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  Church Fails to Confront Sexual Crisis in Its Ranks Series: Commentary

By Jason Berry
St. Petersburg Times [Florida]
September 30, 1989

Cardinal James A. Hickey asked the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr. to seek help at Villa Louis Martin in Jemez Springs, N.M., a facility run by Paraclete monks, that according to court testimony has treated pedophiles in the 1980s. Stallings, in response to published allegations he had a sexual relationship with an altar boy, said he would tell about his sex life "as soon as reporters investigate cases of pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality within Catholic clerical life."

WASHINGTON - "I'll be glad to tell you about my sexuality," the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr. said recently - "as soon as reporters investigate cases of pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality within Catholic clerical life."

He was responding to published allegations that he had once had a sexual relationship with a teen-age altar boy. Stallings, who was suspended from the priesthood for starting his own Imani Temple, seemed to be suggesting that his problems were hardly unique.

Catholicism teaches that man is imperfect, that sins should be forgiven. The faithful know that celibacy calls priests to a strenuous personal sacrifice, and small lapses of the flesh are not the stuff of news. But Stallings has a point: A sexual crisis is tearing at the central nervous system of the Catholic Church:

Since 1985, scores of pedophilia cases involving priests or brothers have been recorded throughout America and Canada.

As a result, U.S. dioceses have borne steep losses in lawsuits. Insurance coverage to protect the church in these cases has evaporated.

These changes have arrived amid a number of reports that as many as 10 percent to 20 percent of U.S. priests may be homosexually active.

And now, along with a sudden surge of publications about sexual problems of the priesthood, prominent Catholic commentators are openly examining the social and psychological damage that has been done to the church as a whole.

Rome, however, is concerned with doctrine. In 1986 the Vatican embarked on a campaign of neo-orthodoxy in dismissing the Rev. Charles Curran, the prolific moral theologian, from his position at Catholic University. One point of contention was Curran's notion that "stable homosexual unions" are preferable to lonely lives of promiscuity.

In the same year, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a global letter to bishops on homosexuality. In calling it an orientation "ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil," Ratzinger contradicted the U.S. bishops' stated position of 1976, which drew a line between homosexual acts, deemed sinful, and those "who find themselves, through no fault of their own" to be gay. The latter, the bishops said, "should not suffer from prejudice."

Ratzinger's letter caused most U.S. bishops to deny chapters of Dignity, an organization of gay Catholics, the right to hold Masses in churches unless they agreed to accept the Vatican's position. Few did. At a recent convention in San Francisco, Dignity members discussed a radical policy of exposing "closeted" priests and bishops.

Such threats are only one aspect of the crisis. Another derives from Rome's firm insistence on priestly celibacy, causing many heterosexuals to leave clerical life - or not to enter it in the first place. Since 1965, U.S. seminary enrollment has plunged from 48,000 to less than 7,500. By 1972, the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley was writing that "loneliness" was causing many to abandon priesthood for marriage.

Those who remain often face severe strains. In a forthcoming book titled The Search for Celibacy, A.W. Richard Sipe, a Baltimore, Md., therapist and former priest, reveals the results of extensive research: 500 consultations with priest-patients referred to him by their dioceses; 500 priests who were not patients; and 500 non-priest clients, many of them women who had been sexually involved with clergy. Sipe concludes that only about half of priests are able to remain celibate; that 20 percent are homosexual, half of them sexually active; and that 2 percent are sexually drawn to children.

Pedophilia - the most incendiary of these issues - is also the least acknowledged. "Several bishops have encouraged more open discussions about pedophilia," says Sipe. "But they are aware that neither theologians nor the hierarchy can say anything. Nobody has answers. Rather than recognize that, there is an appeal to blind authority."

It is impossible to say with certainty how extensive the problem is, but there are some objective indications. Between 1983 and 1987, some 200 U.S. priests or brothers were publicly accused of molesting youngsters (in most cases, boys), an average of one case per week. Villa Louis Martin in Jemez Springs, N.M. - where Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey asked Stallings to seek help - treated 200 pedophiles in the decade before 1985, according to court testimony that year by psychiatrist Jay Feireman, a consultant to Paraclete monks who run the facility. The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican canon lawyer who worked at the Vatican Embassy, told the San Jose Mercury-News in 1987 that as many as 3,000 U.S. priests could be pedophiles. That would be about 5 percent of the nation's 57,000 Catholic clergy - the figure reported by ABC's 20-20 last December.

At least 20 U.S. priests have been convicted and imprisoned on pedophilia or child-molestation charges during the past six years. One committed suicide in an Alabama monastery while awaiting trial.

In spring 1985, a lengthy report recommending policy guidelines for pedophilia cases was sent to every U.S. bishop. It was written jointly by Louisiana attorney F. Ray Mouton, Doyle and the late Rev. Michael Peterson, who treated pedophiles at St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., and died of AIDS in 1987. Mouton wrote that if bishops relied on "cover-up" strategies, the church could face as much as $1-billion in potential losses.

The report urged sending accused priests to a competent medical facility and counseled immediate pastoral intervention with affected families. Doyle, after struggling to confront bishops on the issue, resigned his Embassy post. As a policy initiative, the report was buried: Adopting it would have meant admitting that the problem existed. Many dioceses have implemented parts of it, but overall, a cover-up pattern persists. Too often, bishops have simply recycled accused priests to a new parish, while the afflicted families were held at arm's length.

Because judges have sealed the records of many civil settlements, there is no way to know exactly how much has been paid. But there are clear signs of heavy losses. In a Minneapolis case, the plaintiff's sister testified that he had rejected a $1.5-million offer. The plaintiff's attorney, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, says he has 30 suits pending for other clients, involving 16 priests in seven states. One Louisiana diocese and its insurers have paid $15-million to victims of a parish priest. In all at least $30-million is known to have been paid nationwide - not including attorney fees, direct payments to families by dioceses in lieu of court action, medical treatment of priests or resulting insurance-premium increases.

As a consequence, U.S. dioceses find it virtually impossible to obtain liability coverage for sexual misconduct. That has forced many dioceses to self-insure, making them extremely vulnerable: Records of clergy pension funds, capital projects, endowments and operating expenses are subject to subpoena in civil litigation proceedings.

The strategy of concealing information from victimized families not only betrays the Catholic ethos of upholding the sanctity of human life and strengthening the nuclear family; it can also trigger legal disaster. "We never planned on suing," said the father of a boy molested by a Louisiana priest. "We just wanted help for our children, and we wanted church officials to meet with us and tell what was what."

Loyola of Chicago psychologist Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and writer on church affairs, faults bishops for taking "advice of lawyers on issues that cannot be resolved merely by making the church legally defensible. It's the sweating surface of a culture that is corrupting. The church has failed to examine conflicts about human sexuality which throb within it. Cover-ups are impossible; where there is darkness we need light."

Homosexuality is part of this darkened mind set. Again, no authoritative survey exists. But the scope of the situation is suggested in a recent flood of literature, much of it self-confessional, written by or about gay clergy. A notable example is Gay Priests, to be published in November by Harper & Row. Sociologist James Wolfe, a married layman, wrote the lead essay and edited the book in light of data drawn from 101 questionnaires culled through a network of gay priests. Four of them contribute essays under pseudonyms. "The toughest part of my ministry," writes one, "was working with engaged couples. I would see them sitting there, holding hands, the joy in their faces . . . and I would get depressed. Why must I feel so lonely and isolated?"

There in cameo is the root conflict of the institutional church - families on one side, isolated priests on the other. The tragedy is not the number of homosexual clergy but the double lives so many lead, fraught with anger toward the church and often characterized by self-destructive behavior.

Wolfe's respondents estimate that 50 percent of priests are gay. That, he cautions, cannot be supported by objective measures. Sipe, in his forthcoming book, contends that 20 percent of priests are homosexual, half of them sexually active. "Privately," he says, "a number of bishops tell me they believe it's now 40 percent." In a 1987 National Catholic Reporter series I wrote on gay priests, the Rev. John Yockey of Washington Theological Union called the gay presence "from disproportionate to overwhelming. Forty percent would not be an unreasonable estimate."

In theory, a priest's orientation matters not if he remains chaste. Reports of pedophiles and practicing homosexuals unfairly tarnish countless clergy who are neither, and many fine men who happen to be homosexually oriented are exemplary ministers. But the impact of the gay subculture that has grown since the mid-'60s is undeniable. In Gay Priests, 41 percent say they are sexually active, and 58 percent consider celibacy "an ideal rather than a law that must be obeyed." That attitude may explain why many seminaries now require men to pass an HIV test before accepting them, and why many religious orders and dioceses require the same before ordaining men as priests. At least two dozen priests reportedly have died of AIDS, and 60 more have been stricken.

In The March of Folly, historian Barbara W. Tuchman defined folly as "the pursuit of policy contrary to the self interest of the constituency or state involved." The cumulative impact of clergy sexual problems raises such stark questions about the wisdom of demanding celibacy.

Priests married freely until the 12th century, ignoring longstanding celibacy codes, until Pope Gregory VII, who was locked in conflict with Henry IV, tightened the law and demanded enforcement. One fear was that children of clergy stood to inherit ecclesiastical property. More than a century passed before celibacy slowly became the canonical norm. Sexual segregation of the clergy served a pragmatic historical purpose: It helped the European church expand to the New World, amass wealth, build schools, serve the poor and advance a lineage of Christian witness. But now, as understanding of human psychodynamics has grown vastly more sophisticated, the church's teaching on many aspects of human sexuality remains unchanged. This has put the Vatican in conflict with so many of the faithful.

Historically, the church is governed as a monarchy. But by failing to address the sexual revolution in clerical life, U.S. bishops have been forced into conflict with two institutions of democracy - the court system and a free press. It is time to face this schism honestly.

Many gay priests think a solution can be found in seeking a more flexible church position on homosexuality: That is, endorsing their sex lives. But why should Rome break with centuries of tradition to accommodate sexually active gays who choose to remain priests? Given the devastating problems cited above, even the most compassionately liberal Catholic must finally draw a line in the dust and say: Enough.

Meanwhile, some 3,000 priests who left to marry are begging to be reinstated. Rome says no, yet ordains married Protestant ministers who convert with their families to Catholicism. It is time to abolish this double standard and move toward optional celibacy. This will allow the tradition to endure for those who so choose, while giving married Catholics of both sexes a role in ministry. It can easily be done with no threat to church property. Each parish, after all, is an image of the human family writ large. - Jason Berry, a New Orleans author, received a 1986 Catholic Press Association award for coverage of pedophilia in the National Catholic Reporter.

Abstract (Document Summary)

Cardinal James A. Hickey asked the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr. to seek help at Villa Louis Martin in Jemez Springs, N.M., a facility run by Paraclete monks, that according to court testimony has treated pedophiles in the 1980s. Stallings, in response to published allegations he had a sexual relationship with an altar boy, said he would tell about his sex life "as soon as reporters investigate cases of pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality within Catholic clerical life."

WASHINGTON - "I'll be glad to tell you about my sexuality," the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr. said recently - "as soon as reporters investigate cases of pedophilia, fornication and homosexuality within Catholic clerical life."

Catholicism teaches that man is imperfect, that sins should be forgiven. The faithful know that celibacy calls priests to a strenuous personal sacrifice, and small lapses of the flesh are not the stuff of news. But Stallings has a point: A sexual crisis is tearing at the central nervous system of the Catholic Church:

 
 

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