The Archdiocese of Boston is beset with accusations that it long ignored complaints about pedophile priests and, after settling molestation claims, allowed some priests to resume parish work in the 1990s. We wonder how such criminal, immoral and pathological acts as pedophilia can find a place in the lives of men so trusted, well-educated, committed to a life of good works and presumably guided by God.
Judging by talk-show pundits and people writing letters to editors, you would think that the church is fostering such sexual misbehavior by refusing to allow the clergy to marry. An all-too-facile solution I have heard repeatedly suggested boils down to this formula: If church officials want to avoid sexual abuse, all they need to do is eliminate the celibacy requirement. Priests, the reasoning goes, would no longer be tempted to substitute children for adults as the ones toward whom they direct their sexual impulses.
What that oversimplified and unrealistic recommendation overlooks is that the psychological, social and sexual development of those who molest children has been very seriously impaired. Most pedophiles don't find adult partners the least bit attractive sexually. If the church were to tell priest-pedophiles that they need no longer remain celibate, it would do them no favor at all-- not to mention the women who would be so foolish as to marry them and who would face only humiliation.
It isn't celibacy that creates pedophiles. Think of the tens of thousands of American children damaged in incestuous situations in which parents are responsible for the sexual exploitation of their own children.
The church's pedophile problem, as I view it after years of dealing with priests sent to psychiatric treatment centers and sometimes prisons, lies not in its celibacy policy but in the way priests are educated in seminaries.
Countless men have told me that they had had serious questions about their sexuality since adolescence but were reluctant to bring these issues to the faculty preparing them for ministry. Most feared that if they described their sexual problem, they would be told they didn't belong in the seminary or priesthood.
Seminary education traditionally has emphasized theology, Scripture and canon law, along with personal and community prayer. But in response to repeated urgings by the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are increasing numbers of men and women on the staffs of American seminaries guiding students toward a healthy psychological, spiritual, social and sexual maturity.
We have learned that it is not enough to simply warn seminarians about the stresses and sexual temptations they will face during their priestly careers. Neither is it enough to list the red flags (for example, interest in pornography) that signal their sexuality is becoming a threat to their well-being and that of their parishioners. It is also absolutely essential that the screening process from seminary admission to ordination is accomplished by staff members trained to know which seminarians should be sent home and told very clearly that they would in all probability be a menace to those in their care if they were to be ordained.
Seven years ago, a group of us established The Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality. At that time, there was no place on earth where those being assigned to seminary roles could find a library, films, seminars or tutoring that would get them ready for the task of fostering the psychosexual maturation of their students. Since then, nearly 800 people from all over the world have gone through our program, aimed at teaching the teachers what they need to know and how to be comfortable in talking about sexual matters with the future priests.
But, alarmingly and disappointingly, the number of men and women sent to us by bishops and seminary rectors has been small. This is hard to understand in view of the mounting evidence that sexuality needs to be dealt with realistically in every seminary. My suspicion is that these leaders still fail to recognize fully the magnitude of the clergy's sexual problems.
The church needs priests who are mature human beings, comfortable with their own sexual identity, capable of entering into deep personal friendships with adult women as well as men. It needs priests whose emotional lives are rich in social, spiritual, cultural and occupational experiences that can infuse their lives with beauty, variety, pleasure and meaning. Such priests have no need to turn to children in selfish pursuit of forbidden pleasure. They are able to live happily as celibates for the sake of the church they serve, with the celibate Jesus as their inspiration and support.