Is There a Link Between Priestly Celibacy and Sexual Abuse?

A psychiatrist on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors thinks those who say ‘Yes’ are being ‘much too simplistic.’

 Baroness Sheila Hollins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks to the press in Rome on Feb. 7.
Baroness Sheila Hollins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks to the press in Rome on Feb. 7. (photo: David Kerr/CNA)

ROME — To say that clerical celibacy can lead to sex abuse is “much too simplistic,” because most abuse happens in the family, where the majority of the perpetrators are married men or other family members, a psychiatrist member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said.

In an interview with the Register Feb. 16, Baroness Sheila Hollins said any link between priestly celibacy and sex abuse is “complicated, and I think it would be much too simplistic to say celibacy is the cause of it, because in fact 80% of abuse happens in the family, where perpetrators are mostly going to be married men, but sometimes, of course, they may be other family members.”

She added that to end clerical celibacy in the hope it would “in some way change this is to miss the point of it.”

Hollins’ comments follow remarks made by Peter Saunders, a clerical-abuse survivor, who told a Vatican press conference Feb. 7 that despite a common perception clerical celibacy can lead to sex abuse of minors, most perpetrators likely had problems before entering the seminary.

“People don’t enter the priesthood and become child abusers; I don’t think that’s the case,” Saunders said. “I think that they had serious issues before entering holy orders.”

Although he said “far too many” clerics have committed sexual abuse of minors, “the vast majority of priests and religious will never hurt a child. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.” Saunders, who also sits on the 17-member commission, said that the term “pedophile” is overused and that the priests who abused him, rather than having any illness, “were very lonely.”


Lifestyle Needs to Be Addressed

In Feb. 16 comments to the Register, psychologist and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, another member of the commission, also discounted any direct link between celibacy and being an abuser, “because, otherwise, all people who live a celibate life would abuse. Since this is not the case, there cannot be a single, mono-causal link.”

But he added: “That’s not to say, in some instances, people may choose celibacy in a more or less conscious or unconscious way to avoid sexuality and to avoid a deviant sexuality.” In such cases, he said, they “may choose celibacy so they can feel [they are] in a safe haven where they don’t need to confront it.”

Such an attitude, he said, “is absolutely nonsense,” as people “cannot simply shut away their sexuality” for years and decades. “So the attempt to cut off or put it in a fridge forever doesn’t work.”

He stressed that clinical pedophilia is a condition “whose onset is at the age of 16, that is, before anyone enters a seminary.” For this reason, he said, a celibate lifestyle “in a certain way may become too difficult to bear for the person in terms of loneliness and in pressure of not living a well-established and good, self-caring — in the best sense of the word — life.”

Father Zollner added that the commission is aware of many priests who have abused 10, 15 or 20 years after they have been ordained, “so it is not celibacy, but a certain lifestyle they have developed.”

“This means we have to learn more about the formation — and the ongoing formation — of priests.” He pointed out that priests, especially celibate Latin-rite diocesan clergy, “often feel quite lonely,” and they “have to be helped to live a more healthy life, spiritually and humanly speaking.”

Hollins said what, to her, is important to recognize is that some men going into the priesthood are “not fully aware of their sexuality” and may “remain in a fairly immature emotional state and never really move on, particularly if their sexuality and relationships aren’t addressed in their formation.”

“That’s one of the difficulties,” she said, and she pointed out that the John Jay Study, a report on clerical sex abuse commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003, showed that 80% of those abused were boys. “That’s not something that celibacy is going to cure,” she said. “The issues there, it seemed to me, were to do with priests not really seeing a relationship with a teenage boy as being an offense, possibly because they identified with them more as peers than as children.”


Human Formation

Hollins sees “human formation” as “really critical” as a means to prevent abuse. “One of the most important things is that people are honest about their sexuality,” she said. And she believes their formation should begin at an older age, as neuroscience research has found that the teenage brain “isn’t fully formed emotionally, and in other ways,” until the age of 25, longer than previously thought. She also said she is concerned that priests “are being trained in seminaries, separate institutions, all male, and they’re not meeting ordinary members of society.”

“They’re going to go through several years of [life] pretty much separated from the rest of human life,” she said, and at a time when they are “still developing.”

Hollins would also like more attention paid to Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Shall Give You Shepherds), Pope St. John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation that concluded a 1990 Synod of Bishops on priestly formation. “I’m not convinced seminaries have really fully understood and implemented its teaching,” she said. “I just feel a decent education and formation, which allows for one’s human experience to be safely explored, is what’s actually going to get to the bottom of this,” she said.

Asked about the commission and its potential impact, Hollins said she believes it will be “very effective,” in part because Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has asked Pope Francis to write to presidents of all the world’s bishops’ conferences, asking them to draw attention to it. He is to tell them that their work “is really considered to be very important by the Holy See, and they should cooperate with us,” she said. “We’ve asked for a representative from every bishops’ conference to be identified so we can communicate with them.”

“This isn’t something that’s going to close down in three years’ time because the job’s done,” Hollins said. “This is a long-term project because, in many parts of the world, they may not even be aware of this [abuse].”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.