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No Easy Solution to Priest Problem

* Scandal: It's not just celibacy policy, or homosexuality, or secrecy behind crisis. But all three play a role.


The sexual-abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. has prompted calls for reforms that often blame the crisis on a single issue: Celibacy. Or homosexuality. Or secrecy. Or imperious bishops.

But what has made this scandal more intense and prolonged than its predecessors is the complex way each of these issues interlock.

The complexity explains why the scandal has outraged and energized such a wide range of church constituencies: Liberal Catholics believe the church can be healed by permitting married priests and the ordination of women. Ardent traditionalists who link homosexuality to sexual abuse see the scandal as a sign that the church must return to a holiness grounded in fealty to traditional teachings. Still others call for a democratization of the church so that bishops, who answer only to Pope John Paul II, will be held accountable by their dioceses.

"We've had so much institutional culture shock that the deeper [question] is where to go from here," said Dennis Doyle, a church historian and professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, founded by the Marianist teacher order.

The current scandal has struck with unprecedented breadth and fury. In the last three months scores of priests from coast to coast and three bishops around the world have resigned, been fired or asked to retire.

So volatile is the debate that rational discussion is impaired. "We are in a dangerous period. . . . Everyone inside and outside the church, wants to find simplistic solutions," wrote Father Stephen J. Rossetti, president of the St. Luke Institute, which treats sexually abusing priests, in the upcoming issue of the Jesuit magazine America.

The church's dilemma lies at the intersection of celibacy, homosexual and secrecy.


What one often hears is that if an offending priest had a healthy sexual outlet--in other words, a wife--he wouldn't turn to minors for sexual gratification.

But to suggest a direct correlation between celibacy and the sexual abuse of minors is both facile and specious. Study after study demonstrate that pedophilia, an attraction to pre-pubescent children, and ephebophilia, an attraction to post-pubescent youths, more often involves heterosexual men who are friends or relatives of their victims.

In such cases, the abusers suffer from what psychologists call arrested psychosexual development. They are sexually immature. Often they have difficulty relating to and negotiating with adults. In other cases, they may have experienced feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem.

In other cases, heterosexual men have been known to molest boys, not necessarily because of latent homosexual feelings, but because they were molested when they were young. These are but a few explanations of a complex pathology.

Nonetheless, celibacy can introduce added tensions in the life of a priest who is not psychologically healthy or emotionally mature.

In years past, many priests who later became offenders had moved directly from high school seminaries to graduate seminaries without the usual life experiences common to most other young men.

Once in seminary, their sexual maturity was further impeded as the church inculcated its future priests with the value and necessity of celibacy. Celibacy is seen as a way of "donating" oneself completely to God and to those to whom the priest ministers as an "icon of Christ."

Seminarians have been known to surreptitiously explore their sexuality, but several priests said in interviews with The Times that they didn't want to risk their future ordination by getting caught. They waited until after they were ordained. (None of these priests are known to have ever been accused of sexual abuse of minors.)

Celibacy is difficult under the best of circumstances. Richard Sipe, a former priest who has closely studied the issue, reports that at any given time only 50% of priests are celibate. Over a priest's lifetime, only 2% are consistently celibate, Sipe says.

Though his figures are disputed by many in the church, few argue that celibacy requires at least two essential factors to work: an authentic spirituality, and nonsexual intimacy with good and trusted friends who may or may not be in the priesthood.

One who has underscored this is Father Donald B. Cozzens, the president-rector of Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland.

"Paradoxically," Cozzens told The Times, "the safest path to an authentic life of celibacy is not to eschew friendship because it's a threat, but to enter into honest relationships that are intimate without being sexual."

Yet for a priest who is not emotionally mature or psychologically healthy, relating to adults and sharing intimate details of his life may be a daunting challenge. He may inappropriately turn to youths to fill his needs for love and intimacy.

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