A Common Misunderstanding about the Abuse Crisis

Removing gay men from the priesthood will not end the sexual abuse crisis. Priest abusers are not gay men having homosexual relationships, they are abusers treating human persons like objects.

In a recent article at NCRegister, Msgr. Charles Popes writes well about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, especially among the clergy. He notes that most victims were male adults, and so he categorizes those priest-abusers as homosexuals: “This is not pedophilia. It is homosexual attraction.” Then he notes that, of course, some of the victims were minors, which would seem to imply that those abusers are pedophiles.

Here is what Msgr. Pope and many other commentators do not understand. In society in general, when an adult male sexually abuses a male child, the abuser is usually not a pedophile, and almost always not a homosexual. In the vast majority of cases, the man who abuses a boy also has sexual relationships with adult women; he has a heterosexual orientation. And this is also true of adult men who abuse a male teenager or young adult. The abuser usually does not have a homosexual orientation; he is heterosexual.

I know this from having worked with victims of sexual abuse, full time, over the course of two years (many years ago). I have met many abusers. I have participated in many meetings with family therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists as they described the situation with the abuser (once we found out who that was). I know for a fact that this is the case, most of the time. I worked with over 200 victims of abuse, and most of them had been abused by multiple different persons.

How can this be? A pedophile is someone with an exclusive (or nearly exclusive) sexual attraction to children. Most abusers of children are not pedophiles. They are heterosexual men who have sex with children, male or female, because they seek sexual pleasure and also they enjoy abusing power (they enjoy the abusive nature of the act, not just the venereal pleasure). The abuser treats the victim like an object, and objects do not have a gender. Heterosexual men abuse boys, even though the men are not gay, and not pedophiles. And this is true of the majority of cases of sexual abuse of children and teens.

So I object to the assumption that the priests who abuse children, teens, and young adults are gay. And though they abuse children, they might not all be pedophiles; most abusers of children are not. The fact that many of the victims are sexually mature also supports the conclusion that most priest-abusers are not pedophiles. But they also are not gay.

It is still a problem in the Church, when homosexual men are ordained and then receive positions of teaching and leadership in the Church. But the abuse crisis is a different kind of problem. If the Church had zero homosexuals in the priesthood and zero pedophiles, we would still have a substantial sexual abuse crisis. And that point must be understood widely, or we will never solve the abuse crisis.

See my previous article on this topic.

By the way, I never dealt with a case where the abuser was a priest. I’ve never been abused myself by anyone. My understanding of this issue comes from dealing with victims of another sexual abuse crisis, that in secular society. The sexual abuse of children occurs in every city and town, in every neighborhood. It is so widespread that a large percentage of boys and girls will be sexually abused before they reach the age of consent for sex. Out of all inpatients on child and adolescent psychiatric units, 75 to 80% are there because they were sexually abused. If there were no sexual abuse of children, three-fourths of all child and teen psych units would have to close for lack of patients. It is an extreme crisis in this country, and it has only gotten worse since the advent of the internet and the concomitant spread of pornography.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

13 thoughts on “A Common Misunderstanding about the Abuse Crisis

  1. Hi Ron,
    you’ve mentioned in your ‘The reproach of Christ’ blog, that comments are not posting at Catholicism.io So is this comment really posting?


  2. I agree with some of your points, but at the same time I feel that some folks are overplaying the notion that the sexual abuse incidents are not so much about the sexual pleasure, but about the power one feels in performing such acts. A person who thrives on power can do so in many ways. These clergy, if they were interested in just power, could have manifested their desires in many ways: by having sexual relations with women in the parish, by embezzling funds, by being dictatorial in the way they treat people, perhaps by ordering tortuous penance, by using their position to advance certain political or personal goals, by taking advantage of the kindness of parishioners, etc. But the vast majority of these cases do involve same-sex acts, and situations like the one in Honduras prove that the problem runs rampant among practicing homosexual men in the seminaries. And it can be no coincidence that the vast majority of these same-sex abuse cases and scandals have occurred in the Church within the past 60-70 years, when sexual immorality started to become advertised, promoted, and accepted. Would one find such high incidence of these acts in the Middle Ages or even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Church? Lastly, to me it seems incongruous to say that heterosexual men abuse boys and other men as well. If they are doing that, then they are not heterosexual even though they may be married or primarily have sexual relations with women. A heterosexual man should have no inclination to view or touch another male in a sexual way.


    • I know for a fact that most male adult abusers of boys are heterosexuals. And they get both lust and enjoyment of power in the abuse. The seminarian situation is partly the error of admitting gays, who are sexually active with persons of their same age-group. That differs from the priest-abuse situation.


  3. All sexual acts that are outside of marriage and with an openness to procreation objectify both the act and the persons, so all homosexual acts by their very nature are the treating of another person as an object. Thus, so I don’t understand your distinction.

    The bottom line is: yes, you are right conclude in the cases you studied that the abusers were seeking power. You should also conclude in your analysis, however, that there is no true homosexual orientation in anyone because homosexuality is a disorder and contrary to nature. All persons who commit homosexual acts are abusers bar none (with or without consent).

    By the way you distinguish these abusers from those you consider “actual” homosexuals you are unknowingly arguing that some people are “really” homosexuals, which is not true of anyone.


    • A homosexual is someone who experiences a predominant sexual attraction to persons of the same sex. Most men who abuse boys have sexual relationships with adult women, and do not have sexual relationships with adult men. They are “straight” in orientation.

      I don’t agree that all homosexuals treat their sex partners like objects. There are true relationships, friendships, between gay persons, and they can express love to one another by their sexual acts, even though those acts are inherently morally disordered. They don’t realize that these acts are immoral. Abusers treat victims like objects. Not all homosexuals do so. However, you are right in the philosophical sense, since the acts in question are not naturally fit for conjugal love and procreation.


  4. To love is to seek the good of another. In it’s essence it is not about satisfying an orientation or attraction that a person has. Thus, there is no love in a relationship that is disordered by nature. Deep down all homosexual and fornicators and the self-indulgent know this because it is written on the human heart.


    • Would you say that about contracepting Catholic spouses? If the person has invincible ignorance, they might love another person, and yet, unfortunately, commit a grave sexual sin as well.


    • By the understanding that to love is to will the good of another, than a contracepting couple do not love one another. I would concede that such a couple could be “in love,” as could homosexuals, which is imperfect because it is predicated on emotions and physical attraction, and those feelings can change. Such a couple is on a shaky foundation and apt to place their own interests above the other when those feelings are challenged or circumstances become difficult.


    • As long as the sin is not actual mortal sin, then they can retain the state of grace, which includes the virtue of love. So even though, objectively, all mortal sin is contrary to love properly understood, fallen sinners often misunderstand. So we cannot assume that all objective mortal sin is actual mortal sin.


  5. Well this discussion on “love” just depends on whether we mean “the good of the other” including sex, or just focusing on gay people caring for each other. For example, even if a priest showed love in many different ways to alter boys, adding in the sin of “abuse” would categorize the whole relationship as “hate.” Similarly, if gay person showed love by caring for another man, adding in “acts of grave depravity” would turn the whole relationship overall into “hate.”

    Second, homosexuals are not more likely to be pedophiles, because your definition is “predominately.” However, if we delete predominately, it is true that people who “experience (at least some) sexual attraction to persons of the same sex” are more likely to be pedophiles. Studies show that of pedophiles who are also attracted to adults, they are disproportionately in the group of men not solely attracted to women. The distinction is what society refers to as “bisexual.” Pedophiles attracted to adults are 5 times more likely than the general population to be what society terms “gays and bisexuals” (aka. a member of LGBT).

    Finally, I agree. 1. There are too many gay priests to ban them. 2. The sin itself is not the attractions. 3. I find no reason why celibate gay men are in a state of emotional immaturity. At the end of the day, even if we tried to ban priests not exclusively attracted to adult women, it would likely just be the “good” gay priests who told the truth. Pedophiles willing to abuse children would also likely be willing to lie that they were straight. So the ban would be ineffective.


    • Some objective sins cannot be committed with sincere but mistaken conscience, including abusing children. So the pedophile who abuses is not in the state of grace. But in a society which widely approves of homosexuality, a person could be in a state of grace and be in a gay relationship.

      I know from my own experience working with abused kids — and having met many abusers — that men who abuse boys are not usually gay, and not usually pedophiles.


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