Comment: Priests and the double think over celibacy

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The Independent Online

The traditional figure of fun, the vicar who is after the choirboys, has suddenly been eclipsed by a spate of child-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Yesterday the Archbishop of Cardiff announced that he is standing down with the appointment of a coadjutor bishop, Vatican-speak for a troubleshooter.

The traditional figure of fun, the vicar who is after the choirboys, has suddenly been eclipsed by a spate of child-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Yesterday the Archbishop of Cardiff announced that he is standing down with the appointment of a coadjutor bishop, Vatican-speak for a troubleshooter.

Archbishop Ward is held responsible by many people, some inside his own church, for ordaining a priest later convicted of child abuse, even though he had been warned by a brother bishop of a previous trial and acquittal on the candidate's part.

Such negligence can cost more than careers. The Anglican Church of Canada announced this summer that it had been bankrupted by court cases brought against one of its dioceses by people who were abused in orphanages run by the church. And it was a cascade of child abuse scandals which precipitated the collapse of the prestige and then the power of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland.

In all these scandals, one curious feature has been the apparent blindness of the hierarchy. This wouldn't be a puzzle if the scandals were as rare and aberrant as Catholics would like them to be; nor would it be surprising if Catholic priests were as cruel and power-crazed as they are supposed to be in atheist propaganda. But they're not.

They are for the most part good and conscientious men who work long hours for fairly unselfish motives, and who do a great deal of good. So why does the system produce this cascade of scandal and in many instances - although not in this - cover-up?

The real answer, I believe, lies in the profound institutional doublethink that has come to surround the celibacy of the clergy. Everyone knows that lay catholics ignore the official teaching on birth control, usually with the tacit consent of their priests. What is less well-known is the degree to which the clergy are uncelibate. The best scholarly research I know of, by the former monk Richard Sipe, suggests that about 50 per cent of the priesthood in the western world is sexually active at any one time - in the third world, he says, the figure approaches 100 per cent.

Most priests who have sexual relationships do so with women - although Sipe reckons that about 25 per cent of the American clergy are gay. As the celibacy of the clergy becomes more and more of an anomaly in the world around, and less and less admirable, the number of priests diminishes, and this in turn makes it harder to be celibate.

The modern Catholic priest lives alone, rather than in a reinforcing brotherhood as his uncle may have done, and he is much closer to temptation than ever before.

The effect of this on their superiors must be to make them far more anxious about heterosexual scandal than anything else.

For the Catholic Church to be completely open about sex, however, it would require a priesthood that might be openly married - and, in some cases, divorced. We are a long way from there today.

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