Matt C. Abbott
Debating the roots of the clergy abuse crisis
By Matt C. Abbott
July 23, 2019

Christopher Adam of Canada recently wrote in an email to me (lightly edited):
    I had an opportunity to read your column from May 2013 on Father Andrew Greeley. I read Greeley's 1986 book Confessions of a Parish Priest, which I found problematic on a number of levels, not least of which the degree to which the author seemed to be absorbed by and with himself, his own life, his own desires, needs and interests, as opposed to those of the community he was called to serve. I was, however, struck by the chapter on celibacy appearing in Confessions, where Greeley spoke very openly, already in 1986, about the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church.

    After reading your column, and given how relevant once again the issue of clergy abuse has become since the publication of your piece, I would like to suggest one reading of the situation. I do not think that celibacy or homosexuality are, as such, the roots of clergy abuse, yet in a sense, both of these are factors.

    The underlying problem, as I see it, is the reality of psychosexually immature or stunted young men going through seminary without receiving any healthy guidance or development in this area, who are then parachuted into parishes as young pastors (after perhaps three years of being an associate pastor somewhere else), who run their parish without real feedback, guidance or direction from their diocese and without feedback from their own parishioners. Add to this mix the fact that they likely have no family support in the area, they live alone and in isolation, as opposed to living in healthy community.

    When they struggle with depression, other mental health issues or addiction, nobody really notices or if their own parishioners suspect something may be wrong, they do not say anything about it, because they do not perceive it to be their place to intervene. The diocese, therefore, may only discover that something is wrong with one of their men when things really implode locally, in the parish. In other cases, the diocese may know that one of the fathers is unwell, but the diocese fails to intervene and does not offer the appropriate support.

    The problem of clergy abuse is structural; it is not simply a function of celibacy or homosexuality.

I asked, via email, Father Brian W. Harrison, O.S., S.T.D., to comment on Adam's email; he responded as follows (lightly edited):
    This undocumented criticism of 'psychosexually immature or stunted young men going through seminary without receiving any healthy guidance or development in this area' strikes me as anecdotal and subjective. No doubt there are some young priests who fit this description, but without a lot more detailed evidence I don't see how one could justify the conclusion that such defects are common enough and severe enough to constitute a 'structural' cause of clergy abuse of minors.

    On the other hand, what is very clear from the authoritative John Jay College reports, which showed about 80 percent of clerically abused minors have been post-pubescent males, is that homosexuality among priests is a very significant factor in these abuse scandals. Unfortunately, even the pope's Vatican 'abuse summit' last February refused to talk about this problem.

    Powerful 'gay-friendly' prelates like Cardinal Cupich of Chicago assure us it's 'unscientific' to claim that same-sex attraction causes sex abuse. But this obscures the real problem by hitting at a man of straw: i.e., it refutes a claim which is indeed false, but which nobody is actually making! Nobody that I know of is claiming that a homosexual orientation is sufficient in itself to cause a priest to abuse minors. If that were the case – simple cause and effect – then 100 percent of homosexually-oriented priests would abuse minors.

    Of course, that's not the case.

    Since only about four percent of all U.S. priests over the last half century have been credibly accused of abusing minors, that would mean, given the John Jay 80 percent figure, that roughly three percent of priests have been credibly accused of homosexually abusing minors. Now, in the only serous statistical survey that I recall seeing – a 2002 Los Angeles Times questionnaire returned (anonymously) by several thousand U.S. priests – about 20 percent of respondents said they were same-sex attracted (either homosexual or bisexual). So, assuming all the aforesaid three percent came from this subset of 20 percent, that would still mean the overwhelming majority of same-sex attracted priests – about 85 percent of them – have never been credibly accused of abusing minors.

    Nevertheless, the 15 percent of that homosexually-oriented group that have been credibly accused of such crimes is vastly higher than the percentage – one percent or two percent at the most – of heterosexual priests who have been credibly accused of abusing minors (i.e., girls).

    And that difference is extremely significant.

    Consider this analogy: the vast majority of DWI drivers (driving with illegally high levels of alcohol in their system) do not cause lethal road accidents. But given the high percentage of lethal road accidents that involve DWI drivers, nobody would be crazy enough to say that DWI is irrelevant to that problem. It's pretty obvious that if the number of DWI drivers out there on the road drops significantly, so will the number of lethal road accidents drop significantly.

    So why isn't it equally obvious to all our bishops, on the basis of the undisputed statistics, that screening out same-sex attracted men from seminaries and priestly ordination will be a highly effective safeguard against clerical abuse of minors? Indeed, Pope Francis, like all his predecessors as well as current Vatican disciplinary norms, has recently said such screening ought to be carried out in any case, i.e., for reasons independent of preventing abuse of minors.

    Such men are not called to a priestly vocation, even if they are not potential abusers.

Related links:

"Homosexuality and the Church Crisis"

"Catholic Cardinal: It's 'Statistically Proven' Homosexuality is Cause of Sexual Abuse Crisis"

"The Dam About to Burst"

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media, and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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