With the release of a shocking report from Australia on accusations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, the old question is bound to arise: “Is the discipline of celibacy to blame for sexual abuse of minors?”

The complicated question is dealt with in historian Philip Jenkins’s excellent study on the problem. Published in 2001, Pedophiles and Priests looks at the problem objectively, and his basic findings on the American church can probably be applied to the Australian situation.

Jenkins summarizes his findings in this article. He acknowledges the problem, but also points out press exaggeration and popular flawed understanding of the causes and possible solutions.

Jenkins also points out how the sexual abuse crisis spurred on progressive critics of the Catholic Church. “What else can we expect from a Church that keeps its clergy in a lifelong state of sexual immaturity,” they inveighed… “that denies the spiritual gifts of women, that preserves an authoritarian system?”

“The abuse issue illustrates the secretive workings of the hierarchy, the neglect of the laity, and the pernicious effect of celibacy,” he wrote. “For feminists, epidemic clerical abuse is precisely what their theories would predict of a patriarchal institution that permits unchecked sexual exploitation.”

The whole crisis is too complex to deal with in a short article, but it is worth examining one repeated and popular critique: that sexual abuse of children is caused by the discipline of celibacy. The usual formulation of this charge is the simplistic viewpoint that if the priests were able to have a proper, sexual relationship with a wife, they would not have abused children.

However, one only needs to nudge this seemingly obvious critique slightly and it collapses. Outside of Catholic clergy circles the majority of child sex abuse happens within the family—the perpetrators being married men. It is clear therefore that marriage, on its own, does not cure the problem of the sexual abuse of children.

Nor is the problem confined to Catholics. Protestants, whose pastors are able to marry, report similar rates of sexual abuse.

Neither does having an active sex life necessarily dampen the pedophile’s enthusiasm for underage partners. Convicted pedophiles are usually sexually voracious, and an obsession with sex may actually intensify the desire for young victims.

Furthermore, the majority of sexual abuse of minors among Catholic priests was committed against boys and adolescent young men. In other words, there was a homosexual dimension to the abuse. Clearly, these are not men who simply “need to find a good woman.”

Their particular appetites were not likely to be cured, or controlled, by marriage.

The simplistic charge that the discipline of celibacy causes sexual abuse is easily dismissed. However, the question is not so straightforward. One needs to consider the complexity of the call to celibacy itself.

The original reason for the discipline was both spiritual and practical.

St. Paul encouraged his followers to remain celibate so they could please God alone and not be encumbered with the demands of wife and family. (I Corinthians 7:7) The priest or monk accepted the discipline of celibacy as a kind of military or athletic discipline.

Through celibacy he controlled his physical desires and dedicated himself completely to the cause of Christ. In addition, through celibacy the priest conformed his own life more perfectly to that of Christ the Great High Priest.

While these ideals are sublime, one can’t help wondering how many men were also drawn to the priesthood or religious life because they understood very well that marriage was not for them. We see celibacy as a great self denial, but perhaps it was all too easy, not only for some men to accept celibacy, but also for other, already celibate men, to accept them into the community.

For whatever reasons, they found celibacy not a burden, but a relief. Rather than doing the hard work of recognition and integration of their sexuality, they escaped into the seeming safety of celibacy.

No doubt many of these men, by the workings of grace and self discipline, turned the vow of celibacy into the high calling it was intended to be. Rather than an escape from reality, the call to celibacy became their path to integration and a mature sexuality and self understanding. Unfortunately, many others failed, and their stunted or distorted sexuality drove them to choose immature, unhealthy and abusive behaviors.

If this is so, then the problem is not the vow of celibacy per se, but a distorted understanding and practice of celibacy.

In his weighty study of the subject, Celibacy in Crisis, Richard Sipe regards the discipline of celibacy as inherently flawed, concluding, “Only a thoroughgoing reform of the celibacy/sexual structure of the church will really address the problem of sexual abuse.”

However, in a more positive chapter, Sipe analyzes the achievements of celibacy, recognizing the large number of men in his study for whom the discipline of celibacy was their path to greater human maturity and Christian sanctity. By a unified life of prayer, work, service and community their vow of celibacy became one of the tools to a secure and stable life of service.

In our sex-crazed society, we sometimes forget that all of the baptized are called to that sexual self discipline we call chastity. For Catholics, the only legitimate sexual relations are between validly married husband and wife. Pope St. John Paul II himself acknowledged, “Chastity is the work of a lifetime.”

All of us are called, through self discipline, to integrate our sexual instincts into the fullness of our humanity. Marriage is one path to this goal. Celibacy is the other. Those who are called to vows of celibacy reveal this path to the whole church.

That some who followed that path went disastrously astray should not require the complete abandonment of the path, anymore than those who have distorted and destroyed marriage should make us abolish that sacred gift.