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Allegations of sexual abuse by priests: Should Cardinals revisit celibacy?

By Chioma Gabriel
Following Pope Benedict XVI’s abrupt resignation allegedly  prompted by a secret report revealing sex and graft scandals inside the Vatican, much has been said about continued celibacy of priests in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the pre-conclave meeting of Cardinals on election of a new Pope  serves as an opportunity to revisit the oath of celibacy taken by priests at ordination.

Miffed by the secret report he got last December involving priests in the Church, the Pope emeritus had allegedly decided to bow out. This was the same man who wrung his hands above his head in triumph when he emerged as Pope in  St Peter’s eight years ago.

He had longed to be Pope. He had loved being Pope. He expected to die as Pope. But then, he realised  it was easier said than done.

Arguably, the law of celibacy is a late-comer in the Catholic Church and was imposed on priests and bishops. Modern scholars trace the beginnings of this tradition to the apostolic church itself.

The Council of Carthage in 390 AD said that it was fitting that those who were at the service of divine sacraments be perfectly continent so that what the apostles taught and its antiquity be maintained. The Catholic Church saw the doctrine  as the imitation of the celibate Christ who remained unmarried for the sake of the kingdom.

However, it is known from Biblical records that Christ called people like Peter from married life to be part of the twelve apostles. Several verses in the Bible talk about Peter’s mother-in-law. Apostle John was an unmarried man. Apostle Paul, not originally of the twelve, presented celibacy and virginity as the way to please God without divided interests.

Archbishop John Onaiyekan before Pope Benedict XVI at St Peter's basilica at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO
Archbishop John Onaiyekan before Pope Benedict XVI at St Peter’s basilica at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO

Paul said to the Corinthian Church, “It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.

“If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2,9).

Nowhere in the Old or New Testament does Scripture suggest that people should marry the Temple or the Church. The vow of celibacy  therefore seems to have no concrete basis within the scripture.

It must also be pointed out that there is no obligation on anyone to become a priest, even after successfully completing all the required studies. It is the calling from God through his Church and communicated to the candidate by his Bishop. But once, one has chosen to become a priest of the Catholic church, he is to abide by the laws, rules and regulations of the church as is done in social clubs or organisations.

Celibacy is one of the most distinct features of the Catholic tradition but over the years, this discipline is being flaunted by priests and severally, scandals have broken out in the church about the inability of priests to keep to this tradition. Instead of the doctrine of priests being wed to the church and loving the church with an exclusive love which cannot be shared, priests are now either reverting to homosexualism and secret or open affairs with the opposite sex.

In a sex-drenched society of today, the idea of a full-blooded man taking a life-long oath of celibacy appears preposterous. It is believed that abstinence is impossible and pledging abstinence is ridiculous.

Whenever crisis erupts over any form of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, it is perceived as the betrayal of the faithful. Catholic priests are assumed by many to be miserable in their celibacy. But that might not be true. Priests are known to love their vocation and given a second chance, majority of priests would still want to become priests.

Over the years, the press has been agog with sexual malpractices by priests of the Catholic Church. It is always big news when a Catholic priest is caught in a compromising situation with the other sex! This is common overseas but suppressed in Nigeria even though some priests in Nigeria are breaking the celibacy vow too!

In September 2008, a Catholic priest in Fresno, California, Reverend Father Farrow, told a local TV station that he is gay. He told his parishioners at Mass that he was opposing a Catholic-church-supported referendum that would overturn same sex marriage in that state.

He packed up his office and home and left. On that Sunday, Father Farrow reportedly told parishioners that he was taking a stand against the constitutional amendment seeking to overturn a State Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that allowed same-sex marriage. He also told Channel 30 that he is gay.

In   2009, a Miami Priest at St. Francis de Sales known as Father Alberto Cutie left the Catholic Church amid an uproar over tabloid photos of him kissing his girlfriend, Ms Carnellis on the beach. Cutie, a handsome charismatic TV talk show host, radio personality, newspaper columnist and author, said he had been struggling with celibacy for years. Soon after that, he made that relationship official and married the woman he was involved with for about two years.

Reverend Father Alberto Cutie did not  give up his priestly role before he had an illicit adulterous relationship with a woman. From the Catholic perspective, he has transgressed his vow of celibacy.

The situation was even worsened that the relationship was with a divorced woman, Ms Carnellis . The Catholic Church has a hard  stance against divorce. It was adultery because she is divorced (Matthew 5:31-32). He broke the celibacy vow made before God.

He later left the faith and  joined the Episcopal Church. Cutie said in an interview later that Catholic priests should be given the choice to marry.

In Kenya, Catholics have been urged to shun rebel priests who have left the priesthood to marry or join new churches.

In New York in May of 2001, Archbishop Malingo from Zambia  at the age of 71, married Maria Sung, a 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist  in a group marriage ceremony. This marriage was arranged by Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church (a sect that critics refer to as the ‘Moonies’).

Pope John Paul II was able to convince Archbishop Malingo to leave Maria Sung, and he was reconciled to the Church, but Malingo later went back to Maria Sung. Malingo’s arguement was that St. Peter was a married man, so also many of the apostles.

It is estimated that over 50,000 priests have abandoned priesthood to get married. A new association called Married Priests Now are calling for the Catholic Church to reconcile with priests who are now married.But the Church would not condone it. In 2006, Archbishop Malingo and the four married priests he ordained were excommunicated by the Catholic Church which nullified their consecration.

In March 2009, the outgoing Archbishop of New York said in a radio interview that the celibacy requirement has to be looked into, given the dwindling number of priests. “I think that it’s going to be discussed”, Cardinal Edward M. Egan said.

To buttress the above, research showed that the United States had 57,000 priests for 52 million Catholics in 1985 and by 2008, there were fewer than 41,000 for 64 million Catholics.

In Nigeria, the story is not different. During the Third Republic, one of the factors used against a Catholic priest who later became a governor of one of the 36 states was the allegation that he had children outside priesthood. During his political days as governor and even afterwards, he was known to be decked in traditional attires and not priesthood robe but that did not suggest he was  suspended or excommunicated. A few years ago, a Nigerian priest in the US was allegedly excommunicated because of his sexual escapades. As Cardinals begin pre-conclave meeting ahead of electing the next Pope, it will not be out of place to suggest that celibacy of priests be  revisited.


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