beyond that, the church would do well to rethink its disdain for homosexuality and to allow gay married priests honest about their sexual orientation. Not only would such a reorientation likely serve the church in addressing its needs at this moment of crisis, but there are numerous other moral reasons for such a shit. That said, I don’t expect such a reorientation, nor for that matter the related movement on the sexual abuse problems of the church more generally.

On each of these issues, the outlook is not bright: Though some married priests from non Roman Catholic traditions have been able to rejoin with Rome while maintaing their wives, no great announcements have been made to extend this option to Roman Catholics. On the question of women priests, Pope Francis has recently indicated that “the door is closed.” As far as the openness toward gay marriage or openly gay married priests, one would hardly expect that given that the church officially still promotes conversion therapy, despite its near universal rejection by the psychological community.

Were such changes to occur many different kinds of individuals would be attracted to the clergy than have been in the past. These would be steps that could begin to correct the overpowering sexual hangups of the institution. These would also bring the Catholic church into alignment with decisions of other mainline Christian churches.

But the resistance is strong. Here I will only examine one argument from natural law theory, in connection with a theological argument it is meant to buttress, only for the question of why women — according to the Catholic hierarchy — should not be priests. The argument will strike non-religious people as clearly absurd and will fail to impress many of the religious.

The fundamental philosophical argument for only having male priests is related to the claim that there is a separate but equal role for women in the church. Women’s nature — according to the argument — means that they are not appropriate for roles as priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, or clearly, the role of the pope. The specifics regarding what it is about their nature that requires different roles are no longer spelled out as clearly as in the 18th century varieties of the arguments for the separate but equal status of women, which I will briefly discuss below — possibily just because it is too embarrassing to go there in the 21st century. As such, the main argument appeals to theology — that is it merely appeals to authority. The theological point is that Jesus did not have female Apostles (so the claim). And so — the argument continues — the church may not have female priests.

Rather than analyzing the decision of Jesus to have only male apostles against the background of the unique culture in the Middle East of the time of Jesus, as the church does on an array of issues (from views of slavery at the time to views of hierarchical rule in politics), those making the arguments maintain that static gender roles, with repercussions about the appropriate role for women in the church, simply align with what is appropriate for human nature, for women’s nature. Such roles thus align with the rationality of natural law theory. Had God wanted women priests, the theological argument continues, he would have become incarnate at a time and place where such gender roles were possible.

Though the theological argument is the main one provided now, the Catholic church generally maintains that the natural law theory with which it claims the argument aligns is actually amenable to reason, so should be clear and compelling for those not of the faith — for anyone who is rational. Faith and reason do not conflict. One should thus find the argument compelling about the separate but equal status of women for some realms of church life simply if one is reasonable. This should lead one to accept that women should have different roles than men within the church.

Versions of the argument that women were separate but equal were widely accepted in 18th and early 19th century Europe and used for precluding women from the vote or from access to higher education facilities, as well as many careers in what we have come to call the public sphere. Philosophers Kant and Hegel both made such arguments. Their point was that women were more emotional than men by nature, and also more caring. Consequently, they were suited to leadership in the household or family life. In addition, though, given their constitutions, women would fail if they were to take on the roles of men (that is, if they were to train in the sciences or take on numerous roles in the public sphere, or in government). The church added priestly roles to this list.

Today, in Western Democracies we have recognized these 18th and 19th century arguments as embarrassingly willful, not rational at all. In our social experiment of the past century, we have seen women succeed in the various areas in which Kant, Hegel, and Catholic church leaders of the time said they would fail because of their nature. There are some representatives in Pakistan and various regressive Middle Eastern states that still make such arguments. But for good reason the arguments have largely been rejected. Buttressed with the theological case against women priests, the arguments resonate in our own culture most clearly with a small minority — mostly of very conservative churchmen — largely also politically and personally invested in what most people take to be the false assumptions of the argument. According to the PEW poll of 2015, in the U.S. 59 percent of Catholics believe women should be ordained. Of course, that leaves a large percentage who do not think they should, mixed with many who weren’t sure. But it is all but clear that many of those would accept the natural law argument. Most of those who accept the argument have the kind of investment in the issue that we know to cloud reasoning processes.

Further, when evaluating whether the argument is really rational, as the church likes to maintain it is, it would, I assume, be informative to consider whether most people today consider the argument rational. Here it might specifically be interesting to know how many outside of this system actually find the argument rationally compelling. Or, we might ask philosophers or logicians who specialize in analyzing arguments whether they think it rationally (and empirically) compelling. The fact is, virtually none of those in non-Catholic Christian denominations do. But the church’s Orthodox will argue that the fact that only the few see the reason doesn’t make it  less rational. This is something true enough in theory but that, in the case at hand, is more likely to be serving as a defensive shield from self-questioning.

Unfortunately, the church is not likely to admit how weak its arguments are. It is also not likely to open the priesthood to women, or to married people, let alone married gay priests. That’s a shame for there are many compelling ethical reasons for doing so beyond any of the arguments mentioned here, and opening more to such positions would in principle just bring Catholics into sync with mainline Protestant understanding of the role of women and gays in the contemporary world. At the same time, I think such changes could go some way in beginning to redress the systemic sexual abuse within the church.

As the Pennsylvania report indicates, the Catholic church still has enormous problems. Unfortunately, it seems to have little capacity for understanding its own ails, let alone for making the changes needed to appropriately address them.

A note about the author:

My particular interest in this issue is related to my background having grown up Catholic and having studied philosophy and theology and taught philosophy in Catholic institutions. I attended Catholic grade school and spent some time in a Catholic high school. Besides having studied at the mentioned Benedictine monastery as a Catholic seminarian, I completed my bachelor’s degree at an archdiocesan university and finished my master’s degree in philosophy at a Jesuit university, where I was also briefly enrolled in their master’s program in theology, before going to Germany where I did my doctorate in non-Catholic university. From 2010 until August of 2018 I was a philosophy professor at an archdiocesan university in Florida (where I also served one year as an Interim Dean). I recently transfered to a Florida state college.

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