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We Need to Listen to the Survivors of Clerical Sex Abuse

Since the news about the nowArchbishop Theodore McCarrick’s alleged sexual abuse of minors and seminarians, and a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing the sexual abuse of over 1,000 minors by over 300 clergymen, dozens of  “experts” have opined about what must change in the Catholic Church  to  prevent further suffering. Although well-meaning, they are wrong and perhaps using this human catastrophe to advance their own agendas.  

I have chosen a sampling below that are representative of so many similar articles. To spot the errors, it is necessary to know some facts about the crime of child sex abuse.

The following statistics are from the U.S. Department of Justice National Sex Offender Public Website.

  • 62,939 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in 2012. “Experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is reported to authorities.”
  • In a 2012 maltreatment report, of the victims who were sexually abused, 26% were in the age group of 12–14 years and 34% were younger than 9 years.
  • Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
  • 82% of all juvenile victims are female.
  • An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members, e.g., family friends, babysitters, child care providers, neighbors.
  • About 30% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are family members.
  • Only about 10% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers to the child.

Also consider the two biggest sex abuse scandals in the U.S. not involving the Catholic Church.

“On November 4, 2011, a grand jury report was released containing testimony that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused eight young boys over a period of at least 15 years. Officials at Penn State purportedly failed to notify law enforcement after learning about some of these incidents. On December 7, 2011, the number of victims increased to 10. Sandusky was found guilty in 2012.”

Sandusky is married and has six children.

“After a remarkable hearing that featured gut-wrenching statements from 156 of his accusers and an apology that the judge said rang hollow, former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting young girls under the guise of treatment.”

Nassar is married with three children.

“U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee [seven of the sixteen board of directors are women] and USA Gymnastics alleging that the USCO was ‘aware, at the highest levels of its organization,’ of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse.” All USA Gymnastics board members – 10 of 22 were women – have resigned.

From the Catholic right

“Active homosexuality in the priesthood helped cause this crisis …. The large majority of the cases involve sexual misbehavior by priests with same-sex attraction.”

“An acceptance of a homosexual subculture in the Catholic clergy [is] the core issue underlying recent sex abuse scandals assailing the Catholic Church.”

On May 24, Pope Francis said that men with “deeply rooted” homosexual tendencies, or who “practice homosexual acts,” shouldn’t be allowed into the seminary. The pope was repeating his endorsement of a Vatican document released in December 2016 which stated: “If a candidate practices homosexuality or presents deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director as well as his confessor have the duty to dissuade him in conscience from proceeding towards ordination.”

There is no secular data supporting any link between pedophilia and homosexuality. As regards the fact that a majority of children sexually abused by priests are boys, everyone who has been active in Catholic parishes or who attended parochial school knows that priests had/have greater access to boys – altar boys, boys’ schools, boy choirs, sports, outings, etc. We girls were watched over by the nuns. (The survivors of sex abuse by nuns are the most overlooked group in this tragedy.)

From the Catholic left

 “What in Catholic culture caused this debauchery? The proximate cause concerns essential mistakes of moral theology, including the stigmatizing of normal erotic longing …. But the immediate cause of the crisis (is the failure to adopt) the Second Vatican Council’s (recommendations) to empower the laity, replace the negative attitudes toward sex that underwrote a deep-seated Catholic neurosis, reform the doom-laden moral theology …. Perhaps most symbolically, in 1968, Pope Paul condemned the use of birth control among Catholics.”

“It’s not just the crisis of sexual abuse … Almost every divisive controversy within the Catholic Church has been about sex…outmoded understanding of the biological basis of sex itself, and what that means for beliefs about the differences between men and women. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae kicked it off by declaring the use of artificial contraception a mortal sin.”

“Advocates of ordaining women as Roman Catholic priests cite the Church’s unfolding sex abuse scandals as powerful arguments for their cause …. ‘If we had women as equals and partners, women ordained in the Catholic Church, the Church would not be in this mess, because we would have parents who would minister and who would make sure children are protected.’”

“Prominent Catholics see a larger role for laity …. to right the U.S. Church as it deals with a new clergy sexual abuse scandal.”

“I think the ultimate solution, especially here in the U.S., is going to require an active, permanent role for the laity.

Married Priests

“Celibacy is the vow requiring that priests abstain from marriage and adult sexual relations. Is this suppression of adult sexuality healthy? That’s up for debate,” wrote Joelle Casteix, leader of STOP: Survivors Taking on Predators and a survivor of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

As Casteix noted, celibacy is not a direct cause:

“But does celibacy lead to the sexual abuse of minors? No. Men with healthy sexuality – celibate or not – do not sexually molest children.

What about non-clerics within the Catholic Church who sexually abuse children? There are plenty of examples of non-celibate teachers, choir masters, youth group leaders, janitors, and others who sexually abused kids – and were protected by the same system that protects predator priests – but never took any vows of celibacy.

Using sex as a weapon of violence against vulnerable children is not an unwanted side effect of celibacy.

As a contributing factor:

Australia’s royal commission into child sex abuse recommended that celibacy for Catholic priests should be optional….

While not a direct cause of child sexual abuse, we are satisfied that compulsory celibacy [for clergy] and vowed chastity have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse….

For many Catholic clergy and religious, celibacy is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction, including psychosexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children. For many clergy and religious, celibacy is an unattainable ideal that leads to clergy and religious living double lives.

What the survivors, their advocates and legal experts recommend

The authentic experts are those who have survived sex abuse (approximately 80% of those who attempt suicide have a history of child abuse), their advocates and the legal personnel who defended them in the courtrooms and prosecuted Church employees.

As Casteix wrote: “The only way we will be able to expose predators and those who covered for them is to maintain razor-sharp focus on the victims and to stop the crimes, not propagate myths that enable more abuse …. We must continue to demand robust laws that expose predators and hold the Church accountable for the cover-up and encourage law enforcement to do everything possible to ensure that this cycle of abuse is completely eradicated and wrongdoers punished.”

Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said some ongoing investigations may not go far enough to satisfy many abuse victims – or uncover the full truth. “We want something that’s independent, something that has subpoena power, and something where testimony is compelled under oath,” he said.

Barbara Dorris, former outreach director for SNAP, who like Lennon was abused by a priest as a child, said that the bishops must “name the names.” Also, “We have victims who have gag orders who can’t talk about their own lives. Remove these gag orders,” Dorris said.

Activists also want to end statutes of limitation on the prosecution of sex crimes. “Most victims don’t come forward for many years because of emotional trauma, health problems and social pressures,” Dorris said.

David Clohessy, who helped lead SNAP for 30 years, said states also need stronger penalties for failing to report abuse. “Behind every child predator is a colleague or supervisor who at best stayed silent and who at worst enabled the abuse,” he said.

Clohessy said the hierarchical nature of the Church prevents it from enacting real change. “The remedy must come from outside the Church,” he said. “No institution can police itself, especially not a rigid, ancient, secretive, all-male monarchy with this kind of a track record.”

“Lawyers and advocates for victims of clergy sex-abuse are assailing as inadequate some new steps announced by U.S. Catholic bishops to curtail abuse scandals.” The bishops described one step as “consultation with a broad range of concerned parents, experts, and other laity along with clergy and religious.”

“Until they allow professional investigators inside the secret archives, there will be no real transparency,” said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has handled many sex-abuse lawsuits. “They are incapable of handling this internally,” he added.

Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied sex abuse statute of limitations, depicted the bishop’s statement as “little more than words … while they lobby against justice for the victims.”

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented many hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims since the 1990s, described the bishops’ statement as “insincere.” “If they were truly interested in prevention and helping victims heal, they would  release all documents in their possession concerning clergy sexual abuse,” he said. “They would announce they would not oppose amendments to statutes of limitations,” he added.

Clohessy was also skeptical of the bishops’ statement. “Until secular authorities start charging, convicting and jailing bishops who enable abuse, little or nothing will change, especially if Catholic officials keep claiming they can handle these crimes and cover ups internally,” he said.


A Chilean prosecutor, Emiliano Arias, found it necessary to raid Church premises after access to pertinent information was denied by the Vatican claiming it was protected by “pontifical secret.”

Arias was clear what Pope Francis can do to prevent further sexual assaults:

“It’s a fact that the religious in this country don’t have the obligation to report sex abuse to secular authorities.”

“He compared the decision that the Church does not have to cooperate with civilian authorities to having unreported ‘dead bodies’ under a chapel.”

Arias’ complaints are among the recommendations communicated to Pope Francis in June 2014 by the UN Committee on Torture.

The Vatican ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in June 2002. The hearing held earlier in 2014 was the first time the Committee Against Torture reviewed the Vatican’s compliance with the treaty. The committee “found that the widespread sexual violence within the Catholic Church amounted to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

The committee said the Vatican should:

“Immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to the relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution purposes”

Impose ‘meaningful sanctions’ on any Church officials who fail to do so.”

Hand over files containing details of clerical sexual abuse allegations to police forces around the world.”

A Vatican spokesman welcomed the report.

On April 11, 2018, Pope Francis wrote: “As for my own responsibility, I acknowledge that I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and perception of [clerical sex abuse], especially because of the lack of truthful and balanced information.”

The pope’s only response to this summer’s new revelations of horror is to call a meeting in February with the presidents of every bishops’ conference around the world.

2 Responses

  1. Betty I am a victim of clergy abuse from Milwaukee. I made a long rebuttable to Micheal Sean Winters on his NCR article titled US bishops won’t restore trust with announced plans to stop abuse https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/distinctly-catholic/us-bishops-wont-restore-trust-announced-plans-stop-abuse
    If there is a true desire to listen to victims I will send you this rebuttal, your readers may find my perspective interesting and unvarnished.

    I would need an email address to send it to .
    My email is danno_469@yahoo.com

    • Thank you for your comment, Dan. I read about your earlier response in the New York Times. I think it best if we continue to follow each other on Facebook.

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