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Catholic Church Advisory Group Says Obligatory Celibacy May Have Contributed to Child Abuse

The report by the Australian Truth, Justice and Healing Council also said that there may be flaws in the way that priesthood candidates were accepted for entry.
Photo by David Ohmer

The Australian Truth, Justice and Healing Council has published a report stating that celibacy among Catholic priests may have been contributing factor in child abuse.

The church advisory group made the statements in its December 2014 activity report. The council is comprised of 12 people with expertise across specialized fields including child abuse, trauma, mental illness, and psychosexual disorders. These include the archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, and bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Bill Wright.


Since February 2013 it has heard more than 2,600 victims tell stories of abuse, and have held 21 public hearings.

In a section called "Culture and clericalism," the report said that along with issues around parents being reluctant to believe their children when they report abuse, and church institutions protecting themselves rather than young people, "obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse in some circumstances." The report goes on to suggest that there may be flaws in "the way in which candidates for the priesthood or religious life were accepted for entry."

The report adds that, "Church leaders across Australia have now recognized and acknowledged that sexual abuse of a child by a priest is a crime under Australian law and under canon law. This was not always understood by some Church leaders."

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The council's chief executive officer Francis Sullivan told the Guardian that they were not advocating for the Catholic Church to drop their current celibacy vow, but said that priests — like everyone else — need to develop emotional and sexual awareness. "Because they are in an environment, in a service, that's very intimate and close with people, they need to be quite clear about the boundaries, and what is and isn't appropriate."

Sullivan also said that training for priests should include "psychosexual development."


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Obviously — Della Foxglove (@share_wa)December 12, 2014

I'd be cautious linking priests' celibacy & sexual assault. The entertainment industry is packed with non-celebate perpetrators.

— Kate Galloway (@katgallow)December 11, 2014

The Catholic Church has been heavily criticized for how they have dealt with child sexual abuse scandals in countries all over the world — including Ireland, the US, Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, and Australia.

While this report has garnered mixed reactions, David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told VICE News that he agrees with its assessment of the celibacy requirement.

"We feel the celibacy requirement contributes to the crisis in two ways. First, when all priests are forbidden from having any sex, many priests end up with sexual secrecy. So priests who masturbate, watch pornography, exploit adult parishioners, or pick up sex partners in bars are very reluctant to speak up when they see a colleague take a child to his bedroom.

"Second, we believe that some devout young Catholic men and teenagers feel disturbing sexual urges towards kids. Since church teaching says the celibacy is a gift from God, some of these troubled men are attracted to the priesthood, thinking if they pledge to serve God and his church, he will in turn help them overcome these urges. Sadly, that doesn't seem to happen often."


"So," Clohessy concluded, "celibacy both fosters a climate of sexual secrecy while also attracting to the priesthood a higher percentage of men with sexual difficulties."

The council is continuing to hear abuse stories, as well as making recommendations for further accountability, transparency, and safeguarding measures. It will deliver its final report in 2017.

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Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Photo via Flickr