Greeley Tells Priests to Focus on Victims' Pain

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
May 15, 2004

It's been an eventful half-century, and he was one of the most cantankerous figures in a period of rapid change, but the Rev. Andrew Greeley believes he and most of his priest colleagues are happy with their collars of choice.

On his own golden anniversary of ordination, the controversial best-selling author, sociologist and church provocateur is no less committed to the vocation he has pursued since boyhood.

"I'd do it over again," Greeley said in a recent interview. "I'm happier than I thought I'd be."

But the 76-year-old Irish priest, his harder edges untempered by time, cannot say the same thing about the health of the Catholic Church hierarchy. And he holds his col- leagues accountable for what he says was their complicity in the code of silence that was part of the sin of clergy child sexual abuse.

The priest who would be a prophet stays true to a lifelong mission in three new books released around his 50th anniversary, puncturing liberal, conservative and secular stereotypes of a Catholic Church in the United States that has remained remarkably strong despite repeated attempts to bury it.

In "Priests: A Calling in Crisis," he attempts to burst critics' bubbles that cellibacy leads to emotional disorder. He says that despite such speculation, research shows that priests are happier than many other professionals and overwhelmingly would choose their calling again.

In "The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins and the Second Vatican Council," Greeley discusses the chasm between Catholic leadership and people in the pews, who are largely ignoring attempts by the Vatican to impose moral and theological conformity.

And in a work of fiction titled "The Priestly Sins," the cleric tells the story of an idealistic young priest who reports child abuse only to be attacked by church leadership for denouncing a fellow priest.

"The problems in the priesthood," Greeley writes, "come from neither celibacy nor homosexuality. The problems come rather from the iron law of denial and silence that clerical culture imposes on priests."

Greeley grew up the oldest of three children on Chicago's West Side. He first thought about the priesthood in second grade, he says, when a nun at St. Angela's asked how many boys were interested. When half the class members raised their hands, the nun responded that maybe one of them would go on to be ordained.

On that day, Greeley has often recalled, he vowed to be that one.

He did not waver and was ordained in 1954. He spent a relatively short time in parish work before going on to spend much of his priestly life as a sociologist at The University of Chicago and The University of Arizona.

In 1981, he came out with "The Cardinal Sins," one of several novels tackling sexual as well as religious themes that combined to sell more than 20 million copies in the last two decades.

In his new books, written as the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of minors continues to convulse the church, Greeley attempts to discern the fact-based from the polemical reasons for the church's shameful response to child predators in its midst.

First, Greeley dismisses the tendency of liberal and secular critics to blame celibacy as leading to behavioral disorders and attempts by conservatives to pin the blame on gays in the church.

Several studies show that most priests, far from being unusually emotionally troubled, are happy in their lives and work, Greeley said. In one of those, a 2001 Duke Divinity School study, 86 percent of the priest respondents said they were very satisfied with their current position, compared to 70 percent of Protestant ministers. Priests also scored higher in job satisfaction than doctors, lawyers and faculty members reported in separate studies on their professions, he said.

If there is good news on priestly morale, however, Greeley said research also shows a troubling lack of sensitivity to the laity at all levels of the church hierarchy.

In the current crisis, for example, twice as many priests surveyed said media coverage troubled them the most as said they were most concerned about the suffering of sexual abuse victims.

"You blame bishops and the whole church and the media and the cover-up and the reassignment, and you worry about false charges and the greed of lawyers, and you regret the loss of credibility, but not many of you feel any personal responsibility and only 5 percent of you worry about the suffering of the victims," Greeley told his fellow priests.

"You don't ask yourself how many times you knew or suspected something bad was going on in a rectory or how often you demonized a victim and his family."

Going up the line, Greeley said, the gravest sin of bishops "was not to consider the victims, not even to talk to the victims and their families, to blind themselves to the terrible wreckage that sexual abuse causes for human lives."

Such actions only contribute to the larger shift in American Catholicism away from obedience to church leadership and toward reliance on individual moral conscience, Greeley said.

Asked which is more likely, his beloved Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series or the Vatican understanding the lives of Catholics in the United States, Greeley replies without hesitation: a Cubs title.

"Spoken like a true Cubs fan," an interviewer responded.

"No," Greeley said, "that's spoken like somebody who knows the Vatican."


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