Every priest ordained in the Roman Catholic Church must take a lifelong vow to abstain from sexual relations.
For some priests, the vow of celibacy is a commitment to loving God and all his people.
"Celibacy is more than the absence of genital activity," says Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas. "Celibacy is how I relate warmly, humanly, and authentically to other human beings."
But sexual abuse scandals involving priests — such as the case of former Boston priest John Geoghan, who was sentenced Thursday to nine to 10 years in prison for fondling a 10-year-old-boy — have focused attention on the vow of celibacy, and whether it has any relation to sexual dysfunction.
Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, says celibacy can be a cloak of supposed purity that allows unhealthy priests to hide their sexual dysfunction.
"The problem is that no one in the church in a position of leadership is asking the question, 'Why? Why are there so many of these cases? Why has celibacy become such a contentious issue?' " says Berry.
Church Sees No Link
The Catholic Church maintains there is no link between the vow of celibacy and pedophilia. But Eugene Kennedy, a former priest who left the priesthood 25 years ago to get married, says celibacy can aid and abet pedophiles. "For them, celibacy is a wonderful cover," he says.
Kennedy says most men who take the vow of celibacy are mature enough to make a conscious decision — but he believes that some who join the priesthood are not.
"Many young men at a very early age were recruited into it before they understood themselves or their own sexual identity," Kennedy says. "Their psycho-sexual maturation has been put on hold, so to speak, when they go in. So as a result they tend to act out with young people who were more or less the age they were when their maturation process stopped."
Many Catholic priests agree it is time to reconsider the celibacy requirement — especially at a time when the church is having difficulty recruiting new priests. But officially, within the Catholic Church, it's not even up for discussion.
Father Canice Connors, a Franciscan priest who has spent years counseling priests accused of pedophilia, says that making celibacy optional might be a good move.
"I think there is evidence at times that people do enter the priesthood to hide from the realities of life," says Connors, who runs the St. Luke Institute in Maryland, a treatment center for pedophiliac priests. "But I think that is a very small number of individuals. And our task is to identify them."