"The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."

-- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2358

The Roman Catholic Church has a major image problem here. And I think that everyone is looking to fix it exactly the wrong way.

It's no longer any secret that the Catholic Church has problems with pedophilia in its clergy. Priests, bishops and archbishops are having allegations and personal accounts brought forward publicly which used to be dealt with privately, and as time goes on, the number of clergymen accused is increasing. Besides the obvious harm caused to the children and teens involved, these scandals are doing immense harm to the Church's image, and by association, to that of Christianity in general. Believers are struggling to decide what to do and who to blame, while non-believers are given one more reason to doubt the integrity of the Church's message.

Both inside and outside the Church, it's being debated how offenders should be identified and punished for their pedophilic acts. The half-joking stereotype of all Catholic priests as sexual abusers of altar boys runs deeper and stronger. Some people actually think, perhaps only unconsciously, that becoming a member of the Catholic clergy actually causes pedophilia, because of the vow of chastity they're required to take.

In my view, they couldn't be more wrong. And at the same time, they're closer to the truth than they think.

The real problem lies in how the Catholic Church regards sex in general and homosexuality in particular. Members are strongly, if not explicitly, encouraged to refrain from sex outside of marriage, and marriage and family-building is endorsed as the will of God for their lives. Homosexuality is frowned upon so strongly it's hardly ever discussed, only condemned. Meanwhile, as the secular world becomes more and more open about gay lifestyles, it's becoming clear that many people become aware of their homosexual feelings during adolescence. Why this is the case doesn't matter here, only that it does.

And if that adolescent has trouble discussing their feelings in a secular environment, it's ten times harder in a Catholic one. Who can he talk to without being condemned for his thoughts and feelings, at a time when he's still trying to come to grips with them? He's expected not only to restrain his sexuality, but to get married and start a family once he is old enough.

Suddenly, the celibate clergy becomes an attractive way out for him. The reasons are twofold: it gives him a chance to remain unmarried without people asking why, and it gives him a close, direct relationship with God and his Church. Surely, he thinks, this will be the best way to get his sexual urges under control. Surely a vow of celibacy is the best, most permanent way to cure his homosexual and/or pedophilic feelings.

If only he knew. Celibacy doesn't cure a person's sex drive, it only constrains it. There will be times when that person will have sexual desires again, and if they're not dealt with in some way, they'll only grow. But gay priests are stuck with the same problem they had as teenagers: no one to talk to, no way to deal with their feelings without facing condemnation and shame, if not outright ejection from the clergy.

So it's silenced. And it gets worse. And, eventually, that priest may rationalize a solution involving the young men and boys he is entrusted with. Perhaps it's consensual, perhaps not. But as long as it's kept quiet, and it doesn't happen too often, what could be the problem?

Innumerable men and women have damaged or ruined their marriages with adultery by practicing similar logic. But even if it does come out, the Catholic leaders supervising the offender may try to deal with the matter internally, quietly, to preserve the Church's image and to put their faith's message of forgiveness into practice. But the myth remains that if a man wills it hard enough, they can control their sexual desires. And so it continues.

The first time I put this theory into words, it was on a mailing list which happened to include an openly gay male who had been questioning his deeply-ingrained Catholic beliefs. He immediately responded that he, in fact, had previously considered (but rejected) joining the clergy for exactly the reasons I described: hoping that a vow of celibacy would somehow cure his homosexual feelings. I was only a little surprised.

The problem, then, is this: Catholics and non-Catholics both argue from the position that pedophilia in the Church needs to be punished and dealt with as immediately and openly as possible, like a crime. I disagree. The issues of homosexuality and pedophilia need to be dealt with before the scandals occur.

Young and single Catholics need to be given a way to discuss any sexual feelings they have with Church leaders, without being condemned or told to fix it with prayer and willpower. Priests and other clergy need to be able to do the same with those leaders above them, and aspiring members need to be interviewed in such a way as to make certain their motive is a desire to serve the Church, not guilt and personal shame. Such discussion need not be public, only readily available. Church leaders high and low need to make it known that such conversations can and will be held in confidence, and that positive and encouraging solutions will be found.

I know the Catholic Church cannot and will not change its stance on homosexual and extramarital sex. And it doesn't have to. It only needs to understand that controlling the sexual feelings and drives of its members cannot be done solely with rules and confessionals. Counseling, discussion, and maybe even an anonymous support group will get them far more results.

A brief rebuttal:

It really is a bridge too far to suggest that the people have associated all Christians with the actions of a number of Catholic priests. However, I have heard anecdotal evidence of priests no longer feeling comfortable wearing their priestly garb in public because they feel that people are viewing them with suspicion. In one case in New York ( and I am sure that there are more) a priest was spat on while ordering coffee and called a "paedophile".

How exactly is the church's view of pre-marital sex in any way responsible for priests sexually abusing children? The real roots of this problem is the sexual frustration caused by the vow of chastity, free and unsupervised access to young members of parishes, and the untouchable position of the clergy in institutionally Catholic nations. In an increasingly secular world, the church's influence is fast declining and the spate of reports of child sex abuse by clergy which have come out since the early '90's are the direct result of this. Fortunately, this decline in influence also makes these incidents less likely to occur in the future.

There seems to be an inherent belief in the above writeup that paedophiles are repressed homosexuals. The fact that most of the paedophilic activity by Catholic clergy has involved males is simply a reflection of the fact that priests have far more access to male children than they do to females.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of child sexual abuse does not occur within the Catholic church, but within the home.

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