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Spotlight Report

Broken Vows

A former Catholic priest speaks out about secrecy, scandal, and being gay in the church

By Christopher Schiavone, with Janice Page, 12/8/2002

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Christopher Schiavone is greeted by Archbishop Bernard F. Law at the author's ordination as a priest in June 1984. It was Law's first ordination as new head of the Archdiocese of Boston. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)

"For eight years in the seminary and another eight as a priest," says Schiavone, "I was so desperate to succeed that I repeatedly ran from the truth of my own sexuality." (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)

 From the archives
Schiavone is ordained by Law

oon after I arrived at the Southdown Institute in Canada, one of the therapists -- Richard Gilmartin, an older, married man with distinguished features and an avuncular manner -- gave a lecture to the new residents. I remember little of what he said in the fluorescent light of the hospital-green meeting room that day, except these few words: "We don't have secrets; our secrets have us."

I recall them because they were such an accurate and powerful description of my own experience as a closeted gay man and celibate priest. As long as I needed to conceal the full truth of my identity from my family, my parishioners, and my superiors, everything in my life was controlled and distorted by my secret. I could not seek out healthy, functional relationships on my home turf, so I settled for the vicarious pleasure of observing free-range men in the gay bars of other cities when I took vacations. I could not experience sexual expression in mature relationships, so I'd sneak into the Glad Day Book Store on Boylston Street to buy soft-core gay porn; hoping, praying, that no one I knew would see me.

I should have worried more that I couldn't see myself.

Because I wasn't a pedophile or any of the other things priests whispered about and rectories occasionally gave sanctuary to in the early 1990s, I thought I was in control. After all, I was among the enlightened generation -- clergy who had come of age in the years after Vatican II. Unlike the extremely repressive climate endured by those trained before 1970 -- a climate that just happens to have incubated virtually all of the crimes against minors making today's headlines -- ours was an atmosphere of more open dialogue and creative self-expression.

It didn't matter. When I met a handsome seminarian close in age and equally vulnerable, my secret finally caught up with me. I'd never violated boundaries with a subordinate before, and I haven't since, but that affair was pivotal in numbering my days in the priesthood and opening me up to the truth expressed by Dr. Gilmartin's simple observation.

We don't have secrets; our secrets have us.

I remember saying a silent "amen" as I braced for six more months of such revelations in this, my temporary new Canadian home.

he Southdown Institute, in farm country just north of Toronto, looks a lot like any inpatient mental health facility in North America. It has well-tended grounds and long, nondescript hallways with miles of cinder block punctuated by the occasional piece of bad art. Patients dress in jeans and sweat suits. Meals are taken cafeteria-style; the person standing next to you in line for the meatloaf could be mildly depressed, detoxing, or just this side of stabbing someone with a butter knife. The highlight of the week is the trip to the shopping mall in nearby Newmarket, or dinner at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Richmond Hill.

Only one thing makes this place uniquely interesting: Its clients are all Roman Catholic priests or members of religious orders.

They are men and women sent to this institution for "rustication," as it is sometimes called in mental health circles. Some have been accused of various kinds of sexual misconduct; others are battling addictions; many are in the throes of clinical depression. But most share one thing in common: They have found themselves in embarrassing, compromising, or potentially sticky situations, and their superiors -- bishops and heads of religious congregations -- have hustled them off to the rustic hill country of southern Ontario in the hope that the various tempests which brought them all here will die down in the six months of their retreat, so that the faithful won't ever have to be scandalized by knowledge of their weakness and misbehavior.

Contrary to the impression communicated in some recent news accounts, Southdown is not primarily a treatment center for pedophiles or child molesters. It was founded in 1965, originally as a place of recovery for alcoholic priests and male religious from across Canada. Over the years, as its holistic and eclectic therapeutic philosophy evolved -- encompassing everything from traditional talk therapies and group process to more cutting-edge things like bioenergetic body work and yoga -- its mission eventually embraced women as well as men, and its client population expanded to include priests and religious from the States.

There were, while I was there in the fall and winter of 1993, a few among us who had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors. One was said to have had regular trysts with a young man in an office of a Catholic high school where the priest had been a faculty member. Another might have touched a minor "inappropriately" 20 years earlier during a period when the priest had been drinking alcoholically. In all cases of which I was aware, the minors in question were teenagers. When I first arrived at Southdown, these residents were not permitted to venture off the grounds alone; as time went on, the policy was extended to everyone.

But most of us were at Southdown for other reasons, which our regimen of group therapy, spiritual direction, and personal counseling endeavored to address in psychologically sound though morally neutral ways. A gay men's support group met weekly. For many of us, it was the first time we had publicly identified ourselves as gay. Others in the community were also known to have been homosexually attracted or active, but they eschewed the support group, often out of fear. That's how it was at Southdown -- each man and woman was permitted to pursue a path to wellness in a way and at a pace that seemed most natural.

There wasn't much spare time, but what discretionary hours I had I used learning to make pottery, becoming acquainted with Canadian culture (not the oxymoron many people think), and trying things I'd never tried before -- like living each day with no clear picture of what would happen next.

One day, I watched as a middle-aged nun anticipated the slow, determined approach of a younger man. Not until he was within a foot or two of her did the woman tentatively raise her hands, palms forward, and say in a barely audible voice, "My space. This is my space." But still the man continued walking, until they were practically nose to nose.

The woman dropped her hands in resignation. "I can't do it," she explained to the therapist conducting the group session. "He's such a sweet guy. It feels mean to say `My space' to him and push him away."

The therapist probed gingerly: "Was it like that when your uncle used to come into your bedroom in the middle of the night?" Her weak smile turned downward, and, quietly, she began to sob.

Secrets. The place was crawling with their victims. Watching the woman dissolve in tears, I asked myself, for perhaps the hundredth time since arriving, "How did I end up here?"

was not an especially religious child, nor do I recall having always wanted to be a priest. In fact, at various times in my youth I dreamed of being an environmentalist, a politician, a farmer, a talk-show host, and a business owner (which I now am).

The youngest of four, I was an overachieving child in a family of overachievers. My oldest brother became a corporate media executive. My sister became a broadcast journalist. My other brother earned a doctorate in pharmacology. We were taught from an early age that our talents were given to us in order to build a better world and our time should be used only in constructive pursuits.

Even my play was constructive as I progressed from building blocks to model railroading to creating a little business of my own at age 9 (I made and sold paper flowers). As a teen, I established an organization to save the environment. Its name: the Joy of the Earth Commission. Its motto: "Those of us who really care." I smile to myself when I think about it now -- the adolescent idealism, the naive self-importance.

At St. Michael's Church in North Andover, I knew nothing of sexual misconduct among clergy when I was growing up. In time, one of the priests of my youth would be accused of sexually abusing a minor, another would become a standard-bearer for reform in the Archdiocese of Boston, and the parish itself would host gatherings of the lay activist group Voice of the Faithful. But as a youngster, all I knew were the nuns who taught us how to read, write, draw, and sing. I knew the fun of being a Boy Scout, hiking the woods by day and stargazing by night. I knew the pride of being an altar boy and playing guitar at "folk Mass." I knew the solace that came from participating in grand and uplifting liturgical rituals and from kneeling silently in a darkened basement church scented with the unmistakable fragrance of beeswax and incense.

What I also knew from a very young age was that I was gay. Not that I really understood the sexual connotations of the word "gay" as a 10-year-old, but I was fully aware that I couldn't resist riding down the street on my bicycle every time our blond teenage neighbor walked around his driveway shirtless, polishing the hood of his red Mustang convertible. There were teenage girls on the street, too; some of them even baby-sat me. I liked them very much and chatted with them happily, but they were decidedly not the object of my crush. Those feelings were destined to remain secret to my family until the autumn of 1993, when I found myself heading to Canada for "therapeutic renewal."

I was not attracted to the seminary or to priesthood because I was gay. I was attracted to it because I wanted to help people, because I liked what priests did -- leading ceremonies, teaching and preaching, being with people during some of the most important moments in their lives. The fact that priesthood absolved me (or so I thought) of the need ever to declare or practice my sexual orientation was a bonus. Celibacy, I was taught as a teenager, was a gift that God supernaturally granted to those who answered the call to serve him. I thought I would never need to tell another person my secret, because celibacy would make it irrelevant.

I was mistaken.

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