Bishop: Social Isolation Hurt the Catholic Church
Priests Were Stunted Emotionally, He Says

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [Dallas TX]
March 15, 2003

Some of the seeds of the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic church were sown half a century ago in Catholic seminaries where young men were trained in such regimented isolation that they emerged emotionally stunted, a Catholic bishop said in New Orleans on Thursday.

And when a few among them molested children years later, another Catholic trait made a bad situation worse: They were protected by bishops who had been trained to work with troublesome priests and avoid public scandal at all costs, said Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas.

Those are just two of the lessons he takes from the church's sex-abuse crisis, said Galante, who spent much of the past year dealing with the press as the head of the American bishops' communications committee.

Another is that 40 years after Vatican II described a church in which bishops, priests and laypeople have different jobs but the same dignity, the church is still suffering from a culture of clericalism in which "a sense of privilege and entitlement" comes with ordination to the priesthood, Galante said.

Church culture is still marked by a penchant for secrecy that sometimes amounts to "juvenile intrigue," said Galante in an appearance at the Myra Clare Rogers Chapel on the Newcomb College campus. Instead, he said, "we have to provide a sense of openness and ownership for everyone."

Galante's lecture, part of an annual series sponsored by Tulane University's Chair of Judeo-Christian Studies, came as a blue-ribbon lay commission chartered by the bishops last year begins a series of studies to determine the history, scope and causes of the church's sex-abuse crisis.

Their work will depend on the cooperation of bishops in 195 autonomous dioceses, however, and their recommendations will be only advisory.

Signs of dysfunction

Since the outbreak of the crisis, Catholics on the left and right have generally agreed that the occasional abuse of children, and especially the uniform efforts by bishops to protect a tiny minority of abusive priests, is evidence of some deeper organizational dysfunction.

But they are deeply divided on what that deeper fault is.

On the left, critics such as author and former priest John Carroll and various secular voices believe the crisis demonstrates that the church's entire sexual ethic is bankrupt and needs to be rethought.

On the right, critics including author George Weigel and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus argue the opposite: They assert that years of post-Vatican II theological dissent eroded priests' spiritual strength, corrupted teaching in Catholic seminaries and rendered bishops timid. Their solution: a return to traditional discipline and richer spiritual training enforced by energetic bishops.

Galante, who one day will succeed Bishop Charles V. Grahmann as bishop of Dallas, subscribed to neither view Thursday. While defending the church's traditional regard for celibacy, he also rejected the conservatives' premise that the crisis is a post-Vatican II phenomenon. He said he believes the majority of offenders known thus far were trained in the 1950s and '60s, before the council's changes began to sweep through seminaries later that decade.

He recalled his own seminary training in Philadelphia beginning in 1954: group regimentation, heavy emphasis on academics, relative neglect of individual spiritual and psychological counseling and, with his classmates, strict separation from the world -- especially women, who were viewed as sources of potential trouble.

"You basically came out of seminary emotionally an adolescent," Galante said. "You were pretty much whatever age you were when you entered, and maybe a little less."

Priests who later got into trouble with children did so not so much because they were homosexual, as some critics of gay men in the priesthood have maintained, but because they were emotionally stunted, he said.

More interaction urged

Although seminary education has changed radically since then, Galante suggested an additional remedy might be quartering seminarians in parishes, to be immersed in community life and shepherded psychologically by laypeople and pastors while attending classes elsewhere.

He said he does not believe that gay men, properly prepared spiritually and committed to serving the church in celibacy, are unfit candidates for the priesthood, as some critics have also maintained.

"With homosexual persons, is there anything that says God cannot give them the gift of celibacy? I don't think it means that," Galante said.

The other dimension of the crisis -- consistent protection of sexually abusive priests by bishops -- flowed partly from a fear of scandal, he said.

"But they took a wrong definition of scandal. They thought the people couldn't handle the vices of priests," he said. "But people have been handling the vices of priests for a long time."

He said bishops "underestimated the strength and wisdom of laypeople."

Moreover, bishops were trained to believe that priests were to remain priests forever, in some capacity, while now bishops are prepared to turn a man out of ministry permanently after a single instance of sexual abuse of a minor, he said.

Take priests off pedestals

Finally, the church still lives with a culture of clericalism 40 years after Vatican II sketched a new vision of a "church as a community of equals," he said.

"You have to take us off whatever pedestals may have been erected in our youth, and we have to be very happy to get off of them," he said.

But Galante offered no specific mechanisms that American bishops might use to make the church more transparent and more power-sharing. Bishops cannot enact reforms and impose them on their colleagues.

In some parts of the country, Voice of the Faithful, a lay group born in Boston to press for changes in church governance, has urged bishops to talk about enacting such changes.

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Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.