It looks like homosexuals are getting blamed for the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church once again. We've been down this road before. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was reported to have stated the other day that the clergy sexual abuse problem in the Church was not due to celibacy but due to homosexuals in the priesthood. To be fair to the Cardinal and others who maintain this point of view, it is understandable that this can be a very confusing and hard to understand idea. They point to the fact that since 81% of the victims of clergy sexual abuse in the Church are boys (according to the often quoted 2004 John Jay study as well as other reputable research reports), then homosexual men must be behind the problem. Furthermore, research suggests that Catholic priests have a higher proportion of gay men in their ranks (studies report between 22% and 45%) than the general population of men.
However, there are significant problems with this conclusion if you are familiar with the psychological functioning and behavior of sex offenders and if you know something about sexual orientation and sexual behavior in general.
First, no research suggests that homosexuals are at higher risk of being sex offenders, committing sexual crimes, or having impulse control disorders that result in sexual crimes than heterosexuals. Sexual orientation, by itself, is not a risk factor for crime. Almost all of the professional medical, psychiatric, and psychological associations (such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Pediatric Association) have position papers that articulate this understanding. For example, the American Psychological Association stated in 1975: "homosexuality per se implies no impairment in judgment, reliability or general social and vocational capabilities…(and mental health professionals should) take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness long associated with homosexual orientation."
Second, sexual crimes against children are not merely an issue of sexual desire. This is also true for many other sexual crimes such as rape. When a young man rapes an elderly woman do you really think that he is merely sexually attracted to elderly women and he can’t control these sexual desires? Most men who are sex offenders struggle with a variety of co-morbid disorders such as substance abuse, impulse control problems, personality disorders, affective or mood disorders, brain injury as well as an inability to maintain mature, intimate, sexual or non-sexual relationships with adults. Often a sexual crime and behavior (violating a child) is more than just they can’t help themselves with their sexual attractions and desires. Many pedophiles are indeed sexually attracted to pre pubescent children but 80% of clergy sexual offenders violated a post pubescent teen and are not pedophiles at all (but are described as ephebophiles). Many report that teens are not the object of their desire but what was available to them at the time. Perhaps prison sexual behavior is a good example. Often heterosexual men find themselves engaging in homosexual behavior while in prison and return to heterosexual behavior once released. Abusing priests, especially during the 1960's and 1970's when most of these crimes were committed, had power, control, access, and trust with boys much more so than with girls.
Certainly some homosexual priests did in fact abuse boys. But so did heterosexual priests as well as priests who were unclear about their sexual orientation and desires. I have evaluated or treated about 60 of these men during the past several decades and have found this to be true clinically as well as true based on research findings. Sexual crimes against children are much more complicated than merely an issue of sexual orientation.
Tragically, those with a homosexual orientation have a long standing history of being scapegoated and victimized in our culture and in many others cultures for centuries. Sadly, this group is being again victimized in the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. We need less and not more victims in this story. In my view, sexual orientation is a red herring in this debate. If we truly are interested in protecting children from harm and doing the right thing, we shouldn’t blame homosexuals but focus our attention on the various well known and established risk factors that are more likely to result in the sexual victimization of children and youth. These include a history of sexual and other victminzation, impulse control problems, the inability to maintain satisfying peer/adult relationships, maladaptive coping styles, substance abuse, and several co-morbid psychiatric disturbances. Sexual orientation isn't one of them. There is quality research and state-of-the-art practice that can help us with this and those of us actively involved with this work from a clinical, research, and policy standpoint are using it. We must do so for the sake of our children as well as for the Church.
For more information, you might review my 2004 book, Sin against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church and my 1999 book, Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests. Additionally, you might take a look at the John Jay Study referred to earlier which can be accessed from the US Council of Catholic Bishops web site: (http://www.usccb.org/nrb/johnjaystudy/).