Liturgies of Sexuality

by Washington Castilhos

Colaborators: Andrea Lacombe (Argentina)Fábio Grotz (Brazil)Pilar Pezoa (Chile)Franklin Gil Hernández (Colombia)Christian Israel Rea Tizcareño (Mexico)Rosa Cisneros (Peru)

Translated by Jones de Freitas

In the stream of news on sexual abuse by priests against children and adolescents, published by the North American press in the 1990s, a Florida bishop accused of having sexual relations with a seminarian explained to The New York Times that he had been “influenced by the climate of sexual experimenting” of those times. This case is cited in the article by sociologist John Gagnon “Changing Times, Changing Crimes”, published in the journal Sexualities. In the article, Gagnon recalls that, after a first reaction of disbelief, he saw some legitimacy in what that clergyman claimed to be the cause of his behavior. “After all, what is sociology if not the attribution of the cause of individual actions to social conditions? In my work on sexuality I try to shift the focus, always centered on sexual acts, to the broader social life, in which such acts are scripted,” says the author of the book “An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality” (CLAM/Ed. Garamond). In this book the author describes his theory of sexual scripts.

The first cases of sexual abuse committed by clergymen, as well as the case of the Florida bishop, reached the press in the 1990s. However, in early 2010, new revelations put the issue again on the public agenda. The origin of this new imbroglio are accusations that touched Pope Benedict XVI, sometimes because of the involvement of his brother in cases of aggression against children in a German school, sometimes because of the alleged role of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in covering up for members of the Church accused of sexual abuse. Last week, for the first time, Pope Benedict XVI used the term “sexual abuse” in his statements. He preferred this term to the word “pedophilia.”

In this context, it is necessary to start by differentiating pedophilia from sexual abuse because for some authors sexual abuse against a child or adolescent is not necessarily carried out by a pedophile.

Author of the article “From pedophile to boy lover: illusion or a new emerging sexual category?,” published in the book “Prazeres Dissidentes”* (CLAM/Ed. Garamond), researcher Alessandro José de Oliveira explains that “there are several circumstances, such as conjugal quarrels, periods of stress, social situations with absence of adults, among others, which could lead a subject (man or woman) to commit sexual abuse. Pedophilia, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, is defined as a pathology in medical terms. To this extent, an individual may simply feel anguished for fantasizing a sexual relation with a child without ever having touched one. However, the individual may also sexually abuse a child. Thus, not all pedophiles are abusers, and not all abusers are pedophiles.”

Anthropologist Richard Parker stated in a recent interview to the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo that pedophilia is a concept developed by specialists, which has changed over time. According to him, pedophilia is “an umbrella term which includes practices that in other cultures and other times were not necessarily viewed as pedophilic. For example, in ancient Greece, sexual relations between adolescents and adults, especially among men, were a kind of guardianship by the older person, almost as a teacher imparting guidance that could help development in all senses. Another example, more anthropologic, are the sexual relations between young men and adult men in many societies in the Pacific as a ritual of transition from youth to adulthood. Both are sexuality constructions that made sense in those contexts, something completely different from what usually happens in our society, which has no such practice or belief.”

Parker further explains that pedophilia started to be condemned in an intense process, including science, psychiatry, and sexology, which classified sexual practices into normal and abnormal. The concept of homosexuality also emerged in this period. “Feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin argues that in the same way that a gender hierarchy exists, normally giving power to men, there is a sexuality hierarchy, in which some manifestations of human sexual diversity are assessed by science and religion as positive or negative manifestations. On one side, the good sex; on the other, the bad. Pedophilia, together with masochism, is at the bottom of this hierarchy. Note the evaluation of pedophilia by people all around. There is nothing so condemnable, so questionable as pedophilic relations of adults, who use the lack of defenses on the part of young people and children to take sexual advantages,” she remarked.

Pedophilia, celibacy, homosexuality…

In the recent scandals, the press initially showed a causal relation between celibacy and pedophilia. Later on, the statements made by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, to the effect that pedophilia would be connected to homosexuality, rejecting the relation between pedophilia and clerical celibacy, has raised intense debates. The Secretary’s statements were seen by many observers as a strategy by the Holy See to attribute the abuse against children and young people in the Church to “deviant” priests, shifting the focus of attention away from the Vatican. CLAM (Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights) sought to hear specialists to discuss those associations, especially the homosexuality-pedophilia equation suggested by Cardinal Bertone.

In the opinion of Brazilian sociologist Tatiana Landini (São Paulo University), the association between celibacy with the cases of abuse “is simplistic, pointed to a ‘scapegoat’ to justify episodes of sexual violence that also occur among non-celibate groups, such as in the family, schools, daycare centers, parks, beaches, and the Internet.

Sociologist Lúcia Ribeiro, of the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER/Assessoria), denies a mechanical causality. She affirms that celibacy is not the factor at stake but the way in which it is instituted. “It is a perfectly legitimate option that has always been valued throughout the history of the Church. However, it is essential that it be the result of free choice. Because it is a difficult and demanding option, it cannot be imposed. Its compulsoriness may lead to distortions and to experiencing sexuality in a deformed and unhealthy manner,” she pointed out. She concluded that the current crisis shows the importance of rethinking the compulsory celibacy statute, thus updating a debate already underway among some sectors in the Church.

Coordinator of the organization Catholics for a Free Choice in Peru, Eliana Cano believes that celibacy was a measure established to protect economic and political interests within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and was never considered as a “sacrifice for sainthood.” “In this way, celibacy does not guarantee anything, and ends up justifying the double morals of Church representatives,” she stated.

On the other hand, the Vatican maintains its firm conviction that celibacy is not a cause of those events. Then, under the pretext of explaining the numerous cases of abuse flooding the media, Cardinal Bertone claimed that homosexuality, not celibacy, should be related to the pedophilic cases. (Two years ago, the same Cardinal Bertone had raised the idea that it was necessary to block homosexuals from reaching priesthood because that would be the only way to solve the problem of pedophilia in the Church). Immediately, activists and intellectuals criticized and contested that statement by the clerical authority because it lacked any scientific foundation. Some days later, the Holy See backtracked and rectified the statement.

However, the Vatican position is not surprising because its opposition to homo-affective relations and its view of homosexuality as an unnatural behavior are quite old. In 1986, the Vatican typified the homosexual individual as bearer of a disorder, despite the fact that both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association had disqualified homosexuality as a mental illness over ten years before. In 2005, when the media had already denounced cases of sexual abuse by clergymen, the Holy See sanctioned a document aimed at restricting “individuals with homosexual tendencies” from joining seminaries. This document states: “If a postulant practices homosexuality or presents deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director, as well as his confessor, have the duty to dissuade him from proceeding to ordainment.”

“This document and cardinal Bertone’s words have in common the construction of the ‘homosexual’ as a locus for the moral cleansing of pedophilia and as a way of avoiding the issue of celibacy, which has haunted the Catholic Church in the last years,” according to the Argentinean researcher Juan Marco Vaggione, PhD in Law and Sociology, and professor at the National University of Cordoba (click here to read the full original interview in Spanish with Vaggione).

According to Vaggione, another interesting aspect in Cardinal Bertone’s statement is the use of scientific arguments to justify ecclesiastical homophobic positions. Conservative religious activism has increasingly justified their positions with scientific arguments. “In his statements, Cardinal Bertone does not talk about morality or sin, does not mention the Bible or Jesus, but states that science (especially psychology and psychiatry) ‘have demonstrated’ that there is no connection between celibacy and pedophilia, but there is between homosexuality and pedophilia. This appeal to the scientific discourse, to the scientific truth, is not casual; it is a privileged strategy of more conservative religious sectors. The strategy is to talk about science to justify sharply restrictive positions at the moral level,” affirms Vaggione.

This recourse, however, did not work. In Chile, authorities, physicians, and movements in defense of homosexuals requested that Bertone prove the scientific link between homosexuality and pedophilia. “It is necessary to stop the Vatican’s intention to make the homosexual community a scapegoat, and thus avoid the Church’s responsibility for the sexual abuse cases,” said activist Rolando Jiménez, president of MOVILH (Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual/Homosexual Integration and Liberation Movement), a Chilean LGBT organization.

Last week, in an unprecedented and categorical statement, the Chilean Catholic Church asked for forgiveness for the cases of pedophilia involving that country’s clergymen. Through a message entitled Reconstruir desde Cristo la mesa para todos (Rebuilding a table for all based on Christ), the Episcopal Conference president, Monsignor Alejandro Goic, admitted and listed the crimes. He revealed that there were five convicted priests, another five being investigated, and ten others denounced for sexual abuse.

Like in Chile, Peruvian LGBT and feminist collectives, as well as university groups and human rights groups reacted to the statements made by Cardinal Bertone. However, unlike Chile, the Catholic Church in Peru raised the tone. After the failure of the statements by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, archbishop of Lima, said that there was “a conspiracy strategy against the Vatican and that the devil is present.”

“The Catholic Church hierarchy is increasingly in a dead-end position, and ends up resorting to those arguments to divert public attention from its acts,” stressed Eliana Cano, coordinator of the Peruvian organization Catholics for a Free Choice.

In Brazil, the Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians and Transgenders (ABGLT) and the Feminist Health Network – Sexual and Reproductive Rights issued press releases repudiating the Vatican statements. The Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe (Health Network of Latin American and Caribbean Women) also took a stand.

For theologian Judith Vázquez Arreola, from the Ibero-American University of Mexico (Universidad Iberoamericana de México) and a member of the civil organization Acción Ciudadana de Construcción Nacional (Citizens’ Action for National Construction), one of the women who married at the first ceremony of same-sex weddings held in Mexico City, the statements by the Vatican Secretary of State have a political backdrop. “This perverse association of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual crimes with homosexuality is related to the advances in the struggles of social movements or in demands for the rights of lesbians, gays and transsexuals around the world. The statements by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone are not new. These arguments were used in 2001, with the pederasty cases in Boston, and are also arguments used in the 1970s and 1980s when priests were caught in sexual crimes and sent to electroconvulsive therapy, to ‘recover’ their health,” she reports. (click here to read the full interview in Spanish with Judith Vázquez here). 

In the opinion of specialists interviewed, the episode shows that it is necessary to be wary of an alleged cause-effect relationship. Thus, we should be careful not to associate ourselves to such a direct correlation, in order to avoid stigmatizing and erroneous interpretations.

“It seems to me an absolute imperative to dissociate male homosexuality from pedophilia. I’m not saying there are no cases. But there is a true moral panic around the issue and a quite serious process of ‘invisibilization’ of the daily abuses against children of the female ‘sex’ within the family and in relations with neighbors. After all, what about the sexual abuse of stepfathers and parents [against their stepchildren and children]? And what about girls getting pregnant at ten from older men in several regions in Brazil?” questioned the anthropologist Maria Luiza Heilborn, professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) Social Medicine Institute and CLAM coordinator.

The anthropologist recalls that one of the least studied and discussed dimensions of pedophilia is the one happening at home, among relatives.

Colombian sociologist Manuel Antonio Velandia Mora, who took refuge and asylum in Spain for political reasons and because of his sexual orientation, co-founder of the Movimiento de Liberación Homosexual de Colombia /Homosexual Liberation Movement of Colombia (MLHC), agrees: “I have no doubts that most sexual violators of minors are heterosexual people, in general close relatives, especially stepfathers and stepmothers, uncles and aunts, besides family close friends,” he maintains. Data from the National Legal Medicine Institute, the government institution in charge of forensic investigation in Colombia, show that in the cases of sexual abuse against minors, over 80% are violations committed by heterosexuals (12,247 girls and 2,593 boys were sexually abused in 2006), and almost in all cases the aggressor is a man (Semana, 2007). In 2007, out of 20,273 sexual forensic examinations, 15,353 (85.7%) corresponded to minors. In the sum total of cases, in 18.9% of them the aggressor was an unknown person and in 11.5%, a neighbor; if we add up all the possible aggressors with some degree of kinship with the victim (stepfather, 8.7%; father, 7.9%; uncle/aunt, 4.8%; cousin, 3.6%; brother/sister, 2.2%; grandfather/grandmother, 2.1%; brother-in-law, 0.7%), we reach 30%. The home remains the riskiest scenario. It is estimated that only 30% of the cases are denounced, as the aggressor is a close member of the family and often can rely on the complicity of other family members.

*”Dissident Pleasures”