Celibacy and sexual abuse

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Those on the Catholic left are not very happy that the Jay Report declines in no uncertain terms to blame clerical celibacy for the sexual abuse crisis. As the report puts it:

Factors that remained consistent over this time period, such as celibacy, do not explain the sexual abuse “crisis.” Celibacy has been constant in the Catholic Church since the eleventh century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.

is the way social scientists, bless their hearts, look at
causation. You’ve got a “factor”; it’s constant through a period of
change; therefore it cannot be a cause of the change. Case closed.

But this kind of factor analysis can be an unwieldy tool for grasping how the world changes. Consider, for
example, the rise and decline of divorce rates in America, which pretty
much mirror the rise and decline of child sexual abuse by priests.abuse.jpg


charts on the right, taken from the Jay Report, show the number of
sexual abuse incidents by all priests (blue lines) and by ordination
cohort (red lines). There’s the same big run-up in the sixties and
seventies, the same peaking around 1980, the same decline afterwards
(though steeper in the case of abuse).

Now, one can easily blame
the increase in divorce–including, of course, the rise of no-fault
divorce laws–on the cultural changes of “the sixties.” Marriage itself
was not the problem; something else was responsible for divorce going
off the chart. But whatever that something else was, it made marriage as it was
somewhat problematic. Lots of married people wanted out, and no doubt a
significant portion of them got out in inappropriate (immoral) ways.
And by the time divorce rates peaked, marriage as a social institution
had itself changed. No longer was there the same stigma attached to
living together and bearing children out of wedlock; no longer was there
the pressure to get married. For better or worse, marriage has ceased
to do as much work in American society as it once did.

So with
celibacy in the Catholic Church. In the sixties, it became problematic.
Many priests and nuns left the celibate life–and (it seems) a
significant number of priests got out of it by behaving badly. And by
the time abuse rates peaked, celibacy had come to function in a
different way in the church. A much higher proportion of church work was
being performed by the non-celibate–laymen and laywomen. Today, those
men who enter the priesthood do so better screened and more mature in
years–and, of course, in fewer numbers. Nuns are disappearing. And
child sexual abuse has declined.

The point is: It’s much too
simple to pretend that complex phenomena like marriage or faith-based
celibacy are constants in the life of a society or an institution like
the Catholic church. They are variables that interact with other
variables. None of this is to exonerate abusers and their episcopal
enablers. Nor is it to assert that all is well with celibacy
in today’s Catholicism. In the eleventh century, non-celibacy for
secular clergy (including bishops) became problematic for a number of
economic, social, and ideological reasons. And so, the church stamped it
out. A well functioning religious institution knows how to change with
the times.