National Catholic Reporter
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Church in Crisis
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

Homosexuality a risk factor, Vatican told

Experts emphasize it is not cause of abuse; message may derail document on seminaries


Homosexuality is a risk factor in, but not the cause of the sexual abuse of adolescent males, according to experts who addressed a private April 2-5 Vatican symposium attended by officials charged with handling the abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic church.

One Vatican official who attended parts of the four-day event told NCR that this message came through “loud and clear” and predicted that it might help delay, or even derail, a much-anticipated document on the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries.

The same official said Vatican observers were struck by criticism of zero-tolerance policies, suggesting that it may lead to guidelines about support of priests after they are removed from ministry.

An April 5 Vatican statement said the meeting featured eight of “the most qualified experts on the theme.” There were four Germans, three Canadians and an American. All eight, in what planners described as a coincidence, were non-Catholic. The chief organizer of the symposium was Dr. Manfred Lütz, a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and a psychiatrist from Germany.

The idea, according to participants, was to expose Vatican officials to “state-of-the-art information” from a scientific point of view. Participants included officials from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Secretariat of State, as well as from the Vatican congregations for clergy, religious and Catholic education.

The lone American expert was Dr. Martin P. Kafka of the Harvard Medical School, whose field is sexual impulsivity disorders. Kafka spoke to NCR April 5, after the close of the symposium.

Kafka said that homosexuality was not the main focus of the meeting, though there was interest in the subject. “We described it as a risk factor,” Kafka said, noting that the majority of cases in the American crisis involve adolescent males between 14 and 17 victimized by adult gay priests.

Kafka emphasized, however, that this does not mean homosexuality causes sex abuse. “A risk factor is not a cause,” he said.

“The great predominance of homosexual males are in no way sexual abusers,” Kafka said. “There is, however, a subgroup at risk.”

Kafka noted that since priests who abuse minors tend to perform most such acts within five to seven years after ordination, being recently ordained is another risk factor. That does not mean that being freshly ordained “causes” abuse, any more than homosexuality.

“We don’t really know in a scientific way what the factors are” that cause abuse, Kafka said. “We don’t have the evidence.”

Other topics, Kafka said, included whether more effective screening could filter out potential abusers, and what promise rehabilitation programs might hold. Kafka said the experts were not optimistic about a “magic bullet” screening program. Presenters also stressed the need for open discussion of sexuality among young priests, and improving the ongoing supervision of priests.

“As a non-Catholic, I was impressed with the deep, genuine concern about the issue, the willingness to be open and listen, and the proactive approach to doing the right thing,” Kafka said. “I was very encouraged by this meeting.”

A Vatican official told NCR April 5 that the message that homosexuality does not cause abuse was clearly received. Among other things, he suggested it might affect the fate of a document currently being prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries.

A source close to the drafting process told NCR April 5 that the document was “in deep trouble,” in part because certain bishops, including some Americans, have raised objections.

“They’re saying they don’t want to drive the problem underground and make being gay a clandestine thing in the priesthood,” he said. “They feel it’s better to have it out in the open.”

Sources told NCR April 7 that the document is currently in its third draft. A first draft would have left the decision about the admission of homosexuals in the hands of seminary rectors and religious superiors, but under the impact of reaction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal agency, a second draft took a more restrictive stance.

The document may eventually pass through a fourth draft, these sources indicated, suggesting that earlier predictions that it would appear this spring may have been overly optimistic.

Beyond the discussion on homosexuality, the Vatican official said another point that seemed to emerge clearly is that zero-tolerance policies are problematic. He listed three points made by the experts: 1) the complexity of individual cases; 2) stress is a risk factor, and when a priest is stripped of his livelihood and support system he experiences great stress; 3) it is dangerous to “let loose” an abuser priest on the community.

For these reasons, the official said, the Vatican may consider a set of instructions about the responsibility dioceses have to priests who are dismissed for sexual abuse. This would not mean a retreat from permanently removing a priest from ministry after one proven act of abuse, but it would mean the diocese could have some responsibility to support and assist that priest even after dismissal.

The seven experts at the meeting in addition to Kafka were:

  • Dr. Jörg M. Fegert, medical director of the Clinic and Polyclinic for Child and Youth Psychiatry/Psychotherapy at the University of Ulm, Germany;
  • Dr. Karl Hanson, Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, Ottawa;
  • Dr. Hans Kröber, director of the Institute for Forensic Psychiatry, Free University of Berlin;
  • Dr. Ron Langevin, University of Toronto;
  • Dr. William Marshall, Queen’s University, Ontario;
  • Dr. Friedemann Pfafflin, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, head of the Section for Forensic Psychotherapy at the University of Ulm, president of the International Society for the Treatment of Sex Offenders, Germany;
  • Dr. Christian Reimer, director of the Clinic for Psychosomatic Illness and Psychotherapy, University of Giessen, Germany.

In addition, two American priests with experience in dealing with abuser priests were in attendance. They were: Fr. Steven Rosetti, psychologist, author and president of St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland; and Conventual Francisca Fr. Canice Connors, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and a former official at St. Luke’s.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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