How the Catholic Church deals with sexual misconduct when more and more priests are breaking their vow of celibacy

Time magazine

24 September, 1990

By Anastasia Toufexis. Reported by Julie Johnson/Washington and Joyce Leviton/Atlanta.

The tales would rattle even the sturdiest confessional. First came the story of seven Roman Catholic priests who were charged in the mid-’80s with sexually abusing young boys in Louisiana. Then there was this year’s scandal at New York City’s Covenant House, culminating in a commissioned report stating that Father Bruce Ritter, founder of the renowned shelter for runaways, had a pattern of improper sexual conduct with youths going back to 1970. Last month came the news that Atlanta’s Archbishop Eugene Marino and one of his priests had resigned because both men had been intimate with the same 27-year-old female parishioner.

These are among the most notorious examples of what some experts say is a more pervasive problem. Roman Catholic clergymen today are violating their church’s strictures on sex. Based on interviews conducted over the past 25 years with 1,000 priests and 500 other men and women, many of them the sexual partners of clerics, Baltimore psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk, estimates that half the 53,000 Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. are breaking their vow of celibacy. According to Sipe, whose findings are being published this month in A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy (Brunner-Mazel; $29.95), about 28% of all priests are engaged in relationships, many of them enduring, with women. An additional 10% to 13% indulge in intimacies with adult men, and 6% pursue adolescents or children, usually boys.

Church officials say Sipe’s figures are much too high, arguing that his findings are skewed because half the priests in his study were already in therapy. Most priests successfully channel their sexual feelings into love for their congregations, they contend. “This can provide a type of fulfillment, just as married men and women achieve fulfillment,” says Father Peter Dora of the Atlanta archdiocese. But officials acknowledge that the Catholic hierarchy is increasingly concerned about sexually straying priests.

Why are so many clerics betraying their vows? For one thing, some psychologists believe, those who are drawn to the priesthood today are more likely to be psychologically immature, homosexual or unsure of their sexuality. Forty years ago, a religious life was seen as both a higher calling and a route to advancement. But the pool of candidates for the priesthood has been steadily shrinking, especially since the advent of the sexual revolution in the ’60s. Since 1965, the number of seminarians has dropped from 49,000 to 6,200. Moreover, seminary instructors have focused on spiritual training and have ignored normal human sexual development; the role of celibacy and how to achieve it have been routinely neglected.

Until recently, the church responded to clerical transgressions by sweeping them under the altar. Erring priests were simply shuttled from parish to parish; victims, out of embarrassment or reverence for the priesthood, often conspired in that silence. Now the church is beginning to confront the problem, partly under the pressure of burgeoning lawsuits filed by victims of priestly misconduct. Court judgments against the clergy already run to about $300 million.

The U.S. hierarchy is urging, and sometimes forcing, wayward priests to seek therapy from private doctors, secular clinics orhalf a dozen church-affiliated centers. Two of the most respected are the 42-year-old Servants of the Paraclete center, tucked into the remote mountains of New Mexico, and the five-year-old program at St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md.

The treatment of pedophiliac priests focuses on stopping abusive behavior and curbing their attraction to children. But in cases where priests engage in sex with adults–female or male–the goal is more subtle. “If the only problem is that he fell in love, this is not the place for him,” says Father John Loftus, a psychologist who runs Southdown, a treatment center in Aurora, Ont. “There’s nothing psychiatrically abnormal about that.” Where a cleric often needs help, says Loftus, is in his “professing one thing and living another.” Some priests deny they have a conflict; others are tortured by guilt. For some, sexual activity may be a signal of other problems, such as burnout, depression or loneliness.

Therapists employ a variety of techniques, ranging from individual and group psychotherapy to physical exercise, to drug treatments intended to smother the sex drive of pedophiliac priests through “chemical castration.” In addition, clergymen receive spiritual counseling to help them examine their commitment to their faith. Statistics are sketchy, but 98% of the priests who go through Paraclete’s program return to active ministry. And of 200 priests treated at St. Luke, says the Rev. Curtis Bryant, a psychologist who directs inpatient services, “none has relapsed as far as we know.” Priests who resume their religious duties are usually placed in new parishes (which are aware of their history), are closely supervised and participate in ongoing support groups.

The church says it is making efforts to include sexual education in seminaries and to choose would-be priests more carefully. Many critics of church policy, though, believe the ultimate solution lies in making celibacy an option rather than a requirement. While agreeing that a pure life is possible, they argue that it is more likely to be achieved when celibacy is a chice, not a demand.

Copyright © TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; © 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.