Czech Catholic Church enters debate on sex abuse scandals

The Czech Roman Catholic Church recently joined an on-going debate about sexual abuse of minors by priests. Several church officials, including both the outgoing and the newly appointed archbishops of Prague offered their views on the scandal, and on what the church should do to prevent such cases in the future. Although only a few cases of sex abuse have been disclosed in the Czech Republic, the debate now centres on how to tighten the rules of accepting candidates for priests.

Unlike the Catholic Church in Austria, Germany, Ireland and other countries, the church in the Czech Republic has only faced a few scandals involving sexual abuse of minors by priests. The obvious reason why things were different is the fact that the communist authorities kept a close watch over the activities of the church, and banned priests from schools and other educational institutions. Vojtěch Eliáš is the deputy dean of the Catholic Theological Faculty at Prague’s Charles University.

“There is debate, but it does not, for the most part, focus on Czech issues but on the problems of the whole church. I think that these issues are not our problem because in the most difficult period, the majority of Czech priests were under the very tight control of the state. We can’t say such cases did not happen at all, but as I said, all priests were under pressure from the state. So that’s why I think this is not really our problem.”

But some cases did take place in the Czech Republic. In 1998, a priest in eastern Bohemia was sentenced to four years in jail for sexual abuse. Three years later, a priest in Moravia was given a suspended sentence for the same crime. Milan Badal is a Catholic priest and an advisor to Bishop Duka. He co-wrote the White Book of the Church, describing its developments in the last two decades. He says one such case also occurred during communism, but the authorities could not use it as a weapon against the church.

“Paradoxically, we can be glad for the communists who did not allow priests in schools or any other educational institutes for fifty years. Another aspect is that the past regime allowed the church to work with the elderly because the communists thought that once these people die, it would be over for the church. Working with young people was in fact banned and very few of them went to church in those times. That’s why only one priest was convicted, as far as I know, for child abuse. Paradoxically though the communist regime could not use this in its propaganda because the priest was a high-placed official of the organization Pacem in Terris which collaborated with the regime.”

In the wake of sex abuse scandals in other countries, Czech church officials have recently spoken out. The outgoing Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, said he never came across any such problems in his career, but called for an analysis of priest education concerning sexual morale. On the other hand, his successor at the head of the Prague archbishopric, Dominik Duka, sees the scandals as an attack against the Catholic Church. Bishop Duka said on Monday that this campaign seeks to remove Catholic priests from schools and at the same time, curb their financial support. Former dissident and current auxiliary bishop of Prague Václav Malý says the church should adopt stricter rules on priesthood.

“These issues were often taboo, while today, people talk about sexuality and relationships much more openly. So I think the problem was that the candidates weren’t as thoroughly tested. These tests cannot solve everything but they can suggest whether that particular person has inclinations towards young men. I hope application procedures will be much stricter, which should ensure these wrongdoings will not happen.”

But others are more sceptical about imposing stricter rules. Priest Milan Badal says tests will not solve everything, and he also doubts that making celibacy voluntary for priests will prevent sex abuse.

“To believe that some tests will solve this issue for good, it’s like believing the state can make sure people don’t kill each other. It’s all about minimizing the problem. But a man with an interest in children will be interested in children disregarding whether he lives in celibacy, or he’s married, or single. It’s a disorder, it’s a deviation that has to be dealt with by experts, rather than by marriage. That’s certainly no cure, no antidote.”

The debate in the Czech Catholic Church has also touched on celibacy. While most experts deny any existing link between sexual abuse of minors and celibacy, some suggest that many Catholics see celibacy as an answer to problems with their own sexuality. Professor Petr Weiss is a leading Czech sex therapist.

“It’s possible that some people who feel they are different in their sexuality from the majority population choose celibacy as the most acceptable solution. If Catholics feel they are paedophiles or homosexuals, they feel guilty and they don’t want to accept their inner dispositions.”

Professor Weiss also agrees with church officials that the number of paedophiles among priests is not higher than among any other group. What is higher, however, is the number of homosexuals.

“I don’t think are more paedophiles among priests or among Catholics. I think, however, that there are more homosexuals among Catholic priests. But homosexuality and paedophilia are two very different things. There is a research among Catholic priests in the United States. It was an anonymous research, and it concluded that about 40 percent of Catholic priest in the US are homosexuals.”

But for the Roman Catholic Church, homosexuality among priests has long been a taboo. Michal Semín is a head of a conservative Czech Catholic group, the St Joseph Institute. He warns that a more liberal church, with more compassion for homosexuals, would make the problem of sex abuse even bigger.

“If you want to have a liberal church, then be prepared for homosexual priests. If you look into the cases of those who are already confirmed as abusers of children, all of them come from the liberal, progressive wing of the church. There is not a single so-called conservative or traditionalist, or a member of the traditionalist order. All of them were to a certain degree involved in activities that called for the reform of the church.”

The Czech Catholic Church has not assumed an official position on the sex abuse scandals and on ways of how to prevent them in the future. From his point of view, sex therapist Petr Weiss says that neither tightening the rules for priests nor scrapping celibacy will resolve the issue of sex abuse in the church.