Blaming gays for sex abuse by priests.

How you look at things.
April 24 2002 5:01 PM

Get It Straight

The hypocrisy of blaming gays for sexual abuse by priests.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.

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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.

The result is precisely the kind of moral confusion conservatives claim to oppose. To project coherence, they attribute abuse by priests to "sexual anarchy" and "moral chaos." At the same time, to make the blame-gays theory look scientific, they draw convenient distinctions. According to Traditional Values Coalition Chairman Lou Sheldon, "To describe these priests as 'pedophiles' is clearly inaccurate—unless their victims are under the age of 13. The truth is that these are homosexuals who are engaging in pederasty or so-called consensual 'boy-love.' " Similarly, Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit said this week that "the behavioral scientists are telling us, the sociologists, it's not truly a pedophilia-type problem but a homosexual problem."

Maida, Sheldon, and other clerics and activists think they're safeguarding morality. But by describing a sexual relationship with a child between the ages of 13 and 17, unlike sex with a younger child, as a matter of hetero- or homosexual orientation, they are, in a strange way, normalizing such relationships. They're framing sex with teen-agers more like sex with adults and less like sex with children. They still believe it's wrong, but they're undermining the basis of that belief. And by insisting that the church has a gay problem, not a pedophile problem, they're letting pedophiles off the hook.

They're also letting men who have sex with teen-age girls off the hook. Last Sunday, National Review editor Rich Lowry said of priestly abuse, "A lot of these cases don't involve the molestation of little boys, pedophilia. [They] involve having sex with teen-age boys, which is more sort of homosexual behavior. … I'm not justifying it. It's just not something heterosexual men do." Yesterday, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago added that the church should allow "wiggle room" in punishing abusive priests. "There is a difference between a moral monster like [homosexual molester Father John] Geoghan, who preys upon little children, and does so in a serial fashion, and someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affection," said George.

"Not something heterosexual men do"? "Wiggle room" for sex with a 16-year-old "young woman"? Look who's liberal now.

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