The Roots of the Church’s Sex Abuse Crisis

In a recent article, Janet Smith speaks about the roots of the child sex abuse crisis in the Church. The error she makes is common to other conservative commentators. She thinks that male priests who abuse male children must be homosexuals. She speaks of “a network of homosexuals who abuse people….” She thinks that the abusers are homosexuals: “The sexual abuse crisis in the Church was largely a crisis of homosexual priests exploiting young men. How many others did not prey on young men, but have lived double lives?”

But that is generally not the case. I spent two years working full-time with child and teen patients on hospital psychiatric units. Most of those patients, about 75 to 80%, were there because they had been sexually abused. And this is true across the country. Most child and teen psychiatric inpatient admissions are a result of the psychological trauma that kids suffer from sexual abuse. I can tell you from my experience there, and from talking to therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, that most adult male abusers of male children and male teens are not homosexuals. They are most often adult men with sexual relationships with women; they are heterosexual men, who, in abusing children, act contrary to their own orientation.

A minority of child abusers are pedophiles, persons who have no interest in sex within anyone but children (usually within a fairly narrow age range which varies from one abuser to another). A very small percentage of abusers are homosexuals. But many of these will abuse persons of both genders or of the opposite gender. After working with maybe 175 to 200 abused minors, total, over the course of 2 years (on diagnostic units where the patients are only there for about 3 weeks), we saw maybe two to four homosexual abusers total, and none who abused only persons of the same gender. And those 175 to 200 abused children represent many hundreds of abusers, since most abused children have been abused by multiple offenders. Sometimes the abuser would be a heterosexual couple, who had sex with each other, and with a child. Once in a while we saw a female abuser.

But the largest percentage of abusers of boys are heterosexual men, who act contrary to their orientation. And the explanation is simple and compelling. Abusers treat victims like objects, not like persons. And objects do not have a gender.

So the priests who abuse children are not generally homosexuals. The vast majority are not even pedophiles. They are heterosexual men who abuse boys, in contradiction to their own orientation, because sex objects don’t have a gender. Some priests abuse girls. But the preference for abusing boys is not due to orientation. It is probably due mostly to access. A priests spending time with boys seems, or used to seem, like a good thing, as if he were mentoring them. Maybe they would become altar servers, or sing in the boys choir. Maybe they would take a liking to the priesthood and become priests. So, for a long time, priests had easier access to boys than to girls. And that is likely why most priest-abusers abused male children or male teens. They are not homosexual priests, they are just typical abusers who treat human persons like objects, and so they just don’t care about gender.

Now it is a separate a problem that so many homosexual men have become priests. And it is a worse problem when such men are sexually-active. But in either case, sexually active or not, a homosexual priest will not usually abuse children. The main problem, instead, is that he is likely to reject the teaching of the Church on all sexual issues, because many of those teachings conflict with his own inner promptings. Even so, the child abuse crisis is not the same as the excess of homosexuals in the priesthood.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian