Beliefnet
The Deacon's Bench

Rome is using this day of rest to stir a debate that never seems to rest:

The Vatican on Sunday denied that its celibacy requirement for priests was the root cause of the clerical sex abuse scandal convulsing the church in Europe and again defended the pope’s handling of the crisis.

Suggestions that the celibacy rule was in part responsible for the ”deviant behavior” of sexually abusive priests have swirled in recent days, with opinion pieces in German newspapers blaming it for fueling abuse and even Italian commentators questioning the rule.

Much of the furor was spurred by comments from one of the pope’s closest advisers, Vienna archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who called this week for an honest examination of issues like celibacy and priestly education to root out the origins of sex abuse.

”Part of it is the question of celibacy, as well as the subject of character development. And part of it is a large portion of honesty, in the church but also in society,” he wrote in the online edition of his diocesan newsletter.

His office quickly stressed that Schoenborn wasn’t calling into question priestly celibacy, which Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed as recently as Friday as an ”expression of the gift of oneself to God and others.”

But Schoenborn has in the past shown himself receptive to arguments that a celibate priesthood is increasingly problematic for the church, primarily because it limits the number of men who seek ordination.

Last June, Schoenborn personally presented the Vatican with a lay initiative signed by prominent Austrian Catholics calling for the celibacy rule to be abolished and for married men to be allowed to become priests.

In the days following Schoenborn’s editorial this week, several prominent prelates in Germany and at the Vatican shot down any suggestion that the celibacy rule had anything to do with the scandal, a point echoed Sunday by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

”It’s been established that there’s no link,” said the article by Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi, an emeritus professor of canon law and psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

”First off, it’s known that sexual abuse of minors is more widespread among lay people and those who are married than in the celibate priesthood,” he wrote. ”Secondly, research has shown that priests guilty of abuse had long before stopped observing celibacy.”

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