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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 23   16-30 April 2010

The Woes of Celibacy

Minaret Research Network

But monasticism they invented—We ordained it not for them—only seeking God’s pleasure, and they observed it not with right observance. (Quran 57:27)

The Catholic Church is faced with a gigantic, unprecedented crisis of credibility over the sexual abuse of young boys and girls by paedophile priests, bishops and church officials in church-run institutions across Europe and the United States. The sex abuse scandal has rocked the Catholic churches in Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Norway and the United States. Stories of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests first surfaced in the last two decades of the 20th century and assumed scandalous proportions during the past couple of months.

Cases of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland, which started in the 1990s, form a major chapter in the worldwide scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church. The scandal involved cases of child abuse by high-profile Catholic priests in the church-run childcare networks as well as illicit heterosexual relations. Four Dublin bishops turned a blind eye to cases of sexual abuse of children by priests from 1975 to 2004. The furore caused by the revelation of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests forced the Irish government to set up an inquiry commission. The commission’s 2600-page report, released on May 20, 2009, drew on testimonies from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions and found that Catholic priests and nuns had terrorized thousands of boys and girls for decades and subjected them to physical, sexual and mental abuse. The report noted that rape and molestation were “endemic” in church-run industrial schools and orphanages. When the scandal became public, the abusive priests had been shifted to other parishes to avoid embarrassment to the church.

The Irish government appointed another commission under the chair of Judge Yvonne Murphy to investigate the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdioceses of Dublin over a 30-year period. The damning 720-page report of the commission, released on November 26, 2009, concluded that “the Dublin archdioceses’ preoccupation in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities”.

The leader of the Catholic church in Ireland has been named in more than 200 civil suits filed by victims of clerical abuse. In addition, 230 victims of clerical abuse are taking the church to court. These include five victims of Father Brendan Smyth, one of Ireland’s most notorious paedophiles. Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate, has admitted that he was present in 1975 when two teenage boys were persuaded to sign oaths of silence about their abuse by Father Brendan Smyth. Smyth was subsequently defrocked, but the police were not informed about his crimes and he remained free to abuse boys for two decades. He was finally arrested and sentenced for 12 years for 74 cases of sexual assault on children. He died in jail in 1997. Father Smyth’s arrest and conviction brought to light dozens of cases concerning the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in dioceses all over Ireland. In February 2002, 18 Catholic religious orders in Ireland agreed to provide more than £128 million in compensation to the victims of child abuse. The agreement stipulated that all those who accepted the monetary settlements had to waive their right to sue the church and the government. Last month the Irish government helped Catholic religious orders set up a compensation fund with a sum of $2.8 billion.

Following the inquiry commission’s report which exposed the culture of concealment surrounding the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic clergy, four bishops resigned and the entire Irish church hierarchy was summoned to Rome for an explanation before the pope. Ireland’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said during a Holy Week Mass: “This has been a difficult year. We see how damaging failure of integrity and authenticity are to the body of Christ. Shameful abuse took place within the Church of Christ. The response was hopelessly inadequate”.

In February this year, the Vatican opened an investigation into allegations by 67 former pupils at the Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf in Verona, Italy that 24 priests, brothers and lay religious men abused pupils from the 1950s to the 1980s. One of the victims said that priests had sodomised him so relentlessly that he came to feel “as if I were dead”. Another pupil has accused Verona’s late bishop, Monsignor Giusppe Carraro, of having molested him. Ironically, Bishop Carraro is being considered for beatification by the Vatican.

So far there have been more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions in Germany, including Jesuit colleges and a Bavarian monastery, where priests are alleged to have abused children as far back as the 1950s. Nearly two-thirds of Catholic dioceses in the country are caught up in the scandal. The German Bishops’ Conference ordered two separate investigations on March 10, 2010 into allegations of widespread sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, specifically at the Bavarian boarding school where Pope Benedict’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, served as choirmaster for 30 years. Hans Kung, a prominent Catholic theologian and a former colleague of Pope Benedict at Tubingen University, points out that in his eight years as a professor of theology in Regensburg, Ratzinger was in close contact with his brother Georg and therefore could hardly have been ignorant about what was going on in the choir and at the boarding school. The abuse hotline set up by the Catholic Church in Germany was flooded by more than 4,000 calls on the first day.

In the Netherlands more than 350 victims of sex abuse have come forward in recent weeks. Bishop of Rotterdam, Ad van Luyn, who chairs the Netherlands Synod of Bishops, has admitted that he was aware of cases of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in the Netherlands. The Dutch government has called for an independent investigation into such cases.

It was reported on April 7 that a bishop, Georg Mueller, of the Norwegian diocese of Trondheim had resigned last year after confessing to the sexual abuse of an altar boy.

In Austria the head of a Benedictine monastery in Salzburg has resigned after admitting to sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy more than four decades ago. On March 31, 2010, the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schornborn, in a penance service in the city’s St Stephen’s Cathedral, offered a confession of guilt: “We confess that we have obscured and betrayed the name of God which means love”.

Over the past two decades, the Catholic Church in the US, particularly the archdiocese of Boston, has been embroiled in a series of child abuse scandals. About 12,000 abuse cases in the country have come to light in the past few decades. In September 2003, the Boston archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million as compensation to more than 500 civil suits involving paedophile priests and church officials. The Los Angeles archdiocese paid some $660 million to victims of sex abuse. So far Catholic dioceses in the country have been forced to pay well over $2 billion in compensation for the misdeeds of about 5,000 priests. Some dioceses had to declare bankruptcy as a result. A report commissioned by the Catholic Church in the US in 2004 revealed that more than 4,000 Catholic priests in the country had faced sexual abuse allegations in the past 50 years, in cases involving more than 10,000 children—mostly boys.

Catholic churches have characteristically responded to allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests by shifting the abusive priests from one diocese to another and by covering up cases of paedophilia. In March 2002, a BBC documentary “Suing the Pope” highlighted the case of Father Sean Fortune, one of the most notorious clerical sex offenders. When he was finally exposed by some of his victims and their families, he was transferred to other parishes without notifying them about his background. He killed himself on the eve of his criminal trial. On April 1, 2002, Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns, resigned over charges that he had failed to deal adequately with allegations of sexual abuse by Father Fortune. Father O’Grady abused at least 30 children over two decades. He was finally caught and confessed to his crime and was jailed for seven years.

The Culture of Secrecy and Concealment

The culture of secrecy surrounding the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests has been legitimized and reinforced by church decrees. A secret Vatican document called “crimen sollicitationis,” written in Latin in 1962, imposes the strictest oath of secrecy on the child victim, the priest dealing with the allegation, and any witnesses. Breaking that oath, according to the document, involves instant banishment or excommunication from the Catholic Church.

Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer, had a diplomatic career with the Vatican, but was sacked after he criticized the manner in which the Catholic Church handed child abuse. He points out that “crimen sollicitationis” is indicative of a world-wide policy of absolute secrecy and control of all cases of sexual abuse by the clergy. There is nothing in any of these documents which says anything about helping the victims. The only thing it does is that they can impose fear on the victims and punish them for discussing or disclosing what happened to them. Father Doyle says that when the perpetrators of the crime, the priests, are discovered, the systematic response on the part of the Catholic Church has been not to investigate and prosecute but to shift them from one place to another in a secret manner. So, he says, there is a total disregard for the victims.

The BBC documentary refers to the Ferns Report, made public in October 2005, which revealed that over 100 boys and girls were sexually abused and raped by 26 priests in one American diocese alone. Some American priests who were accused of child abuse and were wanted by the police fled to Rome, where they were protected and sheltered by the Vatican. Quoting the Ferns Report, the documentary says that “A culture of secrecy and fear of scandal led bishops to place the interests of the Catholic Church ahead of the safety of children”.

Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, an Austrian friend of Pope John Paul II, abused an estimated 2,000 boys over decades but never faced any sanction from Rome. The sordid affair came to light in 1995 when former pupils of an elite Catholic school accused him of sexual abuse. Following an outcry, he was replaced and made the prior of a convent. Thereafter he retreated to a nunnery where he lived until his death in 2003. Some of his victims were offered “hush money” from the church. The Sunday Times reported on April 4, 2010 that one of the victims, Michael T claimed the church paid him £3,300 in 2004 under a contract that obliged him to keep quiet. During this period, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as such was fully aware of cases of clerical abuse around the world. Michael says that “There is no question that Ratzinger knew all the details of reports on abuse within the church, as there is no doubt that John Paul, his superior, took part in a massive and systematic cover-up”.

Critics point out that Pope John Paul II failed to urge bishops to report allegations of sexual abuse by priests to the police and ignored accusations against senior members of the clergy. He decreed that “pontifical secrecy” must apply to cases of sexual abuse in church trials. The late pope allegedly protected the Archbishop of Poland, Juliusz Paetz, who was accused of abusing trainee priests. Letters detailing the charges were sent to Pope John Paul’s office and to Cardinal Ratzinger in 2000 but were ignored. Paetz resigned in 2002 when the allegations became public. Pope John Paul II was extremely friendly with the Rev Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and a reputed fund-raiser for the Vatican. Investigations now reveal that Fr Marcial was a voracious paedophile.

Pope Benedict’s Complicity

Since his elevation to the papacy in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has been embroiled in one controversy after another. In many ways, he has moved away from the path of reform and inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation initiated by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. In July 2007, Pope Benedict offended Germany’s 25 million Protestants by saying that their denominations could not be called “churches in the real sense”. Official relations between the Vatican and Protestant churches have been frosty since Benedict took over the papacy. Pope Benedict has strained relations with Jews and has angered the indigenous people during his Latin American trip. Wolfgang Thierse, a Catholic German politician, thinks Benedict’s gaffes come from his isolation. “The pope’s faux pas and blunders show that he takes decisions on his own. In theological terms, he lives in a separate world, the world of old church fathers who shaped him. This is why he barely notices the historical and political context.

In his speech on September 12, 2006 at the University of Regensburg in southern Germany, where he had once taught, Pope Bebedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos, as saying (to a Muslim scholar): Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. The pope’s insensitive and controversial remarks created a huge uproar in the Muslim world. Muslim leaders and Islamic organisations denounced the pope and accused him of slandering Islam and the Prophet and attempting to rekindle the fires of the crusades. Morocco withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican, calling the pope’s comments offensive. The New York Times wrote in an editorial on September 17, 2006 that Pope Benedict must issue a “deep and persuasive apology” for the quote in his speech. “The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly”, the paper wrote. Faced with worldwide protests from Muslims, Pope Benedict tendered a personal—albeit half-hearted—apology for his remarks on September 17.

By and large, Pope Benedict has been out of touch with the outside world. During his 59-year ministry he spent barely 15 months as a parish priest. Swiss theologian Hans Kung had an audience with Pope Benedict at the beginning of his papacy. He said, “I had assumed that my invitation was the first in a series of bold acts of which the Pope was capable. But he disappointed the world. Since then, he has not issued any further signals of renewal. On the contrary, he has, time and again, taken a step backward from the achievements of the (Second Vatican) Council”.

Hans Kung was a professor of theology at the University of Tubingen in Germany where Cardinal Ratzinger also taught. He was a theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council. Kung has questioned the dogma of the infallibility of the pope and consistently urged an open discussion on the celibacy of priests. In 1979 the Vatican stripped him of the right to teach Catholic theology.

Pope Benedict was Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, where he was widely seen as a theologian preoccupied with doctrinal matters and with enforcing compliance with tradition and orthodoxy. He was often in conflict with local clergy and theologians. In 1981 he chastised a priest for holding a Mass at a peace demonstration, leading him to ultimately abandon the priesthood for good.

There were more than 200 cases of “problem priests” in the Munich archdiocese, involving alcohol abuse, adultery and paedophilia. But Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger had no inclination to investigate the cases or to chastise the errant priests.

Rev Peter Hullermann, who served as a parish priest in Essen, Germany in the 1960s, had forced an 11-year-old boy to have oral sex with him and had assaulted three other children. The church authorities persuaded the parents not to report the case to the police. Father Hullermann was shifted to Munich. Archbishop Ratzinger formally approved the transfer and ordered him to undergo therapy. The therapist advised that Hullermann should not be allowed to work with children and should be under close observation. The advice was ignored by the Archbishop’s office and within a fortnight he resumed his pastoral duties. Over the next two decades, Father Hullermann persistently indulged in child abuse. In 1986 he was given a 18-month suspended prison sentence. By then Ratzinger had moved to the Vatican as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). No action against Hullermann was deemed necessary. The German newspaper Die Zeist wrote in March that “in 1980 Joseph Ratzinger was part of the problem that preoccupies him today”.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II gave the CDF, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, responsibility for handling investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse by priests. In April 2001, he sent a document under the title of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela to all Catholic priests, which required all plausible allegations of sexual abuse to be referred to the CDF and reminded them that strict penalties would apply to anyone who divulged deatails of allegations made against priests. Between 1981 and 2005, thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children by the Catholic clergy were reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On May 18, 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger sent a formal letter concerning this matter to all Catholic bishops around the world, which decreed that cases of abuse had been placed under “papal secrecy” (secretum Pontificium), violation of which is punishable under canon law. As head of the Congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger consistently seemed to listen to the priests rather than to their victims and tried to sweep the scandals under the carpet. Critics say the Pope cannot be absolved from personal involvement and responsibility in the massive cover-up of child abuse cases.

Documents published by the New York Times in March 2010 suggest that Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland had complained to Ratzinger in 1996 about a paedophile priest, Fr Lawrence Murphy, who had abused some 200 deaf children at St John’s School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin between 1950 and 1974, but received no response from him. Murphy admitted he sexually abused boys at his boarding school for 22 years. Victims tried for three decades to bring him to justice, but the church neither defrocked him nor referred him to the police for prosecution. He was allowed to remain a priest until his death. The German newspaper Der Spiegel had presciently written in the aftermath of the euphoria over the election of a German pope in 2005 that “you can rename Ratzinger “Benedict” but you cannot take Ratzinger out of the pope”.

Cardinal Ratzinger allowed a case against a paedophile priest from Arizona, Michael Teta, to languish at the Vatican for more than a decade despite repeated pleas for his removal by the Arizona diocese.

In a sensational revelation, the Associated Press published on April 9 copy of a letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985, resisting and delaying a paedophile priest’s defrocking. Fr Stephen Miller Kiesle of the Oakland diocese was accused of sexually abusing young boys and girls in the 1970s. Fr Kiesle was sentenced to three years of probation in 1978 for lewd conduct with two young boys in San Francisco. The Oakland diocese had reported Fr Kiesle’s misconduct to Rome and recommended his removal in 1981, but to no effect. Fr Kiesle himself wanted to leave the ministry. Oakland’s Bishop John S. Cummins wrote to Ratzinger in February 1982: “It is my conviction that there would be no scandal if this petition were granted and that as a matter of fact, given the nature of the case, there might be a greater scandal to the community if Fr Kiesle were allowed to return to the active ministry”. Despite repeated reminders, there was no response in this matter from Cardinal Ratzinger for the next three years. In 1985, Ratzinger wrote a reply to Bishop Cummins saying that the case needed more time and that “the good of the Universal Church” had to be considered in the final decision and urged “as much paternal care as possible” for the errant priest. Cardinal Ratzinger’s decision did not come for the next two years. He was finally defrocked in 1987. He was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004 after admitting that he had molested a young girl in 1995. Kiesle is now on the list of registered sex offenders in California. Eight victims of Kiesle reached a settlement with the diocese of Oakland in 2005, and on average each received about $1 million to $1.5 million as compensation.

In a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics written on March 20, Pope Benedict acknowledged the sense of betrayal in the Church felt by victims of sexual abuse and their families. He said there had been “serious mistakes” among bishops in responding to allegations of paedophilia. Addressing the victims of abuse, the Pope wrote: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated…. I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel”.

However, Pope Benedict’s statement falls short of demands by victims’ groups for an admission that abuse was systematically covered up. The leader of one Irish victims’ group said she was disappointed the Pope’s letter did not recognize any responsibility of the Vatican in the crisis. According to Roberto Mirabile, head of an anti-abuse group in Italy, “We are likely to discover the Vatican worked even harder in Italy with bishops than elsewhere to hide cases, simply because the contact was closer and the church is so powerful in Italy”.

Hans Kung has accused Pope Benedict of being complicit in the Vatican cover-up of child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. “No one in the whole of the Catholic Church knows as much about abuse cases—knowledge that is ex officio, derived from his office,” he says. Kung points out that the Pope’s involvement in hiding clerical molestation of children dated back at least to his 24 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. This Vatican authority has for a long time centralized (information about) all abuse cases so that they could be concealed and classified as top secret. Kung argues that the Pope is acting hypocritically by calling bishops to order because for the past ten years such offences have been officially regulated behind closed doors. He says that Ratzinger has for decades been principally responsible for the worldwide cover-up of sexual abuse of children by paedophile priests.

Unfortunately, Pope Benedict has not taken a serious view of the scandal which threatens to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church. In his speech at the start of the Easter week, the Pope made no specific mention of the scandal but did say that faith helped believers not to be intimidated by the “chatter of dominant opinion”. In other words, the Pope regarded the serious and widespread accusations of paedophilia against Catholic priests as petty gossip.

As head of Vatican state, the Pope enjoys immunity from prosecution. However, some British lawyers who are fighting cases of paedophilia on behalf of victims question whether the Vatican’s implicit statehood should shield the Pope from prosecution over sex crimes committed by paedophile priests. Senior British lawyers are now examining whether the Pope could be prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction for the systematic cover-up of abuses by priests. The principle of universal jurisdiction allows judges to issue warrants for any visitor accused of grievous crimes, regardless of their place or country of residence. More than 10,000 people have signed a petition on Downing Street’s website against the Pope’s 4-day visit to England and Scotland in September, which is estimated to cost £15 million to British taxpayers.

The German newspaper Der Spiegel has declared Pope Benedict’s papacy a failure. Numerous abuse victims have called the Pope to step down. The resignation of a pope is theoretically a possibility under canon law. Although canon 332 provides for a papal resignation, it is extremely uncommon. The last case of papal resignation was that of Pope Celestine V, who resigned in the early part of the 14th century.

Celibacy under Attack

The dogma of clerical celibacy is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the Catholic Church. According to the New Testament, the Apostle Peter was a married man (Mark 1:30). Early church figures as well as a number of bishops prior to the 11th century were married men. In the 12th century a general council of the Catholic Church decreed celibacy for priests.

Catholic priests taking the vow of celibacy

Notwithstanding the mandatory celibacy for the clergy, the Catholic Church has no objection to ordaining Eastern-rite Catholic priests if they are married. The Vatican has also admitted married clergy who converted from the Anglican faith.

In a widely-read article “Why celibacy should be abolished,” published in the New York Review of Books on April 1, 2010, the eminent Swiss theologian Hans Kung points out that the dogma of clerical celibacy is at the root of the present crisis in the Catholic Church. He argues that clerical celibacy can be advocated only as a freely-chosen vocation, not as a compulsory rule for everyone.

Kung says that the rule of celibacy did not exist during Christianity’s first millennium and that for many centuries married life was normal for bishops and presbyters. Under the influence of monks (who lived in voluntary abstinence) celibacy was instituted in the Western Church during the 11th century, in particular by Pope Gregory VII, in the face of the staunch opposition of the clergy in Italy and Germany. In a petition at that time, the German clergy asked rhetorically whether the pope was “unfamiliar with the word of the Lord: ‘He that is able to receive it, let him receive it’ (Matthew 19:12). Therefore, Kung argues, Rome’s rule of celibacy contradicts the gospel and ancient Catholic traditions. He makes a forceful plea for abolishing clerical celibacy.

Kung says that the rule of celibacy is the main reason for the catastrophic shortage of priests, the serious neglect of the Eucharist, and the widespread breakdown of pastoral care. Kung blames bishops for decades of concealment and the frequent transfers of perpetrators to other parishes while keeping their misdeeds a closely-guarded secret.

Kung’s views are supported, albeit tacitly, by a growing number of Catholic clergy around the world. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, has recently said that the Catholic Church should examine the causes of child abuse, including the question of priestly celibacy. Last year, he presented a petition to Rome, signed by leading Austrian lay Catholics calling for the abolition of the requirement for priestly celibacy. Alois Gluck, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, and Hans-Jochen Jaschke, auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, have called for the coexistence of celibate and married priests in the church. All recent polls show that the Catholic laity are in favour of allowing priests to marry.

Christianity’s fortunes are dwindling in its European heartland, thanks to secularization, rapidly declining fertility rates and voluntary childlessness. Pope Benedict’s ultra-conservative views have alienated large numbers of Catholics around the world. During the past four years, there has been a continuous decline in the numbers of pilgrims appearing on St Peter’s Square. In 2008, 2.2 million people attended the pope’s Wednesday audiences, one million less than in the previous two years. Meanwhile, the scandal has begun to take its toll. Catholics in many countries are leaving the church in substantial numbers. In Austria more than 20,000 Catholics left the church in March. The BBC reported on April 6 that opinion polls published by Stern magazine suggest almost a fifth of Germany’s Catholics have considered leaving the church because of the abuse scandal and only 17% of Germans now trust the Catholic Church as an institution. A CBS News poll released on April 2 showed that more than two-thirds of Americans think the pope has done a bad job in handling the crisis and that his favourability rating among US Catholics has fallen to 27 per cent from 40 per cent in 2006. Disgusted by the attitude of the Catholic Church, some priests, such as Father Patrick, have left the priesthood and have joined lawyers acting for the victims of child sex abuse. “We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history,” the US-based National Catholic Reporter wrote in an editorial, demanding “direct answers” from the Holy Father.

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