Researchers have identified a pattern in the molestation crisis afflicting the Roman Catholic Church: most of the victims are older boys.
Noting this trend, some high-ranking Catholics have concluded that many abusive clergy are gay, and some church members have suggested purging the priesthood of homosexuals. But abuse experts say that's a simplistic approach that will not end the threat to children.
''What I'm afraid of is we're going into this witch hunt for gays,'' said the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and sex abuse consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''We need to be careful that we don't make anyone -- whether it's priests or gays -- scapegoats.''
In the Vatican's first public comments about the scandal, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, told The New York Times the church needed to prevent gays from becoming priests.
Estimates of the number of gays among seminarians and the 47,000 Catholic clergy in the United States vary dramatically, from 10 percent to 50 percent. But no credible data exists on the number of abusive priests who are homosexual, said Dr. Fred Berlin, a sexual disorders expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
There is also no evidence that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children, Berlin said.
Still, some in the church blame gays for the cases of abuse, in part because most of the abusive priests are not considered pedophiles. In some cases where the victims are adolescents, the encounter can be considered homosexual conduct that -- although unacceptable -- can't be classified as a psychiatric disorder, Berlin said.
The American Psychiatric Association defines pedophiles as adults who molest children who have not yet reached puberty. Cases of serial sex abuse of prepubescent children are considered rare in the church.
New Jersey attorney Stephen Rubino said about 85 percent of the 300 people he has represented against the church were males who were adolescents when they were abused.
The distinction is important to clinicians, who say serial pedophiles have little chance of being rehabilitated, while adults who abuse adolescents -- sometimes called ephebophiles or hebophiles -- respond better to treatment in some cases.
Courts also view the abuse of younger children as more egregious, giving harsher sentences since very young victims have a tougher time recovering from the abuse.
But Dr. Robert Miller, a University of Colorado expert on sex offenders, said adults who molest children of any age are psychologically immature.
''These are people with normal sex drives who cannot discharge them appropriately because they are afraid of adult women,'' Miller said. ''They are looking for intimacy, a kind of closeness they can't get with adults. They develop an ongoing relationship with kids. They have the opportunity and the access.''
The offenders' targeting of boys versus girls can be a clue to their sexual orientation, but not necessarily, experts say.
In the general population, girls are more often sexually abused, while among priests who target children, boys are more often the victim. Researchers believe one reason is the access clergy members have to boys.
''Some of the traditions within the Catholic Church put boys into closer proximity to priests than girls,'' said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. ''If you had more young women serving as altar girls and there were more opportunities to have these close private encounters with priests, you might get more molestation with girls.''
A. W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who works with plaintiffs in sex abuse cases, blames the culture of the church.
''What other profession do you have that has a widespread boys club mentality where everyone has to be a man, where everything is male-revered,'' Sipe said.
Until more research can be done on why boys are more often targeted, many researchers say the church should focus on improving screening of candidates to the priesthood, teaching seminarians how to handle the pressures of celibate life and strengthening supervision of priests.
''What you may have is not so much a problem with gay people, but with people who have kind of an immature sexuality or a conflicted sexuality,'' Finkelhor said. ''Within the church it may not be so much being a homosexual, as it may be the fact that the celibate lifestyle is a magnet for people dealing with sexual conflicts.''
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