Posted on April 14, 2010

The Trouble With Celibacy

Lisa Miller, Newsweek, April 7, 2010

In 1998 a Roman Catholic nun named Marie McDonald wrote a brief and painful summary of her concerns to her colleagues and superiors. It was labeled “strictly confidential.” She was worried, she said, about the sexual abuse of nuns by Roman Catholic priests in Africa.

The memo–titled “The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and in Rome”–was concise. “Sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops is allegedly common,” it said. Sisters, financially dependent on priests, occasionally have to perform sexual favors in exchange for money. {snip}

Even as new cases of child sexual abuse by clergy emerge each day in Europe and the United States, abuse in the regions where Catholicism is growing fastest–Latin America, Asia, and, especially, Africa–are still largely ignored. In the West, the focus has been on the violation of minors, and on the role of celibacy in engendering this problem. In Africa, the problem is somewhat more complex. {snip} As the Roman Catholic hierarchy continues to crow over its success and vitality in the global south–the growth rate in Africa and Asia has been about 3 percent a year, twice the rate worldwide–the African church may put mandatory clerical celibacy to its harshest test yet.

{snip} The 2001 investigation by the National Catholic Reporter uncovered three separate reports of sexual abuse of religious sisters by priests. The story described priests raping religious sisters and then paying for their abortions; sisters fearing to travel in cars with priests for fear of rape; sisters appealing to bishops for help only to be told to go away. {snip}

Much less well documented is a broader problem: priests with unofficial “wives.” In Africa, “there’s a tremendous problem with the vow of chastity in regard to women,” says Schineller. “{snip} Laypeople want priests, so they put up with the priest having a friend.” {snip}

Schineller believes that priests all over the world fail to maintain their celibacy–more, he says, than anyone wants to admit–but that Africa presents priests with a unique set of problems. In Africa, parents have a higher social status than childless adults. “To be a man in Africa–it varies from culture to culture–but it is expected that you will have children and a family. {snip}” {snip}

Nuns hold a unique place in this sexual landscape. In a universe where AIDS is widespread, sex with nuns is thought to be safe; some imagine it might even have positive, healing powers. {snip} “One of the most dangerous myths in history,” adds Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, “was this: if you were suffering from a serious sexual disease, sex with a virgin would cure it. That had awful consequences.”


[“The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and in Rome,” by Marie McDonald, MSOLA, can be read here.]