Celibacy and the clergy abuse scandal

Celibacy and the clergy abuse scandal December 11, 2012

Last Friday the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, the German Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church, released the results of a study on the psychological make-up of clergy who had sexually abused children. I was surprised by the weak coverage of this story, especially in light of the 2010 German media frenzy when the clergy abuse scandal broke.

I  am also wondering: How many reporters actually attended the press conference in Trier given by Bishop Stephan Ackermann? The Reuters story had a Paris date line, the Frankfurter Rundschau story was written from Cologne, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung was written from Munich. Other German newspaper accounts were re-writes of the press release from the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz. Might this explain the lousy job two of Germany’s major newspapers did in reporting this story?

The lede from the English-language Reuters’ story states:

A German Catholic Church study showed most priests found guilty of sexually abusing minors were psychologically normal, according to survey results presented on Friday. Only 12 percent of those surveyed were diagnosed as paedophiles, said the report released by Trier Bishop Stephan Ackermann, the church’s spokesman on abuse cases.

Psychological tests commissioned by priests’ dioceses around Germany found only five percent could be classified as ephebophiles – attracted to teenagers, it said. “There are no significant differences to results found in the general population in Germany,” said Dr Norbert Leygraf, one of the experts reviewing reports on predator priests found out in the past decade.

All of the newspaper stories I have looked at have reported this basic information, but each developed their own angle. The Frankfurt-based national daily, the Frankfurter Rundschau, had a balanced story in its article „McKinsey auf Katholisch” — the balance being half news-half hit piece. The first five paragraphs of the Frankfurter Rundschau’s story summarized the bishops’ press release. It then moved to the attack.

The first voice speaking in response to the news conference was identified as a spokesman for “Die katholische Reformbewegung „Wir sind Kirche“.” (The Catholic reform group “We Are the Church”). The label a newspaper gives to an advocacy group is one way it expresses its editorial voice. “We Are the Church” is a group of German and Austrian Catholic clergy and lay people who have been advocating for a change in the church’s teaching on clerical celibacy, women priests, married priests, birth control, homosexuality and so forth. For the Süddeutsche Zeitung these innovations are reforms, e.g., changes for the good.

“We are the Church” takes exception to the findings as well as cites them as an example of the need for the Catholic Church to come over to their way of thinking. Mandatory celibacy is part of the problem, they argue.

„Welche Männer werden Priester? Und wie werden sie in der katholischen Kirche sexuell sozialisiert?“

Roughly translated as: “What kind of man becomes a priest, and how are they sexually socialized in the Church?”

A professor of pastoral theology at the University of Augsburg (and a supporter of We are the Church though that is not mentioned) Fr. Hanspeter Heinz, is then brought on board to criticize the church, this time noting that as half of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse were heterosexual, the church’s ban on homosexual clergy is wrong. And to present the other side of the argument we hear from? … no one.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung is not as heavy handed. It offers the same general facts as the Frankfurter Rundschau, but provides some context. Its article Studie sieht bei Priestern keine besondere Pädophilie-Neigung” states that a study conducted by psychologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York in 2011 found the same rate of psychiatric disorders among American clergy child sexual abusers.

However, in its closing paragraph, the newspaper’s editorial voice wondered if the cause of clergy sex abuse may be linked to mandatory clerical celibacy.

So bleibt die Frage offen, warum einige Priester offenbar Kinder oder Jugendliche missbraucht haben, obwohl sie nicht unter einer entsprechenden psychischen Störung litten. Spekuliert wird häufig, dass Priester – besonders katholische Geistliche, die im Zölibat leben – möglicherweise ihrem Sexualtrieb dort nachgeben, wo sich eine Gelegenheit bietet. Kinder würden sie dann missbrauchen, weil diese sich im Gegensatz zu Erwachsenen leicht manipulieren lassen und die Täter aus Angst danach nicht verraten.

This leaves open the question of why some priests abused children or teenagers even though, apparently, they did not suffer from a mental disorder. A common speculation is that priests — especially Catholic priests who live celibate lives — may yield to their sex drive where the opportunity arises. They would abuse children because in contrast to adults, children can be easily manipulated and the perpetrators have little fear of being betrayed afterwards.

The clerical celibacy angle as a contributing factor in the child abuse scandal should be explored. But in raising this issue on their own, the newspapers should also have included Bishop Ackermann’s statement at the press conference that there was no link between mandatory celibacy and child abuse. Reuters managed to report this — the Frankfurter Rundschau and the Süddeutsche Zeitung should have done so also.

Sloppy reporting or anti-Catholic animus? You decide. Or, does it really matter what the cause of this omission was? The result was these two major German national newspapers mangled the story.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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14 responses to “Celibacy and the clergy abuse scandal”

  1. George,
    What to make of Bishop Ackermann’s statements, since *all* the individuals interviewed had sex with minors, even though some were not technically pedophiles (or ephebophiles). Without seeing the actual report, the data as presented suggests that normal men who live abnormal lives resort to abnormal behavior. Most (not all) people desire sexual relations. In that light, it’s understandable that advocacy groups against celibacy were interviewed. What struck me was the percentage of abuser priests who are gay or bisexual: close to an order of magnitude higher than in the general population (less than 5%). Reuters presented but did not comment on the numbers. Did the German papers?

    • I always wonder when journalists will do in-depth investigation as to how many celibate Buddhist monks abuse children to prove their “theory” of celibacy = child abuse.

    • “Without seeing the actual report, the data as presented suggests that normal men who live abnormal lives resort to abnormal behavior.”

      Is sex with teenagers actually ‘abnormal’? I think that question is outside the bounds of journalistic investigation in any case; I’m not interested in defending criminal priests, but it seems a stretch to say that folks of any job description being attracted to younger women or men is actually abnormal.

      “What struck me was the percentage of abuser priests who are gay or bisexual”

      This, I think, is the weird thing – why would so many more homosexuals and bisexuals find the Catholic priesthood (do we have numbers on gays in leadership in other churches? maybe this is about clericalism in general?) to be a place to be.

      • Patrick,
        It is normal from men to lust after teenagers over a certain age; what we consider now children were considered adults not too long ago. Celibacy is normal for only a small percentage of people, those who have no sexual urges whatsoever; those who remain celibate by choice rather than by nature make a conscious decision to refrain from acting on those urges. The Bishop made a statement but provided no data to back up his assertion, which left lots of room for speculation and a big, big hole for the media to fill.

        As to the percentage of straight, homo-, and bisexual priests, the percentages referred only to that group found guilty of molesting minors. It would be interesting to contrast those numbers with those obtained for all priests.

      • Priests who abuse children aren’t “gay or bi”, they are pedophilic. Whether the abused children are boys or girls, that makes no difference. A gay man is not interested in children, he is interested in other grown men.

  2. I don’t read German, so my response here will be somewhat muted. But there are two points I think might have journalistic relevance. Its remarkably easy to establish a causal link, or lack thereof, between celibacy and sexual abuse. Statistics exist which show the relative rates of offense between priests and men in general, as well as priests and other men with access to children. The characteristics of sex offenders in general have been studied and can be easily compared to the population of offending priests. in. fact, the Reuters article touches on that.

    So here’s the journalistic point: why allow the claims of dissident Catholic groups stand alone when the facts to establish or refute their claims are available. You don’t need another viewpoint, just some facts.

    I suppose I’m being naive, but it’s not all that complex.

  3. I don’t know what this says about priests, but it says a lot about the sad state of psychiatry.

    So child abusers are psychologically “normal”? I guess this means they don’t suffer from guilt about their actions. If they did, they’d be mentally ill.

  4. Just one correction, George — “Wir sind Kirche” is usually translated into English as “We Are Church”, without the definitive article. For them, the definitive article is too exclusive, too — well — defining.

    “Sloppy reporting or anti-Catholic animus? You decide.” How about both — sloppy reporting because of an anti-Catholic animus? I think that’s a perfectly plausible explanation.

    I find it interesting that neither Der Spiegel nor Deutsche Welle reported this — at least not in the daily e-mails I get from them.

  5. JoAnna–Anecdotally, sexual abuse of boys in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries is rampant.

    It is an interesting line of questioning, but it seems better-suited to a social sciences study than an investigative journalism piece.


  6. The ‘study’ of these pedophiles is odd. A pedophile, is a pedophile, attracted to children, period. Since they do not mention how this study was done, I suspect it is flawed. Asking the hierarchy to ‘study’ itself, is like asking the fox to study the hen house!

    I am please that there is a group for change in Germany “We are the Church”! That’s right, we, are the church! And we aim to change it! The hierarchy is rotten at its core starting with Ratzinger!