Vatican Symposium Hears Homosexuality
A 'Risk Factor' In, but Not Cause of Sex Abuse

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
April 5, 2003

Rome - Experts on sexual disorders told a private Vatican symposium this week, attended by officials charged with handling the abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church, that homosexuality is a risk factor but not a cause of the sexual abuse of minors.

One Vatican official who attended parts of the four-day symposium on pedophilia 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 questions raised by the experts about "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," including "specialists in recuperative therapy of people affected by this problem." There were four Germans, three Canadians and an American in the group. All the experts, in what planners described as a coincidence, were non-Catholic.

The idea, according to participants, was to expose Vatican officials struggling to craft policy on the abuse crisis to "state of the art information" from a scientific point of view.

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.

Asked what was said about homosexuality, Kafka said, "We described it as a risk factor." He noted that the majority of cases in the American crisis involve adolescent males 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."

Kafka stressed that homosexuality was not the main topic of discussion in the symposium. Other topics included whether screening programs could weed out potential abusers, and what promise rehabilitation programs might hold.

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. Sources have indicated for months that the document would take a strongly negative line, but the Vatican official said it may be "dead on arrival."

Another source close to the drafting process told NCR April 5 that the document was "in deep trouble," in part because certain American bishops 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."

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, Canada; Dr. Hans Kröber, Director of the Institute for Forensic Psychiatry, Free University of Berlin, Germany;

Dr. Ron Langevin, University of Toronto, Canada; Dr. William Marshall, Queen's University, Ontario, Canada; 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 of dealing with abuser priests were in attendance. They were: Fr. Steve Rosetti, psychologist, author and president of St. Luke's Institute in Maryland; and Fr. Canice Connors, president of Conference of Major Superiors of Men and a former official at St. Luke's.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR's Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2003

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