Critics Suggest Link Between Priest Celibacy and Sexual Abuse

Another round of allegations of sexual violence committed by Catholic priests has begun, this time centering in Germany. It is, of course, far from the first time that a culture of rape and silence within the Catholic Church has been exposed, though the problem rages on and denials as to the extent of the violence continue from officials at the top.

This time, though, they’re also denying an accusation about why there are so many sexual abuse cases within the Church:

The Vatican on Sunday denied that its celibacy requirement for priests was the root cause of the clerical sex abuse scandal convulsing the church in Europe and again defended the pope’s handling of the crisis.

Suggestions that the celibacy rule was in part responsible for the “deviant behavior” of sexually abusive priests have swirled in recent days, with opinion pieces in German newspapers blaming it for fueling abuse and even Italian commentators questioning the rule.

Much of the furor was spurred by comments from one of the pope’s closest advisers, Vienna archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who called this week for an honest examination of issues like celibacy and priestly education to root out the origins of sex abuse.

“Part of it is the question of celibacy, as well as the subject of character development. And part of it is a large portion of honesty, in the church but also in society,” he wrote in the online edition of his diocesan newsletter.

It’s not often that you’ll see me agree with anything the Catholic Church has to say with regards to rape within their ranks, so be sure to mark this date on your calenders.

The suggestion that priests may be raping children because they are required to take a vow of celibacy is both absurd and utterly enraging. I think the long-term and imposed suppression of any and all expressions human sexuality is generally going to be a very unhealthy thing, and for that reason as well as my disdain for portrayals of sexuality as dirty and morally wrong, support the repeal of the celibacy rule. But I can tell you right now that of all the damaging side effects of the demand that priests be celibate, inclination to rape is not one of them.

Placing responsibility for rape on the celibacy rule by nature removes part of the responsibility from the perpetrator. It also buys into and perpetuates the age old myth that rape is about sex. That rapists rape because they’re just so damn horny. That they can’t help themselves, what with all of their sexual attraction to their victims. To say that rapist priests commit rape because they’ve gone so long without being able to engage in consensual sex is to say that sex is synonymously related to rape. It is to suggest that one is a replacement for the other. It is to suggest that rape makes a more sensible breakage of one’s vows that consensual activity. And it is to suggest that rapists are compelled by something other than their desire to inflict harm.

Rapists choose rape not to get off sexually (though this is usually viewed in their eyes as a “bonus”), but to exert power and control over another human being. Rapists choose to rape because they reduce the humanity of other people in their own minds. Rapists often choose children as their victims because children are made particularly vulnerable to abuse through limited abilities to defend themselves and the constant presence of adult authority. Rapist priests may very well be more likely to choose children as their victims because of children’s particular vulnerability to authority, and their huge amounts in their communities. People in positions of power have frequently felt drawn to power, and therefore may be more likely to abuse — particularly in contexts where there are few consequences, as the Catholic Church has proven itself to provide. Rapists rape because they feel that their own desires come before the desires, autonomy, and human rights of other people.

They don’t rape because they’re in desperate need of sex. It should also go without saying that (while of course rapists are sometimes gay) they don’t rape because they’re gay:

A report endorsed in 2004 by the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, however, argued that an understanding of the problem of clerical sex abuse isn’t possible without reference to both celibacy and homosexuality, since the vast majority of U.S. abuse cases were of a homosexual nature.

While stressing neither celibacy nor homosexuality causes abuse, the report said “The church did an inadequate job both of screening out those individuals who were destined to fail in meeting the demands of the priesthood, and of forming others to meet those demands, including the rigors of a celibate life.”

The assertion that homosexuality may have something to do with the decision of some priests to commit sexual abuse is simply an attempt to stigmatize and vilify LGBT folks, in this case particularly gay men, something the Catholic Church is already excellent at. It is to buy into the myth that gay men’s sexuality makes them predators, to further the idea that non-straight sexuality is “deviant,” to to say that “deviant” sexuality is the cause of rape.

It’s also purposely obscuring the issue to suggest that “the vast majority of U.S. abuse cases were of a homosexual nature.” No. The vast majority of known U.S. abuse cases within the Catholic Church were committed against boys by men. That is a hugely different matter. And, in fact, a vast majority of rapists who favor male children as victims identify as straight (pdf). This is no different among priests.

To claim as fact that such abuse is “homosexual” is to blatantly stigmatize BTLG people. The rape of a male person by another man is no more “gay” than a rape of a woman by a man is “straight.” Rape is violence, not sex. And violence doesn’t have a sexual orientation.

The argument that priest sexual abuse is about either celibacy or a non-heterosexual sexual orientation reinforces dangerous rape myths that only create the cultural circumstances that allow rape to be so prevalent in the first place. These assertions also allow the Vatican an easy rebuttal to questions surrounding sex abuse within their ranks, when what we should really be discussing is why so many of their priests feel comfortable violating other human beings, and why the Church seems to have frequently been willing to help them cover it up.

0 thoughts on “Critics Suggest Link Between Priest Celibacy and Sexual Abuse

  1. beth

    with you on this one. if there were a problem with priests having sex with, say, (adult) members of their congregation and issues with power structures there then that might have something to do with enforced celibacy. But attacking kids?

  2. abby

    i don’t think the celibacy rule in itself makes priests into pedophiles – on the other hand, i do think the celibacy rule encourages pedophiles to become priests, because the priesthood is only open to men who accept that they are not allowed to have visible sexual relationships. some of these men actually do remain celibate; some have affairs with other adults who are also willing to hide the affair; and an unfortunately large number abuse children. you are absolutely correct that celibacy doesn’t cause or excuse abuse, but i do think that opening the priesthood to married men, by widening the pool of potential priests, could make it easier to push out pedophiles.

    1. Cara Post author

      Abby, it’s not my impression or understanding that your argument is the one being referred and responded to by the Vatican, but you do raise great points. Thanks for sharing them.

      1. Kali

        I also wonder if, on a somewhat similar line, there is a recognition of the wrongness of assaulting a child.

        As in, someone with the inclination towards or past of being a pedophile might recognize that doing so is deeply wrong and join the priesthood to put in place another line of defense that is supposed to stop him from acting that way – another reason not to give in to the temptation. Obviously, if such a scenario is happening, the temptation is overwhelming the desire not to act in that way. I suppose I’d lable them the ‘regretful/penitent pedophiles’.


  3. abby

    oh, i’m sure it isn’t. part of what infuriates me is that they’re so close to making sense but just don’t quite get there. thanks for writing this!

  4. Colin Day


    The celibacy rule also discourages many men from becoming priests, thus causing a priest shortage. Given this shortage and the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, pedophiles can be protected for a long time.

  5. Politicalguineapig

    Also, putting women in the pulpit would be a good idea. Female pedophiles are very much in the minority, and women are far less likely to abuse children. And if you’re in the first generation, you’d toe the line scrupulously.
    It is regrettably true that up to the sixties, men tended to join the priesthood to avoid thinking about their sexuality. If the Catholic Church hadn’t lost so much land to sons of priests, that stupid rule wouldn’t have been invented. I’m not saying celibacy causes rape, but deprivation causes strange reactions- most of them resulting in damage to other humans.

  6. Kit

    I think my church will give up the celibacy rule before we get women in the priesthood. We already have married priests in certain circumstances. Married priests is a bigger logistical problem, but women priests is a bigger ideological one.

    Either way, the Church is right that this isn’t about celibacy. Other churches with married priests seem to have similar levels of issues with this. It’s wrong that it’s about homosexuality. Not only is there no real correlation between sexual preference and victim choice, but the numbers of victimized females is not small. It’s just that the guys get the headlines. A female has to be very young for it to not be seen as relatively normal behavior.

    We live in a sub-optimal culture.

    It should be mentioned that this behavior is not normal for priests. Sometimes one gets the impression that all priests are abusers, where the truth is that it is a very small minority.

  7. Politicalguineapig

    Well, yeah, but would you leave your kid (boy or girl) alone with a priest or minister, now? I sure wouldn’t.
    And why is having women priests an ideological problem rather than a logistical one?

    1. Cara Post author

      I’m sure that many people would leave their kids alone with a minister or priest. They’re in positions of trust. Like teachers. Or parents. Or extended family. All positions that have been known to have many rapists among their ranks. Sure, you hear about rapist priests, but people still tend to think, especially when viewing this person as such an important leader and teacher, “not him, though,” in the same way that you hear of men raping their own children but don’t automatically assume that it makes your children’s own father suspicious.

      As for the women priests question, I’m not sure I understand it. You’re likely familiar with the fact that the Catholic Church strongly believes that women are not allowed to be priests? Or am I missing something?

  8. kaninchenzero

    I think adult men who target boys in their predation and say they’re het in orientation genuinely are. It’s just that men — like priests and coaches and teachers — tend to have much more access to boys than they do to girls. There’s more opportunity so they take those opportunities. It’s not about being attracted to these kids; it’s about fucking someone who can’t say no and won’t ever talk about what you did.

  9. Politicalguineapig

    Cara: It’d take a long time before I’d even leave the prospective child alone with its own father. Or a straight male teacher or a faith leader. I’m not a trusting person.

    I am aware that part of the opposition to female priests is that it’s not biblical or it’s not the Catholic way (or insert whine here), but I’m sure they’ll have to reconsider eventually.

  10. areyouforreal


    “It’d take a long time before I’d even leave the prospective child alone with its own father”

    I’m sorry, but are you serious? There is a difference between being conscientious and ridiculous. Yes there are some issues with SOME fathers, but really the majority are fine and pose no danger. Really comments like this are what alienate people from the feminist movement and equally discriminatory as if a man said something along the lines of “it would take a long time for me to leave the government in the hands of a women, because we all know some of THEM can’t deal with that”.

    Please stop making over generalizations and discriminating, because isn’t that exactly what we are fighting against?

    1. Cara Post author

      areyouforreal, Politicalguineapig’s view there is a little bit extreme for me too, but are you serious, “discriminating”? That you chose to use that word in this context tells me that you don’t really know what “we” are fighting against. There is no “reverse discrimination.” Discrimination is prejudice + power. Get some 101 on before commenting again, hmm?

  11. areyouforreal

    I’m sorry but you don’t have to have power to discriminate, discrimination is purely the biased treatment of someone based on prejudice, and where you’re right that there is no reverse discrimination, discrimination from EVERYWHERE is possible. saying being discriminated against means that you yourself cannot discriminate is a seriously wrong.I’d like to deem it MAD, or, mutually assured discrimination, is that taken already? whatever

    anyway, I am honestly tired of the “more feminist than thou” attitude so often thrown around on feminist forums. Attacking someone who disagrees slightly as anti or less feminist seriously impedes progressions of any ideas and really helps no one solidify arguments or change opinions, maybe if you had told me WHY i was so wrong instead being so condescending you would have made me a convert to the Discrimination = power + prejudice group. then maybe i would better be able to know what “we” are fighting for, as you put it

    1. Cara Post author

      areyouforreal, I’m perfectly capable of discriminating. I’m white, so I can discriminate against people of color. I’m straight, so I’m capable of discriminating against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. I’m cis, so I am able to discriminate against trans* people. And so forth. As a woman, I can even discriminate against a man — if, for example, that man is a man of color, and I discriminate against him on the basis of race. I just can’t discriminate against a man based on sex because I don’t have the social power to make it happen.

      I’m not looking to convert you. If you were really looking to be converted, you’d be utilizing google instead of making “tone” arguments.

      Now please stop derailing my thread.

  12. Level Best

    I suspect are youforreal either is fortunate enough not to come from a rapey family like I did or else has problems with women speaking their own minds in general.


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