A former Catholic priest speaks out about secrecy, scandal, and being gay in the church
By Christopher Schiavone, with Janice Page, 12/8/2002
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
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
I was mistaken.
"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
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
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
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
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
"I don't believe it," said the pastor.
"You think the cop is making it up?" I asked.
"No, no. I'm sure the cop is telling the truth. I just don't believe that Joe is a homo. When we were all in the seminary, he was very manly, always wore his cassock." He paused for a moment. "I think he must have had a hemorrhage or something."
"Hemorrhage?" I repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Well, he probably had some kind of seizure that made him want sex with a guy. That's the only explanation I can think of."
It is hard for anyone not immersed in the culture of the priesthood in Boston to fully appreciate the extent to which denial and secrecy prevailed, at least in the 1980s and early '90s, and particularly in sexual matters. Nothing was more important than creating and maintaining a bella figura (good impression).
That's why it has not surprised me in recent months to learn how systematically church leaders were covering up, ignoring, and failing to straightforwardly address the sexual misconduct that had been going on for years. One might assume that crimes against minors would have been enough to shock decision makers from their complacency. But in this culture, at least for high-powered members of the old guard, no imperative was greater than to prevent public scandal. Improbable explanations like "He must have had a hemorrhage" were more the norm than the exception in an institution with a long history of discomfort around things sexual.
I learned about that discomfort very early on in my time as a seminarian.
One day, the dean of the seminary college gathered us all in the auditorium to talk about "an urgent matter." Some nights earlier, following an otherwise harmless party of Halloween pizza and beer, an inebriated seminarian had flirted with a classmate who didn't welcome his advances. The unhappy student reported the incident to the authorities. Indignant and obviously ill at ease, the dean proclaimed, "There will be no sexuality of any kind, either homosexual or heterosexual, here at the seminary!"
Despite his best efforts, sexuality of course persisted, and some of us found refuge in a campy, secret subculture poor in genuine emotional intimacy but rich in the bitchy humor for which we gay men are Will & Grace infamous. We had women's names for one another, and for some of our teachers. We trashed each other's styles of dress and gossiped among ourselves about who was "going out" with whom. As long as it remained thoroughly hidden, what harm was there in it, eh Mary? But the moment any of it was discovered, we were sure all hell would break loose.
As I think about it now, it is something of a mystery to me why I remained in the seminary, let alone in active ministry, for as long as I did. Not only did I turn into a full-blown workaholic, sexually immature and closeted, but I just came to accept behavior that in almost any other context would be recognized as highly dysfunctional.
A case in point: One of my priest friends had done something or other to arouse the ire and homophobic suspicions of his alcoholic pastor. One day, when the young priest was out of the rectory, the pastor (with the help of an older female parishioner who was his almost constant companion) sorted through the priest's trash to ferret out the torn remains of a letter I'd written
If there is a hierarchy of offenses in the church, it is that heterosexual violations of celibacy between consenting adults stand several rungs apart from everything else. In fact, they seem almost to be a relief to superiors ("Well, at least we know he's not gay"). The Thornbirds notwithstanding, such transgressions are generally met with a gentle slap on the wrist, if not a pat on the back. For the rest of us, it's the Spanish Inquisition.
Filled with pathological shame and righteous indignation, I refused to answer any of Banks's questions about the letter's authorship or my sexual orientation. He threatened to call in a handwriting specialist to prove me the author. The church insisted I undergo psychological testing, and the storm eventually passed, but it was yet another cautionary event that I ignored to my own detriment and that of the church.
It's ironic. Banks and I might agree now: I should not have been assigned to the faculty of the seminary. But our reasons for this conclusion would be dramatically different.
Banks probably would point to the "objective disorder" of my homosexuality (that is the church's official position on it) and argue that future priests should be protected from my harmful deviance. This was the logic of his predecessor, Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, who said in a recent deposition that homosexuality and pedophilia are "in the same family." It is the same logic of officials in Rome who now want to bar all homosexual men from future admission to Catholic seminaries and the priesthood.
I, however, have simply come to see that it was untenable to think I could experience and express my own sexual nature in a healthy and functional way while at the same time acting as a public minister and spokesman for an institution that doctrinally and practically condemns the self-affirming homosexual to eternal damnation.
My justification for remaining at the time was that I could do more good for the church from within than from without, that there needed to be people who would work for change, prophetic voices inside the institution. In truth, however, I also treasured the comfort and security of my closeted life in ministry: housing and meals provided for us, housekeepers and generous days off, the admiration of others, and the title "Father" that ordination conferred on us. I might learn to manage my finances and wash my own clothes, but I desperately dreaded the loss of status and the possible rejection by others that coming out might entail.
As it turned out, of course, that's just what happened anyway.
I asked for and received the opportunity to address my teaching colleagues, to tell the story in my own words, and to apologize for the harm I'd caused Chuck, his family, and the seminary by my inappropriate and immature behavior.
But Tim Moran and Bill Fay urged me to go further. They proposed that Chuck and I make some kind of joint public statement to the seminary community, students included, revealing candidly what had taken place. It would be the secrecy and the ensuing coverup that would truly hurt the church, they reasoned. We had a singular opportunity to extract good from an otherwise tragic situation simply by being open.
I wish I could have seen how radical their proposal was; how (had it been allowed to go forward) it might have helped signal a sea change in the handling of sexual misconduct cases and encouraged others to accept responsibility for their conduct and grow in healthy self-acceptance.
But I was not ready to support their idea, nor was I ready to expose my family to the embarrassment that might come from a publicized story about their wayward gay priest son and brother. My resistance found support in John McCormack, secretary for ministerial personnel at the time. He, the cardinal, and the old guard on the seminary faculty concurred: Send Chris away . . . say nothing about what's happened . . . hope no one ever finds out.
If only I'd had the courage to follow Tim and Bill's advice. But all I could do at the time was apologize to Chuck, his family, and the faculty and head off to Canada, my secret still largely intact.
But Michael Sy, the therapist overseeing my assessment, challenged me to think more broadly. A large and funny man, wide-faced and well-dressed, only a year or two my senior and entirely nonthreatening, he made it easier for me to hear a message that ran contrary to my own assumptions about the situation.
"Maybe you do need to leave ministry," Sy said, "but wouldn't it be better to leave with the healing and tools you'd acquire here than to just head off on your own still in crisis mode?" Exhausted, ashamed, anxious, and depressed, I found his argument persuasive and agreed to half a year in Canada.
He was right.
Even before six months had passed, I was in a radically different space, emotionally and intellectually. I'd acquired enormous insight into the gravity of my own poor choices and a genuine appreciation of my own sexual orientation and identity. My preliminary decision to leave ministry was confirmed. It was time for me to continue the just-begun process of coming out and accepting myself as a gay man, and to find ways of living a life of integrity and service outside the church.
My primary therapist, Ruth Droege
I began the call by again expressing regret for my action. I explained what I had come to understand were the factors that led to my violation of professional boundaries, not the least of which were a lack of aptitude for celibacy and the secrecy and shame around my homosexuality. Ruth Droege supported my statements with her own clinical insight and that of the other staff.
I continued: "The fact is, John, it's become clear to me that it would be unhealthy for me as a gay man to remain in ministry as a priest. It's also clear to me that I haven't experienced a call to celibacy or the ability or desire to fulfill such a promise. So my plan is to leave ministry and continue my own healing and growth in another context."
McCormack did not hesitate and asked no questions; he launched into his own prepared speech, the gist of which was this: "I appreciate the spirit in which you entered the program at Southdown and the fact that you seem to have gotten something out of it. But you must know that you have brought disgrace to your family and to the church and ruined a very promising career for yourself. It's a terrible waste. There will never be any ministry for you in the Archdiocese of Boston or anywhere else. I need to be very clear about this."
It was the classic case of the employee who walks into the boss's office to resign, only to be told, "You can't quit! You're fired!" The only difference is that McCormack added a hearty helping of shame and opprobrium to the ecclesiastical pink slip.
In hindsight his reaction is understandable. We now know that, at the same time he was trying to make sense of my case, he was also navigating the perilous shoals of the Geoghan case, the Shanley case, the Birmingham case, and numerous others.
But that doesn't explain it completely, because, as the record has shown, John Geoghan was repeatedly reassigned; Paul Shanley was recommended for alternative ministries elsewhere; and Joseph Birmingham and others were moved about the diocese as "squirrels"
McCormack's reaction came to seem even more puzzling to me when I later learned that one of my fellow alumni from the seminary was sent on a brief retreat and leave of absence after a sexual affair with a young female parishioner, only to be returned to full-time ministry and appointed to a diocesan panel on clergy sexual abuse. A fellow Southdown resident, a man who had allegedly abused minors, was reassigned to a special ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston, albeit one that afforded him no direct contact with youngsters.
For me, however, it was "no ministry of any kind ever, here in the Archdiocese of Boston or elsewhere." The formal letter from the cardinal left no ambiguity: "You may not use the title `Father' or `Reverend.' You no longer have the privilege of wearing the clerical collar. You may, however, celebrate the Eucharist in the privacy of your own residence." It has always puzzled me that a church which still teaches that masturbation is "a grave moral evil" encourages even its priests-gone-bad to indulge in the liturgical equivalent: saying Mass alone.
In time I realized that I had not really been singled out, that the handling of misconduct cases in the Archdiocese of Boston has been wildly uneven for years, with factors like personal relationships to people in authority, outward signs of piety, impassioned denials by the accused (despite all evidence to the contrary), and conformity to church doctrine playing as much of a role in the outcome as the ethical and psychological considerations that should have driven the decision-making. Above all, it was concern about legal liability, the all-important bella figura, and the need to keep the fragile structures of secrecy and denial intact that drove decision-making in these cases.
After a brief and cordial inquiry into my overall well-being and the state of my "prayer life," he asked if I would be willing to consider laicization, a formal process whereby a man is "reduced to the lay state" on the basis of evidence that he was impaired in some way at the time of his ordination. I asked him what laicization would give me that I didn't already have.
"Well, Chris, you never know whether
I thought to myself, the power of denial is profound indeed.
I realize today
I see that world more clearly now. I appreciate the fine line between faith and folly. And I can finally see why, in this environment, a man accepting his sexual orientation, voluntarily leaving ministry, and rejecting elements of the church's moral teaching might be considered the most dangerous thing of all.
Christopher Schiavone, a former priest, is a business owner and freelance writer living in the Boston area. Janice Page, a former Los Angeles Times editor, is a freelance writer living in Brookline.
This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 12/8/2002.