What are the root causes of the recent clerical sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church?

A comment to this question (Is it known which seminary or seminaries produced the majority of Catholic priests who were accused of sexual abuse in the USA?) lead me to ask this one:

Considering clerical abuse is a worldwide phenomenon that crosses all denominations, looking for a few seminaries as the root cause seems misguided.

Protestant churches have no requirement of celibacy, but they are not immune to these vices either.

What are the origins of this sinful phenomenon within the clergy of the Catholic Church.

  • christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/15871/… suggests an answer... Consider also Romans 7:8.
    – Matthew
    Apr 6, 2021 at 2:25
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    Ultimately, Adam’s fall is the root cause. Adam was a High Priest and and his fall was marked by lust/CCC400. Satan is using the same attack to destroy the priesthood like he did to Adam. Apr 6, 2021 at 4:07
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    @Ken This is a open question with research taking place in many countries. I don't think you will get a good answer here.
    – K-HB
    Apr 6, 2021 at 21:20
  • Isn't this question opinion based?
    – Luke Hill
    Nov 15, 2021 at 3:09

3 Answers 3


To answer this question properly, we need to define what the clerical sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is. I see two primary layers: (1) that clerics sexually abused children and minors, and (2) bishops covered-up this abuse, protecting priests from legal consequences, and frequently enabling them to continue abusing.

It is my argument that only the second layer is determinitive to understanding the sexual abuse as a scandal in the typical (versus canonical) sense of the word.

Catholic priests don't (or didn't during the major period of most frequent abuse from 1960–1990) sexually abuse children and minors at a statistically significantly higher rate than clergy of other religious groups, or than members of other professions that have significant contact with children and minors like teachers and coaches (see here and here). This has been clear since the release of the John Jay Report.

While it is a scandal in the moral/canonical sense whenever anyone given trust and authority, and all the moreso a priest who's put in a place of spiritual trust and represents the Church, to abuse a child, I believe it's a scandal on quite a different order than what we're dealing with today. Imagine an alternate history in which bishops through the whole 20th century when they found out about abuse, immediately separated the priest from any contact with children and minors, began a canonical investigation, and made a report of the alleged abuse to the police. In this case I personally can't imagine there being a perception of a scandal, or even a perception of abuse being more of an issue in the Catholic Church than in other religious groups or parts of society. One would hope that there would never be a priest or anyone who would harm a child or minor in this way, or that the Church would be 100% successful at preventing people who might do so from entering the priesthood, but that's simply not the world we live in.

That's the condensed version of why I think that when we think about the root causes of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, we need to think of the root cause of why bishops cover-up and enable abuse. That's a topic that's perhaps beyond my pay grade, or beyond the pay grade of any one person, but the most meaningful answer I've found to date is clericalism. In his address to the Synod Fathers at the 2018 Synod on Young People, Pope Francis has said clericalism arises

from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.

How does this manifest in the context of cover-up and abuse? It's a situation where bishops are looking out first of all for the power and interests of the clerical class above and beyond anything else, where bishops fight accountability to the Church, and support and maintain a culture of secrecy that makes cover-up possible. The podcasts Deliver Us from America Magazine and Crisis from the Catholic Project share a variety of examples (not limited to but including):

  1. Bishops having a paternal and protective feeling toward priests instead toward laity, minors, and children. When priests abuse, bishops in some cases are inclined to show mercy to the priest, sending him to treatment, but then back into the context of ministry around children and minors. This is a sign of clericalism because the feeling of paternalism (in the positive sense) and protection is extended much more strongly to priests than to lay people.

  2. Fear of scandal and losing credibility and moral authority in the church (man, how that backfired). In many cases bishops were more concerned about public scandal that could diminish their power and authority as well as the standing of the church than the safety and well-being of children and minors (not to mention the moral well-being of priests who needed to be prevented from committing more atrocities).

  3. There also has to be some degree of not taking the abuse sufficiently seriously. This is not always stated outright because it's hard to find evidence for, but in a variety of examples, no other explanation can be fully explanatory. The abuse of children and minors should be taken so seriously that it outweighs any other concern automatically. Bishops failure to do this could come from different places, but part of it could come from the most insipid form of clericalism, where there's an implicit, even unconscious feeling that lay people are simply a lower class of person are not not as important as priests.

  4. Even given all these things, it would be hard for this spirit of secrecy/privilege to be maintained if bishops were accountable to the Church. The absence of that accountability, the almost authoritarian control of bishops within their dioceses, is also a sign of clericalism.

This is just a sketch and a few points, but I hope it's successful in bringing a picture together. The life of the Church and structures like clericalism are incredibly complex, so it's hard to successfully navigate a question as big as this with brevity and clarity. However, having clarity about what the crisis is in the abuse crisis, and its fundamental root in clericalism, I think is a necessary starting point.

  • This is a very well developed answer.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 8, 2021 at 2:55
  • Catholic priests don't [...] sexually abuse children and minors at a statistically significantly higher rate than clergy of other religious groups - If this is true, then one in twenty Romanian or Russian priests is, or should be, a pedophile o child molester.
    – user46876
    Nov 14, 2021 at 2:09
  • The statement you quoted would probably be more precise with a "in the United States." If you're aware of data that indicate the contrary, that would be great to get out there.
    – semblable
    Nov 15, 2021 at 3:04
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    @Lucian yes, the statistical rate of abuse is ~4%, or ~1 in 20 (5% is precisely 1 in 20). However, you also need to consider sample size. Within a small organization, statistics might skew one way or the other. Within significantly large organizations, you're bound to see these numbers even out to the same rate as the general population. That's just basic statistics. This is why sample sizes matter so much in scientific studies (and why many sensationalist studies can't be trusted: they have abysmally low sample sizes relative to the size of the general population being studied).
    – jaredad7
    Nov 15, 2021 at 14:44
  • Well technically a small organization is a small population, not a small sample. The idea of "evening out" noise has more to do with increasing sample size within a population, not dealing with the issues germane to understanding small populations in general. So while difference in size of churches should definitely be considered in terms of abuse rates, I think we can basically take the rate of abuse in Orthodox churches in America in a relatively straightforward way. It's confounding with cultural & social factors that probably poses the more significant challenge.
    – semblable
    Nov 15, 2021 at 16:17

The percentage of Catholic priests who indulge in sexual abuse may not be on higher side compared with that of doctors, teachers , policemen et al who have direct interaction with their clients in fiduciary capacity or otherwise. But unfortunately, the news value of alleged abuse by Catholic priests is much more than the other cases put together. The simple reason is that malpractice of priests is an affront to the very trust invested on them by the faithful. Children and the young alike choose to go unaccompanied, to the private room of a priest more easily than they would, to that of a doctor or teacher. Who will tell them that priests are also made of flesh and blood like every other human being is ? It is the parents who miserably fail in their duty in this aspect. The Church needs to cultivate a collective consciousness towards the vice.

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    Interesting enough, such news get reported in secular countries like India as " Christian priest booked for ...." whereas in Christian countries it goes like " Catholic priest booked...." . Sadly, non-Catholic Christians propagate the news more vigorously than non-Christians do ! Apr 6, 2021 at 5:02

I don't think clerical abuse is new. Anytime a fallen human is given power they often use that power for sin. Indeed pride can also be vice that prevents those in power to administer justice or protect the vulnerable. Woven into your comment, however, seems to be a presupposition that the RCC is prone or certain seminaries are prone to abuse more than others. It is untrue that the RCC has a greater problem than say public school teachers. The RCC has a centralized hierarchy with consolidated assets that makes them a target of tort lawyers unlike a local protestant church or public school district. Carol Shakeshaft, while conducting research at Hofstra professor, concluded it's around 100 times more likely children are sexually abused in a California public school setting vs. Catholic.

All things aside, pederasty, (the form of sexual appetite dysfunction common in the RCC scandal) from a modern medical etiology standpoint is largely unknown. It very much seems to be developmental rather than learned. They are "born that way" to use a modern sexual language mores. It is a very complex question, because it has social, biological, emotional, cognitive, & sexual development components that are difficult to blind or isolate in studies.

That point which you might be getting at, is are/were there "networking" in places where the powers allows the perpetrators of the act? Places where "how and who" to victimize is learned? I'd say the short answer is yes, however, this is a historical question. It is a misguided sort of question because now a days, you have the dark web versus the social altruistic ways most of the priests responsible for this scandal functioned 50-60 years ago. Those institutional networks are defunct and have been for decades; the hierarchical protection of those networks hasn't exist either for decades. Those networks existed in public schools, Hollywood, BSA, or anywhere else someone with the power and means could victimize and that's where perpetrators congress. Pederasty is easier than ever to indulge in, no cassock needed. Thanks internet.

  • Our morality is guided, more often than not, by ``who is watching" . A non-Catholic married priest is watched by his family, apart from God. A Catholic priest who has sin on his mind, has only God to be watched by. "..And God knows I am weak" he convinces himself . Apr 7, 2021 at 3:38
  • "A Catholic priest who has sin on his mind, has only God to be watched by." This isn't consistent with Catholic ecclesiology of the church as a hierarchical communion in which a priest is watched, yes by God, but also by his bishop.
    – semblable
    Apr 7, 2021 at 22:20
  • Thanks, Semblable. The Law, an erring priest knows, will also catch up with him some day. But there is a difference in being watched by one's spouse, the implications being almost instant. A bishop who does not interact with his priests on day-to-day basis, will have to spend mach more time in getting a report on them, let alone in assessing the report and reaching at a conclusion ! That is one of the reasons for some suggesting that NOT imposing a life of virginity on Catholic priests will stave off the probability of their indulging in alleged sexual abuse . Apr 13, 2021 at 8:13
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    @Kadalikatt The most likely place for sexual predation of minors is in their home by a family member or trusted partner or friend. According to RAINN 76% of child sexual abuse is done by married men. Imposing a life of virginity is an improper connotation; it is a higher call to a life of celibacy that was instituted at Apostolic times. Marriage doesn't take away sexual continence issues; it is completely wrongheaded to reason such and reliable research quickly dispels such a notion.
    – MarkF47
    Apr 14, 2021 at 16:41
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan most priests live with at least one other man, whether a seminarian studying under him, another priests serving the same parish or a nearby parish, or their religious community. So most priests also have a family to watch them, it is just a fraternal rather than traditional family. They are all brothers who desire one another's virtue and salvation.
    – jaredad7
    Nov 15, 2021 at 14:54

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