Priestly Pedophilia: A Systemic Evil

By Clem De Wall

Except for the Catholic hierarchy, few have been satisfied with Vatican excuses for priestly pedophilia. Instead, there are outcries for reparations, admissions of guilt and swift punishment. Some advocate reforming the celibacy rule. I would go further, judging clerical pedophilia to be a systemic evil, curable only by abolishing the system.

Illnesses are not cured by masking symptoms, but by attacking their cause. What is it about priesthood that allows, or even encourages pedophilia? Let’s look at the belief system supporting it.

Catholic tradition holds that at the Last Supper Jesus ordained his apostles, who in turned passed on their priestly powers to those whom they ordained and set up over individual communities. Consequently, today’s bishops exercise power and authority derived ultimately from Jesus through what is called apostolic succession.

According to this model, dissidents with contrary practices and beliefs were heretics who broke away from the original teachings of Jesus and the authority of the apostles. Such, for example, were some Gnostics, who, lacking ordained ministers, would call upon any woman or man in their midst to preside over the Eucharist. These rival Christians were seen as a threat to the power and authority of the bishop.

The office of bishop has always been about power. The hierarchy claims to represent God on earth by enforcing God’s law and dispensing God’s grace, without which we are condemned eternally to hell. This power to deliver sanctifying grace or withhold it resides in the sacramental character or indelible mark on the priest’s (or bishop’s or deacon’s) soul, received at the time of ordination. Consequently, priests retain their sacramental powers, no matter what kind of lives they lead, even into eternity.

The belief in being a priest forever is the basis for the remarkable theological conclusion that a priest can bring holiness to others even while immersed in moral depravity. Since priests dispense grace automatically, their bishops have seen no harm in letting pedophiles work with grade school children.

It makes no difference whether the actions of the clergy are holy or harmful, since to obey the priest (or bishop) is to obey God. And how many times has that twisted theology been used by pedophile priests to manipulate their victims?

The doctrine of apostolic succession has its strongest support in the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, wherein the author discusses the threefold office of holy orders, that of bishop, priest (presbyter or elder) and deacon. How could apostolic succession be more evident?

A closer look reveals a problem. The Pastoral Epistles have a total of 848 different Greek words. Of these, 306 are not found in any other letter attributed to Paul, not even in the three whose Pauline authorship is most often questioned. About a third of the 306 words are second century vocabulary. To claim that Paul used these words decades before they came into common usage is like asserting that Abraham Lincoln could have written about television.

Furthermore, some words in the Pastoral Letters are used with a meaning unlike Paul’s usage elsewhere. An example of this is the word “faith,” which Paul uses elsewhere to mean a loving trust in God. In the letters to Timothy and Titus it denotes a set of beliefs, a meaning it did not acquire until the second century.

Today nearly all New Testament scholars date the Pastoral Epistles at least as late as the end of the first century, some forty years after Paul died. Any document seriously claiming to be written by another is a forgery.

From letters like I Corinthians we see that Paul never ordained anyone. In writing to correct abuses in the community, he addresses not a successor, but the whole community. He singles out no officer in charge, because there was none. Since Paul believed that Jesus would return soon, even in his lifetime, a successor would have been needless.

Ordination of clergy is found nowhere in the apostolic community. In Jerusalem the community was headed by James, the brother of Jesus, and at least into the third century this group’s leadership was passed on not by ordination but by inheritance to the descendants of the family of Joseph and Mary.

The first Christians did not restrict the celebration of the Eucharist to an ordained priest. The Didache (Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles), dated generally around the end of the first century, allows the celebration of the Eucharist by a visiting Christian prophet as the prophet sees fit.

We do not know exactly when Christians developed a clergy with bishops, priests and deacons, but it could not have originated until the second century. Even though this Catholic form of Christianity eventually eliminated its competitors, the claim to derive sacramental power and authority from Christ through the apostles lacks both scriptural and historical foundation.

It is time to rid ourselves of the doctrines and practices which have made priestly pedophilia possible. We must reject the erroneous claim of apostolic succession, together with its non-existent power and authority so frequently abused. Nor can we reform the power structure by changing the rules of celibacy or, even worse, by becoming part of that structure. Since the evil is systemic, the thought that there are many good priests is irrelevant. Without apostolic succession, the authority and powers of bishop do not exist, except as a self-perpetuating power for power’s sake. Power corrupts, and eternal power corrupts eternally.

The choice we face is whether to reject the clerical system enabling moral corruption or to cling to prayers, liturgies and customs that make us comfortable. You can bet on which of these the bishops are counting on.

Clem De Wall is a graduate of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy, and received a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado.  He has retired from careers in ministry and data processing. E-mail: