Alternate Views on the Root Causes of the Bishops’ Clergy Sex-Abuse Cover-Up

The Church is now in the throes of the second wave of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, which began June 20, 2018, with the exposé of former cardinal archbishop of Washington Theodore E. McCarrick’s abuse of minors and seminarians. Since then, attention has increasingly been drawn toward determining what could be “the root causes” of this seemingly unending crisis. We present two possible root causes here, the first of which has received scant public attention, the second of which has been given no public consideration at all.

Some dignitaries, like Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, have attributed the cause of the sex abuse to “clericalism,” deference to the authoritative and privileged status of clergy. But Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an interview with LifeSiteNews (November 2018), argued that the “origin of this whole crisis lies in a secularization of the Church and the reduction of the priest to the role of a functionary [of] atheism that has spread within the Church.” This is certainly true. But a better explanation seems warranted as to why sex abuse has been especially concentrated in the life of the post-Vatican II Church.

A “Scourge of Homosexuality”?

Many analysts agree with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States from 2011 to 2016, who, in his third testimony letter (dated October 19, 2018), called Cupich’s position “pure sophistry,” and argued that “the scourge of homosexuality, in its agents, in its motive, in its resistance to reform,” had become “a plague in the clergy” and “the root cause of so much sexual abuse.” Viganò’s argument is based on data substantiating a high correlation between members of the clergy and post-pubescent male victims.1 Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Academy for Historical Sciences, argued on the basis of the same data in an interview with a German news agency (January 4, 2019), that the relationship between abuse and homosexuality has been “statistically proven.”

A November 2018 study, presented by Fr. D. Paul Sullins of The Ruth Institute, seems to confirm this position. Sullins gathered data on “the share of homosexual Catholic priests and the incidence and victim gender of minor sex abuse by Catholic priests from 1950 to 2001 to see if these matters are related.” Data from the August 12, 2018, Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was also examined.

According to Sullins, his study

showed that the increase or decrease in the percent of male victims correlated almost perfectly (.98) with the increase or decrease of homosexual men in the priesthood. Among victims under age 8, the correlation was lower but still strong (.77). This indicates that 1) the abuse of boys is very strongly related to the share of homosexual men in the priesthood, but that 2) easier access to males among older victims (age 8-17) was also an enabling factor.

Sullins’s study also showed that before the 1950s

the proportion of homosexual men in the priesthood was about the same as in the general population. By the 1980s homosexual men made up over 16% of the presbyterate, which is over 8 times that of the general population. . . . Extrapolating to all reported abuse, we can estimate that if the concentration of homosexual men in the Catholic priesthood had remained at its relatively low level of the early 1950s, abuse would have been about 85% lower, sparing an estimated 12,594 children, mostly boys, from sexual victimization by Catholic priests in the United States.2

Sullins’s study further indicates that the brunt of the abuse crisis by priests reporting a homosexual orientation occurred from the 1980s to the mid-1990s.3

Sullins’s study raises serious questions: Why did the percentage of homosexual priests rise by the 1980s to “over 8 times” the percentage of homosexuals among the general population? And even more importantly, why did the rise of homosexual priests lead to an increase in male victimization among youth? Do homosexual priests necessarily victimize male youth, so that the more the homosexual priests, the more the male youth victimization? It is the answers to these questions that need to be explored.

Culture of Sexual Permissiveness

The thesis being presented here is that the matter at issue is not primarily the number of homosexuals among the clergy, or whether the rise or decline in the number of homosexuals raises or lowers the number of victims, but something much deeper: the creation of a culture of sexual permissiveness that began and grew in the immediate post-Vatican II period, a permissiveness whose effects probably led to the increase of homosexuals in the priesthood but, more importantly, arguably provided an increase of male victimhood.

Perhaps Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, though focusing on the situation in Germany, comes closest to explicating this “root cause” of the crisis in his April 10, 2019, essay “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” According to Benedict:

in the 1960s an egregious event occurred, on a scale unprecedented in history. . . . [I]n the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose that has by now been the subject of laborious attempts at disruption.

Benedict goes on to point out “the effects of this situation on the formation of priests and on the lives of priests.”

The focus of the “egregious” effects on the formation and lives of priests may be even more narrowly placed on the 1977 publication of a study commissioned in 1972 by the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), entitled Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought.4 The work became a major force of sexual unrest in the Church.5

Human Sexuality called into question “the adequacy of traditional Catholic formulations and pastoral responses to sexual matters.” All New Testament texts, according to the study, were now to be regarded as “historically occasioned and conditioned.” Masturbation was now to be evaluated on the basis of whether it was useful “to obtain reasonable relief from excessive sexual tension.” Homosexual behavior was to be evaluated by whether the experience was “wholesome.” Pastoral counseling was now to help individuals make their own moral judgments about sexual issues based on the “broader context of their total life, all their actions and relationships.”6

The CTSA study became useful in justifying an air of permissiveness in the Church, especially among the clergy. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD, argued in his August 3, 2018, posting in Catholic World Report, that the moral positions mentioned in the work contributed “significantly to the spread of homosexual behavior among seminarians and (later in life) clerics.” The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote in First Things (Summer 2002) that Human Sexuality was “widely used in seminaries,” and was understood to allow seminarians and priests alternate forms of sexual behavior:

The CTSA report left no doubt that it represented the avant garde, that the Church’s teaching would eventually catch up with “the latest research.” . . . Thus did academic and theological dissent promiscuously issue permission slips for an era of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, the consequences of which are now on scandalous public display.7

Sulpician Fr. Howard Bleichner concluded in his View from the Altar (2004):

The pattern of sexual abuse by priests in the 1970s needs to be placed in a much wider context of sexual experimentation by priests across the board in those same years. The great majority of cases did not sink to the level of abuse. But the experimentation did provide a fertile seedbed for the latter. There were simply very few good reasons to prevent priests so inclined from experimenting with sex.8

Indeed, according to a January 2002 Boston Globe report by Sacha Pfeiffer, the Rev. John J. Geoghan, whose promiscuous sexual activity with about 130 minors 1962 to 1995 caused the initial outburst of scandal in Boston when publicly exposed, argued that his misconduct had occurred “during a time of sexual exploration for this country.”

May not one, therefore, rightly consider: Is it possible that the proposals of Human Sexuality and the culture of “sexual experimentation” left the hierarchy, many of whom were educated in their seminaries on the “principles” operative in this study and on the thought of many left-leaning intellectuals at the time, morally confused and insecure when called to make judgments regarding the clergy sex abuse that widely occurred in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s? Could this be an explanation as to why the hierarchy failed to make correct decisions regarding the moral rectitude of actions of the clergy we rightly understand today as heinous and sinful? It seems that such an argument has merit.

Fear of Widespread Apostasy

In addition to the confusion and lack of clarity that must have set in in the minds of many of the hierarchy starting in the ’70s, there is a second, and possibly more significant, explanation for the massive cover-up: fear of the horrendous consequences the knowledge of the clergy sex-abuse might have caused in the minds and hearts of the Catholic population in general.

One of the most common explanations for the cover-up is that the hierarchy feared the scandal that the knowledge of the clergy sex-abuse would create among the laity. Robert S. Bennett, the distinguished Washington Catholic lawyer who was a member of the initial United States Conference National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, admitted on television 2005 that the board could find no clear reason for the cover-up, but that there appeared to be a “fear of bringing scandal to the Church.” But Bennett never gave the reason why the hierarchy would be afraid of bringing scandal.

It has been commonly accepted that the hierarchy feared the scandal would have a negative impact upon their reputations, causing a loss of stature and position in society, and horribly affect the life of the institutional Church. According to a May 21, 2019, online report of the National Catholic Reporter, the St. Leo University Polling Institute released May 20 a survey indicating that “almost 85% of Catholics” thought that the Catholic Church’s slow response to the abuse crisis was an attempt “to preserve and protect the Church’s influence and reputation at all cost.” The hierarchy are often accused of displaying monumental indifference to the lives of the victims of the abuse. These accusations and many others may, indeed, have some validity, and need not be rejected outright. But I have heard nowhere from anyone and seen nowhere in print any consideration of the possibility that there could have been an apostolic motive for the hierarchy’s inaction.

One may turn to the teaching of the Church regarding attaining eternal salvation to discern a possible motive for the bishops’ failure to act: fear of loss of eternal salvation for those who might be scandalized by the clergy’s sinful actions and leave the Church.

The Catholic Church has taught at least since the third century that membership in the Church is necessary for eternal salvation. According to St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258): “There is no salvation outside the Church” (Salus extra Ecclesiam non est). Similar teaching is found in Origen (d. 254). It is found in the doctrinal teaching of the Church in Innocent III’s Fourth Lateran Council (1215): “There is indeed one universal Church of the faithful outside of which no one at all is saved” (Una vero est fidelium universalis Ecclesia, extra quam nullus omnino salvatur). The teaching is found in the papal bull Unam Sanctam (1302) of Boniface VIII: “That there is only one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church . . . we firmly believe in her and sincerely confess her outside of whom there is neither salvation nor remission of sins” (Unam sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam et ipsam apostolicam . . . firmiter credimus et simpliciter confitemur, extra quam nec salus est nec remissio peccatorum).9

The last formal declaration of this teaching was presented (against the wishes of many of the left-wing members) at Vatican II:

This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. (Lumen Gentium 14.)

Vatican II notably qualified the declaration by reaffirming the Church’s long-held exception to the above teaching in the case of invincible ignorance: Those “who through no fault of their own” are unaware of this teaching, could be saved by striving “by their deeds to do [God’s] will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience,” or if, “without blame on their part,” not knowing God at all, “with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium 16).

The point to be made here, then, is that the hierarchy, by reason of their office, have the obligation to promote conversion to the Church among non-Catholics, and to do their utmost to encourage members to remain faithful, lest the members risk loss of salvation. For the hierarchy to do otherwise would be irresponsible and risk loss of their own salvation. That the hierarchy might not always act on this obligation is not the issue; the necessity of membership in the Church to attain salvation is so ingrained in the mentality of Catholics in general that it would be impossible for the hierarchy not to be aware of their obligation to do whatever they could to promote and retain membership in the Church.

In an attempt, then, to provide an explanation for Bennett’s observation above, that the hierarchy appeared to be in “fear of bringing scandal to the Church,” a motive may now be provided: Scandal could lead to either or both of two outcomes: (1) It could discourage non-Catholics from becoming members of the Church, thus risking their failing to find the true road to salvation; or (2) scandal could cause such disillusionment among many Catholics that they would renounce their membership, in spite of their knowledge of the teaching of the Church regarding eternal salvation. It is not that scandal would necessarily lead to either of these two outcomes, but that no member of the hierarchy would want to be put in a position of causing scandal under these circumstances.

How seriously have Catholics been impacted by the sex-abuse crisis? A March 13, 2019, Gallup poll, entitled “Many U.S. Catholics Question Their Membership Amid Scandal,” indicates that “the current scandal is affecting U.S. Catholics more than the one in 2002 did, in terms of their feelings about the church.” The same report presents the results of interviews conducted in January/February 2019, showing that 37% of Catholics are considering leaving the Church because of the “sexual abuse of young people by priests,” up from 22% in 2002.

Data indicate that membership in the Church is declining significantly. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to the sex-abuse scandal, but several reports have affirmed this connection. Already in 2011, Daniel M. Hungerman reported in a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research that “the scandal led to a 2-million-member fall in the Catholic population.” A 2015 study by Nicholas L. Bottan and Ricardo Perez-Truglia published in the Journal of Public Economics argued that the scandal caused “a significant and long-lasting decline in religious participation in the zip code where it occurs.” Pew Research Center reports that,

while substantial numbers of former Catholics cite the scandal among the reasons they left the church, relatively few say it was the primary reason. For example, a 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that about a quarter of former Catholics said the clergy sexual abuse scandal was a reason that they left the church, when asked about it specifically. However, in a separate survey conducted in 2015, in which respondents were asked to describe in their own words their reasons for leaving the church, just 4% of former Catholics pointed to the scandal as the main reason for their departure.10

While Pew may consider 4% as “just 4%,” to Catholics, 4% is a significant number.

Do those who abandon the Church put at risk their own salvation? The above doctrinal teaching of the Church has its roots in Scripture. Perhaps the most compelling scriptural basis for concern are the following statements by Jesus:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come! (Mt 18:67; cf. Mk 9:42, Lk 17:12; NAB.)

In the original Greek, Jesus uses the verb skandalizó for “cause to sin,” and the plural of its noun form skandalon for “things that cause sin.” According to Scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, “A ‘scandal’ is a trap or stumbling block upon the way. In a religious or moral context it refers to temptation to sin or encitement to apostasy.”11

Exegetes are remarkably forthright in their understanding of the dire implications of Jesus’s statements, not only for the one causing the scandal, but also for the disciple of Jesus (“one of these little ones”) who might be induced to sin because of scandal. By using hyperbole in stating that it would be better for the agent of the scandal to be drowned in the depths of the sea rather than to cause a believer to sin, Matthew is denoting the serious eschatological consequences of the scandal not only for the agent, but also for the one induced to apostasy:

The saying envisages the problem of seduction to apostasy, of putting stumbling blocks before disciples otherwise required to be loyal and faithful. The disciple who would cause another to waver in fidelity is not worth continued existence in this life; he heaps guilt only upon himself, and the eschatological connotation of the warning is not hard to perceive.12

Again, in 2 Peter 2, false teachers within the Church are denounced for having introduced into the community “destructive heresies” (v. 1) and a licentious way of life (v. 18), inducing recent converts to revert to their former way of life. In this way, the false teachers are said to be destroying the lives of the converts (vv. 1819) as well as reverting themselves to their former pagan ways (vv. 2022). For the author of 2 Peter, the consequences for the false teachers as well as for the recent converts are dire:

These people [false teachers] are waterless springs and mists driven by a gale; for them the gloom of darkness has been reserved. For, talking empty bombast, they seduce with licentious desires of the flesh those [recent converts] who have barely escaped from people who live in error. They promise them freedom, though they themselves are slaves of corruption, for a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him. For if they [the false teachers], having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of [our] Lord and savior Jesus Christ, again become entangled and overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment handed down to them. (2 Pt 2:1721.)


Since the Catholic Church teaches the necessity of membership in the Church for salvation (except in the case of invincible ignorance), concern about the well-being of the members of the community must remain in the forefront of the mind of every member of the Church, but especially of the hierarchy. Promoting the salvation of all would have been a matter of concern for the hierarchy throughout the sex-abuse crisis. Public exposure of clerical sex abuse, even when necessary to fulfill the obligations required by law, would have meant risking scandalizing Catholics as well as potential converts, inducing many to leave the Church (which we now know happened), and deterring others from being baptized. These are risks that could have challenged the hierarchy in fundamental ways.

These two factors, then — the culture of sexual permissiveness and a fear of widespread apostasy — need to be taken into consideration, it would seem, when judging the inactivity of the bishops in their response to clerical sex abuse.

  1. A copy of Archbishop Viganò’s third testimony is available at: Edward Pentin, “Archbishop Viganò Responds to Cardinal Ouellet’s Letter with New Testimony,” National Catholic Register, October 19, 2018,
  2. D. Paul Sullins, “Is Catholic clergy sex abuse related to homosexual priests?” November 2018, 145, at 34, currently available only online.
  3. Sullins, 4.
  4. Anthony Kosnik, William Carroll, Agnes Cunningham, Ronald Modras, and James Schulte, Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist, 1977). The authors were two diocesan priests (one now laicized, one who married and is now deceased), a religious woman, and two laymen.
  5. A fuller treatment of this turbulent time may be found in my Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today’s Church (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia, 2012).
  6. Vatican reaction to the document was condemnatory, though slow in coming. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in “Observations” about the book published December 1979, charged the authors “with an enormous responsibility for the erroneous conclusions and the potentially harmful impact these ideas can have on the correct formation of the Christian consciences of so many people.”
  7. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life: Scandal Time (Continued),” First Things 124 (June/July 2002): 79.
  8. Howard P. Bleichner, SS, View from the Altar: Reflections on the Rapidly Changing Catholic Priesthood (New York: Crossroad, 2004), 46.
  9. All citations in this paragraph are taken from Heinrich Denzinger-Peter Hünermann, eds., Enchiridion symbolorum: Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012).
  10. Pew Research Center, “Americans See Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse as an Ongoing Problem,” June 11, 2019, n. 1, (italics in original).
  11. Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1991), 264, n. 6.
  12. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible 28A (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 1137.
Rev. Martin R. Tripole, SJ About Rev. Martin R. Tripole, SJ

Martin R. Tripole, SJ, is professor emeritus of theology, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA. He has written a study on Jesuit spirituality: Faith Beyond Justice: Widening the Perspective (1999), and edited two volumes on Jesuit education: Jesuit Education 21: Proceedings on the Future of Jesuit Higher Education (2000) and Promise Renewed: Jesuit Higher Education for a New Millennium (1999). He has published numerous essays on theology, spirituality, and education in various Catholic publications. His last major work is Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today’s Church (2012).


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    As a Catholic, I take the question of fear of apastacy as a reason why bishops did not take action to deal with repeat offenders of children to be an excuse that in itself will lead to apostasy. Consider the arrogance of some bishops, their extraordinary luxurious life style and lack of mercy as also factors that lead to apostasy.

    Bishops seem to have a hard time with the teaching of the Gospel read on Feast of St James “…anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.” Yes there are exceptions!

    • “As a Catholic, I take the question of fear of apastacy as a reason why bishops did not take action to deal with repeat offenders of children to be an excuse that in itself will lead to apostasy.”


      Arrogance led the bishops to believe they could keep victims and their families quiet with threats. Then the internet came along, the bishops lost control of the narrative, and it was all she wrote.

      The bishops are reaping the whirlwind they sowed, but few of them appear to have learned the lesson that transparency might save them (although the hour gets later and later), but continued lies, corruption, and obfuscation will certainly continue to erode whatever shreds of moral authority any of them might have once possessed.

  2. Avatar Neil Kane says:

    EExcellent article! Courageously opens several politically incorrect lines of inquiry. Kudos, Fr. Tripole

  3. Avatar Maria Johns says:

    Change canon law. There must be zero tolerance for this crime.

  4. Avatar Frank Ryan says:

    When was the last time you heard a homily or read an article by a bishop or priest that talked about the ways in which we can lose our eternal salvation over anything – few and far in between if ever. I don’t think this article is living in the same world as most Catholics.