Does the celibacy rule underlie Catholic scandals? Here's an angle reporters could pursue

Beginning with the pioneering National Catholic Reporter survey by Jason Berry and colleagues 33 years ago on priests molesting under-aged boys and girls, and on through the current devastating crisis, there have been continual disputes over whether the celibacy tradition bears blame and eliminating it would help prevent scandals.

It’s common for media to state that the Catholic Church requires priests to be celibate, but as beat specialists know that’s not fully accurate.

A handful of already-married Protestant clergy converts are Catholic priests. Far more important, married priests are allowed in Catholicism’s Eastern Rite jurisdictions across Eastern Europe, the Mideast and Asia (whereas the West’s Latin Rite has made its celibacy tradition mandatory for all since 1123).

The Religion Guy chatted about this mess with a New Jersey university professor who’s an active Eastern (Ukrainian) Catholic. Neither of us could recall hearing of any molesting scandals with Eastern priests. No doubt there are some, and The Guy has doubtless missed a few references.

But that raises the following: Does the track record of the 11,000 parish priests (not counting those in celibate religious orders) serving 17.7 million Eastern Catholics indicate marriage acts as a preventative and that there’s a link between celibacy and the abuse scandals? Does the Vatican have numbers on molesting cases with married Catholic priests these 33 years compared with clergy bound by celibacy?

If nobody knows, are there plans to research this question? If not, why not?

Whatever the church might do, how about journalists? Let’s acknowledge immediately that this would be a tough story to deliver due to the natural tendency to hush up church scandals, the declining ranks of foreign correspondents and lack of aggressive local journalists and prosecutors in many situations.

Here’s basic background. Some of Eastern Catholicism’s ethnic branches have ancient roots while many result from complexities in the centuries after the “great schism” of 1054 between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Eastern Catholic jurisdictions recognize the Roman pope as head of the church, but preserve many traditions shared with Eastern Orthodoxy. That includes ordination of men who are already married before they enter the priesthood. (Higher clergy are celibate.)

An 1890 Vatican decree ordered one group of U.S. Eastern Catholics to forbid married priests, and in 1929 that precedent was imposed throughout the Eastern Catholic diaspora in North America, South America and Australia. Rome only rescinded its ban in 2014 so those jurisdictions haven’t had time to tell us anything.

However, the four major Eastern Catholic communities have longstanding experience with married clergy: (1) The Maronites in Lebanon and adjacent lands. (2) The Melkites in various Mideast nations (3) The Syro-Malabar Catholics in India. (4) The largest group, Ukrainian Catholics, located in the western part of that nation. Data on abuse scandals among married Eastern Orthodox priests would also be relevant.

The ideal here would be the sort of project that Time and Newsweek once excelled at. Correspondents or stringers in Rome, Kiev, Moscow, Beirut, Jerusalem and New Delhi would have filed comprehensive material for a roundup written in New York. A scaled-down version for 2018 could have one or two reporters unearth what’s available from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches and from tipsters in Rome, combined with on-the-ground investigation at one location — perhaps Ukraine.

There’s the challenge for a newspaper, magazine, or news service with the money, the personnel, and the motivation to pursue this angle on an open question facing the deeply troubled Catholic Church.

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