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Taking Clergy Celibacy out of the Sexual Abuse Equation

Marcin Mazur/UK Catholic

Studies of scandals within the Anglican Church may rule out celibacy as a cause

Thirty years ago, churches began to recognize the scale and gravity of child abuse by clergy. Now, though, we are on the verge of some critically important findings about what does, and does not, cause that heinous crime. In particular, new investigations teach us a great deal about the impact of mandatory clerical celibacy.

As I have written before, the abuse crisis is most notorious in the context of the Roman Catholic church. In the United States between 1950 and 2002, some 4.2 percent of Catholic clergy were plausibly accused of abusive actions, whether or not these charges might have stood up in court. Making comparative statements all but impossible, that quantitative statement is not possible for literally any other denomination or profession. Yes, we hear charges against individual Baptists or Lutherans or Jews, but such evidence is anecdotal. Hence, activists and campaigners of various shades feel free to assign the causes of clergy abuse as they wish, chiefly identifying features attributed to the Catholic priesthood — factors such as mandatory celibacy, the de facto toleration of clerical homosexuality, the exclusion of women priests, and so on. (Obvious comment: I am citing these explanations, not endorsing them).

Now matters are changing, in that we are finally about to have concrete data about abuse in another church, allowing serious and effective comparison. In best social scientific style, variables can be tested and excluded.

For years now, clergy of the Church of England have faced repeated scandals for offenses very much like those of the celebrated Catholic cases — abusive priests allowed to continue unchecked in their crimes, senior administrators turning a blind eye, victims’ protests unheard. These horror stories have become so grave as to provoke a sweeping and systematic investigation of abuse by Anglican clergy over the past 60 years, and the initial revelations are ghastly.

The head of that church is Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, a former corporate executive in the oil industry, and a man not given to easy sentimentality. Yet his recent pronouncements have been close to apocalyptic. Not only were acts of clerical abuse “beyond description — terrible,” but their sheer scale beggared belief. The Church of England had “failed terribly.” In a debate on the issue, Welby broke down in tears. He also asserted that, even given all the recent scandals, there is “more that has not been revealed” about the problem.

The Anglican Archbishop of York, meanwhile, has proposed requiring clergy to reveal incidents of child abuse that came to their attention, even if they learned of them under the seal of the confessional. This is very serious stuff.

Within the next year or so, we will have a comprehensive report giving numbers of credible cases in recent times. Coincidentally or not, Welby is speaking of reviewing all clergy records over the past 60 years, which would provide a time frame very close to the famous American John Jay Report into Catholic cases (from 1950 onwards).

We don’t have the conclusions yet, but let me make an assumption, that when the figures become available, they will be at least equal to the rates for the US Roman Catholic Church, and possibly higher. Grant that parallel for the sake of argument, and think through the consequences. Here we have two institutions that had pretty comparable rates of clergy abuse. Both Churches — England’s Anglicans and US Catholics — are broadly similar in their institutional structure, and the special role they give to a clerical profession or caste.

They differ though in one particular, which is of enormous relevance to current debates. The US Catholic Church demands mandatory clerical celibacy. The Church of England does not. The obvious conclusion, then, is that the presence or absence of mandatory celibacy has no relation whatever to the prevalence of sexual abuse by clergy.

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