Get It Straight
The hypocrisy of blaming gays for sexual abuse by priests.
The one thing everybody knows about the Roman Catholic Church is that you're supposed to confess your sins. Everybody, that is, except the church's leaders. First they failed to come clean about sexual abuse by priests. Then they failed to come clean about having covered up the abuse. Every time they assured the public that nothing else would come out, something else came out.
Now the bishops, the cardinals, and conservative interest groups have a new story. The problem, they say, is homosexuality. If the church gets rid of gay priests, everything will be fine. But the more questions you ask about this story, the more contradictions you find. The cardinals' problem isn't that they can't keep the priesthood straight. The problem is that once again, they can't keep their story straight. Here are four key points on which their new alibi doesn't add up.
1. Profiling. The Family Research Council, the Traditional Values Coalition, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Roman Catholic Faithful, and numerous priests and bishops suggest that the church should weed out gay priests because a disproportionate share of sexual abuse cases involving priests are male-on-male. Credible reports say 90 percent of the victims are boys. Conservatives don't care that most gay priests don't molest kids. Their view is that it's fair to presume that an individual is dangerous if he's part of a high-risk group.
Unless, of course, we're talking about priests as a whole. In that case, conservatives point out the unfairness of judging the group on the basis of a few bad apples. Consider the FRC's April 5 statement, "Media Hides Homosexuality Connection in Sex Abuse Scandal." According to the FRC, the "connection" is that "most cases" of abuse by priests are male-on-male. The standard for blaming a crime on a group, in other words, is what percentage of the crime is committed by the group. But in the same statement, FRC scolds the media for besmirching the Catholic clergy, when in fact the abusers are "a very small number of priests." Suddenly, FRC's standard for blaming a crime on a group isn't what percentage of the crime is committed by the group—that would be inconvenient, since 100 percent of sex abuse by priests is committed by priests—but what percentage of the group commits the crime.
How do gays measure up to that standard? What percentage of gay priests have sexually abused children? The FRC doesn't say. Why not? Well, according to last Friday's New York Times, there are 46,000 Catholic priests in the United States; 30 percent to 50 percent of Catholic seminarians are gay; and lawyers for victims "claim to have lists of more than 1,000 priests accused of abuse in the United States." If you assume the worst—that only 30 percent of priests are gay, that 2,000 priests will end up accused, and that all the accused priests are guilty, gay, and current rather than former priests—fewer than 15 percent of gay priests have committed sexual abuse. If the 2,000 cases are spread over a period of 80 percent turnover in the priesthood, or if the number of guilty priests is more like 1,100, or if the percentage of priests who are gay is more like 50 percent, then only about 8 percent of gay priests have committed sexual abuse. According to the Catholic League, that's the rate of pedophilia "in the general adult population."
If you want to use profiling to weed out pedophiles, there's a far more effective way. One hundred percent of sexual abuse by priests is committed by men. So is nearly all sexual abuse of children. While it's hard to tell who's gay, it's easy to tell who's male. The ideal solution would be to ban men from the priesthood. The modest alternative would be to admit women. If conservatives were serious about protecting kids, they'd begin with that step. Instead, they've rejected it.
2. Deviance. When pedophiles such as the notorious Rev. Paul Shanley dissent from the Catholic hierarchy, conservatives dismiss them as twisted heretics. When these same pedophiles dissent from gay rights groups, conservatives infer that the pedophiles, not the gay rights groups, represent gay thinking. Connie Marshner, the director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Governance, argues that sexual liberalism has infected Catholicism and that the church must return to its roots. Meanwhile, she quotes a "pederast theoretician" who recently denounced the gay rights movement for preaching "assimilation" and trying to "demonize cross-generational love." So the gay rights movement, like the Catholic Church, rejects pederasty, right? Well, no. According to Marshner, the church's rejection is genuine, while the movement's rejection is tactical.
3. Alternate causality. According to conservatives, sexual abuse by priests can't be blamed on celibacy, since many clergymen who molest minors are married. "The best evidence suggests that the rate of priest pedophilia is about the same as found among the clergy of other religions," Catholic League President Bill Donohue pointed out four weeks ago. "Indeed, the Anglican dioceses in British Columbia are going bankrupt because so many ministers can't keep their hands to themselves. And these men are married." Donohue's logic sounds pretty solid: Some sexual abusers in the clergy are married; married clergymen aren't subject to the celibacy rule; therefore, some sexual abusers in the clergy aren't subject to the celibacy rule; therefore, sexual abuse in the clergy can't be blamed on the celibacy rule.
Let's try the same logic on homosexuality. Some sexual abusers in the clergy are married; married clergymen generally aren't gay; therefore, some sexual abusers in the clergy aren't gay; therefore, sexual abuse in the clergy can't be blamed on homosexuality—right? Uh, not exactly. "It is intellectually outrageous and deceitful to pretend that we don't know what's going on here," Donohue said on Fox News this week. "Too many sexually active gays have been in the priesthood, and it's about time they were routed out."
4. Gray area. The old school of sexuality held that deviance was continuous: Stray from the path of righteousness, and pretty soon you'll be lying with other men, children, and dogs. The new school separates these practices into distinct orientations or disorders. The old school had coherence; the new school has cachet. The gay-blamers can't figure out which way to go. If they say homosexuality is distinct from pedophilia, they can't blame the latter on the former. On the other hand, if they say homosexuality is just one manifestation of waywardness, they can't assure the public that getting rid of the former will get rid of the latter.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.