Gays in the priesthood and the ban on married priests are significant factors contributing to the sexual abuse of children by clergy, according to American Catholics surveyed in a new poll -- though researchers note there is little evidence to support such views.
In the CBS News/New York Times poll
released Tuesday, 31 percent of Catholics said they thought celibacy was a major factor leading to sexual abuse, while almost the same number (30 percent) said they believed homosexuality played a major role. Some 28 percent called celibacy a "minor factor" and 23 percent said homosexuality was a minor factor.
Thirty-five percent said celibacy did not play a part in the abuse and 37 percent said homosexuality in the priesthood was not a factor.
One other notable point: according to the pollsters, Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week "are even less likely than Catholics overall to think these factors contribute to child sex abuse by priests."
In general, the number of Catholics who think celibacy and homosexuality factor into the abuse by priests is not surprising, and is perhaps lower than expected given the enormous amount of attention -- and blame -- put on those two issues. In broad terms, liberals are often seen as blaming celibacy while conservatives are often pointing a finger at gay priests as the problem.
Indeed, the pope's own Secretary of State and second-ranking Vatican official after the pontiff, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, got in hot water last month when he claimed
that homosexuality was associated with pedophilia.
The reality is that there is little evidence to support the claim that either homosexuality or celibacy, or some combination of the two, are major causes contributing to the abuse, as I noted in a recent piece in The Washington Post on "Five Myths"
of the abuse crisis.
For example, the sexual abuse of children occurs in other professions with a similar profile to the priesthood, such as teaching and the Boy Scouts, and even across denominations. "We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek
. "I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others."
Those who blame gay priests note that some 80 percent of the victims in the United States were boys (about 60-70 percent of all reported cases
coming to the Vatican), and argue that means homosexuality is the culprit. But as criminologists studying the clerical abuse of children report
, that ratio does not translate neatly into cases of abuse by gay men. In fact, it has long been noted that the incidence of pedophilia is highest among married men with families.
Overall, men are far more likely than women to sexually abuse children, yet more than half of the poll respondents (53 percent) said the all-male priesthood was "not a factor" in the abuse and just 17 percent said it was a major factor.
That is probably just as well, because while Pope Benedict XVI has barred gays from the seminary as a way to stem the abuse crisis, ordaining women as priests is one solution the pontiff is definitely not considering.