Bishop Accountability
  The Gay Question
Amid the Catholic Church’s current scandals, an unignorable issue

By Rod Dreher
National Review
April 22, 2002

The first thing to understand about the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal is that it is not technically a pedophilia scandal. Despite the gruesome example of defrocked Boston priest John Geoghan, whose case started the current tidal wave of revelations, the overwhelming majority of priests who have molested minors are not pedophiles — that is, like Geoghan, among the rare adults sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. They are, rather, "ephebophiles" — adults who are sexually attracted to post-pubescent youths, generally aged 12 to 17. And their victims have been almost exclusively boys.

Stephen Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer, says that of the over 300 alleged victims of priest sex abuse he has represented, roughly 85 percent are boys, and were teenagers when the abuse occurred. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, an eminent Catholic psychiatrist who has treated scores of victims and priest-perpetrators, says 90 percent of his patients were either teen male victims of priests, or priests who abused teen boys.

"I think we have to ask the question: Why are 90 percent to 95 percent, and some estimates say as high as 98 percent, of the victims of clergy [abuse] teenage boys? . . . We need to ask that question, and I think there's a certain reluctance to raise that issue," said the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, on a recent Meet the Press.

The reluctance arises, no doubt, partly out of a fear of antagonizing homosexual anti-defamation groups, who resent the stereotype of male homosexuals as pederasts. It's much safer to focus inquiry on the question of mandatory celibacy, or the issue of ordaining women. Yet it defies common sense to imagine that an ordinary man, having made a vow not to marry, is therefore going to be sexually attracted to boys. Indeed, suppose the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s had admitted married men to the ranks of the Catholic priesthood: Would a single adolescent boy molested over the past 40 years have escaped his fate? Similarly, if women had been ordained, would that somehow have made sexually predatory gay priests disappear?

No, this is chiefly a scandal about unchaste or criminal homosexuals in the Catholic priesthood, and about far too many in Church leadership disinclined to deal with the problem — or, worse, who may in some cases be actively involved in the misconduct. For Catholics, to start asking questions about homosexuality in the priesthood is to risk finding out more than many Church members prefer to know. For journalists, to confront the issue is to risk touching the electrified third rail of American popular culture: the dark side of homosexuality. Yet when we learn that the greatest crisis the Catholic Church in America has ever faced has been brought upon it almost wholly by male clerics seducing boys, attention must be paid to the man behind the curtain.

It is true that a great many gay people are sickened and appalled by what these wicked priests have done to boys, and some with a public voice, like journalist Andrew Sullivan, have vigorously denounced it. At the same time, Sullivan has strongly supported the ministry of gay priests.

How many gay priests are there? No one can say with certainty; the American bishops have never formally studied the issue, and, for obvious reasons, it is all but impossible to determine an accurate number. Richard Sipe, a laicized priest and psychotherapist who has studied the phenomenon of priests and sex abuse for most of his 40-year career, believes 20 percent of Catholic priests are homosexual, and that half of those are sexually active. In his book, Fr. Cozzens cites various studies putting the total much higher, but these surveys typically suffer from methodological problems that skew the numbers upward.

But those who lowball the numbers could equally be accused of wanting to downplay the problem. The Rev. C. John McCloskey, a member of the conservative Opus Dei organization, claimed recently that the number of gay priests is "two percent to four percent at a maximum," or equivalent to the estimated number of homosexuals in the general population; if that were true, however, it would be hard to explain why, according to experts, Catholic priests are dying of AIDS at a higher rate than males in the general population.

The Lavender Mafia

The raw numbers are less important, though, if homosexual priests occupy positions of influence in the vast Catholic bureaucracy; and there seems little doubt that this is the case in the American Church. Lest this be dismissed as right-wing paranoia, it bears noting that psychotherapist Sipe is no conservative — indeed, he is disliked by many on the Catholic Right for his vigorous dissent from Church teaching on sexual morality — yet he is convinced that the sexual abuse of minors is facilitated by a secret, powerful network of gay priests. Sipe has a great deal of clinical and research experience in this field; he has reviewed thousands of case histories of sexually active priests and abuse victims. He is convinced of the existence of what the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the left-wing clerical gadfly, has called a "lavender Mafia."

"This is a system. This is a whole community. You have many good people covering it up," Sipe says. "There is a network of power. A lot of seminary rectors and teachers are part of it, and they move to chancery-office positions, and on to bishoprics. It's part of the ladder of success. It breaks your heart to see the people who suffer because of this."

In his new book, Goodbye! Good Men, Michael S. Rose documents in shocking detail how pervasive militant homosexuality is in many seminaries, how much gay sex is taking place among seminarians and priest-professors, and how gay power cliques exclude and punish heterosexuals who oppose them. "It's not just a few guys in a few seminaries that have an ax to grind. It is a pattern," says Rose. "The protective network [of homosexual priests] begins in the seminaries."

The stories related in Rose's book will strike many as incredible, but they track closely with the stories that priests have told me about open gay sex and gay politicking in seminaries. The current scandal is opening Catholic eyes: As one ex-seminarian says, "People thought I was crazy when I told them what it was like there, so I finally quit talking about it. They're starting to see now that I wasn't."

Goodbye! Good Men links homosexuality among priests with theological dissent, a connection commonly made by conservative Catholics who wonder why their parish priests have practically abandoned teaching and explaining Catholic sexual morality. But one veteran vocations-team member for a conservative diocese cautions that Catholics should not assume that theological orthodoxy guarantees heterosexuality or chastity. "You find [active homosexuality] among some pretty conservative orders, and in places you'd not expect it," he says. "That's what makes this so depressing. You don't know where to turn."

An especially nasty aspect of this phenomenon is the vulnerability of sexually active gay priests and bishops to manipulation via blackmail. Priests, psychiatrists, and other informed parties say they encounter this constantly. "It's the secrecy," says Stephen Rubino. "If you're a bishop and you're having a relationship, and people know about it, are you compromised on dealing with sexually abusive priests? You bet you are. I've seen it happen."

Longtime observers predict that in the coming weeks, bishops and priests will be forced to resign under fire after their closeted homosexual lives, including sexual abuse, become public. The disgraced pederast former bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., is probably not alone. If this happens, the Vatican will face mounting pressure from the Catholic rank-and-file to take action. As Fr. Greeley has written, "The laity, I suspect, would say it is one thing to accept a homosexual priest and quite another to accept a substantially homosexual clergy, many of whom are blatantly part of the gay subculture."

Rome has explicitly discouraged the ordination of homosexuals since at least 1961. For the past decade, the Vatican has been ratcheting up the pressure against gay ordination — to little avail in most U.S. dioceses. Last year, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, a top Vatican official, said gays should not be admitted to seminaries, a line that was reinforced in early March by the Pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. Recent reports indicate that the Vatican may soon release another document to restate and clarify this policy.

Today, those who defend allowing homosexuals into the priesthood point to the Church's official teaching, which distinguishes between homosexual orientation (which the Church does not consider sinful) and homosexual acts (which the Catechism labels "grave depravity"). There is nothing wrong, the argument goes, with ordaining a homosexually oriented man committed to living chastely and to upholding the Church's teaching on sexuality. Surely there are many such faithful priests in service.

This argument, though, seems persuasive only under conditions far removed from those under which priests have to live today. We now have a culture in which there is little support for chastity, even from within the ranks of the Catholic priesthood. Conservative theologian Michael Novak says he is not prepared to argue for the exclusion of homosexuals from ordination, but as an ex-seminarian, he strongly believes gays should not be on seminary faculties, directing the formation in chastity of young men. Other Catholics who are more liberal than Novak on many Church issues go further on the question of gay ordination: Sipe believes gays shouldn't be admitted into seminaries at the present time — for their own protection, against sexual predators among the faculty and administration, who will attempt to draw them into a priestly subculture in which gay sex is normative behavior. Fr. Thomas P. Doyle, another critic of celibacy who has been deeply involved in the clergy-abuse issue, concurs: "Ordaining gay men at this time would be putting them, no matter how good and dedicated, in a precarious position."

No one wants to stigmatize homosexuals as abusers, because most of them are not. Still, it's hard to gainsay the contention that if there were few homosexuals in the priesthood, the number of sex-abuse victims today would be drastically lower. "We're learning a significant lesson from all this," says Dr. Fitzgibbons. "We have to protect our young. The protection of children and teenagers is more important than the feelings of homosexuals."

Though the American scandal is nowhere near played out, it seems likely that the barrage of humiliating revelations and mounting financial losses will force the Vatican to get tough on gay ordinations. To have any hope of being effective, Rome will have to clean house at most American seminaries. This can be done only if local bishops can be trusted to be both loyal to Rome and resolute — and that will happen only if the Vatican forces them to be accountable.

That still leaves the problem of current and future priests who are both homosexual and unchaste. It is true that most of the abuse cases that have reached the public's attention today involve older priests, and the situation in the seminaries has apparently been reined in somewhat from the anything-goes heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, the problem is still enormous. Most of the cases reported in Goodbye! Good Men involving homosexual corruption date from recent years. One priest who left his seminary teaching post in the mid 1990s in despair over rampant homosexuality — and episcopal indifference to it — told me ominously: "The things I have seen in my years there are probably previews of coming attractions."

A Return to the Faith

The only sensible response, it would seem, is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual behavior by clergy, even between consenting adults (homosexual and heterosexual). The laity has a role to play as well. In a much-discussed essay in the November 2000 Catholic World Report, the Rev. Paul Shaughnessy, a Jesuit priest, suggested that lay Catholics seeking reform should help keep their priests accountable. He urged lay Catholics to use their checkbooks to fight sexual corruption, by steering their donations away from scandal-ridden dioceses and religious orders, and sending them instead to clean groups like Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity — and then letting the bishop or religious order know what they've done and why.

There is tremendous fear among churchmen that the kind of changes needed to put the Church aright will result in a severe loss of numbers in the priesthood at a time when vocations are already at a historic low. That is probably true in the short run, but the experience of a handful of American dioceses in which the local bishop is openly orthodox and willing to defend Church teaching without compromise gives reason to hope that a strong dose of traditional medicine can go a long way toward curing the Church's ills.

In 1995, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha published an article pointing out that dioceses that promote rigorous fidelity to Church teaching and practice produce significantly more vocations than do the moderate to liberal majority. Seminaries like Mount Saint Mary's in Emmitsburg, Md. — where men know they will be supported in their authentic Catholic beliefs and practices, and in their commitment to celibacy and chastity — are filled to capacity.

This is not to suggest that the crisis now gripping the Catholic Church in America can be entirely solved by a restoration of rigorously orthodox theology. Another problem that has to be addressed is the clericalist bias seriously afflicting the judgment of many bishops: Even Curtiss himself erred recently, by keeping an Omaha priest in ministry after the priest admitted having a child-pornography problem. But a return to the basics has to be a big part of a comprehensive solution. There is every reason to believe that a conservative reform — replacing dissenting or milquetoast bishops with solid, no-nonsense men; making the seminaries safe places for heterosexuals loyal to Church teaching; and restoring the priesthood to a corps of chaste, faith-filled disciples — would result in a tide of good men seeking holy orders.

This has already been happening in dioceses like Omaha; Lincoln, Neb.; Denver; Peoria, Ill.; Fargo, N.D.; and Arlington, Va. The road map that points the way to an authentic renewal of the Catholic priesthood is being drawn up in those places. And if you want to see the alternative — what would happen if the U.S. Church simply stayed on its current course — just read the morning papers.

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