Dyan Elliott

In the fourth century, clerics began to distinguish themselves from members of the laity by virtue of their augmented claims to holiness. Because clerical celibacy was key to this distinction, religious authorities of all stripes—patristic authors, popes, theologians, canonists, monastic founders, and commentators—became progressively sensitive to sexual scandals that involved the clergy and developed sophisticated tactics for concealing or dispelling embarrassing lapses. According to Dyan Elliott, the fear of scandal dictated certain lines of action and inaction, the consequences of which are painfully apparent today. In The Corrupter of Boys, she demonstrates how, in conjunction with the requirement of clerical celibacy, scandal-averse policies at every conceivable level of the ecclesiastical hierarchy have enabled the widespread sexual abuse of boys and male adolescents within the Church.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about?

Dyan Elliot: It’s really about the unintended consequences of clerical celibacy. The celibate ideal meant that the clergy’s sexual lapses were considered especially damaging to the Church, and very soon the fear of a priest’s public scandal trumped concern over hidden clerical vice. This led to the active persecution of clerical wives and concubines, relations which were generally out in the open, and the tacit toleration of clerical pederasty, which tended to be covert. As a result, countless boys and adolescents suffered clerical abuse.

NOTCHES: How did clerical sexual abuse come to light in the middle ages, and how did the church respond?

DE: The abuse was revealed begrudgingly, and the church responded reluctantly. It was in all male communities — like monasteries, universities, and choirs  — where boys would be most at risk. Yet these organization were generally self-policing, and worked hard to ensure that instances of the clergy’s sexual predation were suppressed. Monasteries were especially secretive, making it a heinous offense to reveal any discipline meted out in chapter to outsiders. Cases of clerical sodomy were only prosecuted when the scandal spread to secular society or when the guilty cleric was being investigated for something else.

NOTCHES: From a modern perspective, one of the most striking things about your book is the sense that the medieval church was in some ways more troubled by clerical marriage and concubinage than by child abuse. Why did ecclesiastical authorities take a hard-line approach to clerics who had consensual sex with adult women, whilst turning a blind eye to those who molested young boys?

DE: Although from a theoretical stand point, same-sex relations were undoubtedly more sinful than male-female relations, women represented a greater threat to the church. Errant parish priests who went after wives and daughters created scandal amongst the laity. Clerical wives and concubines not only divided the clergy’s loyalties, but were a drain on church resources, as were their children. There was also the danger that the clergy would become a hereditary priest caste. Of course, misogyny played a role: women were perceived as dangerously irrational and physically polluting, and should thus be shunned. In contrast, sex between males in an all-male community would remain an in-house affair that could be kept secret.

NOTCHES: Were there any dissenting voices, or any efforts to prevent abuse?

DE: Yes, but these voices were few and far between. The seventh-century rule of Fructuosus of Braga assigned harsh and humiliating punishment to a monk who so much as looked longingly at a boy. Although Fructuosus’s indictment circulated in canonical collections, it didn’t make it into Gratian – the primary source of canon law from the twelfth to the twentieth century. Odo of Cluny, a tenth-century abbot, denounced the abuse of the children offered by their families to be brought up in monasteries. In the twelfth century, Peter the Chanter and his followers at the Cathedral School of Paris were also sensitive to the exploitation of students. But when it came to church councils, it was clerical purity that was at issue. Child abuse was not a factor.

NOTCHES: Does the handling of such cases reveal anything about medieval attitudes to children? 

DE: It points to a polarized vision, on the one hand emphasizing childhood innocence, while on the other hand foregrounding childhood depravity. Church writers emphasize the latter. On the rare occasion when children are mentioned in canon law, it is to stress their overall perversity. Boys were beaten with impunity in monasteries, schools, and choirs. We even see instances where a victimized boy is beaten. According to the monastic commentator Hildemar, when a younger boy is raped by an elder, it is the younger one who is punished. Even Peter Damian, who wrote an entire treatise denouncing clerical sodomy in the eleventh century, was primarily concerned with the profanation of the sacraments, not sexual abuse. I imagine that secular society took a kinder view toward children, however.

NOTCHES: Your book focuses on a subject which is deeply disturbing to both medieval and modern sensibilities. Did that make it particularly challenging to research, either in terms of uncovering and interpreting source material, or for you as a researcher to read this material?

DE: I think it is important to make a distinction between the clergy and the laity in both medieval and modern periods. Clearly many members of the clergy, then and now, did not and do not find child abuse sufficiently disturbing to intervene. The Church was, and is, much more concerned about scandal than child abuse, as is apparent in its ongoing subterfuge. Of course, this made the subject difficult to research because the sources were inclined to downplay abuse or suppress it altogether. When sodomy was stigmatized, it was generally through euphemism and innuendo. For example, a wide assortment of sexual offenses is categorized as “incontinence” in monastic sources. Sometimes it is only the emotionality of the adjectives or the degree of punishment that flags an instance of sodomy. When monasteries stopped admitting children in the high Middle Ages, I believe this was largely prompted by the sexual temptation they afforded, but this was never made explicit. The monastic constitutions of the twelfth-century abbot, Peter the Venerable, comes closest when in stating that “Everyone is disturbed by their inept childishness and I am quiet about certain things.” It is little wonder that sodomy’s most common handle is “the sin not fit to be named.” We see the same obfuscation at work today. According to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Church authorities consistently referred to clerical rape as “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”

As to my own reaction, some of the material was certainly disturbing. But I learned that anger and disgust can be great motivators.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it, and was there anything you had to leave out?

DE: The project was initially conceived as a broader exploration of the Church’s treatment of clerical scandal because of the intriguing conundrum it presented. The many scriptural injunctions against scandal suggest that there is merit in its concealment. And yet there are just as many injunctions against hypocrisy. As I got further into the material, however, a focus on the disciplinary actions against clerical relations with women fell by the wayside in favour of how the scandalous nature of such relations was foregrounded and manipulated in ecclesiastical discourse. The clergy’s relations with women, though always identified as scandalous, were what you might call an open scandal – a scandal that was safe to talk about because it really didn’t scandalize anyone. The laity were, after all, married. In contrast, a cleric having sexual relations with a boy would be scandalous to secular society  – so scandalous that it justified concealment.

NOTCHES: This is a book about sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

DE: It speaks to clerical privilege, how it expanded over time, and its impact on the practice of religion. For instance, in the early Church, grievous sins were atoned for publicly. Because of the fear of scandal, however, a cleric was not permitted to perform public penance, the assumption being that he would be deposed. But the Church’s efforts to avoid scandal and accommodate the sinful cleric led to the rise of private confession and penance, destined to become mandatory for all Christians. Deference to clerical privilege is ingrained throughout canon law as well. When Church authorities couldn’t find compelling sources to make their case, they made them up.  For instance, the ninth-century False Decretals has a bogus papal letter requiring 72 witnesses to convict a bishop, who must testify before 12 judges of the bishop’s choosing. Although this collection was widely recognized as a forgery, it was too useful to cast aside. It was used extensively by the eleventh-century reformers to centralize the church around the papacy.

In addition to the clergy’s callous attitude toward children, this book also speaks to the depth of their misogyny – one of the side-effects of clerical celibacy. The eleventh-century reformers’ attempt to put an end to clerical marriage resulted in some of the most notorious misogynist rhetoric of the entire period. Those opposing reform accused the reformers of rejecting honest and public relations with females in favour of shameful and secret relations with males. The aversion to women is so pronounced that some clerics will even argue that sex with boys is less culpable than with women.

NOTCHES: In your introduction, you explain that recent news stories about child abuse by Catholic priests were one of the reasons why you decided to write this book. Do you think there is a direct relationship between medieval and modern cases of (and handling of) clerical abuse? 

DE: I am convinced of such a relationship. This turned out to be one of my more contentious premises, however. Historians measure change over time, so to argue for so persistent a continuation goes against the grain. In fact, the two anonymous readers for the press thought I should drop any such assertion. But I think this would have been wrong. The Church is one of the few institutions possessed of the longevity and degree of continuity to make the connection between past and present not just viable but, to my mind, undeniable. There is a direct connection between monsters like William Presley, the defrocked priest who abused so many children in Pennsylvania, and the fifteenth-century Donato de Bocchis – vicar general of the bishop of Pistoia and serial rapist. Both were enabled by a policy of clerical celibacy and a scandal-averse Church hierarchy.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

DE: I was writing my dissertation on sexual abstinence in marriage, which was the basis of my first book, Spiritual Marriage. Because this was an ascetic practice, I was deep into saints’ lives and the theology of virginity, and didn’t think of myself as working on sexuality, at least not at first. But then when a fellow-student said explicitly that the study of chastity was not a part of the study of sexuality, I suddenly realized it was, responding: “There’s no sex like no sex.” And this is true. When authors are justifying celibacy as a lifestyle, they are generally extolling it at the expense of the sexual alternative. And for those attempting to practice celibacy, the sexual alternative is inescapable.

NOTCHES: What are you working on now that this book is published?

DE: I am working on a book length project entitled “The Quick and the Dead: The Medieval Church and the Exhumation of Christians,” that focuses on the movement of bodies – either to signify commendation, as with saints, or condemnation, as with heretics. I was lucky enough to get a Guggenheim Fellowship, so I have the entire year to focus on this. If only COVID would disappear so that libraries and archives were more accessible!

Dyan Elliott is a medieval historian and the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities at Northwestern University. Her research revolves around questions concerning gender, sexuality, and the Church. She is the author of Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock; Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages; Proving Woman: Female Mysticism and Inquisitional Practice in Late Medieval Europe; and The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200-1500.

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