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A church confused over sexual issues

IF THE VATICAN aims to prevent clergy sexual abuse by barring gay men from the priesthood, it is profoundly misguided. Most strikingly, the latest Vatican statement doesn't ever name clergy sexual abuse as a problem. Instead, the Vatican refers ever so obliquely to the ''contemporary world," which must mean ''a world in which even priests have sex with boys."

The Vatican needs to address head-on the dual problem of priests abusing their power and their bishops protecting them. Otherwise, Catholics and non-Catholics will live with shaken confidence in the Roman Catholic Church, an important social institution by any measure. This document diverts attention away from Catholic bishops who have worked mightily to avoid just settlements with sexual abuse survivors, to open their financial records, or to include clergy as mandated reporters of child sexual abuse.

By defining homosexuality as the problem, the Vatican also masks the fact that numerous priests have had, and are having, sexual relations with adult women. Unlike therapists or physicians, priests are not usually legally prohibited from having sexual relations with the women whom they counsel. Women whose trust priests have betrayed have rarely been able to sue for damages, and the media have therefore seldom reported their stories.

Instead of facing up to these urgent problems in the church, the statement bars all men ''who practice homosexuality, show profoundly deep-rooted homosexual tendencies, or support so-called gay culture" from seminary and the priesthood. As theological justification, the Vatican explains that a priest must ''represent Christ, head, shepherd, and bridegroom of the church." Christ's maleness is the same reason the Vatican excludes women from the priesthood, although in church history, canon lawyers more candidly explained that women are simply inferior.

Now we see that being a man alone isn't enough. The priest also has to be a real man. He has to be heterosexual in order to function as a head of the congregation and as a bridegroom of the church. Yes, heterosexual and male, but also celibate, while living with other male priests -- a tall order. In a new theological twist, Jesus was not only celibate but also heterosexual.

Even as the Vatican is puzzling out the finer details of theological symbolism, US Catholics face new disappointments each year. The head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., a diocese that had sought bankruptcy protection, is appealing the judge's ruling that church property ''can be sold to pay claims filed by victims." Skylstad argues that the bishop doesn't own these church properties, the parishes do. Meanwhile, in Boston, Catholics have held vigils to prevent the archbishop from selling off their churches. Archbishop O'Malley argues that the archbishop owns these churches, not the parishes.

The most heartening sign on the horizon is that US Catholics increasingly see sexual abuse as the problem, not sexual orientation. Both in the courts and in the court of public opinion, Catholics are calling their church to accountability. More and more Catholics support the abuse survivors, want a say in whether their parishes and schools will stay open, and want sexual ethics based on meaningful consent and mutuality.

Bernadette J. Brooten is professor of Christian studies at Brandeis University and the director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project.

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