Both Sides Wrong on Church Abuse

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun Times [Chicago IL]
March 12, 2004

The Catholic left would have us believe that the most serious problem the church faces is clerical celibacy. If the church would only ordain married men, the vocation crisis would disappear, the quality of preaching would improve, there would be no more sexual abuse, bishops would have to change their style of leadership because the wives of priests would not tolerate their present behavior. Priests seem especially likely to see the abolition of celibacy as the solution to all problems and are furious if someone suggests it is not all that simple.

The Catholic right, on the other hand, wants to blame everything on homosexuals. The sexual abuse crisis resulted from the ordination of large numbers of homosexuals from the easy-going seminaries after the Vatican Council. Homosexuals ran and may still run seminaries. Homosexuals do not preach the traditional Catholic sexual ethic. They are the ones who are demoralizing the church.

Two major reports were issued last week: the report on prevalence and incidence of sexual abuse, written by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the report on the causes and contexts of sexual abuse, written by the lay National Review Board. Representatives of both factions then scurried around looking for sound bites and data bits that would confirm what they already knew to be true.

In fact, there was precious little evidence to support either side. If 96 percent of priests were not abusers, then celibacy would hardly seem to be the cause of sexual abuse. Although 81 percent of abusers were homosexuals, it does not follow that all gay men or all gay priests are abusers. In fact, my own research (reported in Priests: A Calling in Crisis, published recently by the University of Chicago Press) shows that some 16 percent of priests are gay and three-fifths of them have lived celibate lives (as opposed to four-fifths of heterosexual priests). Mature gay men seek sexual partners among other mature gay men. Immature gays go after junior high school boys. Blaming homosexuals for the sex abuse crisis is part of a larger syndrome in which a certain proportion of American society (and of American Catholics) display their deep-seated hatred for gay men and women. Shame on them for not realizing that God loves them as much as He loves everyone else! Scapegoating gays for the problems of the church (and society) is a sickness not unlike racism and anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic Nativism, and appeals to the same kind of twisted personalities as these other prejudices.

Most of the abusers, incidentally, were ordained from seminaries either preceding the Vatican Council or immediately after, before the seminaries began to change. They were among the huge number of young men who flocked to the seminaries during the days of huge classes during the 1950s and early 1960s.

What, then, is to be blamed for the abuse crisis if not celibacy or homosexuality? The reflections of the National Review Board, presided over by Justice Anne M. Burke of the Illinois Appellate Court, leave little doubt about where blame should be placed. The guilty people are the bishops -- insensitive, cowardly, ignorant, clericalist -- who reassigned such priests. Equally guilty are their staffs -- vicars general, vicars for the clergy, civil and canon lawyers, psychiatrists, chiefs of Catholic mental institutions. These star-chamber cabals of people gave bishops (and indirectly other priests) the advice they wanted to hear and not the advice they needed to hear. There is, as the National Review Board says, "zero tolerance" for abusing priests but no "zero tolerance" for reassigning bishops. I am happy to say that in the two dioceses in which I work -- Chicago and Tucson -- the present bishops are not to blame for the mess.

The rest of American Catholics will have to pick up the tab, one way or another, for the episcopal incompetence and malfeasance in office. It is not fair; it is not right. In the Catholic Church, as it is now constituted, that's simply the way it is.

Just as at one time we could not replace abusing priests, so now we cannot replace the bishops who created the abuse crisis. That's simply the way it is.


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