The crisis that has stricken the Catholic Church in America is often described as a pedophilia scandal. That characterization is not accurate.
Pedophilia—a profound psychological disorder involving the sexual desire for young, pre-pubescent children—is fortunately rare. A few of the most notorious American clerics involved in the scandal, such as James Porter and John Geoghan, might be accurately classified as pedophiles. Because they molested scores of children, and because their cases came to prominence in the early days of the crisis, these deeply disturbed men were taken as emblematic of the larger problem in the American priesthood. But they were not typical.
Among the thousands of complaints lodged against American priests during the early years of the twenty-first century, the vast majority involved sexual relations with teenage boys. In some cases, to some extent, the boys may have appeared to be willing partners in the sexual activity. Since the teenagers had not reached the age of consent, and since the priests were exploiting their positions of authority and trust, the relationships were certainly abusive. But they cannot be classified as instances of pedophilia.
In a thorough study of sex-abuse complaints that was commissioned by the USCCB, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued a sweeping report in 2004 that covered more than 5,000 incidents. Of these, 81 percent involved priests with young male victims. Of those male victims, 90 percent were teenage boys.
Faced with that statistic, some analysts began to say that what had been seen as a crisis of pedophilia was really a matter of ephebophilia. (The term “ephebophilia”—which does not appear in standard diagnostic manuals for psychologists—refers to sexual attraction toward adolescents.)
Some commentators took comfort in using this new term. Other less pretentious observers concluded that the statistics proved what many Catholics had long suspected: the sex-abuse crisis was a crisis of homosexuality in the priesthood.
For several years Catholic scholars had been debating whether or not homosexuals should be ordained to the priesthood. A 1961 Vatican document addressed to the superiors of religious orders had said that men with a known homosexual inclination should not be admitted to seminary training. (That policy, which had fallen into desuetude, was reaffirmed by the Vatican and applied to all candidates for the priesthood in a new teaching document of 2005.) But many liberal Catholics argued that a homosexual who maintained a celibate lifestyle could be a fine priest. “Unless proven otherwise, there is no reason to believe that homosexual priests are any less likely to keep their promises of celibacy than heterosexual ones,” wrote Father James Martin, a Jesuit journalist, in a November 2000 article in America magazine. That argument was central to the case in favor of ordaining men with homosexual impulses.
Even if homosexual priests are no more likely than heterosexuals to violate their vows, however, it stands to reason that if and when they do engage in sexual activity, their partners are more likely to be male. Thus the sex-abuse scandal had serious implications for the debate on homosexuality. Yet the National Review Board, in its first major report on the crisis, did not shrink from the obvious conclusion. “That 815 of the reported victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy were boys shows that the crisis was characterized by homosexual behavior.”
Vatican officials had been alert to the question of homosexuality from the earliest days of the scandal. When Pope John Paul II summoned the leaders of the American hierarchy to Rome in April 2002, one of the key points on the agenda for discussion was the influence of a homosexual culture in the American seminaries. The joint statement released by the participating bishops at the end of that Vatican meeting also called for new emphasis on the moral teachings of the Church regarding sexuality, a message that could be read as a mandate for the American hierarchy to be more forceful in condemning homosexual behavior. But as we have observed, that aspect of the discussion in Rome was quietly dropped from the bishops’ agenda before the Dallas meeting.
In Dallas the USCCB concentrated exclusively on the sexual abuse of minors. The final document produced at that meeting was awkwardly entitled a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in a tacit acknowledgement that the victims of abuse could not all be classified as “children.” The Dallas norms set out disciplinary standards for priests who were involved in any sexual relationship with people, male or female, under the age of eighteen. But the bishops did not discuss, and the norms do not address, sexual misconduct by priests involving partners over the age of consent. When a priest pursues a sexual relationship with a psychologically vulnerable parishioner, he is guilty of abuse, even if that parishioner is an adult. And a priest who engages in consensual sexual contact with another man is guilty of grave misconduct, even if it is not abusive. But in Dallas the US bishops did not consider these sorts of clerical misbehavior; the scope of their attention was restricted exclusively to the abuse of “children and young people.”