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Spotlight Report


The clergy's buried truths

Prevalence of male teenage victims in scandal points to other issues

By Donald Cozzens, 4/28/2002

A s the abuse scandal continues to rock the US Catholic Church, priests, whether heterosexual or gay, cope with skyrocketing stress and plummeting prestige. Owing to the details of the revelations, gay priests are in the public eye as never before, many of them no doubt bracing for an anti-gay backlash. At the same time, lay Catholics are discussing the role homosexuality plays in the abuse of teenage boys and wondering how the current turmoil will affect the priesthood and the church itself.

But there is one essential element of the scandal that has not gotten the attention it deserves: Most priest abusers are not pedophiles -- adults whose sexual drives are almost exclusively directed toward pre-pubescent boys and girls. Rather, they fall into the category of ephebophiles (from ephebeus, one of the Greek nouns for a post-pubescent youth). Both pedophilia and ephebophilia are criminal, and in the eyes of most religious traditions, immoral.

As the distinction takes hold, it is accompanied by the disturbing realization that most of the reported victims of priest abusers are not children, but teenage boys. A. Richard Sipe, a former priest and author of "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," believes that post-pubescent boys are victimized by priests at a rate that is four times more than post-pubescent girls.

The predominance of male teenage victims raises anew a thorny issue addressed by Notre Dame's Richard McBrien and Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and novelist, almost 15 years ago -- the presence of significant numbers of homosexually oriented men in the priesthood.

Commentators and behavioral specialists stress the absence of any link between sexual orientation, specifically a gay orientation, and the abuse of young children. But given the presence of large numbers of gay men in the priesthood, what is the significance of the disproportionate number of teenage boys among the victims of non-pedophile priest abusers?

We cannot, of course, read the hearts of gay priests as the abuse scandal expands. Yet we know they are dealing with a double suspicion -- of being not only a priest but a gay priest. So it's understandable that many celibate gay priests feel like scapegoats.

Most gay priests, I believe, live with yet another level of pain and conflict that is only minimally understood, even by their families and friends. Their church teaches that a homosexual orientation is an objective disorder. Does that mean the church holds that they as people are objectively disordered? No, but this fine distinction is of little comfort from an existential point of view. Can disordered people be really holy? Lead lives of genuine sanctity? Of course, but sexual identity is so central to a fundamental sense of self that it is an easy step to conclude that a gay individual himself or herself is objectively disordered.

It's been two years since I wrote about the large number of sexually oriented gay men in our seminaries and presbyterates (the priest fraternity in a given diocese). The denial that greeted my report, though diminishing, remains strong. Even raising the issue led to allegations that I was attacking the sanctity and reputation of the priesthood.

It's impossible, of course, to accurately determine the percentage of gay men among the nearly 25,000 priests active in the priesthood and in our seminaries. Studies suggest that perhaps 30 to 50 percent of priests (especially those under 50) are homosexual in orientation, compared with about 5 percent in the population at large. In the United States alone, more than 20,000 priests have left active ministry since 1970, most to marry. While gay priests have also resigned in significant numbers, the priesthood has lost a sizable proportion of its heterosexually oriented members.

A number of gay priests report that they entered the priesthood as a way to deal with their orientation, though that is not how they thought of it then. For some, this was an attempt to put their sexuality on the shelf, so to speak, to avoid coming to terms with their orientation by embracing wholeheartedly a life of celibate service. Such tactics, we know now, don't work over the course of time; they actually subvert healthy maturation.

But what difference does it make if 30 to 50 percent of priests are gay? The rule of mandatory celibacy appears to make the issue of orientation a moot point. In reality, it is far from that.

My own experience as a former seminary rector made it clear to me that the growing number of homosexually oriented priests is deterring significant numbers of Catholic men from seriously considering the priesthood. Moreover, seminary personnel face considerable challenges dealing with the tensions that develop when gay and straight men live in community.

As in seminaries, the priesthood's gay subculture injects an unsettling dynamic. Circles of influence and social comfort zones tend to divide presbyterates, with notable exceptions, into straight and gay networks. Suspicions arise that appointments to prestigious offices and other promotions are somehow influenced by these networks. Whether well grounded or not, when such suspicions surface, sexual orientation becomes the fuel feeding clerical politics and gossip.

Heterosexual priests, moreover, remark among themselves that celibacy is, in effect, optional for gay priests. Only the integrity of the gay priest, who is free to travel and vacation with another man, sustains his life of celibacy. Celibacy, the straight priest understands, is impossible to enforce for the priest who is gay. Of course, when celibacy has to be enforced, whether for straight or gay clergy, it has lost its ecclesial meaning and power.

If celibate gay priests deserve support and acceptance, sexually active gay priests, like sexually active straight priests, deserve to be challenged. Sadly, examples of the shadow side of gay clerical life abound: reports of priests at gay bars and gay parties; Internet chat rooms for gay clergy; and the sex ring scandal uncovered at Canadian orphanages run by religious orders.

Celibate priests, gay and straight, know from personal experience the struggle involved in remaining chaste. Most are forgiving when faced with their own and their brothers' occasional failures. They don't understand, however, the cavalier attitude of some priests who believe discretion is their only responsibility. Faced with the abuse of children and teens by their brother priests, they are livid.

It's common knowledge now that some straight priests cross the line with adult women and girls in their teens, and some gay priests cross the line with adult men and teenage boys. In the cases of priests having relations with adults, the behavior is immoral. In the cases with teenagers, it is immoral -- and criminal. The extent of the current scandal reveals how simplistic and dishonest are attempts to explain these tragic abuses of trust as an example of a few bad apples in an otherwise healthy barrel.

Something more complex is at the bottom of these behaviors. The perpetrators live in a closed, all male system of privilege, exemption, and secrecy that drives sexuality underground, where it easily becomes twisted. There is something wrong, Catholics and others now see, with the clerical system itself, a closed system of legislated celibacy, hierarchical accountability, and feudal privilege. These and other issues require serious review by lay leaders, priests, bishops, and the Vatican, if the church is to regain its moral voice and credibility.

The drastic drop in seminary enrollments prompts some church leaders to keep the problems in the priesthood quiet out of fear that a bad situation will be made worse. The opposite, of course, is true. The priesthood, like the clergy of most mainline religions, faces a crisis that includes but goes beyond the issue of orientation. Yet sexual orientation is likely the most complex and sensitive of the factors at work here. The church's first step in facing the difficulties in the clergy might well be to address with compassion and sensitivity a reality it wants to deny: Many of its priests and bishops are gay.

Coming to grips with this reality is an important first step to a renewed church and a healthier priesthood.

Donald Cozzens, visiting associate professor of religious studies at John Carroll University, is author of the forthcoming "Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church."

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.
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