A Nun's Story: What I Know about the Priest Scandal

By Sr. Karol Jackowski
Religious News Online
April 22, 2003

Rarely does a day go by now that someone doesn't ask what I think of "the big priest scandal," and "what did nuns know?" Did we know all that sexual abuse was going on? Those are questions every church worker needs to be asked, because if we too have been part of the denials and cover-ups, then we too have some serious and soulful owning up to do. We too have abused all those children.

While I obviously can't tell you "what all nuns know," I can tell you what I know, both as a product of Catholic grade school, high school, college, and grad school, as well as a nun of almost 40 years. And while no single one of us can ever represent all nuns, I can tell you that there probably isn't a nun alive and well right now who isn't thinking about what they know and how this could happen. All those who work in the church cannot help but ask those questions. The horror and depravity that's been revealed so far is enough for the whole world to cry out for total justice. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help us God!

"How could this happen?" is the question any thinking person asks every time another layer of clerical scandal is revealed: evermore sexual abuse, billions in settlements and hush money, and not only decades, but a long, dark history with centuries of highly organized denials, threats, and cover-ups. All of which continue without interruption even as I write. How could this happen? How can all of this criminal activity go on so protected and hidden for so long? How could so many of us not see? Not just nuns and priests, but all who are part of the Catholic Church - how did we not see this coming? Or did we? When I look at everything I know now, I'm beginning to wonder. I'm beginning to feel as though I saw far more than I ever realized. Every day I see more and more how the crisis in the Catholic priesthood is so much greater than the sum of its pedophile priests.

For as long as I can remember, there has always been a strange silent acceptance of what now indeed appears to be an "unbroken tradition" of sexual activity in the Catholic priesthood. An acceptance so strange and so Catholic that it also includes holding on to the illusive belief that the priesthood is now, always was, and always will be celibate. Even in grade school I was aware of, but never questioned why the housekeeper not only lived in the rectory with the pastor, but also traveled and vacationed alone with him as well. Everyone in the parish was certainly far more aware than I and no one ever questioned it. No one ever protested. We all liked them both and no one seemed to care. That was over 50 years ago. But nearly every Catholic I talk to tells at least one completely similar story that happened years ago or is still happening now. Everybody seems to know somebody sometime

It happened without notice then, and I do know for a fact that it still happens without notice now. What was in the Middle Ages called "clerical concubinage" appears to be an "unbroken tradition" in the Catholic priesthood still. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. And no one really seems to care now either, least of all the priesthood, from top to bottom. That's probably because at some soulful level it is as it should be, and no one is necessarily any less holy or priestly as a result. We all seem to accept that completely. Even according to Jesus, celibacy is an extraordinary gift for those "who can take it", not a rule for the masses, not even a rule for disciples. But one sexual activity never ever accepted by anyone but the priesthood and the Catholic Church is the horrific abuse of children. As though for decades, if not centuries, each and every priest who knew of abuse, at some soulful level, chose to accept it, ignore it and let it be. In the real world we call that kind of thinking criminal.

Having worked nearly all of my nun years with college students, however, I honestly don't know now, nor have I ever known a priest who was sexually abusing anyone, much less a child. Sexually active? Yes. Sexually harassing? On occasion. But sexually abusive? Never. Though it appears clear even in the writing of it now, how easily abuse can evolve from harassment as a next step. I've just never seen it in the priests I've known. But it's not uncommon that most nuns wouldn't know what went on outside the convent, particularly with regard to the private lives of priests. The families of the victims didn't know, not even those who were very personally involved in the life of the priest and the church. The victims themselves, even though they knew what was happening to one another, never spoke of the abuse. It was unspeakable. That's how profoundly insidious clerical secrecy is. And very purposely so if you're a pedophile priest, or the church supporting and protecting them.

Even in grade school, no one questioned the priest when boys were called out of class for funerals, altar boy practice, or whatever reason. Why would we? Not to mention the special Catholic commandment that no one ever questions the Catholic Church or its priests, just as no one dares question God. Until now. Because no one but the Catholic Church and its priests accepted and protected pedophilia as though it were just another sexual practice among its members to be systematically ignored. Condemned in public and forgiven in private. With everyone pretending it never really happened in the first place, and if it did it wasn't the priests fault anyhow, and even if it was he's forgiven. Parents are mostly to blame, and children themselves should know better. They can be so seductive.

How could that happen? How could the Church and its priesthood not see the clear criminal difference? How can that kind of thinking not be seen as extremely deviant and dangerous? And how long, O Lord, how long has this been going on? Certainly far longer than any of us can remember. And most probably, according to church historians, all the way back to the 4th century. That's when the church first tried to enforce celibacy on its already married priests, and eventually the rest of us as well. Celibacy was simultaneously enforced upon all unmarried women, nun or not. If you're not married or a nun, your Catholic lot in life as a woman is still "single blessedness," which really means life without sex.

But from what we know of church history, enforced celibacy never took hold in the priesthood or anywhere else for that matter. Celibacy doesn't work that way. Quite the contrary, as its enforced history in the priesthood demonstrates. It appears as though we have always had a sexually active priesthood, with greater and lesser degrees of depravity and notoriety. Even with the beginnings of priestly celibacy found among the holy desert fathers in the 4th and 5th centuries, we also find numerous, well-documented accounts of monks and monasteries with a wide reputation of molesting boys and seminarians, and engaging in bestiality as well. Popes, bishops and priests fathered offspring openly, with wives and children later being sold into slavery. It got too expensive and the Church had no intentions of sharing its wealth. (Current thinking remains the same.) Such are just a few of the more egregious "celibate" beginnings of the Catholic priesthood. And if that's what we know, if that's what passed the censors into the history books, I shudder at the thought of what didn't. Then and now.

The Middle Ages were no less notorious in the Catholic Church for the rampant debauchery of its popes, bishops, and priests. One 12th century bishop fathered 65 children, and Pope John XII (965), known for adultery, incest, and no interest whatsoever in spiritual matters, died of a heart attack in the bed of a married woman. Most errant of all the "bad popes" though has to be Pope Innocent VIII (1492). He was the first Pope to actually brag about his brood of "bastards" and be forgiven by the Church for being so open and honest. Sound familiar? For as much as we'd all like to think that happened ages ago and this is now, I'm not at all so sure now in the priesthood is any more different than it was in the Middle Ages. Especially when I read on 'Page Six' of the New York Post, the hottest gossip (not always true) page in the city, under the column 'Just Asking."

..."WHICH American cardinal recently disclosed to insiders a confidential letter he received from a bishop urging the cardinal to resign for the good of the church? The cardinal is being urged to quit before his much-gossiped-about homosexual indiscretions are uncovered by the media.WHICH ranking priest of a major diocese predicted over a boozy dinner the other night that if the media outs this particular cardinal, 'then the dominoes will really start to fall?"

Now this is Holy Mother Church they're talking about and that's not some account from the Middle Ages. That's Thursday, May 16, 2002. Do I know who they're talking about? No. Not a clue. But does the media, the Catholic Church, and the priesthood? Quite obviously they do.

Recent data on sexual activity in the priesthood also demonstrates what everyone seems to know, but no one ever talks about as really happening. In 1990, a former monk and psychotherapist, Richard Sipe, conducted a study of clerical sexual habits. Believing the results to be conservative given what he knew, he reported approximately 20% of priests were sexually active with women, with another 10% thinking about it seriously. He also found 20% homosexual priests, 10% of whom were sexually active, 4% of those with children. Some critics and seminarians felt the numbers should be doubled. Sex researchers also talk about the likelihood of an underreporting bias in all sex research, especially if you're a Catholic priest. So if you double the numbers, and add a little more for priestly bias, that's an overwhelming majority. Nearly everyone. And that was over 10 years ago. Twenty years prior to that, in 1970, a very well respected cardinal stood up before his brothers at the Synod of Bishops in Rome and reported: "I am not at all optimistic that celibacy is being observed."

Now am I missing something here, or are we looking quite clearly at a Holy Roman Emperor with no clothes? The answer to how this could happen is the same in the Catholic Church and the priesthood as it is in all highly dysfunctional families where incest and sexual abuse occur. Act as though it isn't happening. Deny deny deny. Blame the victim and the family. Exclude absolutely all outsiders, especially women. Then bind the brotherhood with secrecy and silence by letting them do whatever they want also. That way no one ever feels comfortable throwing the first stone. In the real world, that's the nasty stuff of which blackmail is made. Yet those are the ties that seem to bind the priesthood so powerfully together. How else could this happen?

The historian Garry Wills, in his must-read book, Papal Sin, writes in-depth about the institutionalized "conspiracy of silence" that exists from pope to priest, and probably as well to banker, lawyer, judge, law enforcement, and media. Aiders and abettors galore swirl around this scandal. A highly organized system of protection in the priesthood has been operative for a very long time. Wills calls them "structures of deceit." That's the only way any of this possibly could've happened. Plenty of high-powered help, both in and out of the church, since the very beginning

It's still so soulfully striking to me that reports of abuse remain the burden of the victims and their families. Unless I missed it, I've yet to hear reports of priests or their communities coming forward first to spare victims further anguish. Certainly priests must know who their pedophile brothers are. Everyone else seems to. The Boston Globe knows. The New York Times knows. The New York Post knows. Reports of abuse continue to be filed, but not yet from within the priesthood or the Catholic Church. Their lips remain institutionally sealed regardless of how open their new directives are, and the unwillingness to be truthful only intensifies.

As a result, what we're likely to see instead of any real progress is what we've known all along, possibly with slightly better behavior, even though that remains to be seen. The most blatant cases of abuse are still being fought in court and still resisted by the Church now hiding behind statutes of limitations. Evidence is still hidden and suppressed, if not destroyed. Justice still obstructed. Defiance of the courts and the law of the land continues. And the priestly scandal continues to spin out of control. Two New Jersey priests were arrested for pimping and prostitution in Toronto while attending the Pope's World Youth Rally in July 2002. According to the Church neither one had a previous record. So much for the new guidelines.

But the "conspiracy of silence" which bound the Church and its priesthood for centuries is finally becoming its own soulful undoing. The sword by which it lived has become the sword by which it finally dies. Self-destructing priesthood right before our eyes and by no one's divine hand but their own. How straight God writes with such crooked lines. Both as a teaching authority and as a moral authority, this is clearly the end of the priesthood as we've known it. The mystique is long gone. And what's left of it will most likely go up in smoke when those "dominoes really begin to fall." I am most certainly not alone now in praying daily, "May they all rest in peace. Amen."

Every Catholic is a victim in this scandal. For centuries we've all been duped and we let ourselves be duped. While we believed (and still do) everything we were told about virgin births, incarnations, miracles, resurrections, ascensions, and assumptions, we also believed everything we were told when it came to sex and moral decisions. We believed what we were told even though it made no sense and often tormented our souls. We had faith that the voice of the priesthood was indeed the voice of God on earth.

Those who couldn't and didn't believe were tormented by the mortal sin of disbelief, and those who struggled to believe it all are now tormented by such soulful betrayal. We've all been betrayed, lied to, some even condemned to hell for all eternity for doing what priests have been doing consciously all along. All the women who still feel violated by the Churches teaching on birth control and abortion, only to find out now that the priesthood has been a secret of advocate of both for years, but only when one of its priests is involved. Sexual permissiveness and deviance has an old unreformed soul in the Catholic priesthood. According to an April 2002 article in Vanity Fair on the indicted priest Paul Shanley, Maureen Orth, the author of the article, quotes Richard Cardinal Cushing, then the Archbishop of Boston, leading a retreat for seminarians that the theologian Fr. Richard McBrien (two years behind Shanley in the seminary) never forgot:

'Men, if you're going to do it, do it with a woman - don't do it with another man. And if you get her pregnant, come to me -I'll take care of it."

Like children, women are also special victims of this priesthood. We have not yet heard the voices of all those women who have been tormented by the Church's teachings against them, nor have we heard from the women who have been abused in relationships with priests. Wait until those women waken and begin to speak. Wait until the Spirit begins to move them. But the most speechless and betrayed of all, at levels most of us will never know, are homosexuals condemned to hell by virtue of their being born, and done so by priests so like them in every way. As one irate New York Catholic commented, "Gays and lesbians can't march in the Saint Patrick's Day Parade but pederasts can!" All those who walked away, were turned away, or took their lives because of the Church's condemnation of them are victims in ways we may never know. All the faithful have been soulfully betrayed by this priesthood, and betrayal doesn't get much deeper than that.

It's no small comfort that we have Scripture to turn to, to remind us that God also holds in horror those priests who turned the faithful away with scandal and hypocrisy. Jesus calls these priests a brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, frauds. "You present to view a holy exterior while you are full of hypocrisy and a secret rottenness." (Mt.23, 27f) And to those who show scandal? "Woe to whoever scandalizes the little ones. It is better for him that a millstone be hung around his neck and he be drowned in the depths of the sea." (Mt.18: 6) We have hardly begun to understand all the ways in which we've been victimized and betrayed by this priesthood, but that enlightenment will come as the priesthood of the people pulls together and moves forward. And while our hearts may be troubled and afraid now, we have God's word that the Spirit of truth will be with us always in the priestly hands of the faithful.

So what happens next? Is this the end of the Catholic Church? Is this curtains for Catholicism? Quite the contrary from what I see. What's true about any religion never dies. It can be buried underground for centuries, but true Gods can never be killed no matter how decadent their priesthood. From what I see, this is just the beginning. The beginning of the end, as well as the emergence of a whole new priesthood in the Catholic Church. There are already millions --good nuns and priests among them - who always have and always will protect and preserve the truth, like the Holy Grail it is. It's the faithful who have always held Mother Church together, and it's still the faithful, in and out of the church, who hold her together even more so now when she seems to be falling apart. The priesthood of the people is already leading the way.

It's the faithful now, all the people of the church who are demanding a full and truthful account of all abuse, and who will never, ever be silenced again. It's the faithful now who are taking the Catholic Church to court in order to force them to serve justice. The signs of the times all point to the stirring resurrection of the priesthood of the people. People once again taking religion back into their own hands where it belongs, where it was given to us in the first place with baptism. No one will be entrusting their souls, their children, or their money to the Catholic Church in the same way ever again.

That's already happening too. Catholics all over the world have been wakened and shakened soulfully by the scandals of the priesthood, and will never believe in that old blindly obedient way again. We see too clearly now. There's an old Chinese proverb, "When sleeping women wake, mountains will move." That's what I see happening now with all the newly and rudely wakened Catholics. It's mountain-moving time. And the movement is already well on its way. New and different forms of community life have been emerging in and out of the Church for years, just as they did in the beginning of Christianity. The rebirth of "house churches," so common in the first few centuries, is likely to strengthen and grow as more and more Catholics distance themselves from the Church they experience now as so deceitful, even despicable. Increasingly, I find myself called to be part of small groups of friends, neighbors, even strangers, who gather together regularly for community, a meal, and prayer. For what they experience as the Body of Christ, Christian community. Now to those who snicker condescendingly and say that's all very noble and good, but not really truly the Eucharist, all I can say is "Try and tell them that."

The heart and soul of all religion always lies far more in the community of believers than it ever does in its priesthood (or its nuns). Christianity began with a handful of believers and that's all it really takes to keep the Spirit alive. Just two or three to gather together in that way does it. And there are far more Catholics than that coming together now in unprecedented ways, nuns among them, organizing locally and nationally, forcing the Church to change. We have every reason to believe that what we have seen and heard thus far is only the tip of an iceberg as old as the Church itself. And for as awful as it's still going to get, these are the excruciatingly painful but blessed changes that have been dying to happen for centuries. The power of the Holy Spirit moving right now through the heart and soul of every Catholic could hardly be more forceful. All the makings of a Second Pentecost. Only this time Catholics are much smarter.

While not ordained as such by anyone, I see so many women and men, both in and out of the church, whose priestly lives are now shaping the future of Catholicism in ways we can't even imagine. In response to the crisis in the priesthood, so many are coming together to take this sick and broken church back into their own priestly hands and bring her to life again. That's what I see now when I look at the priest scandal. So many turning more deeply to prayer in order to gather the inner strength needed to move what feels like mountains of clerical deceit. But Catholicism always was and always will be far greater than the sum of its decadent past or present. That's what leaves me confident, hopeful, and thankful at the end of the day. It's all the new life I see rising from the faithful in the pew, as well as those in their homes. Regardless of what happens to the priesthood in the days and months to come, Holy Mother Church is still so well loved and cared for in the priestly hands of her people. And the priesthood of the people has clearly had enough. All will be well.


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