Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The neglected root of the Church sex-abuse scandal

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 28, 2018

Two new episodes in the festering sex-abuse scandal have called attention to a facet of the problem that has long been understood (at least by some analysts), but routinely neglected if not actively suppressed: the connection between sexual abuse of young people and a widespread homosexual culture among the clergy.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been removed from ministry because of one credible report of misconduct involving a teenage boy. But the Newark archdiocese confirmed that in the past, two other complaints against the cardinal had been resolved by out-of-court settlements. And the news of his suspension brought out dozens of reports about his inappropriate behavior with seminarians: young men who were presumably legal adults.

From Rome came the report that a former Vatican diplomat, recently stationed in Washington, DC, had been found guilty on charges of child pornography. The “children” in this case were teenagers.

Which priests sharing pornography? What disciplinary action, if any, has been taken regarding the priests involved in the infamous “St. Sebastian’s Angels” network? Who were the prelates who protected Cardinal McCarrick? Isn’t it time—in fact, isn’t it long past time—to acknowledge the corrosive power of the homosexual network in the Church?

These are not new questions. They are questions that I raised ten years ago, in my book The Faithful Departed. (I don’t mean to imply that I was alone in raising them; there were certainly others.) As a reminder—and for the benefit of those who may have missed this argument the first time around—here are a few excerpts from Chapter 17 of that book, entitled “The Wrong Explanations.”

The crisis that has stricken the Catholic Church in America is often described as a pedophilia scandal. That characterization is not accurate.

Pedophilia—a profound psychological disorder involving the sexual desire for young, pre-pubescent children—is fortunately rare. A few of the most notorious American clerics involved in the scandal, such as James Porter and John Geoghan, might be accurately classified as pedophiles. Because they molested scores of children, and because their cases came to prominence in the early days of the crisis, these deeply disturbed men were taken as emblematic of the larger problem in the American priesthood. But they were not typical.

Among the thousands of complaints lodged against American priests during the early years of the twenty-first century, the vast majority involved sexual relations with teenage boys. In some cases, to some extent, the boys may have appeared to be willing partners in the sexual activity. Since the teenagers had not reached the age of consent, and since the priests were exploiting their positions of authority and trust, the relationships were certainly abusive. But they cannot be classified as instances of pedophilia.

In a thorough study of sex-abuse complaints that was commissioned by the USCCB, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued a sweeping report in 2004 that covered more than 5,000 incidents. Of these, 81 percent involved priests with young male victims. Of those male victims, 90 percent were teenage boys.

Faced with that statistic, some analysts began to say that what had been seen as a crisis of pedophilia was really a matter of ephebophilia. (The term “ephebophilia”—which does not appear in standard diagnostic manuals for psychologists—refers to sexual attraction toward adolescents.)

Some commentators took comfort in using this new term. Other less pretentious observers concluded that the statistics proved what many Catholics had long suspected: the sex-abuse crisis was a crisis of homosexuality in the priesthood.

For several years Catholic scholars had been debating whether or not homosexuals should be ordained to the priesthood. A 1961 Vatican document addressed to the superiors of religious orders had said that men with a known homosexual inclination should not be admitted to seminary training. (That policy, which had fallen into desuetude, was reaffirmed by the Vatican and applied to all candidates for the priesthood in a new teaching document of 2005.) But many liberal Catholics argued that a homosexual who maintained a celibate lifestyle could be a fine priest. “Unless proven otherwise, there is no reason to believe that homosexual priests are any less likely to keep their promises of celibacy than heterosexual ones,” wrote Father James Martin, a Jesuit journalist, in a November 2000 article in America magazine. That argument was central to the case in favor of ordaining men with homosexual impulses.

Even if homosexual priests are no more likely than heterosexuals to violate their vows, however, it stands to reason that if and when they do engage in sexual activity, their partners are more likely to be male. Thus the sex-abuse scandal had serious implications for the debate on homosexuality. Yet the National Review Board, in its first major report on the crisis, did not shrink from the obvious conclusion. “That 815 of the reported victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy were boys shows that the crisis was characterized by homosexual behavior.”


Vatican officials had been alert to the question of homosexuality from the earliest days of the scandal. When Pope John Paul II summoned the leaders of the American hierarchy to Rome in April 2002, one of the key points on the agenda for discussion was the influence of a homosexual culture in the American seminaries. The joint statement released by the participating bishops at the end of that Vatican meeting also called for new emphasis on the moral teachings of the Church regarding sexuality, a message that could be read as a mandate for the American hierarchy to be more forceful in condemning homosexual behavior. But as we have observed, that aspect of the discussion in Rome was quietly dropped from the bishops’ agenda before the Dallas meeting.

In Dallas the USCCB concentrated exclusively on the sexual abuse of minors. The final document produced at that meeting was awkwardly entitled a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in a tacit acknowledgement that the victims of abuse could not all be classified as “children.” The Dallas norms set out disciplinary standards for priests who were involved in any sexual relationship with people, male or female, under the age of eighteen. But the bishops did not discuss, and the norms do not address, sexual misconduct by priests involving partners over the age of consent. When a priest pursues a sexual relationship with a psychologically vulnerable parishioner, he is guilty of abuse, even if that parishioner is an adult. And a priest who engages in consensual sexual contact with another man is guilty of grave misconduct, even if it is not abusive. But in Dallas the US bishops did not consider these sorts of clerical misbehavior; the scope of their attention was restricted exclusively to the abuse of “children and young people.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Aug. 31, 2018 3:26 AM ET USA

    Additionally, much emphasis was placed upon seeing that the laity were cleansed by enforcing the use of Virtue programs for all of them who were in contact with kids.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Jul. 02, 2018 1:18 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil, for repeating this. I read your book a few years back and found the content sickening and was appalled things like this have been going on for so very long. It won't be the clerics solving this problem. The laity will have to do the dirty work and that could mean being involved to a greater degree in who gets into a seminary. This will take a very long time to correct, I fear, if we have it.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 01, 2018 7:50 PM ET USA

    If this homosexual situation is real, and I believe it is, why doesn’t Rome deal w/ it? I am sick of this hypocritical 2x std using clerical positions to hide & harm. This isn’t new & it isn’t limited to homosexuality. The situation regarding Sr. Cathy Cesnick does have a basis in fact. My concern is too many in clerical leadership don’t know how to deal with this problem and are afraid of the ramifications. There has got to be transparency - somebody please shine the light and get ‘em out!

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jun. 29, 2018 9:11 PM ET USA

    As has been stated before, but definitely bears repeating, the Dallas Charter does not address wilful neglect of duty by Bishops and Religious Superiors. It is high time that it be addressed.

  • Posted by: mrschips19308196 - Jun. 29, 2018 7:52 PM ET USA

    With the result that now parishes require anyone having any sort of contact with children in the parish must take classes about sexual abuse, in case parents are guilty of such behavior,or anyone else for that matter. But the charter never addresses the really awful true problem in the first place. I am utterly sickened by the whole thing , especially now that it seems as if at least half of the clergy of every rank are so completely complicit. How dare they pass themselves off as men of God?

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jun. 29, 2018 2:25 PM ET USA

    All Catholics, and in particular members of the clergy and religious orders, should read Romans 1:24-32. And if they do not agree with St. Paul here, they should leave the Church rather than trying to destroy her from within.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jun. 29, 2018 8:50 AM ET USA

    Can this homosexual clergy problem be corrected with the present day Bishops and Priests? It can with the attitude that Jesus had when, whip in hand, He drove the money changers from the temple. If zeal for Christ does not reign in the hearts of our Bishops and Priests then this problem will grow and finally choke the life from the wellspring of spiritual life in America and maybe the rest of the church. Married clergy is not an answer as it only changes the gender of victims.