Good to Know—what You Won't Hear in Your Parish

By Tim Stier
Voice from the Desert
April 10, 2010

[Five years ago, March 15, 2005, while on sabbatical after 25 years of ministry as a priest in five parishes in the Diocese of Oakland, California, I met with my bishop, Allen Vigneron, and informed him I was choosing voluntary exile from active priesthood until he was willing to initiate a public dialogue about clergy sexual abuse, the exclusion of women from the priesthood, and doctrinal and actual discrimination against gay persons. Because I was refusing an assignment, I stopped receiving a salary, health insurance and retirement accrual.]

People ask me if I am still a priest. I respond with a qualified "yes". Many suggest that I should return to active priesthood because I could do so much good and because there is such a need for priests. I tell people I know too much to go back right now. Here is some of what I know.

As I write, the Catholic Church in Ireland, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands is reeling from daily news reports of clergy sexual abuse survivors coming forward to report their painful stories, and of bishops who covered up this abuse and reassigned known priest abusers to other parishes or schools where they could prey on new victims. The same pattern of criminal conduct by bishops and priests that surfaced in Boston in 2002 and since then throughout the United States and Australia is now surfacing in the European countries mentioned above. The problem is not going away in any of these places, in spite of some superficial efforts to protect children, because the problem is systemic. A priest friend of mine challenged me in 2008, after he read my last paper, saying that the number of abuse cases was way down since the Dallas Charter set new safeguards in place in 2002. I wish that were true but statistics tell another story.

In a March 14, 2009, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press wrote: "New allegations continue to pour in, seven years after the abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston…The number of claims rose last year (2008) by 16% to 803. The U.S. Church has paid more than $2.6 billion in settlements [$60 million alone right here in Oakland] and related expenses since 1950." More than 500 abuse survivors have filed claims against the Northwest Jesuits in Alaska and throughout the Northwest. The Jesuits in that province and at least 6 U.S. dioceses have filed for bankruptcy. The Legionaries of Christ, a world-wide religious order, has been rocked by a series of allegations of sexual abuse by its now deceased founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. While honored and protected by Pope John Paul II, this dangerous predator was finally held accountable by the present pope by being ordered into seclusion. Since Fr. Marcial's death, two women have come forward to reveal that he fathered numerous children by them. Two of his sons in Mexico claimed recently that he sexually abused them. For years, the Legionaries of Christ denied any wrongdoing by their founder and treated him as a living saint and model example of piety to youth.

Lest our hearts harden to such horrendous crimes by priests and bishops, it helps to imagine just one of the tens of thousands of children who have endured the violation of their bodies and souls. Imagine your child, or your nephew or niece, being undressed, fondled, raped, or forced to perform sexual acts on their perpetrator, in rectories, churches, schools, the victim's own home, in cars, vacation spots, or wherever. Take a minute to imagine that! Then imagine a bishop learning of this crime against your child or relative and subsequently reassigning this priest to another parish. You might think bishops who did reassign known child abusers would be removed from office and criminally prosecuted, right? Read on.

Despite Catholic bishops' propensity to pontificate against divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexual activity and gay marriage, there has been no accountability for the 66% of U.S. bishops who moved abuser priests to new assignments where they victimized more children. This includes the bishop of Oakland who ordained me in 1979 and Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. Tom Roberts wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in November, 2009, "No bishop has yet given a detailed report of his complicity in the scandal. No bishop has detailed, without being forced by public pressure or civil authorities, his personal culpability in the scandal." Despite all the apologies, "there's been no full voluntary accounting for what the hierarchy did in the church's name to hide predators, buy silence, and re-victimize victims in sometimes vicious 'legal proceedings'."

These bishops will defend their criminal activity by explaining that they did not know until much later that sexual offender priests could not be rehabilitated and returned to ministry, and that they were following the advice of expert therapists. But in an April 3, 2009, article in the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein wrote " that the Rev. Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests, had written as early as 1952 to several U.S. bishops that pedophile priests should not be reassigned. Fr. Fitzgerald delivered the same advice in person to Vatican officials in Rome in 1962 and to Pope Paul VI a year later." These bishops knew what they were doing because they chose to put the welfare of priests ahead of the safety of children and youth. The Catholic clergy are a "good old boys club" who has been trained to cover for each other even at the expense of children. The first time I ever heard a Catholic bishop criticize a fellow bishop was this year when the Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, called on former bishops of his archdiocese, who had been accused of mishandling abuser priests, to consider the good of the church, i.e., to resign. Bishops won't criticize other bishops publicly because of systemic clericalism, the sin of believing that the ordained are superior to lay persons and not bound by the same rules. In the world of clericalism, reputation is more important than truth or children.

If it were not for clergy sexual abuse survivors, the press, and court orders, bishops would still be able to hide their criminal misdeeds. A 2009 New York Times editorial declared: "In the end it was not the power of repentance or compassion that compelled the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to release more than 12,000 pages of documents relating to lawsuits alleging deeds of sexual abuse of children by its priests. It was a court order." And it was court orders that compelled bishops towards transparency in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, Spokane, Portland, Tucson, Vermont and other dioceses. Thank God for court orders.

The reason I speak out on behalf of abuse survivors and against erring bishops is because silence is complicity with a hierarchical structure that is secretive, self-serving and incapable of hearing the cries of anguish coming from people for whom getting out of bed in the morning is a moral victory. Joelle Casteix, a survivor turned advocate and mentor says, "Standing up and pointing a finger at the leadership of the church is not disrespectful to God. It is respectful to children."

The question I pose to those who urge me to return to active priesthood is: why aren't more lay people, deacons, priests and bishops choosing exile over silent complicity with an institution which excludes abuse survivors, women and gay people? Sue Griffith, the mother of an abuse survivor says, ". . .people in the pews have to turn away from this story—they can't get involved because it is too much of a threat to their own faith."

Margaret Schettler, a survivor supporter in southern California said in a 2010 interview, "…most parishioners have not figured out that they are the ones who will or will not create a safe place for abuse survivors and their families to be welcomed, heard, and not judged. We haven't begun to collaborate and learn firsthand from those who were abused in our own parishes. It's almost as if they don't really exist! Regular folks really haven't thought that they have a role to play in outreach, healing, or reconciliation. There are no processes in place yet at the parish level to openly discuss and process what has happened to us."

Too many lay persons and priests blame the victims and accuse them of being only interested in making money from lawsuits. Others are tired of hearing about the abuse crisis and wish it would go away. Often when I share what I know with Catholic friends, they get a serious look on their faces, say something like, "what a shame!", and then change the subject. Parishes need to be proactive in providing ways for parishioners to come together to be informed about the scope and ongoing nature of this crisis, to share their grief and sorrow, and then to brainstorm ways to reach out to survivors and their families and hold bishops accountable. Rarely if ever would one even hear about this crisis at Sunday Mass. Some parishes have information in the vestibule inviting abuse survivors to call a phone number to get counseling and support. Most abuse survivors tremble at the thought of even entering a Catholic church. Their very capacity for faith has been stolen from them.

As for my fellow priests and why we don't hear from many of them about this crisis, they tend to place obedience to their bishop ahead of the protection of children, full inclusion of women, and justice and respect for gay persons. Most priests fear alienating parishioners and risking lower collections. Also, most priests struggle mightily with celibacy. The Irish actor and abuse survivor Gabriel Byrne says, "I don't believe that celibacy contributes any more to the well-being of the Catholic Church. As a result of that denial of the human urge to procreate and have a loving relationship with another human being, you pervert this instinct and a lot of people who are in the Church in positions of responsibility and power become debased and affected in a negative way. Where does their sexual urge go? As long as celibacy survives, people will be drawn to the priesthood for all the wrong reasons. People who are totally unsuited for the priesthood enter into it." (Being Catholic Now by Kerry Kennedy, Crown Publishers, NY, 2008, pp. 95-96).

I couldn't agree more with Gabriel Byrne. I struggled mightily to remain celibate as a priest but for years all I heard from spiritual directors was that God is merciful and that I just need to pray more and have more healthy friendships. Never did I hear that the system of mandatory celibacy is based on a myth that sets up priests for loneliness, struggle, and failure. Priests should be free to marry if they choose and that goes for gay priests too.

Richard Sipe, a former priest, psychologist and author has studied the practice of celibacy among priests and writes, "At any one time 50% of American clergy are sexually active. Many of the bishops, rectors of seminaries, and spiritual directors who are entrusted with the responsibility of training priests are themselves sexually active and at times with the men they purport to mentor. Sexual distortion—expressing itself in at least 6 percent of priests who abuse minors—is endemic to the clerical culture because its members are not sufficiently educated to know about sex and how to handle their sexuality." Sipe's studies bear out what I learned about fellow priests over the years. Mandatory celibacy is a crushing burden to most priests. I weep now for seminarians and priests who buy into the long held myth that God desires priests be celibate. Priests who give up trying to be celibate and take a lover lead double lives and their witness and integrity suffers accordingly. Priests who manage to practice celibacy often become neurotic and eccentric. One pope described celibacy as a jewel of the church's tradition. I would call it a major stumbling block to healthy clergy.

In spite of Pope Benedict's effort to brand the clergy sexual abuse crisis as an American problem some years ago, the problem is now undeniably universal. In Ireland, two damning reports have been published in the past year: the Ryan Report in May, 2009, culminated a 9 year investigation by a government commission of church run orphanages and schools and documented how religious orders such as the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy systematically physically and sexually abused children over a span of decades. The Murphy Commission report, released in November, 2009, documents systemic and pervasive sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of Dublin from 1975 to 2004. Four successive archbishops failed to report these crimes to the police.

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish, an American nun and outspoken critic of church leaders, wrote in May, 2009, that the Ryan Report "reinforces the conclusions many have come to in the United States especially since 2002; that the problems of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church have been both systemic and endemic over decades and generations in countries around the world. It is not an American problem as some cardinals and highly placed Vatican officials argued a few years back. Neither is it caused by the presence of homosexually orientated men in the priesthood. It is not a conspiracy by the newspapers in the United States or by anybody to bankrupt the institutional church. It comes from within the institution not from the outside. The institution, the Roman Catholic Church as we know it, has done it to itself. The all encompassing mantra that allowed, permitted and enabled this horror to happen, was and is the widespread abuse of power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church starting at the highest levels. It can be seen coming out of the Archdiocese of Boston, Massachusetts in 2002, in dioceses in California like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and in investigations and reports like the Grand Jury Report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2005."

What to Do

People often ask me what we can do in light of what we know. Waiting for structural reform from church leaders would entail a couple of lifetimes at best. The news from the Vatican, Germany and Ireland in the last few weeks shows church leaders continuing to scapegoat and pass the buck. I endorse the suggestion of Fr. Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest who has done more than any other ordained church leader to advocate on behalf of abuse survivors, when he writes: "we must challenge the continuing validity of continued monetary support of an institution that has squandered the donations of believers to hide and then defend its criminal actions." In other words, stop putting money in the collection basket at Sunday Mass! If you feel guilty about not contributing to your parish and diocese, remember that the Catholic Church has paid out over 2.6 billion dollars in the U.S. alone to settle suits and pay for lawyers so far. More importantly, remember the children and youth whose lives have been irreparably damaged, and those abuse survivors who committed suicide.

Given the current rigidly hierarchal, all-male structure of the Catholic Church, if the world-wide epidemic sexual abuse of children and minors by priests and bishops has not led to structural reform by now, it will not happen voluntarily. The secretive, monarchical structure now in place is a holdover from the middle ages. The church is fundamentally incapable of reforming itself, thus the urgent need to withhold donations. Tom Doyle writes: "Forging a trail out of the medieval cavern of ecclesiastical control has been slow, painful, confusing, uncertain and expensive. In spite of every effort of the popes and bishops to stifle, distract and confuse those who have challenged them, they have not been successful, and they won't be successful. As one wise victim said many years ago, 'They have the money, power and influence…and we have the truth.'"

Church leaders are so closed to structural reform that they are allowing parishes and schools to close throughout the country rather than allow married priests and women priests. So another incentive to withhold donations from the Sunday collection is the second class status of women and the official church description of gay persons as "intrinsically disordered". I remain in exile to stay in public solidarity with gay persons and women whose dignity and equality is officially downgraded by church leaders. Women do a disproportionate amount of the church's work but may not be admitted to Holy Orders as deacons, priests or bishops. Gay people are told they are loved but disordered, and they are prohibited from sexual intimacy. The Catholic Church is a leading opponent of gay marriage even as many priests and bishops have male lovers. Many church leaders are maniacally preoccupied with abortion, a choice which only women can make, causing many women to wonder if male church leaders are really interested more in controlling women than preventing abortion. The structure of church leadership demands change so that abuse survivors, gay persons and women are welcome at the table and given a real say in decisions which affect their dignity and inclusion.

Withholding donations from the Sunday collection and diocesan appeal is a prophetic action, and a deeply moral one in light of suffering inflicted on children, women and gay persons by unaccountable leaders. A second means of advocating structural change in the Catholic Church is to keep this effort in the public eye. To this end, I will be showing up every Sunday morning beginning the First Sunday of Easter, April 11th, at the Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light with a placard in hand to walk the sidewalk in front of the church from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. You are all invited to join me any Sunday and to bring a sign too. I will be walking outside the church as a show of public solidarity with those not fully welcome inside the church: abuse survivors, gay persons and women, and as a public call for structural change.

I love the church and grieve the way its structure is preventing it from Gospel witness. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in April, 1968: "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."

The church I was ordained to serve in 1979 has become a fossilized relic that mouths the Gospel and names Jesus as its Lord even while it aids and abets child abuse, denies women full equality, and teaches that its gay members are disordered at the very heart of their relational life. Now is the time to unequivocally stand with abuse survivors, gay persons and women to work for structural change leading to leadership that is accountable for its decisions and open to the Holy Spirit's guidance in all things.


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