5 Wrong Ways to Address the Church’s Abuse Crisis

The problem is complex. The perpetrators are not only priests, but also some Cardinals, Bishops, deacons, religious, and other persons with leadership positions in the Church. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to the case of priests who are abusers, but they are not the only guilty parties. The main crime is the sexual abuse of children and teens. But some priests have also broken their vow or promise of chastity by consensual sex with adults. Most of the time, the victim is male; females are also victims in more than a few cases. The priest might break his vows with an adult woman or a man.

The crime is particularly troubling when seminarians are the victims or perpetrators. Whoever controls the seminaries, controls the priesthood and the episcopate. When sexual sins prevail in the seminary, evil is in control, not the Spirit of God.

At La Salette, the Blessed Virgin Mary warned us: “May those who are at the head of religious communities keep themselves on guard for persons whom they must receive, because the demon will use of all his malice in order to introduce into religious orders persons devoted to sin, for disorders and the love of carnal pleasures will be spread by all the earth.” [Melanie’s secrets, n. 18] The same applies to seminaries. Much harm is done to the sheep when the shepherds themselves are corrupted.

Recall the woman who had an ailment for which she could not find a cure.

{5:25} And there was a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years.
{5:26} And she had endured much from several physicians, and she had spent everything she owned with no benefit at all, but instead she became worse.

{5:34} And he said to her: “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace, and be healed from your wound.”

The treatments offered to her only made the problem worse. This is a parable of Christ about the Church. The Church has a problem for many years, and all the treatments offered have done nothing, or have made the problem worse. She was only healed by faith in Jesus. Beware of worldly solutions to spiritual problems.

I will suggest a solution to the problem of child sexual abuse in the Church (CSA). But first, let me caution the faithful about proposed solutions which will only make things worse.

1. Wrong Solution One: Remove all gays from the clergy.

This solution is based on a number of misunderstandings and over-simplifications. Proponents cite the John Jay report here, especially that 81% of the victims were male. They then assume that the male perpetrators must be gay, since the sexual acts in question are homosexual in nature. Proponents also claim that most victims were teenagers, and then they draw the incorrect conclusion that the abusers are not pedophiles.

However, the John Jay Report found that 60% of victims were 13 years of age or younger. Then 73.2% of victims were 14 and younger.

If a person is attracted to teenagers, and not to younger children, this is termed ephebophilia. Proponents of the theory that abusers are gay men attracted to teens seem to be unaware that the definition of ephebophilia is: “the primary sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19.” [Wikipedia] Most abusers, according to the John Jay report, were interested in children 14 and younger.

Another fact which undermines this proposed solution is that, in child abuse cases in the Church just as in secular society, the typical abuser is an adult male who is a heterosexual, and who, in abusing boys, is acting contrary to his own orientation.

“Sex-offending clergy frequently report that they victimize boys (even if they report being heterosexual) because boys are a victim of convenience (Plante, 2004). They often report that they have ready access to and trust with boys rather than girls.” [1]

The abuser treats the victim like a sexual object, and objects do not have a gender. The John Jay report lists the percent of cases for boy versus girls for each type of sexual assault. A review of the list clearly shows that the behavior of the perpetrator is nearly the same, regardless of whether the victim is male or female.

Since most abusers are not homosexuals, removing homosexuals from the priesthood does not remove most abusers. You would simply be making the priest shortage problem worse.

2. Wrong Solution Two: prevent abuse victims from entering the priesthood.

The idea is that many abusers were themselves abused as children. Victims are therefore seen (incorrectly) as potential abusers. As explained at length in my article: This is Not How You Fix the Abuse Crisis, this proposed solution is based on misinformation. Most victims of abuse do not become abusers. [2]

The John Jay report states that: “Fewer than 7% of the priests were reported to have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children.” So preventing sexual abuse victims from entering the priesthood removes less than 7% of abusers.

And this solution will remove a larger percentage of candidates to the priesthood who are victims and will never become abusers. The percentage of boys in the general population who have been abused is estimated at about 1 in 6. That may be an underestimate due to underreporting. But 1/6 is 16.7%. Reducing the priesthood by one sixth will leave 93% of abusers unaffected, and at the same time will harm the priesthood by excluding many good persons.

How foolish and unjust it is, to treat victims as if they were perpetrators! This solution implies that these victims are so damaged that even the Church should reject them. It is a merciless and ignorant proposal.

3. Wrong Solution Three: Put laypersons in charge of the Church’s response to abuse allegations.

The idea is that the clergy have done poorly in handling these cases, so choose a group of non-clergy to handle the cases. Who came up with this solution? Someone who does not understand how parishes and dioceses work, apparently.

The response of Bishops to allegations of abuse has been much the same as any leader of any secular organization, such as a for-profit corporation. The Bishops did not behave like Apostles, but like secular lay administrators. That is the problem, not the solution. In other words, the Bishops are acting like laypersons, so replacing them with laypersons will not work.

Well-meaning lay persons on a committee will be very likely to know the priests who are accused, since they will be from the same diocese. They will be likely to have a bias in favor of these priests. So this will only worsen the problem.

Many years ago, I worked with abused children. One victim alleged that her perpetrator was a certain man, someone known to her psychiatrist. But this child psychiatrist said he didn’t believe the girl. He knew the man and couldn’t imagine him abusing a child. And this is what happens when the persons who deal with allegations against a priest know the accused. It is very hard to imagine that someone you know, who has shown no signs of being an abuser to you, has a secret life abusing children. That is why bishops do so poorly in handling these cases. They know the priests, and it is human nature, once you have developed trust with someone, not to change your mind and believe a severe accusation too readily.

4. Wrong Solution Four: Zero Tolerance

This approach proposes swift and harsh measures against any priest accuse of sexual sins or crimes. It sounds good at first glance. If only some of the more notorious cases of sexual abuse were handled this way, the crisis would at least be mitigated.

There are several problems with zero tolerance. First, it always starts out as zero tolerance for serious crimes. That sounds good, right? But due to the way that human nature and group behavior works, it ends up with smaller offenses treated the same as serious crimes. In schools, zero tolerance for drugs has led to children being expelled or suspended for giving an aspirin to another student. That child is treated the same as a drug dealer. Then the child who makes the slightest reference to guns, such as in a drawing, is treated the same as a child who brings a gun to school. Zero tolerance never ends well.

Zero tolerance for priests who abuse children will inevitably end up with the laicization of good priests. A priest might make the mistake of saying something about sex in the confessional, or might hug a child chastely, or might flirt with an adult woman. A priest might commit any one of a hundred smaller offenses, which do not deserve severe punishment. But the zero tolerance policy is always applied in an unthinking manner, without regard for the gravity of the offense (or the lack of gravity).

Zero tolerance leaves no room for repentance and conversion. Are we Christians or not? Are we seeking a solution to this problem just as if we were atheists?

Certainly, for cases of sexual acts with minors, the priest should be given no further opportunity to fall into that sin again. Laicization is entirely fitting. But we must be careful not to expand severe punishments to lesser offenses. And there must always be opportunity for an accused person to prove his innocence, and for a guilty person to seek repentance and conversion. Perhaps a priest, after laicization, could find some work of mercy to do with adults in need, with some population that is not vulnerable to his relapse. We should not discard the guilty, as if they were unredeemable or unforgiveable.

5. Wrong solution: more married priests (added 11/3/18)

In society, the typical abuser of boys is a heterosexual man who has a sexual relationship with a wife or adult girlfriend. Having more married priests will not stem the abuse crisis. Many abusers are sexually active with their wives. (I know this from working with abused children, and from talking to family therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.) Men do not abuse children because they can’t find an adult to have sex with them. Priests do not abuse children because they are not permitted to have wives.


Any workable good Christian solution to this problem will be complex, not simplistic, and will allow for the possibility of a not guilty verdict, as well as rehabilitation for the guilty.

I don’t know what the right solution is for this problem. In all probability, we will never have a priesthood entirely devoid of at least a small number of abusers. There are abusers among school teachers, among politicians, among judges and lawyers, among any group of persons in secular society. We can address the problem better, but we probably can’t solve it while grave sin persists among the faithful.

Any workable good Christian solution to this problem will include removing teachers of grave errors on faith and morals from teaching positions and from the priesthood. We cannot have a holy clergy without the truths taught to use by Christ and His Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

[1] Thomas Plante, “Homosexual Applicants to the Priesthood: How Many and Are They Psychologically Healthy?” Pastoral Psychology 2007.

[2] Paolucci, Elizabeth Oddone, Mark L. Genuis, and Claudio Violato. “A meta-analysis of the published research on the effects of child sexual abuse.” The Journal of psychology 135.1 (2001): 17-36.