VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Roman Catholic Church in Australia acknowledged that “obligatory celibacy” may have contributed to decades of clerical sexual abuse of children in what may be the first such admission by church officials around the world.
A church advisory group called the Truth, Justice and Healing Council made the startling admission Friday (Dec. 12) in a report to the government’s Royal Commission, which is examining thousands of cases of abuse in Australia.
The 44-page report by the council attacked church culture and the impact of what it called “obedience and closed environments” in some religious orders and institutions.
“Church institutions and their leaders, over many decades, seemed to turn a blind eye, either instinctively or deliberately, to the abuse happening within their diocese or religious order, protecting the institution rather than caring for the child,” the report said.
“Obedience and closed environments also seem to have had a role in the prevalence of abuse within some religious orders and dioceses. Obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse.”
The council’s CEO, Francis Sullivan, who has held various administrative roles in the health sector, including heading Catholic Health Australia, said clergy training should include “psychosexual development.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” Sullivan said. “You need to address how sexuality is understood and acted out by members of the clergy.”
But the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which represents around 20,000 victims worldwide, said the latest report did little to help protect those at risk from abuse.
“Decisive action is needed, not more reports,” SNAP national director David Clohessy said. “The church hierarchy knows what’s needed. It simply refuses to give up its power and enable secular authorities to investigate and prosecute those who commit and conceal sexual violence against the vulnerable.”
The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, could not be reached for comment Friday. But Maltese Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor for abuse cases, tried to put the report in context in remarks to the Italian daily La Stampa.
“You mustn’t forget that most abuse occurs in the family,” he said. “Obviously I don’t exclude individual cases where celibacy is lived badly that may have psychological consequences. But it should be said clearly that it is certainly not the origin of this sad and very painful phenomenon and remember that there is no nexus between cause and effect.”
The suggestion of a link between celibacy and child sexual abuse has divided Australian Catholic leaders in the past.
Cardinal George Pell, former archbishop of Sydney and now head of the Vatican’s powerful economic ministry, acknowledged there may be a connection when he testified before a separate government inquiry in Australia last year. He was unavailable for comment at the Vatican Friday.
The independent Australian council is made up of church and lay members and is supervised by some of the nation’s senior archbishops, though its views do not necessarily reflect those of all senior clergy.