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Child and youth sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

Part 2: Overview:
Ephebophilia and/or pedophilia? Role of
enforced celibacy. Role of lawyers. A book

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This is a continuation from Part 1 of the overview

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Ephebophilia and pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests:

It is extremely important that the public knows the precise nature of the evil that is out there. The media has not been particularly helpful in educating the public. They tend towards sensationalism.

One serious problem is that the meaning of "pedophilia" appears to be in a state of transition. It is changing in two ways:

  • In the past, it meant an adult who is attracted to young, pre-pubertal, children -- typically less than 11 years-of-age. It is now evolving to mean the abuse of any person under the age of 18.

  • The term is now used frequently to refer to adults who are not only attracted to young children, but who actually abuse them. There does not appear to be a word in common use that refers to a non-abusive pedophile.

Much of the media has implied that most of the sexual abuse by priests involves pedophilia -- the molestation of pre-pubertal girls and boys. This is not true. The vast majority of cases appears to be by abusive ephebophiles -- adults sexually attracted to post-pubertal adolescents. This often takes the form of sexual activity by homosexual priests:

"...with young seminarians or 16- or 17-year-old boys. While such homosexual activities with minors are criminal offenses -- and immoral -- they are certainly not examples of pedophilia or child molestation." 1

Unfortunately, precise data on abuse is not available. Data is largely based on experts' opinions. But perhaps the following might be helpful:

bullet In another essay, we describe various estimates of the percentage of Roman Catholic priests who engage in sexual activities with persons under the age of 18. They range from 0.12% to 6%. In the absence of precise data, a value of 3% might be a reasonable guess.

bullet If the 3% value is accurate, then it is important to remember that 97% of priests are not sexually abusive to children and adults.

bullet In the same essay, investigators have estimated that between 90% and 98% of those abusing minors victimize post-pubertal adolescents, while the rest assault pre-pubertal children and children going through puberty. A value of 95% might be a reasonable guess.

bullet The percentage of males in the general population who sexually abuse young children is unknown. Some estimates are in the range of 1%

bullet If those data are accurate then:

bullet About 0.15% of priests sexually abuse young children.

bullet This is perhaps 1/8 the rate of men generally.

bullet Priests have a much lower rate of abusive pedophilia (that is, of pre-pubertal children) than does the general population of men.

bullet The percentage of males in the general population who sexually abuse post-pubertal youths is unknown. We know of no reliable estimates.

bullet If the above data are accurate, the:
bullet About 3% of priests sexually abuse adolescents.

bullet We cannot conclude whether abuse of adolescents is more common among priests then among the general population of men. We have a hunch that priests are significantly more abusive.

If the age of consent for homosexual activity were lowered to the age of 16, as it is in many countries, most of the criminal acts would disappear. Cases of ephebophilia would still represent an ethical quagmire, however. They would be a gross violation of the priest's ordination vows, an abuse of his power and influence, and would be an extremely harmful experience to most of the teens. For example, in Kingston, ON, Canada where our office is located, an Anglican church organist was convicted of sexually abusing many youth. Many people believe that two suicides eventually resulted from his molestations.

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Is enforced celibacy the cause?

Priests, brothers and nuns take a vow of celibacy in which they promise to never marry. Some orders also require their candidates to take a vow of chastity -- of being sexually inactive. Some commentators have suggested that the lack of a spouse contributes to sexual misconduct among Roman Catholic clergy. Unfortunately, there is insufficient data to either confirm or negate this theory:

bullet Most Protestant clergy are free to marry; most heterosexual ministers and pastors do marry. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find reliable information about the level of abuse among Protestant clergy either.

bullet There also does not seem to be any reliable information about the level of child molestation among those Roman Catholic priests who are married. The church in the U.S. has relatively few married priests. Thus any abusive pedophile and ephebophile data would be of low accuracy. The existence of married priests within the Roman Catholic Church is a surprise to many. When the Episcopal Church decided to ordain females, many Episcopal ministers in the U.S. were so repulsed by the idea of sharing the priesthood with women that some converted to Roman Catholicism in order to remain in a purely male priesthood. The church allowed them to remain married.

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The role of lawyers:

According to author Daniel Lyons,

"Pedophile priests have sparked a litigation gold rush...The focal point of this tort battle is the Catholic Church. The Church's legal problems are worse even than most people realize: $1 billion in damages already paid out for the victims of pedophile priests, indications that the total will approach $5 billion before the crisis is over. But this wave of litigation does not end here. Is there any reason to think that the priesthood has a monopoly on child molestation? The lawyers who are winning settlements from Catholic dioceses are already casting about for the next targets: schools, government agencies, day care centers, police departments, Indian reservations, Hollywood. Plaintiff ...litigators have parlayed the priest crisis into a billion-dollar money machine, fueled by lethal legal tactics, shrewd use of the media and public outrage so fierce that almost any claim, no matter how bizarre or dated, offers a shot at a windfall." 2

Patrick Schiltz of St. Thomas University has defended religious organizations in more than 500 sex abuse lawsuits. He said:

"It's like warfare. Phase One was for plaintiff lawyers to maximize bad publicity and destroy the credibility of the Church. Phase Two is to use that publicity to push for legislative changes. Phase Three will be to collect." The problem, he says, is that fraudulent claims could get paid off with legitimate ones. "Who's going to doubt them? I worry about the person who was an altar boy 30 years ago, and his life has been a disappointment, and now he realizes he has a lottery ticket in his pocket." 2

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A book describing the impact of clergy abuse at a personal level:

book cover image David Margolick, "A predator priest," a Kindle Single. Read reviews or order this book safely from's online Kindle ebook store for $0.99

Amazon's product description;

"Much has been written about priests and pedophilia, but not about particular priests and their particular victims. This is the story about Father Bernard Bissonnette, a priest from Grosvenordale, Connecticut and the fifty-year path of destruction and heartache he left in his wake. There were dozens of victims, first in his home state and then in New Mexico, where the Catholic Church sent him to be 'cured,' only to recycle him in parishes throughout the state. It highlights the Deary family of Putnam, Connecticut, whose eldest son, Tommy – the second of their thirteen children – was one of Bissonnette’s earliest victims, and who, after struggling for many years with depression, marital problems, and his own sexual identity, eventually killed himself. And it follows the tireless efforts of his youngest brother to overcome the obstructionism and hostility of the Catholic Church and track down Father Bissonnette, confront him with his misdeeds, then bring him to justice – or at least get him thrown out of the Church."

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition," American Psychiatric Association, (1994).
  2. Daniel Lyons, "Sex, God & Greed: Pedophile priests have sparked a litigation gold rush. The Boy Scouts, day care firms and Hollywood may be next," Forbes Magazine, 2003-JUN-9, at:
  3. "Draft survey: 4,450 priests accused of sex abuse. Bishop: 'Very sobering and important milestone',", 2004-FEB-17, at:
  4. Keith Peters, "Catholic Bishops Issue Update on Child Abuse Scandal," Family News in Focus, 2005-FEB-21, at:

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAY-8
Latest update: 2011-SEP-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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