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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

For church, a false issue

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist, 4/24/2002

When a popular gym teacher and basketball coach in Mattapoisett pleaded guilty to the rape and sexual assault of several high school girls, we sent him to prison.

When a schoolteacher in Seattle characterized her conduct with a 13-year-old middle school boy as a ''love affair,'' we called it by its rightful name and imprisoned her for the rape of a child.

When a high school band director in Miami was arrested and charged with the sexual assault of several female musicians at a previous teaching post in Michigan, we convicted him and criticized administrators at his old school for failing to tell administrators at his new school about his history.

Each of those crimes provoked public outrage at the exploitation of children by a trusted adult. None, however, prompted a call to ban heterosexual teachers from the classroom.

Why, then, has the sexual abuse scandal roiling the Catholic Church turned into a referendum on homosexual priests in the pulpit? ''People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained,'' the papal spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, proclaimed last month.

''It is, most importantly, a struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men,'' Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said yesterday during a break in the meetings of American cardinals in Rome.

That members of the Catholic hierarchy equate criminal sexual misconduct with sexual orientation says more about the need for sex education in seminaries than it does about the scandal of child molestation now unfolding across the world. That the cardinals are talking about purging gay men instead of confronting the need for systemic change suggests a profound misunderstanding of the crisis at hand.

The Catholic catechism condemns homosexual acts as ''intrinsically disordered'' and describes homosexuality's ''psychological genesis'' as ''unexplained.'' But, as a psychiatrist, Dr. Navarro-Valls knows medicine does not classify homosexuality as either a disease or a disorder. There is no evidence that homosexual men abuse children at a higher rate than heterosexuals. To suggest this is an expression not of concern for children's safety but of ignorance of sexuality.

It is not the existence of gay priests but the reticence of Catholicism to address sexuality that has led the church to this juncture. The refusal of the church to imagine a priesthood that could embrace women and married men is a reflection of that profound reluctance. With the door closed to women and men with wives, with vocations drying up, who exactly do the cardinals think will lead the liturgy in this new century if they go on a witch hunt against gay priests?

Whatever the percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood, it is irrelevant if, as the church contends, it condemns only sexual activity, not sexual orientation. All priests, gay and straight, are expected to live celibate lives.

To consider the rape of children by priests to be primarily a betrayal of that vow is to confuse sex with violence. Those altar boys did not have sex with those priests; they were raped by them.

Separate from this crisis, a lack of faithfulness to their vows of celibacy is not the exclusive sin of gay priests who clandestinely take adult male lovers. Church history the world over is littered with the secreted mistresses and children of heterosexual priests.

The princes of the church now meeting at the Holy See spent the last two or three decades shielding serial child molesters from prosecution and protecting them from public disgrace. The cardinals can choose to distract themselves in Rome by discussing homosexuality or they can do the hard work of reform by asking each other why they put their self-interest ahead of the interests of children and covered up these crimes.

Eileen McNamara can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2002.
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