Who’s to blame for pedophilia? Individuals, populations, probability, and responsibility

by Alan Cohen


A Catholic church official, Monsignor Lynn of Philadelphia, recently received a sentence of 3-6 years for covering up child sexual abuse. This is particularly significant because Monsignor Lynn was not accused of sexual abuse himself, just of covering it up. Pedophilia scandals in the Catholic church have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and most of the blame has gone to individual priests and members of the hierarchy who covered for them. However, I think even blaming those who cover up the scandals is not enough. I think we should blame church officials who have created a system in which such scandals are inevitable.

Many of us are used to a values system in which individuals are responsible for their actions. And certainly they must be. But a basic understanding of statistics and probability suggests that responsibility can also rest higher up, with those who create foreseeable patterns of individual action. Such a perspective is not typical, but it would help solve many large issues. And it is perfectly illustrated by the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic church.Let’s start with a relatively extreme (and horrific) example. Imagine a new law that required all day-care workers to be convicted pedophiles. What would happen? We don’t want to imagine, but we know. Would this result be the fault of the individual pedophile day-care workers, or of whoever made such an absurd law? Clearly, the answer is both. Regardless of the absurdity of the law, individual day-care workers should still be expected to behave morally and responsibly, whatever their predisposition. But whoever made such a law would (in my opinion) be even more responsible – responsible not for one single act, but for all of them.

But, in this example, would every day-care worker commit a crime? Probably not. Some would control themselves, and some would not find themselves tempted in this situation. In no individual case is the outcome guaranteed – this is why we can still hold the individual workers responsible. And thus there is some probability, however, miniscule, that no crimes would occur at all. Yet, because the probable outcome is so foreseeable, we would assign great moral responsibility to whoever made the law.

I think the Catholic church is currently structured in a way that differs from this example only in degree. 500 years ago, the reasons for joining the priesthood were different than today, and the exposure to children would also have been different. I have no idea how much pedophilia by priests may have been a problem back then (probaby no one does), but I suspect that pedophile priests were not necessarily more common than pedophiles in other parts of society. A celibate priesthood might have made sense then.

Today, however, the requirement that priests be celibate and not marry imposes a burden it did not 500 years ago. Living standards have improved so much that most people in developed countries can have most of what they want in life. Who would give up the right to marry, to be with a partner, in our modern, individualistic world? Only people who feel a very strong calling, or people who don’t want to marry to begin with. And who falls into the latter category? Many (most?) pedophiles, among others.

There are pedophiles in our society. We can debate what causes this, or whether it can be cured or controlled, but we cannot escape the fact that there are such people. Some of them may be responsible and try to limit their exposure to children as much as possible, but many of them will look for opportunities to be around children. If you happened to be a pedophile, becoming a Catholic priest might seem like a particularly attractive profession. You could avoid the societal pressure to marry and have a chance to get close to children in the parish. Your position of power would give you opportunities for abuse.

It is thus a completely foreseeable consequence of how the Catholic church is structured that there will be a disproportionate number of priests who have pedophile tendencies, and who will seek positions in the church that put them in close contact with children. This in no way diminishes the contributions of the great majority of priests who are not pedophiles, but it is true nonetheless. Having a church structured in this way is not really all that different from having a law requiring day-care workers to be pedophiles, except in degree. In any given individual’s case, the outcome is in doubt. But at a population level – at the level of all the priests in all the parishes – the general outcome is in very, very little doubt.

Perhaps the Catholic church believes that regular sexual abuse of children is an acceptable price to pay to maintain celibacy of the priesthood, which has various theological justifications. This is a debate they can have with their parishioners. I would also argue that it is a debate they can have with the governments of the countries in which they operate, since these governments also have a responsibility to prevent sexual abuse. But what they cannot argue (in my opinion) is that the fault rests solely with the priests and those who cover for them, and that the church hierarchy has no responsibility to consider such effects.

To me, this question illustrates clearly the limits of assigning individual responsibility to those who directly commit crimes, and not to those who create a system in which such crimes are foreseeable. As I will discuss in later posts, this ties in with proximate versus ultimate causes in biology, and with how we view equality of opportunity in our society.

What do you think? How much does the Catholic hierarchy bear responsibility for crimes committed by its priests? How much can we incorporate the responsibility for foreseeing population-level outcomes into our sense of justice and morality? I look forward to reading your thoughts.