The recent push to relax the church’s standing on celibacy in order to remove child sexual abuses suffers from ignorance on the most basic level.
Of the 400 hundred or so recommendations in the Royal Commission’s final report on institutionalized child sex abuse, two were at the forefront of discussions in the MSM and social media last December. These were 1) the alleged role of celibacy in causing pedophilia and 2) the call by some churches for women to be given more authoritative roles in their institutions as a means of curbing the sexual perversions of some churchmen.
Both of these arguments, to my mind, minimize the gravity of the crime of sexual assault of children, claiming that by making celibacy voluntary and hauling in a few women to clean up the mess, pedophiliacs will be brought under control. This is a ludicrous – and to survivors, an insulting – notion.
The argument minimizes the sexual assault of children by implying that this crime only occurs because men resort to raping children when they are denied access to adult sexual partners. Give every man a sexual partner and there will be no more pedophilia. This attitude demonstrates a profound ignorance of the psychology of pedophilia. It is not a crime to which men resort because they can’t, for whatever reason, have adult consensual relationships.
A survivor, if she or he can speak of it, will describe to you better than anyone else ever can, the demeanor of the pedophile in the moment. It is very specific. It is pathological. It is entirely predatory. It is secretive and it is threatening. It is everything consensual relationships are not.
The claim that celibacy is an indicator of pedophilia comes about as a result of the Catholic church winning hands down in the numbers of sexual abusers in institutions. People are, quite reasonably, searching for explanations and the most glaring difference between the Catholic church and other institutions is its demand that its priests are celibate. This demand, it is argued, leads to priests sexually abusing children because they have no other outlet for their needs.
The definition of sex is not solely consensual sex. A criminal sex act is about sex. Sex can be very, very nasty, and it’s still sex. Perpetrators take physical pleasure and gratification from abusing a child. They do this because absolute control and power over a child is a sexual turn-on for them.
However, hundreds of thousands of children are sexually abused in non-institutional settings, and by members of their families and family friends. The overwhelming majority of the male abusers in such situations have access to adult sexual partners, and they are not celibate. It is gravely misleading to peddle the suggestion that celibacy is an indicator of or a precursor to the sexual abuse of children.
It occurs to me that blaming Catholic celibacy for the majority of child sexual abuse is yet another means of ignoring the admittedly challenging reality that ordinary men walking amongst us – fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, men you might eat Christmas dinner with, men you might work with, men you might have a drink with at the club, ordinary sexually active men with partners and without partners – who rape and sexually abuse children.
It is also yet another means of ignoring the children and adult survivors who’ve endured the attention of such men.
In my opinion, the celibate priesthood community does play a role in the Catholic church’s global pedophile ring. It offers protection and support. It feeds, shelters, and clothes them. It gives them unlimited access to children. It covers up for them, denies survivors’ experiences, grants them the comfort of the confessional without any fear of being referred to authorities for the crimes they confess. The Catholic church and its celibacy protocols enable pedophiles to enact their fantasies, however, they do not cause pedophilia.
Again, if you consult a survivor on her or his experiences, you will unfailingly hear similar accounts of the specificity of the offender’s behavior, details that bear no relationship to adult consensual sexual encounters, details that indicate a particular and predatory mindset, peculiar to those who sexually abuse children. That such a mindset is “caused” by celibacy is not believable, and the experience of hundreds of thousands of survivors of non-celibate offenders is an ongoing challenge to the theory.
Likewise, the notion that more women in positions of authority in churches will somehow prevent child sexual abuse is not borne out by the experience of victims in non-institutional and familial settings. There are women aplenty in these settings – mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends, grandmothers – the majority of whom are unable or unwilling, for very many complex reasons, to prevent a child from being sexually abused. The notion that parachuting women into middle management in the churches will stop any pedophile in his tracks is insultingly ludicrous. It will not.
Also on The Big Smoke
- No more secret confessions, cover-ups or forced celibacy: Royal Commission
- How old is too young to testify against sexual assault?
- TBS Boomers: Faith, denial and the Catholic church
The other theory raised is that child sexual abuse is “only psychological, not physiological” – that “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” – as if a power dynamic is absent from consensual sex, which it is not, and only rears its ugly head in child sexual abuse.
The definition of sex is not solely consensual sex. Even when it’s rape driven by the desire for domination and brutality and power over, it’s sex. A criminal sex act is about sex. Sex can be very, very nasty, and it’s still sex.
Child sexual abuse has everything to do with sex. Perpetrators take physical pleasure and gratification from abusing a child. They do this because absolute control and power over a child is a sexual turn-on for them.
The abuse is the expression of their sexuality, a sexuality driven by the need for total control, secrecy, self-gratification, and domination over a defenseless child. It is absolutely misleading to claim the sexual abuse of children has nothing to do with sex. It has nothing to do with consensual adult sex, but to imagine that sexual predators experience no physiological stimulation is entirely wrong-headed.
Again, ask a survivor. If he or she can bear to speak of it, we can describe the physiological reactions of the man who raped us. We can tell you how he sought his pleasure, the quickening of his breath, the demands that we touch him and where and how, and in many cases, his orgasm. It is physiological. It has everything to do with sex. Sex is not simply defined by a consensual experience of it, and it adds to the marginalization, confusion, and suffering of survivors to claim that what we experienced had “nothing to do with sex.” Our bodies know differently. Our minds know differently.
I have no idea what is meant when, from the safety of their armchair, someone assures me that a pedophile’s actions have nothing to do with sex and that it’s all psychological for him. That is not my experience as a survivor, and my experience trumps your armchair expertise.
In fact, many commentators on this topic would do well to remember that survivors’ lived expertise trumps any of their opinions.
None of us ever forgets the specificity of the demeanor of the perpetrator. It is unlike anything else. It is unforgettable, and most of us have no wish to describe it, for our own sakes and for the sake of others. We know, better than anyone else ever can, what we are dealing with here. We know, better than anyone else can, the depths of depravity a man must inhabit to sexually assault a child, because we have seen it and felt it. That knowledge haunts us for life.
“Giving women more power in the church and ending celibacy will stop pedophilia,” said no survivor ever, and with very good reason.