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Spotlight Report

The front page of the March 15 issue of The Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese.   See the full page

Catholic newspaper calls for look at celibacy

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/15/2002

The Catholic Church must face the question of whether to continue to require celibacy of Roman Catholic priests, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston declares today in a special edition on clergy sexual abuse.

Wading into the discussion of subjects that have been largely off-limits among top church officials, The Pilot says in an editorial that the celibacy of priests, the number of gay priests, and the exclusion of women from the priesthood have become more pressing because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that is roiling the Catholic Church. The editorial does not defend the current requirements for priesthood, and says research is needed to determine whether a noncelibate priesthood would be an improvement.

''These questions are out there in the minds of Catholics, more so in the United States than elsewhere,'' says the editorial, which was penned by Monsignor Peter V. Conley, the paper's executive editor and a longtime confidant of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who is the publisher of the newspaper. ''They have been answered in the past, but now these questions have taken on a deeper intensity in more Catholic minds than prior to these sexual scandals. Even if our present woes in the archdiocese were suddenly to disappear, these questions have taken on an urgency and will not slip quietly away.''

The 28-page issue of the nation's oldest Catholic newspaper is packed with stories about the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church since the Globe published a detailed report in January on the church's handling of the case of pedophile priest John J. Geoghan.

Although many of the stories and opinion pieces are sympathetic to Law and critical of the Globe, the paper also gives some space to church critics, and includes stories explaining how the church plans to finance settlement of litigation, how parents should talk to children about sexual abuse, and the rights of accused priests.

The paper offers several news items. The archdiocesan chancellor, David Smith, tells The Pilot that Law is talking with potential contributors about financing legal settlements, and that ''a handful of people have pledged a total of $2.5 million for that purpose.''

The legal settlements are expected to cost the church tens of millions of dollars, and Smith says that among the options being considered are the sale of real estate or other assets.

''We have surplus property; we have property that's been donated to the diocese over the years,'' Smith said. ''Any of that could possibly be sold.''

The paper quotes Kenneth Hokenson, chief development officer for the archdiocese, saying that the annual Cardinal's Appeal, a fund-raising campaign for the archdiocese's operating expenses, will likely fall short of its $17.4 million goal this year, but he attributed that to the down economy and the fact that the church is simultaneously waging a $300 million capital campaign.

The paper also says, in a column by Conley about the abuse scandal, that ''at least four false allegations of this type have been made in recent years.'' An archdiocesan spokesman could not provide further details last night.

Publication of a special issue covering such a controversial issue in detail, then raising the issue of married priests without declaring that celibacy is a matter of church law, is highly unusual, and reflects the degree to which the discussion of change within the church has opened in recent weeks.

''Just by the fact that they're addressing this, it says that the hierarchy of the church in this diocese is willing to have an open discussion on these issues,'' said Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College, a Catholic school in North Andover.

The Pilot today is increasing its press run from the normal 25,000 copies to 100,000 copies, which will be distributed in churches over the weekend.

The special issue is part of a trend that has seen US diocesan papers increasingly willing to cover scandals and controversies within the church.

''Any good paper is going to cover this very thoroughly,'' said John J. Fink, editor emeritus of The Criterion, the archdiocesan newspaper in Indianapolis and the editor of ''The Mission and Future of the Catholic Press.'' ''Sometimes a bishop might say, `I don't want you to touch that topic,' but that doesn't happen very often.''

The Pilot has devoted an increasing number of stories to the subject of sexual abuse each week, and felt there were so many questions it had to run a special issue.

''As time passed, and the scope of the crisis grew larger, we saw that it would be helpful to our readers to prepare a special edition that, in a comprehensive way, would delve into the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the archdiocese's response,'' Pilot editor Antonio Enrique wrote in a note to readers.

The question of whether priests should be allowed to marry has been discussed widely among laypeople, especially since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, but has generally been ignored by bishops. Law, for example, dismissed a question about allowing priests to marry at a Jan. 24 news conference, saying, ''That's not a question for me to decide.'' Only the Vatican has the authority to change the rules of the church.

But the Pilot editorial poses a number of questions about celibacy, including: ''If celibacy were optional, would there be fewer scandals of this nature in the priesthood?'' and calls for research, saying ''more studies with concrete data will be necessary before an intelligent response can be made.'' The editorial says data from Protestant and Orthdox Christian churches, which allow priests to marry, ''might provide a helpful insight.''

The church has insisted on a requirement for celibacy by Roman Catholic priests since the 11th century. But many Eastern Catholic priests are allowed to marry, and married Episcopal priests who convert to Roman Catholicism are allowed to remain married as Catholic priests.

The editorial also asks whether the priesthood attracts a disproportionate number of gay men. It asserts that ''evidence now seems to indicate that it [homosexuality] is a genetically inherited condition.'' And it asks, if the church were concerned about the number of gay priests, how it would go about determining who was gay?

The paper also promises an editorial on the question of women's ordination next week, but Conley said the paper will not call for allowing women to become priests.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/15/2002.
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