Another round of allegations of sexual violence committed by Catholic priests has begun, this time centering in Germany. It is, of course, far from the first time that a culture of rape and silence within the Catholic Church has been exposed, though the problem rages on and denials as to the extent of the violence continue from officials at the top.
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.
It’s not often that you’ll see me agree with anything the Catholic Church has to say with regards to rape within their ranks, so be sure to mark this date on your calenders.
The suggestion that priests may be raping children because they are required to take a vow of celibacy is both absurd and utterly enraging. I think the long-term and imposed suppression of any and all expressions human sexuality is generally going to be a very unhealthy thing, and for that reason as well as my disdain for portrayals of sexuality as dirty and morally wrong, support the repeal of the celibacy rule. But I can tell you right now that of all the damaging side effects of the demand that priests be celibate, inclination to rape is not one of them.
Placing responsibility for rape on the celibacy rule by nature removes part of the responsibility from the perpetrator. It also buys into and perpetuates the age old myth that rape is about sex. That rapists rape because they’re just so damn horny. That they can’t help themselves, what with all of their sexual attraction to their victims. To say that rapist priests commit rape because they’ve gone so long without being able to engage in consensual sex is to say that sex is synonymously related to rape. It is to suggest that one is a replacement for the other. It is to suggest that rape makes a more sensible breakage of one’s vows that consensual activity. And it is to suggest that rapists are compelled by something other than their desire to inflict harm.
Rapists choose rape not to get off sexually (though this is usually viewed in their eyes as a “bonus”), but to exert power and control over another human being. Rapists choose to rape because they reduce the humanity of other people in their own minds. Rapists often choose children as their victims because children are made particularly vulnerable to abuse through limited abilities to defend themselves and the constant presence of adult authority. Rapist priests may very well be more likely to choose children as their victims because of children’s particular vulnerability to authority, and their huge amounts in their communities. People in positions of power have frequently felt drawn to power, and therefore may be more likely to abuse — particularly in contexts where there are few consequences, as the Catholic Church has proven itself to provide. Rapists rape because they feel that their own desires come before the desires, autonomy, and human rights of other people.
They don’t rape because they’re in desperate need of sex. It should also go without saying that (while of course rapists are sometimes gay) they don’t rape because they’re gay:
A report endorsed in 2004 by the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, however, argued that an understanding of the problem of clerical sex abuse isn’t possible without reference to both celibacy and homosexuality, since the vast majority of U.S. abuse cases were of a homosexual nature.
While stressing neither celibacy nor homosexuality causes abuse, the report said “The church did an inadequate job both of screening out those individuals who were destined to fail in meeting the demands of the priesthood, and of forming others to meet those demands, including the rigors of a celibate life.”
The assertion that homosexuality may have something to do with the decision of some priests to commit sexual abuse is simply an attempt to stigmatize and vilify LGBT folks, in this case particularly gay men, something the Catholic Church is already excellent at. It is to buy into the myth that gay men’s sexuality makes them predators, to further the idea that non-straight sexuality is “deviant,” to to say that “deviant” sexuality is the cause of rape.
It’s also purposely obscuring the issue to suggest that “the vast majority of U.S. abuse cases were of a homosexual nature.” No. The vast majority of known U.S. abuse cases within the Catholic Church were committed against boys by men. That is a hugely different matter. And, in fact, a vast majority of rapists who favor male children as victims identify as straight (pdf). This is no different among priests.
To claim as fact that such abuse is “homosexual” is to blatantly stigmatize BTLG people. The rape of a male person by another man is no more “gay” than a rape of a woman by a man is “straight.” Rape is violence, not sex. And violence doesn’t have a sexual orientation.
The argument that priest sexual abuse is about either celibacy or a non-heterosexual sexual orientation reinforces dangerous rape myths that only create the cultural circumstances that allow rape to be so prevalent in the first place. These assertions also allow the Vatican an easy rebuttal to questions surrounding sex abuse within their ranks, when what we should really be discussing is why so many of their priests feel comfortable violating other human beings, and why the Church seems to have frequently been willing to help them cover it up.