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Making sense of the sex abuse crisis

by Dr Pravin Thevathasan (consultant psychiatrist)

Some sections of the media have decided that the Catholic Church is riddled with paedophile priests. I will argue otherwise. However, given that one act of abuse by one priest is a grave scandal, a full evaluation of the psychological and spiritual formation of priests is required.

There is a need to begin by defining our clinical terms with care and precision. According to a work entitled Sexual Deviance published in 2008, paedophilia may be defined as a persistent sexual interest in prepubescent children manifested in thought, fantasy and sexual behaviour. In contrast, it is said that men who seek sexual contact with post pubertal adolescents below the legal age of consent are engaging in criminal behaviour but they are unlikely to be paedophiles. In other words, they present with different psychopathology to classic paedophiles.

There is a higher prevalence of male paedophiles than female and the majority of child victims are female. However, it is argued that identifying homosexual paedophiles is important as they are twice as likely to offend as heterosexual paedophiles.

The authors note that studies have shown high levels of other psychopathology among paedophiles including anxiety, depression and personality problems. One might assume that treating these conditions could prove curative in the management of paedophiles. However, after examining various treatment methods, it is concluded that treatment outcomes are generally poor. Compare this conclusion to the somewhat optimistic evaluation of noted Psychiatrist Anthony Storr:

The adult who makes a sexual assault upon a child requires medical and psychiatric investigation rather than punishment.”

This claim is found in the 1974 edition of his book Sexual Deviation. So we see that, until relatively recently, respected Psychiatrists were of the opinion that paedophilia may be a treatable condition. Remarkably enough, Storr also writes:

Most people assume that (paedophilia) is harmful. But various authorities who have examined children who have been seduced have concluded that the emotional as opposed to the physical damage which is done to children is more the result of adult horror than anything intrinsically dreadful in the sexual contact itself....in some instances in which there has been repeated sexual contact between the child and the adult, the child has been eager to continue the association until discovered and reprimanded.”

This expert opinion corresponded to a time when many Bishops dealt poorly with abusive priests. Therapy rather than punishment was seen as the means of curing deviant behaviour. Interestingly, the scientist cited by Storr to justify his opinion is the notorious Alfred Kinsey. Nor was this opinion limited to experts: Richard Dawkins has written that he was not psychologically affected after being sexually molested by a teacher. Perhaps he was being rather too sanguine.

Let us now consider studies carried out on Catholic clergy found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors. In the United States, one of the classic works is entitled Pedophiles and Priests by Philip Jenkins. According  to his study, 1.8% of the Catholic clergy in  the Archdiocese of Chicago were probably guilty of the sexual abuse of minors over a period of forty years. This corresponds to similar figures reported by Archbishop Vincent Nichols who writes that 0.4% of Catholic clergy in the United Kingdom have been accused of the sexual abuse of minors over a period of forty years and fewer still have been found guilty. It is of interest to note that the incidence of sexual abuse by catholic clergy peaked in the seventies and eighties, a time of general turmoil and confusion in the Church. The recent call by Hans Küng to return  the Church to the spirit of that age is, to say the least, somewhat surprising under the circumstances.

Jenkins has carried out research in the area of clergy abuse over a period of twenty years and he concludes that there is no evidence that celibate clergy are any more likely to abuse minors than non celibate clergy: the incidence of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church is comparable to that found in other denominations. To put matters in context, minors are a hundred times more likely to claim that they have been abused in state schools in the United States than by Catholic Clergy.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of victims of clergy abuse have been adolescent males — up to 80% and more in the United States. In other words, there are relatively few classic paedophile priests. According to studies cited by author Brian Clowes, while only 2-4% of men are  attracted to other men, the rate of homosexual attraction is 6-20 times higher among those attracted to minors. It must be emphasized that the majority of homosexuals are not paedophiles and the majority of paedophiles are heterosexual paedophiles. The same observation applies to those who abuse adolescents. But in the general population, of males who sexually abuse minors, only one in seven molest boys. In contrast, in the population of priests who sexually abuse minors, six in seven molest boys. This leads Clowes to conclude that the problem of abuse specifically within the Catholic Church is one of homosexual behaviour. For reasons perhaps too obvious to mention, the media prefer to continue using the rather misleading term of “paedophile priests.”

There can be no denying that the handling of deviant clergy by some bishops has been a grave scandal. But is Pope Benedict himself guilty of this? A number of authors including George Weigel, the conservative commentator, and John Allen, who writes for the progressive National Catholic Reporter, have concluded that from the year 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger has done more than any other Vatican official to rid the Church of this “filth.” Thanks to the Benedictine reform and zero tolerance policies adopted in the United Kingdom and United States, there has been a significant decline in the number of reported cases of clergy abuse in the last few years. The cases cited by the media in the last few months are decades old.

A number of commentators have written with commendable integrity on the quiet and courageous work carried out by the great reforming Pope. Alas, integrity is not a virtue to be found among some journalists working for The New York Times, The Times and among certain lawyers who have made a vast fortune from the abuse scandals.

If clergy sexual abuse has been identified in many Christian denominations, why has there been a pervasive interest in abuse cases within the Catholic Church? The reasons are complex but they ultimately boil down to this: the Catholic Church, even in its wounded state, is the one institution that continues to confront the culture of death and that is why there has been a certain persecution of the Church in general and the Papacy in particular. At Fatima, Our Lady said: “The Holy Father will have much to suffer.” The message of Fatima is now more relevant than ever.

Let us consider certain principles of morality. Secularists believe, as we do, that child abuse is evil. There is no moral relativism about this: Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins do not say “we believe the sexual abuse of minors is wrong but we defend to the death the right of people to disagree with us.” Therefore, child abuse is intrinsically evil and, if intrinsically evil, absolutely evil. Only an absolute law giver can give us morally absolute laws that must be respected always and everywhere.

Today, we are experiencing many violations of the rule of celibacy and it is no coincidence that it corresponds to a time of an even greater crisis in the vocation of marriage. The prevalence of the abuse of minors within dysfunctional families is far greater than abuse by clergy. Celibacy is a gift that can only ultimately be lived in faith. It gives the world a certain testimony to the kingdom of heaven. It is a gift to be accepted freely and candidates for the priesthood need to be selected with greater care than ever.


Clowes, B W (2001) “Homosexuality and the church crisis”, www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2010

Laws, D R and O’Donohue, W T (2008) “Sexual Deviance,” Guildford press

Jenkins, P (2002) “Pedophiles and Priests”, Oxford University Press

Storr, A (1964) “Sexual Deviation”, Penguin Books


12th May 2010

I thought Dr. Thevathasan's "Making sense of the sex abuse crisis" is truly superb; This an exceptionally important essay which I think should be more widely disseminated.

William E. May
Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America and Senior Fellow of the Culture of Life Foundation

Copyright ©; Dr Pravin Thevathasan 2010

Version: 23rd December 2014

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