Where Have All the Young Girls Gone?
Originally published in Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Perspectives [PDF]
Largely absent from the on-going debate in the media over clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been the sexual abuse of girls and young women. This absence begs for explanation especially since across US society generally "current studies indicate that girls are three times more likely to be sexually abused than boys."1 Although reliable statistics about clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church—or any church—are hard to come by, A. W. Sipe, a former Catholic priest and current psychologist who has been studying sexuality in the Catholic priesthood for 25 years, reported to The Boston Globe that from his work he would estimate that "over twice as many priests" are sexually involved with females as with males.2 If Sipe?s estimate is true or even close to true, the absence of public attention to the situation of clergy sexual abuse of girls and young women becomes even more remarkable.
A clue to why the plight of female victims continues to be largely invisible might be found in the striking comments of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago during the meeting of US Cardinals with Pope John Paul II this past April. Cardinal George said, "there is a difference between a moral monster like [the Rev. John] Geoghan [who engaged in sex with boys] and someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages with a 16- or 17-year-old young woman who returns his affection. That is still a crime . . . so the civil law does not distinguish. But in terms of the possibility of reform of one's life, there are two very different sets of circumstances."3 As George notes, civil law does not distinguish between these acts, since both are understood as sexual abuse minors, but for George their moral weight is quite
different. My guess is that many Americans would agree with him. By pondering this difference, I think we can begin to see some of the reasons why the victimization of girls and young women has been largely absent from the coverage of the current clergy sex abuse scandal.
I would like to suggest that underlying and supporting the difference George sees between the sexual abuse of boys and that of girls are the pervasive assumptions of heterosexism. Heterosexism can be defined as the belief that only sexual desire between men and women (i.e., an heterosexual orientation) is normal, healthy, truly intimate, mutual, rewarding, and to be publicly acknowledged.4 Under this cultural ideology, sexual relations between people of the same sex are viewed as abnormal and unhealthy rather than simply as a normal, persistent sexual variation with the same potential for intimacy, mutuality, and healthy living available to any sexual relationship.
It is important to note that being heterosexual does not inevitably lead to an acceptance of heterosexism; only people—be they heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual—who believe in the exclusive claims to normality and morality of heterosexual relations are informed by a belief in heterosexism. However, heterosexism is conventionally accepted throughout much of American culture, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the current debate over clergy sexual misconduct has been largely framed by the media and by church leaders within that convention.
The assumptions of heterosexism have had at least two powerful effects on the present debate: they have tended to dismiss or trivialize the victimization of females by male clergy while dramatizing the plight of males, and they have disallowed any suggestion of mutual affection between priests and the 16- or 17-year-old males they may have become sexually involved with. In the first place, because heterosexual relations are in the majority, as the statistics show more females are abused than males, making their abuse less newsworthy because more pervasive.5
Moreover, since heterosexuality is assumed to be the "normal" orientation of everyone, female victims of sexual abuse, especially teenage victims, are often portrayed as complicit in their own abuse by their "seduction" of older males. Indeed, sexual abuse can be presented as simply a mutual return of affection, as Cardinal George?s quotation indicates. It is the normality of heterosexual relations that also encourages George to suggest that the use of alcohol might be sufficient to permit a priest to slip over the edge of his vows with a young woman. Since heterosexual desire is so natural and pervasive, very little enticement is needed to bring it into play. All of these assumptions about the normality, naturalness, and mutual affection of sexual relations between men and women serve to blur the lines between morally and psychologically appropriate sexual relations and relations of sexual abuse in the case of young women and older men.
The same cannot be said of male-male sexual relations. Under heterosexism, male-male sexual relations are always unhealthy and abnormal, whether the object of desire is a boy, a young man, or an adult male. Here the claim for abuse seems clear and pervasive. Because in the heterosexist view no young man could actually be attracted to another man, sexual relations between priests and young men must always be marked by abuse of power, never mutual affection. Moreover, the abnormality of homosexual desire means that no morality-loosening substances, like alcohol, would ever lead to this kind of act; only a depraved personality would participate in such sexual abuse. The naughty but understandable scenario of the tipsy priest and the seductive teenager only works as long as the teenager is clearly identified as female. If the teenager is male, the priest must be a monster and the teenager an outraged victim. Heterosexism makes the case of the male victims much stronger, more dramatic, and thus much more "newsworthy," than that of their female peers.
Sexual abuse of children is intolerable, whether those children are boys or girls.
As contemporary psychology has insisted and many documented cases have shown, pedophilia is defined by the sexual desire for children, often of either gender. Most child molesters are not sexually attracted to any adults. Such child molesters must be removed from the clergy or any other professions where they seek contact with children. However, if the assumptions of heterosexism are removed, the type of situation Cardinal George suggests for the 16 or 17 year old and the male priest becomes much more complex; gender ceases to be the deciding factor in judging the morality of the situation.
Teenage girls can be and have been sexually abused by priests, and that abuse must not be trivialized. At the same time, teenage boys have sometimes returned affection in those sexual circumstances. Moral judgement about the presence of abuse in either case must rest on other factors like consent, maturity, commitment, mutuality, trust, and the lasting beneficial effects of the relationship on both participants.
- "Misconceptions Surrounding Child Sexual Abuse Need Clarification to Protect Our Children," SIECUS press release, June 11, 2002 (www.siecus.org/media/press/press0020.html).