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Catholic priests and celibacy: a flashpoint in sexual abuse crisis

The No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, appeared Tuesday to ease the church's absolute position on celibacy for Catholic priests. The issue continues to roil the church as it confronts revelations of sexual abuse.

By Staff Writer / April 28, 2010

The No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Tuesday that the church's position on celibacy for Catholic priests is not 'untouchable.'

Newscom/File

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Paris; and Munich, Germany

Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone made headlines Tuesday when he appeared to ease the church’s absolute position on celibacy, telling Spanish radio the centuries-old rule is not an “untouchable” one. The prelate’s comment was part of a Vatican affirmation of celibacy and a strong view that there is “no direct link between celibacy and the deviant behavior of certain priests," as Cardinal Bertone put it.

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But even opening the door slightly on such a deeply cherished practice is a concession to persistent questions tied to revelations of child sexual abuse in the United States, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Kenya, and Austria that has put the church in crisis, analysts say.

From the start of the Catholic priest child abuse scandal, Vatican officials have pointedly sought to play down the role that mandatory celibacy may or may not play in the abuse and cover up surfacing this spring.

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Even Roman Catholic scholars and intellectuals favoring a reform idea of “optional celibacy” for priests worry about stereotypes and assumptions at a time of public anger that crudely equate vows of chastity with pedophilia. A strong orthodox core at the Vatican has treated the subject as closed – even as questioning celibacy has become a coin-of-the-realm topic among ordinary Catholics.

“In Catholic opinion, in terms of surveys and studies about what Catholics actually believe on the ground, ever greater numbers are talking about optional celibacy and the ordination of women – that toothpaste is not going back in the tube,” says theologian Tom Beaudoin of Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York, echoing numerous Catholic scholars and lay people interviewed for this article.

Mr. Bertone, known as a hard-liner who last month equated homosexuality with pedophilia (something he later retracted), nonetheless opened the celibacy question in a context that has been a vexing conundrum for bishops and priests for years: that while Catholic priests must be celibate, the church has slowly accepted married priests from orthodox and Anglican traditions. As Bertone put it, “There are married priests in the Catholic as well as oriental church."

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