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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Broken Vows  |  Continued

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Christopher Schiavone, age 8, on the day of his First Communion.

The recently ordained Schiavone in 1984 in North Andover, where he presided over his first Mass. (Photos courtesy of the author)
itting across the desk from the rector at St. John's Seminary in Boston in the spring of 1980, I could not have foreseen that the man in front of me would wind up having a key role in a mushrooming clergy sexual abuse scandal more than two decades later. Neither could I have anticipated he'd preside over the beginning of my own "fall from grace." During my admissions interview for theology school, the silver-haired and steely-eyed Rev. Robert Banks spoke only in the most cursory and evasive ways about sexuality and celibacy.

"Have you had much dating experience?"

"A little bit in high school," I said. "She and I are still good friends, but it's nothing romantic. . . . No, I don't miss it too much."

That was the sum total of our conversation about sex.

In point of fact, the dating experience to which I'd referred was a friendship with one of my female classmates from high school. She was my prom date and constant pal, but I never had a single sexual thought about her, or about any girl, for that matter.

To be fair, it might have been that Banks's inquiry was especially limited, because I'd already established excellent homophobic credentials. A year earlier, as a college seminarian strongly influenced by a spiritual director who insisted it was "for the good of the church," I'd "turned in" two older seminarians who made advances toward me. They'd been expelled (the seminary's customary way of dealing with students accused of homosexual behavior in those days), and my reputation as a well-behaved and upright seminarian had been cemented. Maybe that's even why I did it.

I certainly never anticipated returning to the rector's office a dozen years later, now a member of the seminary faculty, with my own confession to make.

The room was arranged differently this time: comfortable chairs and a couch placed around a coffee table; the desk across which I'd faced Banks was tucked neatly into a corner. The present rector, Monsignor Timothy Moran, was known to espouse a more open and collegial style of governance.

"Tim, this is so difficult to talk about," I started tentatively. "I want you to know how sorry I am." He looked at me with compassion, which I hoped would cushion what I was about to admit. I'd had an affair with one of the seminarians.

Because the young man was in his 20s, the relationship was, in some technical sense, consensual. But given my vow as a priest and my role as a seminary teacher and administrator, there was no denying that I had broken my promise and violated the professional boundaries fundamental to any relationship between a person in authority and those in his charge. If my integrity mattered more than protecting the details of my sexuality, I had to take responsibility for the transgression. It was equally clear to me that I needed to resign -- from the seminary faculty for sure, but ultimately from priestly ministry as a whole.

ow could someone like me -- a "good boy," "model seminarian," "rising star" -- fail so dramatically? In hindsight I see that I was either going to make a conscious and deliberate decision to leave or I was going to unconsciously sabotage myself so I would be forced to go.

I did the latter.

For eight years in the seminary and another eight as a priest, I was so desperate to succeed that I repeatedly ran from the truth of my own sexuality. I never actively denied being homosexual, but I did not volunteer the information to others and made no effort to correct those who assumed I was straight. Both in the seminary and in ministry, I had a few relations with peers that were sexually charged and potentially romantic. But these either ended abruptly when the feelings they aroused became too hot to handle, or they evolved into platonic friendships.

I was a member of the first class of Boston seminarians that Cardinal Bernard F. Law ordained. I immersed myself in my work and attracted the notice of diocesan officials who selected me for the seminary faculty and sent me for graduate studies in order to prepare for the role -- a decision that provided the occasion for my first open disagreement with the cardinal.

When I elected to do my graduate studies in philosophy at Georgetown University rather than the church-run Catholic University of America, both in Washington, D.C., Law objected strenuously. Full of myself or just plain clueless -- I'm not sure which -- I fought his decision and won his grudging acceptance of my plan to go to Georgetown. But he left no doubt about the source of his concern in the matter. Through his emissary, the Rev. John McCormack (now the embattled bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire), he sent this message: "Chris is to be reminded that, as a seminary professor, he will be expected to teach only what the church teaches." I did not object; I understood that my success within the clerical culture of the Archdiocese of Boston demanded my compliance -- or at least the appearance of it.

In fact, with every step of that success I became better at concealing a deep sense of shame about my sexuality, a profound fear of the personal and professional consequences of being out, and above all a stark sense of loneliness and sexual frustration.

This is the state I was in when I met "Chuck."

A former member of an elite branch of the military service, he was 26 years old, blond, beefy, outgoing, and a little bit cocky. We gravitated toward each other naturally. At 32, I was the youngest member of the seminary faculty and perhaps uniquely equipped to appreciate his transition to this strange new environment. I found it refreshing to work with him. More worldly than most of the other seminarians (he'd even been briefly married, though that was ultimately annulled), Chuck was easier for me to relate to than those who were just out of high school.

In the middle of his first semester -- which was also my first semester as dean of students -- Chuck became ill, and I found myself intensely involved in his life. Visiting him at the hospital, communicating daily with his family, helping him find a way to continue his studies at the seminary without interruption, I began to experience an emotional intensity in the relationship that did not fade once he recovered. By the end of the second semester, we had become unusually close. He had begun to talk more intimately about his confused sexual feelings, and I -- though I didn't clearly express it -- had become completely infatuated with him.

A month after classes let out for the summer, we took a camping trip to New Hampshire. In the darkness of a two-man tent, inhibitions reduced by seclusion and a couple of beers, a sexual encounter was probably inevitable. Still, it was an inappropriate liaison that left us dazed and confused.

Ours was a world where boundaries were not to be crossed. A reluctance to admit that they often were, and an inability to determine proportionate responses, has been at the center of church dysfunction for years. How could we -- two young men, searching and confused -- anticipate, let alone correct, what our superiors denied existed?

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