Breaking the Vows

By Rachel Zoll
Associated Press, carried in Salt Lake Tribune [California]
Downloaded July 14, 2003

Tom McMahon lived with the woman he called his wife and their two sons 10 miles from where he worked in Northern California. But he hoped his boss would never find out: McMahon was a Roman Catholic priest, torn between his calling -- which required celibacy -- and love for his family.

He forwarded the rectory phone to a special line at his house in case parishioners called. When one of his sons, still a toddler, attended a church event, McMahon held the boy as if he were someone else's child.

It all ended in 1980, when his bishop discovered the secret.

"I want to get . . . out," McMahon told the bishop, then left the priesthood after 26 years and got married.

Largely ignored amid the clerical sex abuse crisis that has washed over the church for 19 months, stories similar to McMahon's have been found in the thousands of files pried from dioceses during the hunt for priests who molested children.

The documents make public what many within the church have already acknowledged: While no one knows the precise number, it is not uncommon for priests to break their vows.

The disclosures have helped rekindle a debate hundreds of years old on the merits of celibacy itself, and whether the requirement is part of the problem or the solution to the sex abuse crisis.

Molestation victims believe that priests and bishops who are sexually active with adults create a web of dishonesty in the church. These men are reluctant to reveal wrongdoing by fellow clergy, including child molesters, for fear of being exposed themselves, victims say.

Liberal Catholics argue it would be better for the church to recognize priests' human need for companionship and to drop the celibacy requirement. Conservatives also view disobedience to vows as a problem, but they want clergy to renew their commitment to celibacy, not abandon it. Another group of Catholics believes celibacy creates sexual problems that can lead to improper behavior and should be optional.

Some insights are expected from the National Review Board, the lay panel U.S. bishops formed to enforce their new disciplinary policy on abusive priests. The board is planning a psychological and sexual study of the priesthood as part of its analysis of how the crisis happened, though the report isn't expected to be completed for at least a year.

But even after the church moves beyond the scandal, the temptations that lead clergy to break their vows will remain.

Priests work closely with lay people in parishes and socialize with them outside of church. They are high-profile, respected members of their community -- seen by some as attractive sexual partners, said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America who has researched the priesthood for years. And because of the priest shortage, many struggle with loneliness while living on their own.

The breaches range from one-time sexual encounters to serial affairs to fathering children.

Last year, an auxiliary bishop in the New York Archdiocese acknowledged he had affairs with several adult women. A priest in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, was convicted of soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. In May, a priest was fired from his job as a residence hall rector at the University of Notre Dame after acknowledging he had a sexual relationship with an adult woman.

Priests discovered breaking their vows customarily are sent for counseling, then brought back into parish work without public disclosure of their slip.

For a long time, bishops used a similar approach for clergy who molested children, contributing to the past year's scandal.

But the Rev. Thomas Krenik, who taught for 10 years in St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and wrote the guidebook, Formation for Priestly Celibacy, contends the strategy is appropriate for men involved with adults. He compared a priest who breaks his vows to a husband who has an extramarital affair: It's either a temporary crisis in an otherwise sound relationship or it ends the marriage.

But Alexandra Roberts said the church often fails to recognize the damage these priests cause.

Roberts, who is not Catholic, had been friends for years with a Jesuit priest when their relationship became romantic. She said he told her he wanted to marry her, but broke off their affair when his religious order discovered his behavior and sent him to therapy.

"When he met me, I was a single mother, dealing with rebellious teenage kids. He played [the] sympathetic ear just beautifully," said Roberts, of Milpitas, Calif. "They target people who are vulnerable and isolated."

The problem of priests and adult women may have been more pronounced in the 1960s and 1970s, when changes within and outside the church led many to question celibacy.

The Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meeting that modernized the church, brought priests in closer contact with lay people. Then, in 1968, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church's ban on contraception. Many American priests disagreed, and began to question all the church's teachings on sexuality.

The gay rights movement also was gaining strength, and many homosexual priests became sexually active, according to researchers.

However, the sex abuse crisis has created some momentum for reform. Besides the National Review Board study, a Vatican-mandated inspection of U.S. seminaries also is planned.

But no one believes Pope John Paul II will re-examine the issue.

The American cardinals said as much in a statement after their summit on abuse at the Vatican last year.

"Together with the fact that a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained," they wrote, "the meeting reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy as a gift of God to the church."


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