Are Gay Priests the Problem?

The sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church took yet another turn this week when statements by the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, second only to Pope Benedict, linked pedophilia to homosexuality.

Bertone said: "Many psychologists, many psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relationship between celibacy and pedophilia, but many others have demonstrated that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia."

France, where an estimated 60 percent of the population is Catholic, became the first country to officially dismiss the remarks when foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters, "This is unacceptable linkage and we condemn this. France is firmly engaged in the struggle against discrimination and prejudice linked to sexual orientation and gender identity."

VIDEO: Father Beck says the majority of gay priests are celibate.
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Other church and lay leaders similarly have called the remarks outrageous and ill-informed. While en route to the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict said he considered homosexuality and pedophilia to be separate matters. So why would Cardinal Bertone make his statements? And what is the real truth behind any association of pedophilia and homosexuality?

Medical professionals agree that the majority of known pedophiles are heterosexual. Although statistics vary slightly, according to Thomas Plante of the department of psychology at Santa Clara University in California, most professionals agree that between 4 percent and 7 percent of people are pedophiles and that statistics in the priesthood roughly correspond to those findings.

It is also statistically verifiable that 80 percent of victims of sexual abuse are abused by a family member. The father of a family is 36 times more likely to abuse a child than a priest is, according to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Of about 3,000 reported cases of sexual misconduct among priests committed in the past 50 years, only 300, or 10 percent, of those cases involved true pedophiles. Pedophilia is psychologically classified as sexual attraction to prepubescent children, younger than 13. Ninety percent of the reported abuse cases involved Roman Catholic priests classified as ephebophiles, those attracted to teens between 13 and 19. Of those reported cases, 60 percent were homosexual abuse and 30 percent heterosexual abuse, according to the 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Irresponsible to Link Homosexuality, Pedophilia

The statistics are helpful in distilling the underlying questions and concerns that arise. Certainly, no abuse of any kind is acceptable for a member of the clergy. As is church policy, there is zero tolerance for anyone accused and convicted of the abuse of a minor.

Although it was not always the case in the past, church guidelines require that internal and legal action in reported abuse be swift and just, with utmost concern for the victim involved. But why are sexual abusers present at all in ordained ministry, and what are the most effective means to prevent further abuse? This is where the issue of gay priests and the comments of Cardinal Bertone become germane.

To link homosexuality and pedophilia (or ephebophilia) is obviously erroneous, uninformed and irresponsible. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation. Pedophilia and ephebophilia are sexual disorders that afflict both heterosexuals and homosexuals, and mostly heterosexuals.

The problem of sexual abuse is rooted not in orientation but rather in pathology caused by the environmental, behavioral, biological and societal conditions of the abuser. Trauma from early childhood (ages 2-5), including sexual abuse and arrested sexual development are the most common factors cited by those who diagnose sexual abusers.

Yes, there are gay priests.

Some anecdotal statistics suggest as many as 40 percent of priests may be gay, according to James Wolf's book "Gay Priests," although this is not verifiable because many remain silent for fear of ecclesiastical and societal repercussions.

And, yes, a small minority of gay priests who were sexually arrested and maladjusted abused boys. But the majority of gay priests are celibate and living dedicated lives of service and commitment to their communities. And most have no attraction whatsoever to adolescents.

Child abusers are not interested in or capable of mature, adult relationships. They are stuck at the same psychosexual age as their victims. They have no capacity for authentic relationships. This is certainly not the case for the majority of gay -- or straight -- priests.

Strengthen Entrance Requirements

To conflate pedophilia with homosexuality does nothing to help ameliorate the crisis in the Catholic Church. The real need is for seminaries and formation programs to strengthen their entrance requirements, thus ensuring that no sexual deviant is admitted to the priesthood. This can be done by more extensive psychological testing as well as by ensuring honest dialogue and education within priestly formation programs with regard to human sexuality.

Candidates must be encouraged to talk freely about sexuality and to explore the wide gamut of human relationships and accompanying intimacy. This is certainly an argument against accepting candidates who are too young or obviously immature. High school and college seminary programs should be especially cautious in this regard.

If a candidate is discovered to be a pedophile or ephebophile, it should be immediate grounds for dismissal because these conditions are not curable. One such afflicted cannot find peace in the priesthood with these recurrent urges, especially when he will be in close proximity to adolescents of all ages. By the way, this would be true even if celibacy were not a required discipline in the priesthood.

Like homosexuality, celibacy is not a pertinent issue because child abusers are not interested in or capable of adult relationships. Married people, single people, straight people and gay people all can be -- and are -- abusers. Celibacy in and of itself does nothing to promote abuse. It may however be attractive to those who are sexually immature or conflicted, thus the need for more stringent screening of candidates.

Human sexuality is surely a complex enterprise and inconsistencies in behavior are sure to abound. Love, attraction and human intimacy sometimes follow their own set of rules. But certain rules, even within the purview of fluctuating sexuality, are immutable and must be guarded with vigilance. Surely the rules that dictate mature, adult and responsible sexual behavior among adults, which always excludes minors, are among those non-negotiables.

God Help the Abusers

Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me," meaning allow them to come to me because they are witnesses to the simplicity and beauty of the kingdom of God. God help those who instead cause the little children to suffer. And God help, too, those who try to shift the blame for that suffering to those who bear no responsibility for the crisis that the church has yet to address in a coherent and forceful enough way.

Father Edward L. Beck, C.P., is a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Community. He is the author of three books, "God Underneath," "Unlikely Ways Home" and "Soul Provider," all published by Doubleday. In addition to conducting retreats and workshops on spirituality nationally and internationally, Father Beck is a religion contributor for ABC News. He hosts a weekly TV and Internet show for ABC called "Focus on Faith" with Chris Cuomo of "Good Morning America" and is also a commentator on religious and faith issues for various other media outlets including CNN and Fox Television. Father Beck is the executive producer and host of "The Sunday Mass," which airs nationally each week.

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