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Study links Catholic Church celibacy and child sex abuse

Louisa Wright
December 15, 2017

Australia has published a long-running report on child abuse in the Catholic Church. Celibate priest perpetrators offended because they were "terrorized with their own sexual desires," a report co-author told DW.

Symbolbild Katholische Kirche
Image: Imago

Among the 189 recommendations put forward by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are two for the Catholic Church to lift its demand for mandatory celibacy and enforce mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse, even if it is heard during confession.

A five-year study from Melbourne's RMIT University on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church found that mandatory celibacy is the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse.

DW spoke to Professor Des Cahill, who co-authored the report with Dr Peter Wilkinson.

DW: How did you come to the conclusion that mandatory celibacy is a risk factor for child sexual abuse?

Professor Des Cahill: In the [psychological and psychiatric] studies of priest offenders, the key facts were that the offending priest perpetrators were either psychologically immature or psychologically mal-developed and suffering from loneliness, lack of intimacy and sexual deprivation, and they became terrorized with their own sexual desires and sexual thinking. In their sexual deprivation their thinking mutated towards children, and so they began grooming young children and eventually abusing them sexually and emotionally.

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German theologian Eugen Drewermann drew attention to the sacrificial nature of the divine calling, the repression of the unconscious, the over-identification of the priest as a person, and these psycho-spiritual factors precipitated a difficulty in resolving their own sexual identity, particularly if they were gay in a deeply homophobic environment, but I and the Commission in the report make very clear that homosexuality is not the cause of clerical sex abuse.

Does that mean sexual deprivation and lack of physical relationships is the major reason that someone might become a child sex offender?

It's the clericalist incubating culture, and celibacy is part of that. One of the elements is the lack of contact with women. Take the example of the Christian Brothers who are the major teaching order for boys in Australia. Young men who were educated in all-male Catholic schools, went to all-male minor seminaries and then went on to all-male novitiates, perhaps went to university and became teachers, but didn't have much contact with the feminine. Then they lived in all-male communities, teaching in all-male schools.

Read more: Pope acknowledges Catholic church was 'bit late' in recognizing sexual abuse

Eugen Drewermann would argue that is a psycho-spiritual recipe for disaster and that's what happened among the Christian Brothers in Australia. 22 percent offended sexually against the boys they were in charge of, especially in orphanages and farming schools in country areas.

Australien Kardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell has denied allegations of sexual abuseImage: Getty Images/D. Traynor

Is it possible that someone might join the Catholic Church to gain access to children?

The psychological evidence from the various studies does not support that hypothesis because it found that the profile – and the Royal Commission is strong on this – of Catholic clerical offenders is different from the profile of child sex offenders generally. They offend much later in life, they are better educated, and in other aspects of their personality profile they are reasonably normal although, as the Royal Commission points out and as we point out in our report, there is a high degree of narcissism amongst Catholic priests and that also is a factor in the offending. They are totally focused on self and their own sexual identity, their own sexual thoughts etcetera.

Would lifting the ban on mandatory celibacy result in a decrease in child sex abuse in the Catholic Church?

When we looked at Eastern Rite Catholic Churches we found there was virtually no clerical sex abuse because in those eastern churches the priests have a choice between marrying or not marrying. In the Latin Rite Catholic Church, [priests] took on celibacy as part of the priesthood package. This is why the Royal Commission has recommended – and it was based partly on our report – the Australian Catholic Bishops make a request to the Vatican that married persons should be admitted to the Catholic priesthood.

Read more: Vatican aide Cardinal George Pell charged with historical sexual abuse

What effect does the seal of confession have on cases of child sexual abuse being reported?

Until now in Australia priests have not been required to report any cases of child sex abuse. The Royal Commission has recommended this should be applied to Catholic priests even when they are hearing confessions. Already there is opposition to that from the two leading archbishops in Australia.

There is a tension between the seal of confession and obligation towards the welfare of vulnerable children. Unfortunately Pope Pius the 10th in 1910 lowered the age of confession from 13-14 to seven, which meant offending priests had access to younger children and were able to begin the process of grooming those children, and that, I think, is one reason why the problem became worse in the 20th century.

Des Cahill is a professor of intercultural studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been a researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades. He is also an ordained priest.