Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sex Abuse & The Wages of Celibacy

As I tried to note yesterday, there are two ways of interpreting the resignation of Scotland's Roman Catholic cardinal: either a confirmation that clerical celibacy is directly related to instances of sex abuse or that clergy abuse - and all forms of sexual abuse - are more expressive of an exploitation of power than they are of sex.

To my mind, it's patently obvious that it is the latter issue. When one surveys the great swath of instances of abuse and exploitation, these acts are overwhelmingly expressions of power over one another. Our tendency has been, culturally, to define "sex abuse" so narrowly that we think of Catholic clergy or pervy old men. While I'm not saying Catholic clergy is bereft of pervy old men, I would argue that if we think of the various expressions that sexually exploitative actions can take - excesses of fraternity pledging, team membership rites, teachers seducing students, etc. - these are acts that demonstrate a corruption of power. One need look no further than Penn State to the depth and difficulty to this issue.

Nevertheless, Frank Bruni's piece in the New York Times, "The Wages of Celibacy," attempts to portray the requirement of clerical celibacy as leading to, or symptomatic of, psychological instability. Again, I've met more than my share of psychologically unstable clergy. That said, I think Bruni errs in his analysis.

Step back from the issue of clergy abuse and consider abuse in general: there is no lack of evidence that some married men have, and do, men abuse their own children, step-children, family members, and others. Some of these men are clergy from other denominations. Women molest children, too, and some of these women are married as well. If Bruni were correct in his analysis, we should see a direct correlation or some type of statistical evidence. Yet none exists: the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in its report, found no single cause or predictor of clergy abuse. What the report did find (3.2) is that personality problems were common to clergy abuses; that, I reckon, should shock no one.

The issue of sexual abuse and exploitation is an issue every bit as vital to our nation and to our world as economic reform. Yet since it's hard to define and difficult to understand the nuance and pathology, journalists shirk their responsibility and follow red herrings. Hundreds of years ago, we thought bloodletting a fine practice to release the humors and restore health. We know today that this was not a good idea. In the face of growing evidence tying sex abuse - of all types - to corrupt uses of power, Bruni's piece makes me wonder if we're stepping back in history or if we have the courage to confront these challenges in a head-on and responsible manner. 
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