Alessandra Tarantino/LA Times
Source: Alessandra Tarantino/LA Times

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI made a statement about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He was talking to reporters on his way to Portugal, on a plane. Sins within the Church had become truly terrifying, he told them. Penitence had to be done; forgiveness had to be sought.

Sexual abuse in the Church has been reported all over Europe, and in 95% of 195 dioceses in the US. Last Thursday, Bishop Gino Reali testified in the sex abuse trial of a Roman priest. And last March, Benedict XVI sent an open letter to apologize for the serious mistakes made in response to pedophilia in an Irish church. As an Archbishop of Munich and Freising, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, and as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has repeatedly confronted sexual abuse. But it has always been thus.

For the 2000 years since Jesus made Peter, or petros, the "rock," or foundation of his Church, giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven with the power to bind and loose, Roman bishops have ministered to the material needs of the faithful, and to their souls. The better to do that, they've made personal sacrifices. They've been celibate, from the Latin caelebs, or unmarried. But they haven't always been chaste, from the Latin castus, or uninterested in sex.

As everybody knows, within a generation after Jesus of Nazareth was hung on a cross, his apostles were discouraging followers from getting married. "Are you free from a wife?" Paul of Tarsus asked. If they were, it was better to stay that way. "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do," he wrote in a letter.  Then he added, "he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better."

The apostles who spread the good news, or gospels, soon after Paul was beheaded in Rome, wrote variations on that theme. Anybody who'd left behind "brothers or sisters or mother or father or children" would end up in heaven -- on that, Mark, Matthew and Luke all agreed. Matthew added a recommendation on behalf of "eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven;" and Luke added the thought, "blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!"

But as everybody knows, there was trouble in that paradise. Toward the end of the 4th century, roughly a generation after the emperor Constantine the Great left Rome for his new capital, Constantinople, a Portuguese bishop, Pope Damasus, had a secretary from the Balkans, by the name of Jerome.  And Jerome was unhappy in the land of the purple harlot, the town he called Babylon.  So he wrote letters about Roman priests who curled their hair with tongs, covered themselves with perfume, and devoted their whole lives knowing the wherebouts and inclinations of married women. Early every morning, they'd show up at the houses of those women and force their way into their bedrooms -- where they loved a "savory breakfast," but found chastity "distasteful." Those problems didn't go away soon.

Toward the close of the Middle Ages, there was more bad news. Peter Damian, the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, sent a letter in 1049 to Pope Leo IX, about the sexual abuse of boys. Erotic clerics who sodomized their spiritual sons ought to be deprived of their status, or worse. Peter sent another letter, ten years later, to Pope Nicholas II, about clerical abuses of women. It was high time for men in orders to "bar the door of their loins," and to tie their "priestly genitals" up. Everybody knew where their prostitutes lived, the names of their mistresses, or who their fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law were, "and lastly, to remove all doubt, there were the obvious pregnancies and squalling babies."

Occasionally, ordained men have been brought up before ecclesiastical councils. In the spring of 1274, Henry of Gelders, the Bishop of Liége, was deposed -- for "incontinence," as the father of 61 daughters and sons. And in November of 1414, at the Council of Constance, 29 cardinals, 183 bishops and 134 abbots heard 44 articles read out against Baldassarre Cossa, the antipope John XXIII -- a pirate and rapist, murderer and sodomist, who'd hired and maintained sacrilegious intercourse with 300 nuns, violated 3 sisters, "and imprisoned a whole family in order to abuse the mother, son and father."

Other Roman bishops weren't always exempt. On a spring day in 1493, Pope Alexander VI, who was born Roderic de Borja in Spain, gave away the youngest of his bastard daughters, the 13-year-old Lucrezia, to a husband in the Vatican palace. She was escorted by "the pope's concubine," Giulia la bella Farnese, and by a bastard granddaughter of the pope's predecessor, Innocent VIII. 9 years later, when Lucrezia was given away to another husband, the cardinal Cesare Borgia, her bastard brother, asked 50 prostitutes to a prenuptial supper -- where they all crawled "naked on their hands and knees" after chestnuts.

Popes were responsible for bastards long before the Borgias, of course. Among others: Gregory I the Great admitted he was a descendant of meus atavus, his great-great-grandfather, Felix III; Adrian II had a daughter carried off by his librarian's brother; Sergius III was the father of John XI; John XXII made one of his own sons a cardinal -- "as many said, for there was a great likeness as well as a similar ferocity of character;" Pius II asked his father to raise his bastards -- "I have loved many women, and after winning them have grown weary of them;" and Innocent VIII owned up to 16 spurious daughters and sons. Even St Paul referred to his "true yokefellow," who may have been a woman companion. And before he was hung upside down on a cross alone in Rome, even St Peter had a mother-in-law, who was cured of a fever by Jesus.

Celibacy, as it turns out, is even older than Paul's harsh letter to the Corinthians, or Jesus' teaching on the road to Jerusalem. Birds do it. Mongooses do it. Like Simon Peter, they've fed and defended other members of their mobs, or nests.  And they haven't always abstained from sex.

Meerkats -- the notorious mongooses of Meerkat Manor -- live in mobs on the Kalahari that number in the dozens. But only 2 of those animals breed. Everybody else is unpairbonded, or effectively celibate -- a "cooperative" breeder, or "helper-at-the-nest." They act as sentinels -- standing upright for hours at a time, scanning the skies and the horizon for predators. And they act as babysitters -- feeding hungry, begging, pups. Some helpers try to become breeders, but that doesn't always work out. Subordinate males make frequent extraterritorial forays, prospecting for mating opportunities. But subordinate females who become renegade mothers are evicted from the group.

So it goes in birds. White-fronted bee-eaters live in colonies along the vertical cliffs of Africa's Great Rift Valley. Most clans include 3-17 birds; and only some of those birds are paired. The rest help -- by incubating eggs, feeding fledglings, excavating banks and defending the nest. But on the side, females sometimes lay eggs in other birds' nests. And males go after EPCs, or extra-pair copulations.

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