VATICAN CITY – The Vatican has denied that its celibacy requirement for priests was the root cause of the clerical sex abuse scandal convulsing the church and again defended the pope’s handling of the crisis.
VATICAN CITY – The Vatican has denied that its celibacy requirement for priests was the root cause of the clerical sex abuse scandal convulsing the church and again defended the pope’s handling of the crisis. Suggestions that the celibacy rule was in part responsible for the “deviant behavior” of sexually abusive priests have swirled in recent days, with opinion pieces in German newspapers blaming it for fueling abuse and even Italian commentators questioning the rule. Much of the furor was spurred by comments from one of the pope’s closest advisers, Vienna archbishop Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who called this week for an honest examination of issues like celibacy and priestly education to root out the origins of sex abuse. “Part of it is the question of celibacy, as well as the subject of character development. And part of it is a large portion of honesty, in the church but also in society,” he wrote in the online edition of his diocesan newsletter. His office quickly stressed that Schoenborn wasn’t calling into question priestly celibacy, which Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed as recently as Friday as an “expression of the gift of oneself to God and others.” But Schoenborn has in the past shown himself receptive to arguments that a celibate priesthood is increasingly problematic for the church, primarily because it limits the number of men who seek ordination. Last June, Schoenborn personally presented the Vatican with a lay initiative signed by prominent Austrian Catholics calling for the celibacy rule to be abolished and for married men to be allowed to become priests. In the days following Schoenborn’s editorial this week, several prominent prelates in Germany and at the Vatican shot down any suggestion that the celibacy rule had anything to do with the scandal, a point echoed Sunday by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. “It’s been established that there’s no link,” said the article by Bishop Giuseppe Versaldi, an emeritus professor of canon law and psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “First off, it’s known that sexual abuse of minors is more widespread among lay people and those who are married than in the celibate priesthood,” he wrote. “Secondly, research has shown that priests guilty of abuse had long before stopped observing celibacy.” A report endorsed in 2004 by the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, however, argued that an understanding of the problem of clerical sex abuse isn’t possible without reference to both celibacy and homosexuality, since the vast majority of U.S. abuse cases were of a homosexual nature. While stressing neither celibacy nor homosexuality causes abuse, the report said “The church did an inadequate job both of screening out those individuals who were destined to fail in meeting the demands of the priesthood, and of forming others to meet those demands, including the rigors of a celibate life.” In its article on the scandal, L’Osservatore also staunchly defended Benedict’s handling of the crisis. The article – subtitled “The rigor of Benedict against the filth in the church” – called the pope a “vigilant shepherd of his flock” for having confronted the crisis decisively early on and taken charge of abuse cases himself as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican has been on the defensive ever since the first of some 170 former students from Catholic schools in Benedict’s native Germany came forward with claims of physical and sexual abuse, including at a boys choir once led by the pope’s brother. Since then, claims have spread to the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland – all while the pope was preparing a letter for Irish Catholics in response to the decades of systematic abuse in church-run schools, orphanages and other institutions in that predominantly Roman Catholic nation. On Sunday, the Muenster Diocese in Germany reported that a priest, Rev. Klaus Evers, had been defrocked at his own request after he recalled an instance of past abuse – a memory triggered as a result of the current debate in the church. The crisis reached the pope himself on Friday. The Munich archdiocese reported that when he was Munich Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, he had approved therapy for a priest suspected of abuse in the 1980s. The priest was then transferred to another location, where he was convicted of abusing minors. AP