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Consensual Sex in the Priesthood

By LeRoy Chatfield

Sex, or better stated, the lack of sex, plays a prominent role in the priestly caste of the Roman Catholic Church. Celibacy, according to the church, is the cornerstone of its priesthood.

Ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood requires the candidate to take a formal vow of celibacy, that is, he agrees not to marry, or engage in sexual intercourse or intimacy with another person, during the course of his priestly life. The vow of celibacy seeks to insure that the lives of priests will be solely dedicated to the service of the church through its priesthood. Marriage or sexual intimacies are considered to be distractions from, and not consistent with, these goals.

Celibacy for the priestly caste is imbued with such importance in the life of the church that the current pope has asked the faithful not to debate the issue or seek any change in church policy because the matter has forever been settled.  Celibacy in the priesthood is considered to be the official teaching of the church, and it must be accepted.

The Catholic Church’s hoped-for-outcome is a celibate priestly caste, but what is the reality, do you think? On January 5, 2003, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article written by reporter Bill Smith entitled, “Nuns as sexual victims get little notice.” This article provides some much-needed insight about the practice of celibacy in religious orders today and, by extension, in the priesthood. This study took the form of a national survey, conducted by researchers at St. Louis University, about the sexual victimization of nuns in the Catholic Church. The results of the survey showed that about 40 percent of all nuns, approximately 34,000 women, suffered some form of sexual trauma, and that some of that sexual abuse came at the hands of priests and other nuns.

Among the key findings, the St. Louis University survey showed that one in five nuns had been sexually abused as a child, mostly by men, and in nine percent of the cases, the abuse was attributed to priests, nuns or other religious people. One in eight of the nuns surveyed, said she was sexually exploited and of that number, two of every five said the sexual exploitation included genital contact. Almost one out of 10 in the survey had experienced sexual harassment and of that number, more than half came at the hands of priests and nuns. More than half of all those who reported harassment, said that some physical contact was involved.

Prior to this national survey of nuns, St. Louis University had conducted a pilot study in 1995, which was limited to three orders of Catholic nuns residing in the greater St. Louis area. The results of the pilot study relating to the sexual exploitation and sexual harassment of nuns turned out to be very similar to the later national survey on the same subject. But the pilot study contained additional questions, which were not included in the national survey conducted a year later. These questions related to consensual sex. The pilot survey showed that nearly half of all nuns had been involved with some sort of consensual sex during their religious lives, often with other nuns or priests. The questions relating to consensual sex by nuns were dropped from the national survey because the researchers said they preferred the emphasis be placed on the sexual harassment and exploitation of nuns, and not on the topic of consensual sex, an issue they found to be “distracting.”

Politically, it is hard to fault the judgment of the researchers for withdrawing the consensual sex questions from the national survey. As disgraceful and scandalous as the sexual harassment and exploitation of Catholic nuns might be, the national headlines about consensual sex of nuns would have overwhelmed the findings about the harassment and exploitation of these nuns.

The final results of the survey were published by the Religious Research Association in December 1998 and received no publicity, national or otherwise — so much for any public outrage expressed by Catholic bishops or other religious leaders about the sexual victimization of its nuns.

Doesn’t this silence seem similar to the official church cover-up over the past decades that precipitated the ever-increasing rise in child abuse committed by Catholic priests? In legal depositions, many bishops still rationalize their sexual abuse cover-up by saying it was necessary to protect the faithful from scandal. At what cost?  More abuse, ever more money for cover-ups and the most scandalous behavior of all, denial and self-preservation.

The St. Louis University pilot study showed that “nearly” 50 percent of the nuns surveyed, all bound by vows of celibacy, engaged in consensual sex. What do you think this percentage would have been for priests?

We know from our own everyday experiences that men are more sexually aggressive than women, that men engage in more sexual activity than women. In Susan Mitchell’s, American Attitudes (3rd edition), we read that in 1998, men committed more adultery than women, men had sex more frequently than women, men had more sex partners, and during the period, 1993-1998, men had sex more frequently than women. I believe it is reasonable to assume that if priests had been surveyed, the number of those engaged in consensual sex would have been “more” than 60 percent.

The fundamental issue for Catholics, is not whether consensual sex in the priesthood is right or wrong, but whether celibacy is, or is not, in fact, the cornerstone of the priesthood, as the Church claims. When Church laws and regulations, over many decades, are consistently honored in the breach by its ordained priests and its professed religious, it is incumbent upon Church leadership to inform itself and make sound judgements about the efficacy of these regulations. Simply continuing to preach and teach Catholics the imperative of celibacy — that it is the most important characteristic of the priesthood – while knowing full well the reality is quite different, exposes Church leaders to the charge that they are little more than the whitewashed sepulchres referred to in Matthew 23.

For many decades, the Catholic leadership in the United States faithfully followed the failed policy of paying hush money to cover up the sexual abuse committed by its priests. How many decades will it now take for these same leaders to confront the Church’s failed policy of mandating celibacy for its priests?
































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