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Seven key facts about the Vatican, the Pope and child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy

By Ben Mathews - posted Thursday, 22 April 2010

Recent comments from Vatican officials in the wake of child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, and the reporting of them, call for some clarification of key concepts to inform public debate and policy responses. Three recent events have further crystallised public attention:

  1. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is reported to not only have laid the blame for clerical abuse of children on homosexuals and paedophilia, but also to have linked the status of homosexuality with paedophilia. He stated that “many [psychologists and psychiatrists] have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia. That is true. That is the problem.” (R Gledhill and R Owen, ‘Top cardinal, Tarcisio Bertone, blames paedophile crisis on homosexuals’, The Times, 14 April 2010).

  2. Pope Benedict XVI has been personally accused of improper delay and inadequate response in a case of clerical abuse, in his former capacity as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office handling abuse cases at the time). Based on recently released legal documents from a civil claim, the Pope in his former capacity is alleged to have acted inappropriately after being informed of a Californian bishop’s desire that a priest convicted of sexual offences (Stephen Kiesle) be defrocked. Ratzinger delayed his response for four years, and eventually decided that a decision about the priest needed still more time and that in making the decision, the Church had to consider “the good of the Universal Church” and the priest’s “low age” (he was 38) (see L Goodstein, ‘Pope Put Off Punishing Abusive Priest’, New York Times, 9 April 2010)

  3. The Vatican, in response to recent events, on 12 April 2010 attempted to clarify and strengthen its institutional method of responding to cases of known abuse. It published a new Guide to Understanding Basic CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) Procedures concerning sexual abuse allegations

These events raise numerous important questions. Seven are dealt with here.


Paedophilia and sexuality: Cardinal Bertone’s mistakes

1. Are most cases of clergy abuse properly termed ‘paedophilia’?
No. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition, Text Revision, Code 302.2), paedophilia is a disorder where a person who is at least 16, has intense sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child (typically age 13 or younger), with the child the object of attention being at least five years younger.

Relatively few cases of clerical abuse fall within this definition. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted a study of clergy sexual abuse of children in the USA from 1950-2002. It found that 4,392 priests had been alleged perpetrators (approximately 4 per cent of all priests in that period). These allegations were made by 10,667 different individuals. Of these, 50.9 per cent of alleged victims were aged between 11-14, 27.3 per cent were 15-17, 16 per cent were aged 8-10 and almost 6 per cent were aged under 7 (John Jay College of Criminal Justice).
Therefore, while a not insignificant proportion of alleged cases involve paedophilia, the majority of cases of clerical abuse of children cannot be classified in this way, and all cases of child sexual abuse should definitely not be called “paedophilia”. Journalists and others discussing these events should be careful to describe the events and cases accurately. Those cases that do involve true paedophilia, especially when the offender has multiple victims, are extremely serious. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that some cases of clerical abuse involve paedophiles, but most do not. (For further interesting expert commentary on this, and the entire context, read the interview with Dr Leslie Lothstein.

2. How should most cases be classified?
A considerable number of cases are probably better termed as manifestations of ephebophilia, which is a condition where an adult’s primary sexual interest is in adolescents. The word comes from the Greek root ephebos (adolescent). These are also serious cases, usually breaching law (depending on the child’s age and the State’s law), and always breaching morality and professional ethics. However, this condition is not (so far at least) a diagnosis or a mental disorder. According to Dr Lothstein, if it involves compulsive traits, then it may be a “non-paraphilic sexual disorder”.

3. What about the homosexuality claim?
It is simply wrong to claim that homosexuals are paedophiles, or that there is a causal relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia. It is also wrong to claim that homosexuality is the fundamental or sole problem causing child sexual abuse by clergy. In the John Jay College study, 81 per cent of victims were male and 19 per cent were female. There may be cases of clergy who are homosexual and abuse children, and there may even be some cases of a homosexual priest being a true paedophile. However, the status of homosexuality is not a direct, true causal factor in this behaviour. There are also many cases involving clergy who are not homosexual who abuse children, including children of the same gender (for the complex reasons why, read Lothstein’s interview, and see also D Finkelhor, “The legacy of the clergy abuse scandal” (2003) 27 Child Abuse & Neglect 1225-1229). These facts, and the complex reasons influencing abuse (which are too detailed to pursue further here), mean that there is no basis for Cardinal Bertone’s outrageously misinformed comments.

The Pope's personal case of delay and liability


4. What does this say about the Pope and the Catholic Church?
It indicates many things: (a) that there have been appalling systemic problems at the top management levels in the Catholic Church in how to deal appropriately with these cases; (b) that many individual bishops and priests were frustrated by this institutional inadequacy; (c) that institutional imperatives in maintaining reputation and retaining priests were placed above moral conduct and protection of children; (d) a lack of understanding that a not insignificant proportion of child sex offenders will keep offending even after being caught; and (e) failure to devise appropriate response and prevention methods to the problem of clerical abuse even after being made aware of them. It also indicates that the current Pope was involved in some of these cases.

It is clear from recent media statements from various Vatican figures that there still is not a clear, coherent and appropriate institutional understanding and treatment of this context. Inadequate statements have come from different figures, including the Pope, Cardinal Bertone, and the Pope’s spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, blaming the media and other groups such as Jews for the abuse scandals. These statements evince ignorance, delusion and arrogance.

5. Does this (and other cases) make the Pope liable for a crime against humanity?
Extremely unlikely. Apart from a possible obstacle based on the Pope’s status as a head of state, which raises a question of immunity, the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is limited by article 5 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Court’s jurisdiction is confined to “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”, namely genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and aggression. Article 6 defines a “crime against humanity” as one which is “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”. It is extremely doubtful that the provisions in the Statute could be interpreted so that cases of clerical abuse of children are appropriately defined as such a crime.

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About the Author

Dr Ben Mathews is an Associate Professor in the School of Law, Queensland University of Technology.

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