Homosexuality and the clergy abuse crisis: an overview

Telling seminaries to protect boys from abusers by banning gay persons will function so as to blind communities to those most likely to abuse.

I recently had an acquaintance say that addressing homosexuality in the priesthood is essential in addressing the clergy abuse crisis. In a way, I agree with this. I believe that cultures of secrecy and the enforced closet are related to and probably support the underlying dynamics of the clergy abuse crisis. But what this person meant is that the existence of “same sex attracted” priests is a driver of sexual abuse. Because this and similar arguments continue to arise, I’d like to list some resources and arguments that may be helpful for those of you who encounter them:

1. “The majority of abuse was against boys, which means the majority of abusers were gay men.”

Even the most basic study of sexual abuse and assault will reveal the various problems with this statement. First, it seems to assume that abuse is driven by sexual orientation. What psychologists have repeated again and again over the years, however, is their finding that sexual abuse isn’t primarily about sex. It’s about power. Sex can often be a tool, but is neither the primary motivator nor the primary goal. The abuse of Theodore McCarrick is illustrative here. Many of his abuses didn’t involve sexual contact, and sometimes they didn’t involve physical contact at all. Rather, it seemed that his satisfaction came from control and forced intimacy in a number of ways. This mistake, of seeing abuse as the result of and directed towards sexual orientation and desire, is one that can easily be made. I made this mistake myself, until I was corrected by a couple of therapists. But if we want to be credible on these issues, we need to stop making this elementary mistake in the future.

More important than sexual orientation or desire is often access. Karen J Terry and other researchers have found that the distribution of clergy abuse of minors by sex is strongly correlated with access. That is, for a number of years, priests had much greater access to boys and young men, and this is why they were so disproportionately targeted. But when “access to female youth increased in the 1990s, abuse of females as a percentage of victims also increased.” Again, this helps to identify the developing structure of abuse in McCarrick’s earlier years as a seminarian and priest, where families entrusted their boys to him, sending them to spend considerable time alone with McCarrick, something which was not culturally acceptable for the daughters. Part of his continued abuse of men over the course of his life may have been the structures of abuse and secrecy that he developed earlier during his career that were derived from his access to boys.

2. “Homosexuality and its acceptance in the priesthood drove more abuse.

The data suggests the opposite is true. According to the John Jay Report, incidents of clergy abuse of minors began a sharp increase in the 1950’s which lasted through the 1970’s, after which a sharp decline began. The John Jay Report also identified a dramatic increase in self-identified “homosexual men” in American seminaries in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. But by the time these men were ordained, the decline was already occurring, and it continued as they went out into ministry. So the report found that the existence of “homosexual men” in seminaries correlates with decreased incidents of abuse.

3. “But that Ruth Institute study…”

Some may recall a 2018 report by the Ruth Institute, purporting to find that “the increase or decrease of overall abuse was highly correlated with the increase or decrease of homosexual priests.” The problems with this report are manifold and troubling, given the prominence of the report in many Catholic circles. First, the report excluded the vast majority of abuse allegations in its analysis, something which was only noticeable by the most discerning readers. Second, the report’s data is aggregated in ways that may also be manufactured to create his conclusions. Third, his use and explanation of polynomial transformation does not follow standard practice for this type of research and would make it unpublishable in reputable journals on statistical research. Fourth, there is a problem with coefficients that I only partially understand but which you can read about here.

4. “Because the majority of incidents are against boys, the majority of abusers are homosexuals, and because the majority of abusers are homosexuals, we should protect the Church by not admitting them to the seminary.”

The first half of this claim is addressed above. But the second half of this claim can be responded to by considering how offensive and troubling it would be to adopt a policy banning abuse survivors from seminary. The logic of the homosexual ban would also require an abuse survivor ban. Both of these should be opposed. In any event, a seminary ban on “homosexuals” is not likely to work, and would likely just create conditions for abuse to occur. The proposal to ban “homosexual” seminary applicants presumes an overly simplified treatment of sexuality, seeing sexuality as something fixed and clear from late adolescence, rather than as something dynamic and ever-in-progress, needing ongoing and developing integration over the course of one’s life.

Such proposals would also create a dangerous false focus in even identifying same-sex abuse. Research as far back as the mid 1990’s has repeatedly found the majority of men who abuse boys to be married to women and with their own children. These same-sex abusers were understood by others (and often by themselves) to be heterosexual. Telling seminaries (and Christians generally) to protect boys from abusers by banning or avoiding gay persons will function so as to blind communities to those most likely to abuse.

Conclusion

​This is only a small collection of the fallacious arguments concerning homosexuality and clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. Much more could be said. But what I hope these underscore is a need to keep learning, and to resist arguments which seem to solve the abuse problem but, in reality, only perpetuate it.