Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Priestly abuse and rational choice

Want to hook up with a gay guy at university? Go to a seminarian party. That the Catholic priesthood is strongly disproportionately gay helps explain why the priestly sexual abuse of minor cases are overwhelmingly of males (along with access: when in 1994 the Church allowed girls to be altar assistants, the proportion of female victims of clerical sexual abuse rose). But, given that gays are such a small proportion of the population, if they are a large proportion of seminarians and priests, then naturally the average level of vocation is probably going to be lower. The real point being that Catholic doctrine doesn’t give believing gay Catholics much choice: decreed to lives of erotic solitude by Church doctrine, the priesthood becomes the least-worst option for gay Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching on sexuality. A point reinforced by one study that found only 1-in-7 heterosexual priests strayed from celibacy, but 3-in-8 homosexual priests did while 76% of heterosexual priests said they would certainly chose the priesthood again but only 53% of homosexual priests did.

The above figures come from a fascinating rational choice analysis of priestly sexual abuse of minors—Sexual Misconduct of Roman Catholic Priests: A Rational Choice Perspective by Christine Brickman—whose major flaw is a failure to grasp this point about why Catholic priests are so disproportionately homosexual.
The version of the study I found when it was online was a draft, and had a few obvious editing mistakes (note 13 says falsely perceived by homosexuals when it clearly means heterosexuals, on page 13 it says uncompromising positions when it means compromising positions) and uncompleted footnotes. But it is still full of information and a largely persuasive analysis. The model adopts a two-stage rational choice model of deviant behaviour. The first stage is a matter of constraints (resources and standards) and the second of utility maximisation:
expected utility = benefit of crime – (probability of punishment * cost of punishment)
It uses the data from the John Jay study of priestly abuse from 1950-1992. The study found a low, but rising, level of abuse in the period to 1960, a high and rising level of abuse in the period 1960-1980 and a rapidly falling level of abuse since 1980. The author divides this into the pre-conciliar period to 1965, the conciliar period 1965-1980 and the post-conciliar period. This does not quite accord with the evidence given the sharp increase in 1960-65, but if one assumes that conciliar changes were ‘in the wind’ before Vatican II wound up, it does not seem a major problem.

Basically, the author argues that, prior to the Vatican II changes going through, priestly training (particularly in assisting developing psycho-sexual maturity) was poor. Strong normative constraints kept this in check prior to 1960 (though rates of abuse were rising). Vatican II and the social changes of the 1960s saw a loosening of constraints (both internal and external) that resulted in a sharp rise in abuse coinciding with a flight from the priesthood (reducing the incentive of the Church to deal with the issue in the face of a priest shortage). In the post-conciliar period, strong normative constraints were re-imposed, priestly spare time and other access declined, the likelihood of punishment increased and training improved (the average age at ordination also rose significantly). Hence the lowering levels of abuse, and a rise in the average age of the victim over the 52 year period of the study from 11.5 to 13.87 years. (In the period 1990-2002, 55% of victims were boys aged 15-17, 30% were girls aged 15-17: the proportion of victims who were 15-17 year old boys had risen continually from almost 20% in the 1950s, while the proportion who were 15-17 year old girls had risen from almost 10% in the 1950s to almost 30% in the 1970s then plateaued.)

The author notes that elementary economic theory would predict homosexual priests would be more likely to abuse than heterosexual priests: if it is harder for a homosexual than a heterosexual priest to have a sexual relationship with an adult (likely on simple available-partners grounds) but the cost is greater for a heterosexual priest (since folk tend to be more outraged by abuse of girls and homosexuality is already disapproved of), then it follows that the relative cost of sex with a minor is less for a homosexual than a heterosexual priest. Of course, this is, at least in part, a typical case of disapproved behaviour on the part of the objects of bigotry being a consequence of said bigotry. (Jews being banned from owning land or otherwise insecure in their property rights going into money-lending, pawnbroking and other activities involving intellectual capital being a classic example of such.)

There may be some legality effect also: if all homosexual relations are illegal, then the relative cost of having sex with a minor is also lower.

The author further notes that if more homosexuals become priests and homosexual self-identification increases—what she calls
a problematic rise of homosexual subcultures within seminaries
theory would predict abuse becomes more likely. But, of course, Catholic doctrine itself both encourages believing gay Catholics to be disproportionately drawn to the priesthood—since it already enjoins celibacy for them making the celibacy cost of the priesthood lower for homosexuals than heterosexuals, with a likely lower level of vocation—while also putting them under greater psychological stress. The sort of stress that, as the author notes, psychological research suggests makes inappropriate sexual expression more likely.

Futhermore, if the social space for homosexuality expands (more gay neighbourhoods, more openly gay people), the cost of celibacy for homosexual priests would rise because there would be more sense of an alternative being available after all. Eventually, you would get to the situation where there were fewer homosexual men entering the priesthood as their “least bad option” and a higher level of vocation amongst those who did. This would fit with the average age of the priest at the time of the first incident rising—with the average age being 38 in the 1950s, 37 in the 1960s & 1970s, 42.5 in the 1980s and 47 in the 1990s—and with the drop in levels of abuse.

The issue of wider social choices also has implications for the age of victims. A third (33%) of victims were 15-17 and of them 84% were male. The percentage of the victims who were female rises as the age lowers, with the 1-7 age group being the only ones where a majority of victims were female (51%). A celibate priesthood can be a refuge for anyone who feels their sexuality to be problematic for whatever reason. So the older victims tend to reflect homosexuality being problematic due to Church doctrine, the younger victims paedophilia being problematic for more basic reasons.

The other effect priestly celibacy would have is that the senior priests making decisions in dealing with abuse would not be parents themselves, so more likely to identify with the accused priest than the victim, hence the notoriously inadequate response of the Church hierarchy, particularly prior to about 1980.

While the author is generally perspicacious about the influences after ordination, she does not seem to have entirely thought through why Catholic priests are disproportionately gay in the first place, and the implications thereof. But, that aside, it is a thought-provoking and informative study.


  1. My mother's family is Irish, and I've known since childhood that a little gay son (don't worry, Catholic parents know who they are) would be nudged towards the priesthood (as opposed to the army or agriculture). Similarly, a little lesbian daughter would be nudged towards the convent, not marriage. I have no idea how long this has been going on, but my instinct tells me it's been going on since the early Christians first started to valorize celibacy...

  2. Oh yes. In Montaillou, Ladurie mentions C14th homosexual networks that were urban and clerical. While, in the C11, St Peter Damien denounced a sodomite "Church within the Church".