Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex.
On Aug. 14, a grand jury report found that more than 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania have been implicated in the sexual abuse of thousands of child victims since the 1940s.
The Church, according to the report, has systematically covered up the abuse to avoid scandal – for example, downplaying incidents of rape and sexual assault by describing them as “inappropriate behaviour,” and transferring clergy to new locations without notifying parishioners as to why.
This is not a new issue for the Catholic Church, by any means. There is a longstanding history of child sex abuse within the Church, going back 2,000 years. Whenever a series of horrific sexual crimes is revealed to the public, the most common question I receive is, “Why?”
From a scientific perspective, studies have shown that the root cause of pedophilia in men (defined as a sexual preference for prepubescent children, typically between the ages of 3 to 10) and the lesser known hebephilia (sexual preference for pubescent children, aged 11 to 14) is neurological. Sexual attraction to children is associated, on average, with lower IQ, a greater number of head injuries during childhood, and differences in the organization of the brain, suggesting that it is the result of neurodevelopmental disturbances.
As a result, this is a preference that is hard-wired and not something that can be changed, exemplified by the fact that pedophiles (and likely, the priests in question) will have hundreds of victims over the course of a lifetime. One study estimated that a child molester who abuses boys will have, on average, 150 male victims. (Not all pedophiles go on to abuse children; many understand that children cannot consent to sex, and that sexual contact and viewing child pornography is harmful.) But even though pedophilic interests are not a choice, an individual should be held accountable for his actions.
Pedophiles will gravitate to the Church for several reasons. At best, some hope that a life of celibacy will cure them of their proclivities. Others, however, are well aware that they will have easy access to many young victims as a result of being in a position of authority to families.
In my previous experience working with pedophiles in both a research and clinical capacity, this is similar to what we see with teachers and sports coaches who are found guilty of sexually abusing children. They will choose these professions because they offer opportunities to groom potential victims without raising the suspicions of parents and caretakers.
In these situations, the parents or caretakers of children who are abused will frequently overlook feelings of doubt and permit behaviour they would not otherwise allow because they have been manipulated by the individual into believing that they should trust him. Priests, in particular, presumably have a sense that they will be protected by the Church should any abuse on their part become known.
Roughly 1 per cent of the population is pedophilic, translating to 76 million people worldwide. Statistically speaking, every one of us knows at least one person who is a pedophile. Contrary to what common folklore might have you believe, pedophiles appear no differently, on the surface, from anyone else in your community.
Individuals who are pedophilic recognize their sexual preferences around puberty, and just as soon realize that they can’t tell anyone about it. As a society, we must be willing to have open discussions about this issue without fears that doing so will “normalize” pedophilia or encourage adult-child sex to be viewed as socially acceptable.
Fact-based discussions will help us protect children by identifying at-risk individuals before they offend.
But for some people, the fact that pedophiles exist at all forecloses on rational conversation. Shutting the discussion down out of discomfort, as many of us would understandably prefer to do, doesn’t eliminate the problem, but only sends it underground.
It isn’t enough to respond with disgust and horror whenever we hear about crimes like this. We must be willing to face uncomfortable truths in order to find a solution.