On the Causes of Paedophila

I put up my earlier post on the Pope’s Christmas Address to the Roman Curia without comment because I had not had time to read it yet, and lo and behold the Commentary Table got stuck into the port and went straight into a discussion of the causes of paedophilia! So rather than continuing that comment thread, which can be read here, I will continue the discussion in a new post.

Tony reacted to this comment from the Pope:

In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos.

Just by way of a note, that comment actually can already be found in “Light of the World”. In fact, the 2010 Christmas includes a lot of ideas that can already be found in the Peter Seewald interview, only this time, arguably, we have the Pope speaking magisterially in his office as pope rather than in personal non-magisterial reflection.

That being said, here is what Tony had to say:

To assert [this]…is utter garbage in the context of the ‘ideological foundations’ of abuse. No child, no parent, no decent human being ‘theorised’ that a priest raping a child was in ‘conformity’ with anything remotely resembly morality.

Arabella and Christine engage Tony by pointing to the case of Fr Paul Shanley and NAMBLA. Tony counters by saying:

There have been such groups since the Romans and the Greeks, Arabella. There are such groups now. The suggestions that they form the ‘ideological foundation’ of clerical abuse at its height is a red herring.

…Clericalism and mandatory celibacy are much more important factors to recognise as ‘ideological foundations’ for abuse, IMO, but they’re too uncomfortable and too close to home for church leaders to face.

Tony may be right in the first case (I don’t know how pervasive that sort of “ideology” was – although if such ideas existed at all, I am sure that perpetrators of abuse would have jumped at the chance to justify their actions to themselves with this stuff) but I think he is wrong in his second assertion that “clericalism and mandatory celibacy are much more important factors” behind clerical abuse of minors.

I say this because, as we know, the incidence of child sexual abuse among celibate Catholic clerics is no different than in the general populace. (And here it is also mandatory that I point out that it should be significantly different – ie. much, much less if not non-existent – given the vocation of the priest.)

I was listening recently to an old pod-cast of a ABC Radio Sunday Night program led by Noel Debien. His guests on the show were

Dr Carolyn Quadrio (a consultant child and family and Forensic Psychiatrist and an Associate Professor in Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales), Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Mons. Stephen Rossetti (an expert on psychological and spiritual wellness issues for Catholic priests who for many years headed the St Luke Institute in Maryland), and Garth Blake SC (a lawyer and the Chair of the Professional Standards Commission of the Anglican church of Australia).

The interesting comment made by Mons. Rossetti was along the lines that his treatment of abuser priests had seen a very high rehabilitation rate of those whom he had treated (nb. not that any of these priests were then allowed back into the mainstream). Dr Quadrio reacted with surprise to this statement, saying that she had a very high failure rate with offenders in the normal populace.

Later in the program, Debien raised the question of Benedict’s Irish Letter and the proposal of devotion to the example of St John Vianney and to the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as an antidote to child abuse. Wasn’t this a case of naivety on the part of the Pope? No, said Mons. Rossetti, because in his experience it was precisely the two-pronged approach of quality psychiatric care and a renewed connection with authentic spirituality that produced the positive results of the treatments he cited earlier. In other words, authentic Catholic spirituality of priestly vocation was one source – but a powerful one – of healing for these priests. I would also read into that – and I think this must be undeniable – that conversely it would not be possible for these priests to commit such offences unless there was, in the first place, not only a psychological sickness but also a severe lack of connection to an authentic priestly spirituality.

Now, put that together with the fact that according to Garth Blake, the Anglican lawyer, the instances of offence were as common among Anglican clergy as among Catholic clergy, and I think Tony’s thesis that “clericalism and mandatory celibacy” are major contributing factors to the instance of abuse by Catholic priests is further called into question. Interestingly, while Dr Quadrio’s statistics shows that in the general populace, the incidence of offence is predominantly committed against girls by family members, in cases of clergy abuse of minors the ratio is directly reversed, with boys being the chief victim group. The commentators put this down to the fact that offenders generally had more access to boys than to girls. But it is especially significant that this was the case in both the Anglican and Catholic experience.

So I guess that while I share Tony’s curiosity about why the Pope would single out some 1970’s ideology that believed sexual acts with minors to be morally acceptable, I don’t share Tony’s rather simplistic reasons for identifying “clericalism and mandatory celibacy” as the chief concerns. I rather wonder whether Tony isn’t making such a claim because he holds particular views about both the status of clergy within the Church and the discipline of celibacy.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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5 Responses to On the Causes of Paedophila

  1. Tony says:

    I rather wonder whether Tony isn’t making such a claim because he holds particular views about both the status of clergy within the Church and the discipline of celibacy.

    Come on David, don’t slip into ad hominem, stick to the argument.

    “It also includes the issue of priest celibacy and the issue of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the church and of society as a whole.”

    Would you suggest this person, The Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schonborn, ‘holds particluar views’? In the article +Schonborn — or, learning from the Vatican — a ‘spokesman clarified the archbishop’s words, insisting he was “in no way” seeking to question the celibacy rule or call for its abolition. But, important in this context, it’s part of an honest examination.

    You also suggest I’m engaged in ‘simplistic reasons’ for bringing this topic up, despite what I said in the original post responding to Christine:

    And I’m not saying that mandatory celibacy is some simplistic explanation of clerical sexual abuse, but I am saying that it needs to be examined fearlessly as a factor and I can’t see evidence of that.

    I don’t think we can avoid this kind of honest examination because of statistical correlations. Another example from outside the church:

    Professor Klaus Beier, head of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at Berlin’s Charite Hospital.

    “If you are already struggling with a conflicted sexuality, including paedophile tendencies, then it is attractive to become part of an institution that obliges you to be celibate,” he said.

    “I have seen many of these cases… and it is something the Catholic Church should be made aware of.”

    But let’s assume the case against mandatory celibacy is weak, my broader point was how much weaker is an argument that speaks of ‘proportionism’ — to use Allen’s term — as a factor?

    It’s more than just a ‘curiosity’, it’s a distraction in an issue where such distractions feed cynicism about the church’s response. Or as Thomas Doyle puts it:

    There surely was a lot of proportionalist thinking in the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s but it never surfaced as a reason why a priest or bishop systematically groomed and then seduced a victim. Why not try giving the proportionalist excuse another twist. If the morality of an action is never cut and dry but depends on the “good versus evil” of the circumstances, what can be said of those so-called church leaders who relativized the good or evil of disclosing a child rape by a priest against the good or evil of protecting the institutional church from a serious blight on its image?

  2. Schütz says:

    HT to Cardinal Reg and to Jules and to Cathpews for this link:


    • Tony says:

      So we go from the the implausibility of Benedict’s ‘ideological foundations’ to the audacity of Donohue’s ‘Pope blames Pro-Pedophilia Crowd’, David?

      Are the ‘Pro-Pedophilia Crowd’ to blame for the enabling of Cardinal Law and his eventual ‘promotion’ to Rome or the depressingly large number of Bishops who allowed this to go on long after they could no longer claim ignorance of the nature of this offence or the devastating consequences of moving offenders on?

      Bill Donahue is a thug and, even if you thought Benedict’s reasoning was reasonable, there’s no way he blames the ‘Pro-Pedophilia Crowd’.

  3. Martin Snigg says:

    Maybe PBXVI was referencing the same things Mary Eberstadt does here:


    The question, of course, is why all this welcome unanimity? After all, it wasn’t very long ago that some enlightened folk took a considerably more relaxed view of the question of sex with youngsters, and they weren’t afraid to say so. From the 1970s through the 1990s, a number of trial balloons were floated that almost no one in America would dare release now. Some people, including celebrated novelists, asked outright whether sex with minors might be worth a cheer or two. Other sophisticated voices wondered aloud whether “intergenerational sex” was really as bad as all that, at least where boys were concerned. Still others staked a claim to what might be called “anti-anti-pedophilia.” This was the frequently expressed notion that the sexual abuse of children, although wrong, had given rise to something that also was wrong—a kind of national hysteria, an instantiation of Richard Hofstadter’s famed American “paranoid style.”

    Given the public record of those years, it seemed, if anything, overdue to talk of “pedophilia chic,” as I did in the Weekly Standard in two essays written several years apart (1996 and 2001).

    • Tony says:

      (The First Things reference requires a subscription BTW).

      I think it’s a matter of pendulum shifts, Martin. There is a period where ideas are not spoken about in an atmosphere of stiffling conservatism, followed by a letting off of steam and the pendulum swinging too far the other way. We saw it happen at a government level when Don Dunston came in locally and Gough Whitlam federally.

      For all that though, and not seeking to defend the views expressed, I get the impression that even the most liberal people of the time were not talking about making the raping of children acceptable or legal.

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