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The Perils of Reform at Church

John Tierney, New York Times, March 29, 2002

After what must be a record amount of clerical atonement during Holy Week, preachers in Roman Catholic churches will be seizing on the theme of rebirth this Easter Sunday. They've already gotten plenty of suggestions for ways to resurrect the American church.

The most obvious advice is to take sexual misconduct seriously, which has already happened. Parents have learned to be suspicious and challenge authority; children and adolescents are being warned; prosecutors are on alert; lawyers are collecting settlements and looking for more
clients. Ambitious clerics must be starting to see that covering up sexual misconduct is no longer a smart career move: the cover-up is ultimately more expensive and worse public relations.

But is there more to be done? Reformers, not surprisingly, see this scandal as an illustration of why their favorite reforms are necessary. They are calling for an end to the celibacy requirement and an end to the ban on female priests.

Freeing priests from the vow of celibacy would make for healthier clergy, according to those who think that some sexually troubled men now join the priesthood in the hope of escaping their urges. This theory sounds plausible, but it's largely untested. Sexual abuse scandals have been common in churches with non-celibate clergy, like the Anglican Church in Canada.

It is possible that the Catholic Church seems to be a hotbed of illicit sex, not so much because of its policies on celibacy but because it is such a large and newsworthy institution. The more people you have working with children and adolescents, the more problems you are likely to have. A half-dozen Catholic priests who are pedophiles might appear like a newsworthy epidemic, even if they're scattered across the country; a half-dozen pedophiles at a half-dozen different and smaller institutions may get little or no publicity, even if they're all working in the same city.

The image of sexually predatory priests has been created, at least in part, because of the same reason that New York City used to be considered America's crime capital. Because of its size, New York was bound to have more gruesome crimes than smaller cities, and those crimes got especially wide coverage in the national news media because of New York's prominence. The city's violent image disappeared when the news media shifted its focus from sensational
individual crimes to the relatively low rate of crime by comparison with other cities. But no one has similar data for comparing sexual-abuse rates among different religious denominations or professions.

There is abundant research, though, showing different rates of sexual predation between men and women. Women rarely commit sexual assaults and are less interested in casual sexual encounters than men. They're also not attracted to teenagers to the extent that heterosexual and
homosexual men are. Men typically seek younger partners; women typically don't.

How many teenagers have complained about advances from female teachers? There have been a few well-publicized cases of female high school teachers having sex with their students, but those make news because they're so unusual. In many parishes nuns spend more time with children than priests do, but how many nuns have been caught molesting altar boys or choir girls?

Allowing women to become priests would create new temptations for adult sex in the rectory, but it's safe to predict that there would be fewer minors having sex with clergy. It is also safe to predict that many Catholics would benefit from their listening and counseling skills. There are many female therapists who have far more empathy with their clients than male priests will ever have with their parishioners.

While there are good reasons for letting women into the priesthood, there are also reasons for retaining some other all-male Catholic institutions: boys' schools with male teachers. I say this partly because of recent research showing benefits of single-sex schools for some boys, but
mainly because of personal experience. As a veteran of all-boys' Catholic schools (and also ones with boys and girls), I worry that an overreaction to the current scandal will deprive today's boys of the kind of mentors that we
cherished the truly celibate men with the time and the freedom to make big differences in our lives. I spoke with one of them yesterday, and he confirmed my fears.

"Today," he said, "I couldn't spend time alone with a kid the way I did with you. I'd be scared somebody would get the wrong idea."

Some boy is the poorer for it.

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