It’s time for a brief tutorial on the dynamics, in one regard at least, of child and adolescent sex abuse. I’ve wanted to take this up for a while. The Catholic Church- my church- has endured a still unfolding nightmare regarding the abuse of mostly boys by mostly male priests. It’s without a doubt the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever experienced with regard to my faith. Perhaps the only thing more disturbing has been the reaction to it, both by many Catholics I know as friends and colleagues, and also by critics or downright haters of the Catholic Church, some of whom are even more off-base.
Everyone seems to have an idea as to how this scandal blossomed like a cancerous flower in some sun-starved basement, and how to prevent it in the future. Unfortunately, it usually comes down to one of two options, neither of which will accomplish anything. The first is to eliminate gay men from the priesthood. The second is to change the nature of the priesthood so as to somehow reduce “sexual repression” or some such thing that has adult priests seeking out children as sexual partners. The first is complete nonsense. I’m willing to bet the second is mostly vacuous also.
I want to start by saying I was raised Catholic, baptized and confirmed, and that I remain a practicing Catholic. There are many things I love, respect and admire about my Church. I believe that having a good priest as a close friend is a wonderful thing, and that having one in your home is a blessing. And I’m happy to say that priests were wonderful forces in my young life; my parents were personal friends with priests from our parish growing up, I was an altar boy for years, and I’ve never had a bad moment with a priest then or now. But the directions I see the Church tugged between, both by conservative groups within and other critics without, is taking it nowhere with regard to the issue of sexual abuse of children within the holy orders. And I know what I’m talking about.
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Many Catholics, particularly conservative ones, mistakenly believe “gay priests” are to blame for the sex scandal. They believe that homosexuality simply equals sexual deviance, and therefore lends itself more readily to the abuse of children and underage adolescents.
The Church is doing nothing to dispel this view. In late 2005, the year I joined the Bronx DA’s Office child abuse unit, the Vatican released the Criteria for Discernment of Vocations for Persons with Homosexual Tendencies. The document draws a distinction between homosexual acts (grave sins) and homosexualtendencies. “Tendencies” are not grave sins, but are “objectively disordered.” And being saddled with these tendencies (which the document seems to acknowledge are not chosen by the affected person) disqualifies the affected from entrance to the holy orders.As it reads:
“Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”
There is no explanation of why, or specific examples as to how such people, if called to be priests or nuns, would bring about “negative consequences” to the Church or anyone the church touches. But even more mystifying, there’s also a restriction against supporters of “the so-called ‘gay culture.’” This confounds me. How is a supporter of the so-called gay culture even defined? I’m not about to seek entrance to a holy order, but I did give a toast at a gay wedding in San Diego last year. Am I done for?
But back to the larger point, how do any of these people, 1) those who have practiced a homosexual lifestyle but are now willing to be celibate, 2) those who have never been sexually active but have tendencies, or 3) the rest of us “supporters” present a danger to the Church in any way, particularly with regard to the sex scandal within the priesthood?
The answer that many buy into is the pernicious argument that “homosexuality is disordered, so homosexuals are dangerous.”Some of this is bigotry, plain and simple. These folks don’t like gay people and are happy to scapegoat them for anything remotely plausible. But much of it is also ignorance, which of course serves as bigotry’s father, mentor and biggest promoter.The more a person believes that even homosexual tendencies are a terrible sign of an “objectively disordered” mind, the easier it is to believe that such people pose a threat in various ways.
Generally favoring enlightenment over ignorance, I was thus thrilled to hear that The John Jay College of Criminal Justice (a school that was catty-corner to my last apartment in NYC, btw) is shedding much needed light on the subject. The school is apparently set to release a report demonstrating that homosexuality is not a predictor of the proclivity to commit child sexual abuse.
Yes, thank you. That makes perfect sense to those of us who aren’t bigoted or ignorant, or both. Still, the anti-homosexual crowd points to the apparent demographics of the perpetrators and victims. Why are the great majority of the child victims of priests male, when all priests are (of course) male? If the abuse is same sex, then how does being homosexual not explain it?
First, terms need to be defined and understood: Homosexuality is not the same thing or even related to pedophilia. Pedophiles are not homo or hetero, they’re pedophiles. Their sexual attraction, even if they are exclusive, is not considered to be toward ‘men’ or ‘women’ but toward prepubescent children. If a male pedophile happens to be exclusive toward male children, he’s not a ‘gay pedophile.’ He’s a pedophile, exclusive to males.
Hebephilia (a sexual attraction to adolescents) is a little different. The more physically developed the target child, the less pathological it is for the man to be attracted to the child (and the more we can say that his attraction fits a sexual orientation, either homo or hetero. Most adult males could fairly be described as having some hebephilic traits, meaning most men will find a hot 16 y.o., well…hot. A normal and law-abiding man knows not to actually put his hands on a minor, but he’s not abnormal if he’s a straight male who finds a teenage girl to be attractive- as long as she has fully developed secondary sex characteristics (breasts, pubic hair, etc).
In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense for a straight male to be attracted to an adolescent girl who is in or approaching the most fertile period of her life. What more or less defines a hebephile (a term not in the DSM but recognized as a paraphilia of sorts) is a guy who only wants teenagers, and has no sexual interest in an adult even if she’s Beyonce Knowles or Jessica Alba. That guy has a problem. It’s okay to be 30 and be aroused by a 16 year-old pop star as long as you know not to touch her. But if she ceases to be attractive to you upon reaching legal adulthood, you’ve got a deeper issue.
So basically, pedophillic priests are simply pedophiles, and they go after little boys mostly because they’re easier targets.Hebephillic priests who commit sexual abuse against physically developed adolescent boys, on the other hand, probably do have a basically homosexual orientation.
This is where the homophobes claim victory with regard to their thinking. And sure, it begs the question: If there are many more boy victims, and a large percentage of them are adolescents, then can’t we say that homosexual priests are responsible, at least for the abuse of the adolescents?
The short answer is yes, but not because of anything related to their homosexuality. Having a sexual orientation toward men does not predispose a guy to sexually abuse an adolescent boy any more than having a sexual orientation toward women predisposes a guy to sexually abuse an adolescent girl. An adult male soccer coach going after his 15 year old female players is a criminal and probably a hebephile. But he hasn’t crossed the line because he’s straight. He’s crossed it because he’s immoral, irresponsible, anti-social, possibly mentally ill and God knows what else. Instead, folks, the reason we see more boys as victims from male offenders within the priesthood is for the following three reasons, all of them a product of simple common sense:
1. Priests (male) have more ready access to boys and much less to girls. This is still true today, but was much more the case in preceding generations.
2. Boys are even less likely to report sex abuse than girls, so they make safer targets.
3. Pedophiles and hebephiles who infiltrate the priesthood are probably most often attracted to males exclusively. This is because the Church offers a better environment for men to abuse boys than other circumstances outside of the priesthood. But even pedophile priests who are non-exclusive still go after boys much more- they make more sense for the above two reasons.
In a nutshell, that’s it. There’s nothing lurking inside the mind of the homosexual that’s bringing about this evil. If the Church believes differently, it’s because she is confusing an objectively disordered sexual orientation (pedophilia) with a non-disordered one (homosexuality). In so doing, the Church is preventing untold numbers of potentially holy men and women more than willing to give up their sexual lives in order to serve. Worse, they’re continuing to attract exactly what they don’t want, which are predators sneaking under the wire of scrutiny because of the diversion the church is on toward homosexuals.
“Sexual Repression” and the Priesthood
I’m a lawyer, not a psychologist, but I don’t buy what many have written about the “sexually repressive nature of the priesthood” causing priests to “turn into” predators, or the “unnatural state of human celibacy” somehow driving them to sexual deviancy with children and adolescents. There’s simply no psychological evidence that child sex abuse springs somehow from the demand of celibacy or anything related to the duties associated with being celibate clergy. Sexual deviancy and anti-social acts stem from many things, but sexual orientation isn’t one of them, and neither is the life and restrictions of a priest or nun.
The darker, more complex explanations of twisted rules and antiquated standards birthing hideous desires are tempting, I’m sure. But I’m sorry to disappoint the Church haters and Dan Brown-esqe enthusiasts when I say this is mostly bunk.
Again, I’m not a psychologist. Can an argument be made that an obsession with sex, driven by the denial of it to a naturally sexual being, produces negative emotional consequences? Perhaps.Could such consequences include sexual acting out of some sort?Again, perhaps. But sexual acting out either between priests or with lay adults is a much more likely option for an adult-oriented man looking to release repressed sexual desire- particularly when that desire focuses on adults in the first place.
Once again, there are three simple reasons why sexually deviant men are not created by the priesthood, but far too often flock to it instead: The priesthood has, tragically, been the target of predators for centuries because for centuries the Church has unwittingly but continuously given them what all child predators need:
1. Continued access to trusting and vulnerable victims (this is especially true for child predators because part of their pathology is that once the child passes out of their attraction zone and into adulthood, they are no longer attractive).
2. A cover, if they have no sexual interest in adults.
3. An institution that will protect them, and move them around when they are suspected of child abuse in a particular location.
His Holiness John Paul II once said plainly that the sex abuse scandal was a “great evil.” He was correct about the predators and what they’ve done to countless victims who came to the Church for the opposite of what they received. But the true tragedy is the inadvertent use of the Church for their purposes.That, my friends, is the darkest evil we’ve faced in how this scandal has played out. The abuse was awful. The discovery by predators, individually and over the centuries, of how hospitable this otherwise noble and glorious institution would be to them, was worse. The great majority of priests are decent, honorable and holy men. Like many institutions that value trust, loyalty and honor, and that often involve interaction with vulnerable victims, the priesthood has been targeted by predatory infiltrators for eons.The saddest fact is how easy the Church has unwittingly made it for them.