Top Cardinal Says Priest Celibacy Rule Needs to be Reexamined

The archbishop of Vienna and a protégé of Pope Benedict XVI has called for a reexamination of celibacy in the wake of the sex scandals surrounding the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn wrote in his archdiocesan magazine last week that the Vatican should carry out "unflinching examination" of possible roots of the incidents.

However, the Vatican contends that Schönborn's remarks have been misinterpreted. Erich Leitenberger, a spokesman for Schönborn, later issued a statement saying that the Cardinal was not "in any way seeking to challenge the Catholic Church's celibacy rule."

Schönborn wrote in his archdiocese magazine that "the issue of priests' training" and "the question of priest celibacy and the question of personality development" were among the things that needed to be examined by the Vatican. Schönborn added that priest celibacy "requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the church and of society as a whole."

Schönborn has a history of igniting controversy. He is a bishop to Austria's Eastern Rite Catholics, whose priests are allowed to marry. He presented a petition last year in Rome calling for the abolition of priestly celibacy saying that "It is important for someone in Rome to know what some of our lay people are thinking about the problems of the church."

Father Edward L. Beck, ABC News' Religion contributor, says that Schönborn's statements do raise some valid points. "Human and sexual development in seminary training should be looked at. There should be ample courses within the seminary for men who enter at high school and college age and take the celibacy vow so that feelings and thoughts aren't repressed and not talked about. There is a real need to deal with issues of the human and sexual nature in the seminary."

Beck also discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of celibacy. Among the advantages, Beck says that "the sacrifice makes a priest far more available to his ministry without having a wife and family to tend to." The disadvantages can range from a priest's inability to relate to the struggles and issues of a married couple to personal loneliness. "The lack of intimate relationships can make one lonely. You find yourself pulling back in a way that might not always be helpful for fear of getting overly involved."

Beck rejects the notion that there is a direct link between celibacy and pedophilia within the Catholic Church. "Pedophilia is its own disease. It cuts across all professions; doctors, lawyers, rabbis…it is not limited to priests. Can celibacy lead people to act out sexually? Yes. But when it comes to acting out this way with kids, no."

On the other hand, another leading German Catholic, Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschk of Hamburg, told German Radio on Friday: "The celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality and cannot integrate sexuality into their lives. That's when a dangerous situation can arise."

The debate about celibacy and its possible role in the sexual scandals within the church comes on the heels of allegations that one of the Pope's Benedict XVI's ceremonial ushers and a member of the Vatican choir were involved in a gay prostitution ring.

Last Friday, the story took another turn, when news broke that 30 years ago, Pope Benedict XVI approved providing a priest accused of child sex abuse church accommodations in his diocese so the priest could undergo therapy. Benedict was an archbishop at the time.

On Monday, the Vatican announced that this priest, Peter Hullermann, had been suspended. The statement claims that Hullermann had violated terms set out for him after his conviction. It did not say what the violation was, but that the priest was ordered to pay a fine and never work with children again. Italian reports said Hullerman had recently been on a camping trip with young people at his current parish in Bavaria.

While the archdiocese acknowledges that Pope Benedict—then Cardinal Ratzinger—did approve the priest's transfer amidst the accusations, it says he was not personally aware of the details of the man's case.

Then on Saturday, a top Vatican official claimed that the Catholic Church never prosecuted more than half the 3,000 priests accused of sexual impropriety in the last decade. The Vatican official, Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna who investigates crimes the church considers most serious, stated that in roughly 60 percent of the cases, there has been a "no trial" due to the age of the accused. The priests in those cases were subject to "administrative and disciplinary provisions" Scicluna told an Italian Catholic bishops' newspaper.

Until recently, Pope Benedict XVI has been commended for his handling of the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and he was the first pontiff to meet with victims of church abuse in the United States.

Meanwhile, an international outrage is broiling as the church in the Netherlands, Austria and Germany are facing new allegations of child abuse -- including ones in a diocese at one time directly connected to the pope and to his brother, Georg Ratzinger. Ratzinger, 86, said in a newspaper interview published last week that he was completely unaware of the sexual abuse allegations at the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir.

Ratzinger was also asked by another Italian newspaper if he had spoken to his brother about the abuse allegations. He replied, "Not about this. It's the press that wants to know about these things."

Many Vatican watchers expect a formal statement, or a pastoral statement addressing the scandal from Pope Benedict XVI before Easter.