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Defences for sex abuse are unacceptable, but solutions remain elusive

Pope Benedict XVI presides over the Via Crucis procession in Rome on Good Friday.

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He is 82, and with Easter on the calendar he misses saying mass, the one regret he voices at being defrocked as a Roman Catholic priest. He put his hands on boys' genitals and had them put their hands on his. He called it sex education. The police called it indecent assault.

The last criminal charges against him were dealt with in 2003. His bishop, as the ex-priest puts it, demoted him to layman last year, laicized him in the language of the church. He lives somewhere in Canada and agreed to an interview on condition his name not be used.

He says: "I didn't think I was guilty. I thought it was sex instruction.

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"I laid my hands on them and let them rest their hands on me. I told them an erection was the most normal thing in the world. There's nothing wrong with an erection. It's part of growing up."

His story sounds straightforward - one more molester who snuck through Rome's gate - but indeed it is a portrait of how complex the cancer is that won't release its grip on the world's oldest continuous operating institution.

Twenty years ago, Canadians discovered clerical sex predation on minors had metastasized throughout Newfoundland. Ten years ago, it was seen as rampant in the United States and became a front-page story in The New York Times for 41 consecutive days. Today, it stains Europe. Tomorrow, inevitably, it will surface somewhere else.

The Canadian church is so far behind what the Americans have done. Robert Talach, lawyer in London, Ont.

For centuries the church has known of the sexual deviance of some of its men of God and the cover-ups of their behaviour by its bishops, and it has failed - as it still fails, in the assessment of many observers - adequately to address the issue.

Panaceas have been offered: End the unnatural state of celibacy for Catholic priests; weed out homosexual priests; let women become priests; tighten screening of priest candidates; make the management machinery of the whole organization more transparent and accountable.

Leaders of the church have raised defences: The prevalence of sexual deviance in the priesthood is no greater than it is in the general population, there is no evidence to suggest that celibacy is a cause of sex abuse, and the church hierarchy - led by Pope Benedict XVI - has taken strident steps to confront and eradicate the problem.

In fact, no simple solution exists, and the church's defences don't withstand close scrutiny. The data they cite aren't that reliable because so much is unreported, and reported cover-ups continue, including in the Canadian church that boasts of having been in the vanguard of putting checks in place to weed out predators.

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"The Canadian church is so far behind what the Americans have done with the Dallas Charter [the mandatory one-strike-and-you're-out rule]" says lawyer Robert Talach, whose London, Ont., firm, Ledroit Beckett, handles sex-abuse cases across the country.

Rather the fix lies with a cluster of approaches, says Nuala Kenny, a Halifax ethicist, pediatrician and Catholic nun who has sat on two church panels of inquiry into priestly sex abuse of minors. And at the centre of the approach, Dr. Kenny and other experts put celibacy not as a cause of abuse, but as an obstacle to its erasure.

The defrocked Canadian fits the well-worn account of the predator whose continuing sexual pursuits were enabled by superiors who moved him ahead of complaints from one setting to another - with a brief daub of therapy in between - until finally the law caught up with him.

His personal story, on the other hand, doesn't conform to most media narratives.

He expresses no remorse. He offers no insights into his behaviour. He says alcohol wasn't a factor. He wasn't himself sexually abused as a child, nor did he experience sexual confusion as an adolescent. He responds derisively to being asked if he's homosexual. He didn't seek out children as an antidote to lack of opportunity to be intimate with an adult partner. He didn't feel isolated, unsupported or unloved as a priest - and thus bereft of caring voices to warn him against bad actions.

He very much appears to fit the definition of a hebephile, a person whose sexual preference is for pubescent minors, particularly boys, in the 11-to-14 cohort, and the primary target group for sexually abusive priests.

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There is no known cure for hebephilia and no effective initial screening mechanism, says psychologist James Cantor, who leads a team of researchers from Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and other hospitals in studying the role of the brain in causing pedophilia and hebephilia.

I went to mass this afternoon, and I was thinking, God, I wish Holy Week was peaceful. And it's not. Nuala Kenny, a Halifax ethicist, pediatrician and Catholic nun

The best evidence suggests that pedophilia and hebephilia result from abnormal development in the pre-natal brain, Dr. Cantor says. Some hebephiles, as some pedophiles, never act on their sexual preferences. Others do. There is no epidemiological evidence that hebephiles as a group go out of the way to place themselves in proximity to pubescent youngsters.

The most effective therapy is to teach hebephiles how to recognize and deal with sexually hazardous situations. And Dr. Cantor says that, because so many sexual encounters go unreported, there is no reliable data on what percentage of the population hebephiles comprise.

Hebephiles have, at best, limited interest in being married to women or men. Thus removal of the Catholic church's celibacy requirement isn't going to help them.

"Celibacy as a cause of abuse is ridiculous," Dr. Kenny says.

Yet one of the church's leading theologians, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, has said the church should look deep into the causes of sexual abuse, and include, if necessary, an examination of celibacy. He has set up an independent commission to examine the issue.

Richard Sipe, a U.S. psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has written several books on celibacy, says it is at the root of the church's sexual crisis. He cites academic research that says only 2 per cent of priests actually achieve appropriate celibacy, transcending the psyche's yearning for the turmoil of intimacy.

Mr. Talach says that, from his own experience of interviewing offender priests in prison and in civil suits, he has concluded that a celibate priesthood attracts candidates with sexual problems and who appear as overgrown adolescents without the life experience or relationship experience of having a partner and family.

Mr. Talach, a Catholic, says that with the celibacy requirement eliminated and the priesthood opened to women - only a very few of whom are hebephilic or pedophilic - the potential for offenders would be greatly diluted.

Dr. Kenny takes a broader view of the links she sees between celibacy and sex abuse.

The 1990 Newfoundland inquiry she sat on, the Winter Commission, was courageous and groundbreaking, she says. But its recommendation that the church look at the systemic issues behind sex abuse for the most part has never been acted upon.

She uses the analogy of diagnosing and treating a patient's headache as caused by stress when, in reality, it's caused by a brain tumour that, left untreated, will kill the patient.

"The fact that we have a celibate, all-male clergy - and they're still the ones that ultimately make the decisions - the ethos created by that, I think, makes it more difficult to identify this kind of problem readily, to name it appropriately and to deal with it rightly.

"We didn't say that mandatory celibacy is the cause of this. But we said that if we're going to understand better so that we can do things better, then the question of mandatory celibacy has got to be on the table.

"And I think that you will see in that report and in every case where priests have offended, that there are problems with priestly accountability. And because of this patriarchal history, we don't have great mechanisms for the accountability of our priests in our church."

The Vatican, Dr. Kenny says, is still experiencing the crisis as something that's embarrassing but the church will endure, rather than something that should be understood.

She said: "I went to mass this afternoon, and I was thinking, 'God, I wish Holy Week was peaceful.' And it's not."

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