Since desire was imputed as a crime
and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent
with the same principles to consider a state of celibacy
as the nearest approach to divine perfection.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire
The Jewish priesthood was (and is) based on an hereditary principle,
but since the Church Fathers imagined virginity to be such a
holy state, they abandoned this model, believing it desirable
that the Christian priesthood should be chaste. The taint of
sex necessarily brought with it the taint of sin.
Chastity (no sex) was rather a high ideal, so celibacy (no
wife) was advocated as a more practical alternative, but even
this was not acceptable to the priesthood. One problem was that
the New Testament states plainly and unambiguously that a bishop
(presbyter) should have a wife*.
Another problem was that there was ample evidence that Jesus"
disciples had been married for example, St Paul asserted
his right to take his wife with him on his travels like the
other apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5). Most critically for the
Western Church the gospels indicated quite clearly that St Peter
was married*, and the Pope,
as Bishop of Rome, claimed apostolic succession from him. In
other words the first pope, as Roman Catholics believe, appointed
by Jesus himself, is known to have been married. St Jerome
said that Peter had washed away the dirt of marriage by the
blood of martyrdom , but the uncomfortable fact remained that
the first supposed pope, like many popes after him, was married.
Many other early bishops were also married. Eusebius,
the first Church historian, refers to a number of them by name.
For centuries it was perfectly normal for priests and bishops
to be married and have families. Pope Felix III, for example,
was buried along with his family in St Paul's basilica in the
Marriage was one thing, but sex was another. Canon 33 of the
Synod of Elvira (c.306) stated that all clergy celebrating Mass
should refrain from sexual intercourse with their wives. In
a decree of 386, Pope Siricius attempted to prohibit married
deacons and presbyters from engaging in sexual intercourse.
This was rather unwelcome in many quarters, especially where
religion was the family business, as it was to be for centuries
to come. In his Confession, St Patrick mentions that
his father had been a deacon, his grandfather a priest, and
his great-grandfather also a deacon. Attempts to stop priests
having sexual intercourse with their wives were not always successful.
The lack of success was attributable partly to the lack of biblical
authority, partly to natural inclinations, and partly to the
example set by a succession of popes and other Church dignitaries
with families and mistresses.
Eventually the papacy grew powerful enough to impose its requirements
on the priesthood, and in the latter part of the eleventh century,
Pope Gregory VII attempted to enforce clerical celibacy in Western
Christendom. This caused an outcry, not least because many men
in Holy Orders had taken them simply because it was the only
practical way to pursue a career in law, scholarship or administration.
A council of Italian bishops met at Parvia in 1076 and excommunicated
the Pope for trying to separate priests and their wives. Their
protest was in vain. Apart from sex per se, a major
problem seems to have been that married priests left their property
to their wives and children when they died. Worse, they left
not only their own property but also Church property. Celibate
priests were much better: not only would they dedicate more
time to their duties, but when they died the Church could expect
a bequest not a widow who would need housing, or orphans
who would have to be taken care of.
Married priests had been forbidden to celebrate Mass in December
1074. By the next century the Church was prohibiting priests
from attending the weddings or funerals of their own children
and denying clerical wives a Christian burial. From time to
time it tried sending clerical wives into slavery, but more
often accepted a sort of sex tax (cullagium) in exchange
for turning a blind eye. The Eastern Churches regarded the Western
Church as heretical because of its views over clerical celibacy,
yet in practice the traditional arrangements continued as before.
Many Western clerics married and in some places livings continued
to be passed on from father to son, as they had been previously.
In Brittany, the practice of clerical marriage was so well accepted
that as a matter of custom the wives of bishops were accorded
the courtesy title of Countess. The mistress of the twelfth
century Patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius of Caesarea, was known
to Jerusalemites as "Madame la Patriarchesse". The
Church was less concerned with wives than with their children.
The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 declared that the son of
a canon must not receive a benefice in his father's church.
Church law contained special provisions for the daughters of
clerics. For example, their seems to have been a problem with
clerics' daughters marrying after becoming nuns.
Let a cleric's daughter be compelled to penance if she takes
a husband after becoming a sister.
The daughter of a bishop, priest, or deacon is excluded from
Communion if she takes a husband after becoming a sister,
unless she does penance after the man dies. If her father
or mother receives her with affection, the father must be
arraigned before the council, and her mother is not permitted
(Decretum gratiani, Case 27, q I, C26)
Another provision concerned clerics who married off their daughters
to men who already lived with concubines:
So, if any cleric gives his daughter in marriage to a man
with a concubine, this is not the same as if he had given
her to a married man, unless the concubine had been freed,
lawfully endowed, and made an honest woman by public nuptials.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 32, q II, C12 §2)
Monks who married could not expect to become a bishop or other
A monk who takes a wife can never be selected for an office
of sacred rank.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 27, q I, C32 citing the [First]
Council of Arles, [cc. 22-23)
There were even provision for priests' wives who stray, alowing
priests to imprison and half-starve them:
if the wife of any cleric sins, lest she have liberty to
sin further, her husband have power to confine her for her
crime, and to secure her at home. He should compel her to
a salutary, but not life-threatening, fast.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 23, q II, C10
The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas
by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velázquez, 1632,
Orihuela Cathedral Museum, Spain.
Thomas Aquinas was supposedly saved from
the woman in the background by a pair of angels. One of
of them holds a band which the angels will use to bind
up Thomas's genitals, so relieving him of sexual temptation.
On Catholic websites this band is described as a mystical
girdle, but this is a euphemism - the many modern devotees
who copy St Thomas find it more effective to bind the
gentitals with bands like the one the angel is carrying.
Saint Kevin won his sainthood supposedly by tolerating the
nagging of the ghost of a woman he had murdered at Glendalough
in Ireland. He killed her by thrashing her with nettles and
then pushing her into a lake and drowning her, because she was
attracted to him. In the traditional telling, Kevin hurled her
from a high rock into the lake. The poet Gerald Griffin has
Kevin Hurl the maiden from the rock into the black lake
shrieking and Thomas Moore has a similar version. A sanitised
version of the the story is commemorated in an Irish folk song.*
The Eastern Church was rather more relaxed about sexuality
and had never attempted to enforce clerical celibacy amongst
the lower clergy*. This
attitude influenced dissenting churches during the Reformation.
After breaking away from the Roman Church, the Church of England
considered the matter and, deciding to follow the primitive
church as far as possible, accepted clerical marriages, as did
other Protestant Churches. The dispute about the ban on clerical
marriages still rumbles on in the Roman Catholic Church, and
there is an increasingly strong movement within it to allow
priests to marry. The Roman Church has admitted married deacons
since the 1960s. Even today not all priests in the Roman Catholic
Church are necessarily celibate. The rule is that priests may
not marry, but this does not debar married men from becoming
priests, as St Peter supposedly did. In practice a steady stream
of married high church Anglican clergymen transfer to orders
in the Roman Catholic Church. Uniate priests are also permitted
to marry, although the Uniate Church has owed its allegiance
to Rome since 1596.
Detail from MS. Douce 374 roll 119A(1)
A celibate Medieval nun prays, attempting to take her
mind off a sexually-charged demon visitor
was hard enough, but monks and nuns were comitted not merely
to celibacy, but chastity. Girls of good family but without
good marriage prospects were often packed off to nunneries in
the Middle Ages, where their natural sexual desires manifested
themselves in a variety of ways. some nunnery's were little
more than brothels, but in others the rules of chastity were
strictly enforced. In these places nuns experienced fantasies
which often blossomed into visions or hallucinations with very
obvious sexual overtones, the mirror images of the sexual visions
of male hermits. Nun's visions often involved sadomasochistic
and humiliation fantasies - they were stripped naked, they were
publically tortured or crucified, they punished themselves mercilessly,
they licked Jesus's bleeding wounds or the supurating sores
of lepers. You can see some spectacular examples under Sadomasochism.
Here we will mention just one extraordinary theme - marriage
Catherine of Alexandria (who never existed) was probably invented
as part of a half-successful campaign to convert a pagan martyr
of Alexandria into a Christian martyr. A true story about
Christians murdering an innocent pagan virgin, miraculously
transmuted into a made-up story about wicked pagans murdering
an innocent Christian virgin.
By 1337 Catherine's legend included a story about Jesus appearing
to her and marrying her, over a thousand years earlier. Since
medieval Christians were familiar and comfortable with infant
marriages, artists often represent the marriage as being between
the infant Jesus and Catherine.
Nuns also regarded themselves as being married to Jesus and
were often referred to as "Brides of Christ". Their
induction to their Orders imitated a wedding ceremony and their
fathers were invariably expected to pay a dowery. Some nuns,
deprived of a real husbands, suffered extreme fantasies about
their imaginary husband. Several saints won their sainthood
be having relatively acceptable fantasies were Jesus appeared
to them and placed a wedding ring on their finger, as he had
with the imaginary Catherine of Alexandria.
This idea apealled to a number of nuns, most of whom starved
themselves, flogged themselves or tortured themselves in other
imaginative ways - wearing crowns of thorns, half-strangling
themselves, rolling in broken glass, jumping into ovens, hanging
from a gibbet, and praying upside down, thrusting needles into
their breasts, or standing around barefoot in winter. Eventually
their privations paid off. Jesus appeared to them and married
them, sometimes as a baby, sometimes as a fully grown man. Over
seventy such examples are known, and the "best" of
them won their sainthood through these mystical marriages, for
example St. Faustina, St Rose of Lima, and St Margaret Mary
supposedly appeared to another Catherine, for another Mystical
Marriage. Saint Catherine of Siena would have been familiar
with thie story of her imaginary namesake ( the Barna da Siena
panel was painted in Siena a few years before she was born),
and she is recorded as praying as a child that she would have
a similar experience. She never learned to read, and was "a
devout woman whose imagination was stimulated unconsciously
by religious images she had seen previously". She also
experienced stigmata, copied from images she had seen. She was
canonized in 1461. The interesting thing about Saint Catherine
of Siena is that her wedding ring was not an ordinary gold ring,
but a ring made of flesh - specifically is was, she claimed,
Jesus's foreskin.* Today,
Catherine is not only a Saint but a "Doctor of the Church".
But this was not Jesus's only foreskin. At least 18 possed
possessing miracle-working foreskins from Jesus's penis. He
(or according to some sources his mother) also kept a collection
of them in heaven, for use as wedding rings. The Austrian nun
Agnes Blannbekin (1244-1315) saw obscene visions including monks,
women, and Jesus naked. She became obsessed by the holy foreskin,
dwelling on the loss of blood and pain Christ must have suffered
during his circumcision. While celebrating the Feast of the
Circumcision on the 1st of January, Agnes experienced a vision::
Crying and with compassion, she began to think about the
foreskin of Christ, where it may be located. And behold, soon
she felt with the greatest sweetness on her tongue a little
piece of skin alike the skin in an egg, which she swallowed.
After she had swallowed it, she again felt the little skin
on her tongue with sweetness as before, and again she swallowed
it. And this happened to her about a hundred times. And when
she felt it so frequently, she was tempted to touch it with
her finger. And when she wanted to do so, that little skin
went down her throat on its own. And it was told to her that
the foreskin was resurrected with the Lord on the day of resurrection.
And so great was the sweetness of tasting that little skin
that she felt in all [her] limbs and parts of the limbs a
Wiethaus, Ulrike (2002). Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine:
Life and Revelations. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-634-0.
She described drinking a "refreshing spiritual drink"
from the spear wound of Jesus] Supposed visitations from Jesus
himself caused an orgasmic reaction: "Agnes herself was
filled with an excitement in her chest every time that God visited
her that was so intense that it went through her body and that
it burned as a result, not in a painful but in a most pleasurable
manner.". This was a step too far for the Church and Agnes
never got her Sainthood, but her supporters still refer to her
as St Agnes Blannbekin. Saint Brigit of Sweden was luckier:
she received bits of Christ's foreskin on her tongue from an
angel and noted that it tasted sweet, surpassing all other sweetness,
a fact that is increasingly omitted from her hagiographies.
Other female saints also experienced visions that look suspiciously
like sexual hallucinations - and stories of fictitious saints
also feature visions that look like the sexual fantasies of
their inventors. Saint Cecilia (or Celia) for example seems
never to have existed, and her story matches the story of thousands
of fictitious martyrs - including a range of contradictory details
about her place of origin and details of her death. Her persecutors
tried to kill her, but failed to do so causing her days of the
most dreadful torture, until they eventually used the approved
method of execution for Christian martyrs and dispatched her
with a sword. The naked bodies of imaginary virgin martyrs like
Cecilia exercise a special fascination for Christian artists.
Sainte Cécile [Saint Cecilia]
by Adolphe Lalire (1848-1933)
Like most virgin martyrs Cecilia had been promised in marriage,
but managed to put-off her would-be husband, Valerian, before
their marriage was consummated. Her distinguishing feature is
that according to her legend, she put him off on their wedding
night by showing him her angel lover. Numerous Catholic websites
quote her very words: There is a secret, Valerian, I wish
to tell you. I have as a lover an angel of God who jealously
guards my body. Valerian could not see the jealous supernatural
lover until he underwent Christian baptism, and then, miraculously,
Santa cecilia e l'angelo Roma, by Carlo
Saracen in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
The imaginary Saint Celia with her imaginary lover - they
are shown with musical instruments because of an error
in translation in one of her legends.
traditional emphasis on celibacy and chastity has had a number
of other unfortunate effects. One was the prevalence among priests
of the crime of solicitation. Obliged to confess their
sexual desires and deeds to their priest while sitting next
to him, or kneeling at his feet, many women fell easy pray to
their sexually frustrated confessors. Confessional boxes, introduced
in the sixteenth century, helped to reduce the incidence of
solicitation, although it still continues. The problem seems
to have been exacerbated by the requirement to enquire in detail
into sexual sins. Since 1611, when it was confirmed that sins
of the flesh could never be trivial, priests have been obliged
to enquire into the nature, frequency and circumstances of such
sins with predictable consequences.
the past steps had to be taken to reduce the amount of incest
among the clergy*. However,
this seems to have been a relatively minor problem compared
to the general sexual abuse of children,
which for centuries went unpunished. Only in the late twentieth
century was the issue of child abuse by clergy taken seriously,
and the scale of the problem revealed by secular authorities.
In 1990 the amount of child abuse practised by Roman Catholic
priests in Newfoundland became too great a scandal to contain
any longer. An official report disclosed that over a period
of about two and half years more than twenty priests, former
priests, and others associated with the Church had been charged
with sexually abusing boys. The head of the Newfoundland Church,
Archbishop Alphonsus Penney, having failed to tackle the problem
for at least 15 years, made the observation that "we are
a sinful Church" and offered his resignation*.
The report estimated that as many as a third of the priests
in Newfoundland harboured unnatural sexual tendencies, and suggested
a link with enforced celibacy. There is no reason to suppose
that the figure of one third is not representative of the whole
Church, although other estimates are as low as 3 per cent. Richard
Snipe, a former Benedictine monk who has studied the subject,
estimates that in the USA roughly half of the priests break
their vows of celibacy, and 6 per cent of those pursue children
or adolescents*. A single
centre in New Mexico treats 80 priests each year for "psychosexual
problems"*, but it
is likely that most cases are neither treated nor publicised.
any case, the phenomenon of widespread child abuse in the Catholic
Church turned out to be widespread - massive abuse and concealment
has been discovered everywhere that secular authorities have
carried out investigations. Typically, abusing priests are each
able to abuse dozens, sometimes hundreds, of children over a
period of years and are only rarely caught. An investigation
shown on British television in 1992*
exposed a number of cases from which the following pattern emerged:
the priest had typically been reported to his Church several
times over a period of years but no action had been taken either
to help him, punish him, or prevent him repeating his crimes.
If the victims" families threatened to publicise the affair,
then a cash settlement was offered and the priest was moved
on to another parish. Typically no effort was made to keep him
away from children, and he would abuse more children in his
new parish. One priest had been moved on four times. If prosecution
threatened, then the Church would hide the alleged offender,
and in at least one case send him abroad and enable him to stay
out of the jurisdiction of the authorities. The Church had on
numerous occasions gone out of its way to protect from justice
men who had abused dozens of children over more than 10 or 20
years. In Ireland the position was if anything worse*.
In 1994, Albert Reynolds' government collapsed amid allegations
that it had blocked the extradition to Northern Ireland of a
priest who had sexually abused children for decades at a Belfast
Catholic school. (The priest later was convicted of dozens of
abuse charges)*. In the
decade up to 2008 thousands of cases were exposed following
the same pattern as in the UK. Abuse was so prevalent that it
was common for numerous teachers and religious Brothers from
the same school (typically Christian Brothers or Marist Brothers)
to be prosecuted*. Two
In 2009 the Irish Government's Commission to Inquire into Child
Abuse (The Ryan Report) revealed widespread abuse of children
in schools run by Catholic religious orders - denied and covered
up over decades. A few months later the Murphy Report publicised
the result of public inquiries conducted by into the sexual
abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin. The report
the Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with
cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s,
were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal,
the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation
of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare
of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to
these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own
canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application
of the law of the State.
720-page report said that there was "no doubt that clerical
child sexual abuse was covered up" from January 1975 to
May 2004. The complaints of parents and their children were
ignored and other families placed in immediate danger as prelates
suppressed scandals and used canon law to protect offenders
at the expense of innocent children. Uninvolved priests turned
a blind eye to their allegations.
Both reports confirmed the conventional patern: endemic abuse
over many decades, a conspiracy of silence among the clergy
and bishops, failure to report crimes, pay-offs in exchange
for undertakings to stay silent, movements to new parishes for
known offenders, and new opprtunities to abuse, and finally
attempts to conceal evidence when investigated by the civil
authorities. The Murphy report said that the Church had "obsessively"
hidden allegations of child abuse in the Dublin archdiocese
between 1975 and 2004, protecting itself rather than vulnerable
Another country where widespread abuse has been exposed is
Australia. The Christian Brothers admitted to abusing children
both physically and sexually over many years in their orphanages.
Children taken from Britain and Ireland without their parents
consent were entrusted to Roman Catholic orphanages at places
like Bindoon Boy's Town, Clontarf, Casteldare and Tardun under
the care of the Brothers*.
Sexual abuse seems to have been particularly rife at Bindoon.
The system was such that there was no adult to whom the children
could turn for help. All contact with the families of these
boys had been broken, and they grew up believing themselves
to be orphans (see page 356). They had no contact with women.
One boy tried telling a priest during confession about being
abused by one of the Christian Brothers. The result was that
the Brother found out and gave the boy a beating*.
When public accusations were made in the 1980s they were denied*.
When the number became too great to deny, an independent inquiry
was forestalled by setting up an internal one, which seems to
have been less than thorough and not entirely impartial*.
The man in charge of it tried suggesting that children from
Britain had been responsible for homosexual activity at Boy's
Town*. Later he acknowledged
that there was some evidence against some Brothers there*.
By now victims were talking openly about what had happened to
them years earlier when they had been children at Boy's Town
and other orphanages in Western Australia. One Brother, Gerald
Faulkner, confirmed that there had probably been nine or ten
Brothers abusing boys*.
Meanwhile, independent academic research revealed that sexual
abuse had been common at Clontarf up to 50 boys had been
abused each year*. A
total of 16 Brothers were named by victims of sexual abuse.
It also emerged that one Brother had been moved from state to
state when repeated complaints had been made against him*.
Although this had happened more than once, no independent investigation
had been made into the allegations, and in each case he was
sent to another orphanage. By now it was no longer possible
to maintain the denials. On 3 rd July 1993, an apology was printed
in Western Australian newspapers on behalf of the Christian
Brothers. It covered both physical and sexual abuse inflicted
between 1901 and 1983 at four orphanages*.
No help or compensation was offered.
No one now doubts that hundreds of children in Australia were
abused by dozens of Brothers over many decades. Similar patterns
of abuse and cover-up were exposed in Britain, the Republic
of Ireland, Canada, the USA, Austria and France wherever
investigations were undertaken. In 2007, two days before being
required to appear in court in July 2007, Cardinal Roger Mahony,
Archbishop of los Angeles, agreed to a $660,000,000 pay off
to 508 victims of sexual abuse in his diocese*.
The pattern was identical to all other dioceses in the US and
abroad where abuse had been exposed, refusal to act on repeated
accusations over many years, concealment, denial, protecting
known paedophiles, refusing to accept fault, dragging out court
proceedings up until the last minute, then settling out of court
with minimal apologies and no acceptance of personal accountability.
In some states the Catholic diocese has had to pay hundreds
of millions of dollars in compensation and have gone into Chapter
11, in order to limit their liability.
In many other countries, where the Church is still powerful,
no investigation has been carried out. In many of them there
has still not been a single case of clerical child sex abuse
exposed. There are only two serious possible explanations for
this. Either extensive abuse has been taking place only in selected
countries, or else it is universal and is still being concealed
in other countries. There is no reason to suppose that rates
of abuse are different in different countries, nor that they
have changed over the last millennium. Furthermore, in all countries
where extensive abuse has come to light, the truth has emerged
despite the Church's best efforts to conceal it. There must
therefore be a suspicion that extensive abuse is quietly going
on within the Church in dozens of other countries just as it
always has. No one within the Church seems to have thought this
possibility worth investigating. The same applies to the Anglican
Church, where exactly the same pattern of systematic long-term
abuse and concealment has been repeatedly played out.*
Vatican gives every appearance of continuing to protect alleged
paedophile priests. In 2006 an alleged victim in the US won
the right to mount a lawsuit against the Vatican. As the judge,
Michael Mosman, said, the Vatican appeared to be involved in
an "international conspiracy" to spirit Father Andrew
Ronan out of Ireland and between parishes in America. The judge
went on to point out that Ronan, a known child-molester, had
been given private access to children, after twice being exposed
for paedophile behaviour.*
The Vatican compounded its record by stretching the case out
and maximising the plaintiff's costs, for example by insisting
that all documents be translated into Latin, the official language
of the Holy See. The story was much the same in other cases.
The Vatican had denied requests to cooperate Ireland's Murphy
Report on the grounds that the requests had not been made through
the correct diplomatic channels.
Here is Christopher Hitchens's summary of the Roman Church's
The Vatican, and its vast network of dioceses, has in the
past decade alone been forced to admit complicity in a huge
racket of child rape and child torture, mainly but by no means
exclusively homosexual, in which known pederasts and sadists
were shielded from the law and reassigned to parishes where
the pickings of the innocent and defenceless were often richer.
In Ireland alone once an unquestioning disciple of
Holy Mother Church it is now estimated that the unmolested
children of religious schools were very probably in the minority.*
may have been understating his case when he said that it is
one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined
that virginity could be a virtue. Over the centuries
many thousands of men have been denied normal pleasures and
a family life, not because of any scriptural requirement, but
because of the dubious views of the men who influenced the Western
Church in its formative years, combined with the need to safeguard
Church assets. The consequences are plain for all to see, although
a similar pattern of systematic abuse and institutional concealment,
on a smaller scale, has also been exposed in the Anglican Church,
which does allow its clergy to marry*.