Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Would more women in Catholic Church reduce abuse?

By Tom Evans, CNN
  • Pope Benedict XVI faces more questions about the child abuse scandal
  • Pope says he has finished writing official statement on scandal in Ireland
  • Theological seminary head: Women abuse much less than men
  • Another scholar questions impact having more women in church hierarchy

(CNN) -- With the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church spreading, a leading religious scholar said Wednesday that a greater female presence in the church hierarchy would have helped prevent the crisis from worsening.

"It is clear that, statistically, women abuse much less than men. And in terms of reporting, are much more likely to (report abuse)," Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

"It would make a big difference if my Catholic women students at the seminary were in positions of power right now. This would not be handled this way at all," she said.

Another top religious scholar was not so sure, however.

Video: Catholic abuse scandal

"I hope the presence of women would make a difference and that there would be more reporting of the abuse," said Janet Smith, chair of life ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. "But I've looked into some of the studies done on sexual abuse in the public school system, which is quite enormous."

Has the Catholic Church reached a tipping point?

She said she did not know if the evidence supported Jones' statement.

"I'd like to see a study done that shows that women are more effective in reporting the abuse that's being done in the public school system, and that would then confirm the hope that a greater presence of women would expose abuse more frequently."

See more coverage on Amanpour

The scholars' comments come as Pope Benedict XVI faces more questions about his role, if any, in what many say is a cover-up of the child abuse scandal over decades, a cover-up that critics say goes to the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

One of the worst affected countries is Ireland. The deeply Catholic country has been badly shaken by a government-backed report that found the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Catholic Church authorities covered up widespread child abuse by priests from 1975 to 2004.

Read one survivor's story

Pope Benedict XVI said Wednesday that he has finished writing his official statement, or pastoral letter, on the scandal in Ireland.

He will sign the letter Friday and send it "soon after," Benedict told the faithful in an address on St. Patrick's Day.

"My hope is that it will help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal," he said.

Some critics of the Catholic Church say there will never be renewal so long as it maintains its policy of celibacy for priests.

Jones told Amanpour: "The fact that we insist on celibacy in the Catholic Church and that women are excluded, that double combination ... shows us a church that lives in a bubble."

She also strongly rejected the idea that priests have to be men.

"The majority of Catholics in this country (the United States) agree it is an archaic argument and it's one that is bound to oppress."

Smith was unimpressed. "Women can be Christ-like as well as any man, but we wouldn't choose a woman to play the role of Hamlet, right?"

She added that women play a big role in the structure of the Catholic Church, holding 23 percent of the top "power positions" in the United States, 48 percent of the administrative positions and 80 percent of all paid positions.

Jones, however, said those statistics were meaningless as long as women cannot be priests.

"We have women that are running all sorts of things, but they are not allowed in the most important position of all, which is the priesthood."

Smith countered: "I disagree that the priesthood is the most important position in the church. Every human soul has the obligation to seek holiness. And the power that the true Catholic wants is the power to serve as Christ served."