Over the past twenty years, the Roman Catholic Church has been battered by an endless succession of child-abuse scandals. In 2002 the Boston Globe newspaper revealed the sexual abuse of children by the clergyman and a cover-up by Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston. Wide-ranging investigations have uncovered similar abuse in America, Australia and Europe.
The revelations are still appearing. In 2018 a German report on sexual abuse by clerics recognised a systemic problem and thousands of victims. The Portuguese Church announced a federal investigation in 2021. Following reporting by El Pais, another newspaper in March, the Spanish government launched one of its own. It is likely to make some radical recommendations. Church Members wanted to end celibacy in the priesthood, blessings for gay marriages, ordination for women, and more power for the follower.
That has caused an expected backlash. Conservatives, especially in America and Africa, accuse German liberals of using the sexual-abuse scandal to dismantle church doctrine. In Africa and Asia, church leaders still dismiss the crisis as a Western problem.
Germany’s report in 2018 made many recommendations. Three significant changes— changing the Church’s attitude towards gay people, abolishing the requirement for celibacy and reducing the power of clerics.
According to the report, celibacy does not increase the risk of sexual abuse, although it is conceded that seminaries teach too little about it. Others have come to different solutions. Australia’s Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse gave closure in 2017 that completion of celibacy made abuse more likely.
The need for celibacy makes a career as a priest far less attractive to anyone who craves romance or a family—to say, most people. But for those who are used to hiding their sexual aspirations, such as paedophiles, it imposes a few additional pressures. They have to be celibate or at least pretend to be.
For these reasons, sex abusers appear unusually common among the clergy. Researchers think 6% and 9% of Catholic priests and religious figures are found to be child abusers. Since much sex abuse goes unreported,
1% and 3% of men might show their sexual interest in children, though many never act on it.
Catholic clergy members have not always been celibate. In the early days of the Church, many seem to have been married. The ideology of celibacy started in the 11th century. Its Church leaders argue that by forgoing marriage, priests emulate Jesus and can devote themselves more fully to their flock.
But there are exceptions to the rules. Since the 1980s, married Protestant clergy who converted to Catholicism have been allowed to become priests. The authority of the Pope allows married men to become a priest.
Even where celibacy is strictly policed, many would be happy to cut it off. Even in the orthodox Spanish Church, most priests found to favour it. In 2019 bishops from nine Amazonian territories proposed in favour of married men becoming priests to help ease a shortage that has left some Amazonian Catholics waiting months between masses.
The role of women is controversial too. In 2014, 59% of North American Catholics supported the idea. In 2019, majorities in chile, Argentina, and brazil gave the same statement Females are far less involved in sex crimes than men are.
There is little evidence that women have ever been Catholic priests. Once again, practice sometimes runs ahead of theory. Women perform baptisms because of fewer male priests.
The barriers many church leaders show to such changes illustrate what many abuse victims see as Catholicism’s most significant problem of concentration of power in the hands of clerics.