Clergy Sex Abuse
Time to Reform the Priesthood
By Tom McMahon
San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco CA]
July 7, 2003
Fifty years ago, a well-known priest and I were in the seminary together -- for 11 years, friends, fellow athletes and eventually members of an elite priestly fraternity.
In 2003 I am married with two grown sons, a retired state-licensed therapist, writing much on the mystery of clerical sex abuse. And my friend stands accused of a 40-year-old crime that I neither excuse, nor condemn.
For years I have collected information on priests who offend. I have known 300 parish priests and our one common denominator is our training; we were fashioned in a puritanical atmosphere that denied our human sexuality. I believe that few, if any, are genuine pedophiles or predators. At the time of ordination, I myself was abysmally ignorant and innocent about sexual conduct. I sense that some, alone and as rank amateurs after ordination, attempted to sample the beauty and joy of sex in an inappropriate use of position and power.
Including the priests who have married, we are all victims of a childhood Victorian culture and poor repressive seminary training. Power, robes and titles have often filled the vacuum in an unbalanced person. As psychologist Richard Sipe says we are emotionally "forever 14."
My friend and I were 13 years old when we entered the seminary system, both of us fatherless, to be ordained 12 years later in a sexless, male-dominated and puritanical atmosphere. The underlying theory was the closer one was to God the further one need be from people; for the 12 years I was in seminary I would have been expelled if I entered the room of a fellow student.
A two-hour ceremony of ordination transformed a simple boylike student into an all-powerful priest; at 25 in black suit and roman collar we became heavenly men from the same cookie cutter, our individuality suppressed in obedience to the bishop. We were an economic cheap labor force for the bishop's feudal domain. We had magiclike powers. Our emotional and sexual nature was on hold, in total denial. The people, in their want to get to heaven, accepted the sexless priest; closeness to another, especially a woman, made the priest less effective with God.
The whole ball of wax is melting today. I am a better priest today than I was four decades ago. I know I am a human being. Mine has been a unique venture to discover my manhood; as the 1960s sexual revolution swept America, I pursued 15 years of psychological studies, married and fathered two sons. I studied church history, replete with men of human design and error. I broke out of the trance of sexual denial and ignorance; in the process I discovered the beauty of creation and human sexuality, looking now in creation for my God.
I disassociated from my repressive seminary training, learning to dance, to touch and to love and be loved. No longer fixated on God in the afterlife , there was now no room for me in the roman clergy. I gladly accepted my dismissal by the bishop.
I don't know which paths other priests took; as fraternal members of the Marine Corps of the Catholic Church we never questioned another priest as to how he might deal with curiosity, or his sexual nature. There was no one with whom a young priest could share his struggle and the people kept him apart on a lonely pedestal. In the 1960s, priests were in a trance about human sexuality, some men not knowing how to be prudent and careful. I view them today as victims; in my professional and human opinion they were not pedophiles or sexual predators. The psychopathic conduct of a few priests needs serious attention. The homosexual seminarian and priest of today has nothing to do with the sex abuse crimes of old.
The condition of the sexually abused victims needs serious attention; nonclerical women and men as ambassadors of Christ need to replace the bishops and their lawyers in handling these broken lives, financially and socially. I know the Catholic people will make sincere reparation, as Jesus would do.
Our militaristic, male-dominated society wallows in a cheap appreciation of sexuality, too often frightfully ignorant and childlike. I sense the hierarchy will take no responsibility for the wayward conduct of a priest of yesteryear, yet it is the bishop who keeps the seminary of today in the same unhealthy straitjacket of pious denial and ignorance.
I appeal to the people to understand this clerical dilemma; there needs to be change and healthy change will come when the people speak out loudly. Demand change by withholding your money; give the bishop your conditioned IOU. Pity the offenders; we are at our best when we are merciful and forgiving. Allow married women and men into a service priesthood that is not set apart by titles and fancy dress. As once you needed the priest, the priest of today and tomorrow needs you.
Tom McMahon is a retired therapist who was ordained June 11, 1954, an alumnus of St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park.
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