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Does Celibacy Contribute to Clerical Sex Abuse?

By Richard Cross ( bio - articles - email ) | May 19, 2010

The John Jay Report indicated that 4.0% of all priests in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor. This datum, and the numerous commentaries surrounding the horrific news of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, have been cited as evidence against the discipline of celibacy in the Roman Catholic clergy. Prominent psychotherapists, such as Richard Sipe, have argued that celibacy has been a factor contributing to criminal sexual conduct by clerics over the last half-century. Even Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna recently suggested that the issue of priestly celibacy should not be ignored in discussions of the sex-abuse scandals in Europe.

The argument against priestly celibacy-- the argument that celibacy is a contributing factor in sexual abuse-- has never been examined in the context of statistics showing abuse rates in other clerical populations that do not require celibacy. Such a comparison between clergy populations is critical, because if celibacy were a major factor in the abuse over the last half-century, then one would expect to see much lower abuse rates in the clergy of other communions. If on the contrary celibacy were unrelated (or even a safeguard against abuse) then the other clergy groups would likely show comparable or even higher levels of abuse.

Suppose a population of non-celibate male clergy, say Australian Anglican clergy, over an 18-year period displayed an abuse rate of 3.8%: just 0.2% lower than the 4% rate found among American Catholic priests. What would such a finding tell us about celibacy as a causal factor in clerical sex abuse? Not much, unless you’re willing to stake your argument against celibacy on 2/10s of 1%.

Consider that the most rigorous scientific test on whether celibacy contributes to sex abuse of minors can never be performed. Such a test would require random assignment of men to religious communions for the purposes of training and ministry—obviously, an impossible test to undertake. Absent such an experiment, we are left to examine statistical reports of abuse rates between different communions. A good comparison might be between Roman Catholic clergy who are celibate, and the Eastern Catholic clergy in the same countries, many of whom are not celibate. Unfortunately, such a report does not exist. Our next best comparison might be found with the Anglican clergy. Here too, no report provides the exact abuse rate comparisons between Roman and Anglican clergy. However, one report does provide the number of abusive Anglican clergy over an 18-year period. Here’s how this writer used that report to reach the 3.8% figure noted above:

In May 2009, a little-publicized report was issued by the Australian Anglican Church, entitled Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church, by Parkinson, Oates & Jayakody. The report obtained information on abuse charges from 17 of the 23 Australian Anglican dioceses between 1990 and 2008. According to its authors, the report analyzed a survey of:

…all concluded cases of reported child sexual abuse since 1990 within the church by clergy and church workers. The study did not include reported cases from Anglican schools or Anglican children homes. Accused persons were categorised in the survey as either clergy, candidates for clergy, pastoral employees or volunteers... A complainant was defined as less than 18 years of age at the time of the alleged sexual abuse. [p. 13]

The Anglican report gives considerable attention to the question of patterns of abuse between Anglican and Catholic clergy:

A key finding of this study is the similarities in pattern of abuse found between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Similarities were found in patterns of male victim characteristics, location and types of abuse, accused person characteristics, and delayed reporting and disclosure of abuse.

This similarity is despite significant differences in the nature of clergy vocations (the Anglican Church does not require singleness or celibacy). The similarity between the Anglican and Catholic churches is also despite significant differences in ministry involving children. [p. 39—parentheses in the original]

Curiously, the Anglican report does not address any direct comparison between the levels or rates of abuse in the Australian church and other churches, and it does not provide statistical data for the percentages of abusive clergy compared to the population of all Australian Anglican clergy. However, this writer was able to estimate a range of rates of clergy abuse based on several authoritative sources, including the Australian government census data on the number of male Anglican clergy, as well as reports by the Church of England on the rates of attrition and ordination of male clergy between 1990 and 2007.

Here are the basic data: the 1991 Australian government census of Anglican clergy counted 2,029 male clergy. We do not have the rates of ordination and attrition for the Australian Anglican clergy but we do have the Church of England statistics between 1991 and 2007, which show an average male ordination rate of 2.3% per year, and male attrition rate of 3.8% per year (overall, the male clergy in England declined by 1/3 from 1990 to 2007.) If the ordination rate can be used as a surrogate for all newly installed clergy, then this rate when applied to the church in Australia would yield an estimate of 720 additional clergy over the 18 years. This nets an estimate of 119.5 male clergy per diocese for the reporting period. Parkinson et al. data suggest that there were 4.6 male clergy abusers per diocese between 1990 and 2008, which yields an estimated clergy abuser rate of 3.8% (4.6 / 119.5). The ordination and attrition rates come from all British Isles dioceses, and these may not yield the best estimates for Australia. For estimating the abuser rate, the more important of the two is the ordination rate. Hence it would be useful to create a range of ordination estimates; cutting the rate in half, yields an abuser rate estimate of 4.4%, whereas doubling the ordination rate yields an abuser rate estimate of 3.0%. The range in values contains the Roman Catholic rate of 4.0%, and in either extreme is not far distant from it.

If we use the Catholic-Anglican comparison of clergy abuse rates as one instance in the surrogate for the Celibate-Not Celibate comparison, the difference in the abuser rates is very small indeed. If we further take into account the decades over which the abuse is occurring, the abuser rate for Celibates may be somewhat lower than that of the non-Celibates, but this analysis has yet to be made.

[Richard W. Cross is a psychologist and an educational researcher.]

Richard Cross is a psychologist, teacher, and student of philosophy. He is a recurrent contributor to
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  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - May. 29, 2010 4:18 PM ET USA

    Celibacy is a gift from God. Should we throw this gift back to Him in order to "increase" the pool of candidates for the clergy? I honestly believe the argument to be very seductive and tempting, but I fear we will not see the deception in the outcome. I hope our priests will respond to this, that we might acknowledge a gift that is precious and much more than a command not to have sex.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 10:20 PM ET USA

    There's another aspect to this discussion, distinct from the abuse-and-coverup scandal: We complain about the quality of the episcopacy -- as to scholarship and courage and even common sense -- but (apart from improvements which might be made in the selection process)would not the quality of the episcopacy rise if we improved the quality of the clergy by allowing for married clergy and thereby enlarging the pool of candidates?

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 3:54 PM ET USA

    Does the fact that some 80% of the 'complainants' were male have any correlation? Asking the right questions always seems to be a prerequisite for arriving at the right answers.

  • Posted by: - May. 20, 2010 4:23 PM ET USA

    Does Celibacy Contribute to Clerical Sex Abuse? No, by definition celibates don't have sex. Does participation in a community where celibacy is an expected behavioral norm contribute to clerical sexual abuse? Well, I suppose the only reason you'd ask that question is if you would expect to find a correlation between societal expectation of self-denial and wrongful self-indulgence. So folks in workaholic environments are more likely to be slothful?