ROME – He is both one of the quietest Vatican officials, and one of the Roman Curia’s least known personalities. He is a member of the team that handles the allegations of clerical sexual abuse that arrive in Rome, and he played a key role in the shakeup of the Catholic Church in Chile which has been ravaged by a clerical abuse crisis.
This means that on the rare occasions Spanish Father Jordi Bertomeu speaks, his words have weight. He did so at length this week in a 2,800-word essay published by the Spanish magazine Palabra, where he discusses the role the hot button topics of celibacy, the Church’s ban on the ordination of women, and homosexuality have on the abuse of children.
In short, none: He argues being celibate, being a man or being gay does not make a person a sexual abuser.
Last year, the Spaniard was tapped by Pope Francis to head to Chile with Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, another member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), to try to understand the situation regarding clerical sexual abuse in the country. The result was a document thousands of pages long that led to the resignation of the entire episcopate; to date, the pontiff has accepted eight.
When it comes to celibacy, Bertomeu wrote that there is “no evidence” that it causes any “deviant sexual addiction,” nor has it ever been considered a relevant parameter to identify abuse: “Rather, most abusers are married men,” he said.
“According to some, in a sexually uninhibited society, eroticized to convulsion, with numerous cases of addiction to all kinds of pornography and sexual deviations or perversions, priestly celibacy would be a pernicious life option,” Bertomeu wrote. “According to this theory, with a perpetual self-censorship of sexual desire, the priest would end up developing psychological problems related to immaturity that, in some limiting cases, would result in pedophile behaviors.”
He debunks this theory with the data offered by other Christian and non-Christian churches. Bertomeu quotes the Unity Church of Australia, that has 240,000 members, no hierarchy and a “democratically married male and female clergy.” In recent months it made headlines due to its 2,500 cases of child abuse.
“Such data contrast with those of the Catholic Church, with 466,000 priests and 6,000 cases reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” he argued.
He also argued that celibacy is rooted in the Gospel, as proven by historic studies, and not something that appeared in the twelfth century to “better control the economy of the dioceses” that could end up in “clerical families.”
“Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira [IV century], doesn’t invent ‘a celibacy law,’ that didn’t exist up to that point in the Church, but it was the answer to a need to clarify some situations of fact arising after the disorganization of the time of the recurrent martyrdom persecutions,” Bertomeu wrote.
Celibacy, he insisted, has always been countercultural, and it is so today, regardless of the ongoing clerical abuse crisis.
There are those who advocate for ending “male celibacy” as a key factor in the fight against child abuse. They argue that this “alleged ‘normalization’” of the life of a priest would end abuse because he would “no longer need to have sex with minors.”
“This conclusion does not present any logical connection with the problem we are dealing with here. There is no scientific data that demonstrates that a married life would put an end to the deviant behavior of these few priests with this sexual disorder,” he wrote, adding that no scientific data demonstrates that pedophiliac men are better behaved when in the company of women. Furthermore, he said some sociologists speak of 25 percent of the cases where the women partnered with pedophiles are also child molesters.
On the question of the sexual orientation of a priest leading to abuse, he wrote, “from a privileged observatory such as that of this dicastery, it can be affirmed that the phenomenon of homosexuality does not point to clerical styles, since it affects priests of both a ‘traditional’ cut and others of a more open or ‘progressive’ cut (despite the misguided nature of these qualifiers).”
The most that can be argued from his office’s statistics is “that a certain homosexual subculture typical of some clerical groups and present in certain seminaries or novitiates, with the consequent tolerance towards active homosexual behaviors, can lead to pedophilia.”
“These are situations that deserve greater attention from pastors, who have the pastoral and disciplinary means to invite by example, word and even coercion to a chaste life that does not pose a danger or scandal to the priest himself and to the Church,” he wrote.
Bertomeu also says that although the Church should be ashamed by the number of priests who have committed abuse, he noted it is just a small percentage of the clergy, and comparable to the numbers of abusers in general society.
“They don’t allow the sustaining of certain affirmations destined to provoke social panic and the discredit of the Church, unfairly stigmatizing the social class of clergy,” the priest said.
According to Bertomeu, in the past two decades there has been, “particularly in some regions of the Catholic world,” an “unworthy, improper, inconsiderate and even vexatious treatment of priests by the mere fact of being.”
“Some media outlets have treated irresponsibly the phenomenon of criminal offenses with minors,” he argued, to the point of promoting the “indiscriminate persecution of the social class of the clergy or distrust of any priest for the mere fact of being one.”
“Mature and responsible citizens” refuse to be manipulated and are capable of distinguishing the particular case from the general one, he said, adding that “the existence of a pedophile cleric doesn’t necessarily imply that the priests and deacons of my parish, the Caritas center in my city or of my children’s schools, aren’t faithful to their priestly promises, particularly that of celibacy lived in perfect chastity.”
He also says that if 73 percent of sexual abuses against children are perpetrated within the household, it cannot be said that “being father or mother predisposes to abuse.”
The cases involving priests, he acknowledged, tend to drive media attention because they present themselves as a moralizing social element. For this reason, it’s firstly about justice for victims, but also about the scandal these cases provoke.
“The Church has a serious duty to properly manage the current crisis of abuse, severely applying the rules issued by the Supreme Legislator in this regard,” Bertomeu wrote.
However, justice is not sufficient: These crimes need to be prevented, he wrote, because of the “chilling” numbers given by the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children stating that one in ten children is sexually abused.
“The Church has the duty of protecting the weakest, and as such, be a completely safe space for childhood and youth,” Bertomeu wrote.
Bertomeu argues that, despite the fact that children are abused in every social class, profession, ethnic group and religion, Catholic priests are seen and even treated permanently as “suspects” of this “horrible crime.”
“One priest told me that it is very difficult to walk identifiably as a clergyman in some neighborhoods of his city,” he wrote. “The same thing happened to me when I arrived at a certain airport, during an official mission. I observed with stupor that using the clerical suit there meant being identified as belonging to a dangerous social group. Together with my companion, an archbishop, we were not only questioned with more insistence than other tourists there, but we were even subjected to a more thorough telematic check, in case we had a criminal record.”
He said that between denial and alarmism, it’s necessary for the entire People of God to treat crimes of clerical sexual abuse as a priority – as well as its prevention – with no fear of asking questions.
“I think it would be convenient to address the issue of celibacy without acrimony or ideological positions, but with balance and determination in reference to sexual abuse committed by clerics,” he wrote.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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