The Elephant in the Sacristy
Beneath the scandals now consuming the Catholic church is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore

By Mary Eberstadt
Weekly Standard, vol. 7, issue 39
June 17, 2002

"The abuse of the young is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the church but society as a whole."

--Pope John Paul II, speech to American Cardinals, April 2002

AS THE AMERICAN BISHOPS gather in Dallas next week to address the continuing devastation and humiliation of the Catholic church, they could do worse than begin by meditating on a defrocked priest from that city named Rudolph Kos. One of the most notorious child abusers in recent history, Kos was, in every sense, the stuff of which today's ecclesiastical nightmares are made. Now serving a life sentence for assaults on boys of all ages whose total is presumed to number in the hundreds, he was also responsible, in 1998, for the largest settlement yet made in such a case: $119.6 million, later reduced to $31 million.

The reason why the bishops ought to bear Kos particularly in mind is that he is typical of many of the other offender-priests who populate the headlines these days. By his own account, Kos was himself abused as a child. As a teenager, he either molested or attempted to molest other, younger boys. With the help of some priest-mentors who were aware of his personal history and apparently indifferent to it, Kos then gravitated to the priesthood--specifically, to a seminary in Texas where homosexuality was apparently out of the closet. One of his teachers would go on to become a celebrated gay writer. Paul Shanley--the most notorious child abuser among the Boston area clergy--was a guest lecturer on homosexuality there. As a priest, in addition to abusing boys from teenagers down to 9 years of age, Kos was also (as he later described himself) a "gay man." Indeed, court documents show that a fellow priest once complained in a letter of the "boys and young men who stay overnight with you [Kos]."

What even this brief recitation makes clear is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore, though many labor mightily to avert their eyes. Call it the elephant in the sacristy. One fact is that the offender was himself molested as a child or adolescent. Another is that some seminaries seem to have had more future molesters among their students than others. A third fact is that this crisis involving minors--this ongoing institutionalized horror--is almost entirely about man-boy sex. There is no outbreak of heterosexual child molestation in the American church. In the words of the late Rev. Michael Peterson, who co-founded the well-known clergy-treating St. Luke Institute, "We don't see heterosexual pedophiles at all." Put differently, it would be profoundly misleading to tell the tale of Rudolph Kos--what he was and what he did--without reference to the words "homosexual" and "gay."

Of course, as the bishops and many other savvy observers of the debate will also know, just such distortion has become commonplace--indeed, is the literary norm--in the daily renditions of what the tragedies in the Church are actually "about." The dominant view in the press right now--what might be called the "anything-but-the-elephant" theory--reads like this. Whatever the scandals may appear to be about--as it happens, man-boy sex--they are actually about something else. "It should be clear by now," as the New York Times put it in a classic formulation, "that this scandal is only incidentally about forcing sex on minors." Similarly, the New Republic: "We all know that the sexual abuse of minors is horrific; but somehow the bishops did not react with horror. That is what truly shocks." And the New Yorker: "The big shocker has been not so much the abuse itself--awful and heartbreaking though it is--as the coldly bureaucratic 'handling' of it by hierarchs like [Boston's Bernard] Law and the current archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan." And, for good measure, the New York Review of Books: "The current scandal is not a sex scandal."

Some writers do draw attention to the elephant--but only in order to dismiss it. Here is A.W. Richard Sipe, for example, a psychiatrist and former Benedictine monk who is as widely quoted as any other authority on the scandals: "It's not a gay problem; it's a problem of irresponsible sexual behavior and the violation of boundaries" (emphasis added here and below). Here is a Jesuit writing in the English Catholic magazine the Tablet: "The problem is not the abusing priests' homosexuality, but rather their immaturity and their abuse of power." Thereby has developed what might be called the cultural imperative of the scandal commentary--the proposition, as the president of the gay Catholic organization Dignity put it, that "Homosexuality has nothing to do with it."

Such strenuous, willful, and perverse denial of the obvious, repeated unceasingly on paper and airwaves and websites these last several months, has been injurious to the greater good on at least two critical counts. First, the insistence on false definitions has deflected attention from where it ought to be--i.e., on who, exactly, has been injured in all this, who has done the injuring, and how restitution might be made. Second, and what is even more dangerous, this widespread repudiation of sheer fact has been inimical to the most important mission facing the bishops and, indeed, all other Catholics. That is the responsibility of doing everything in one's power to prevent this current history, meaning the rape and abuse of innocents by Catholic priests, from ever being repeated. Insisting that things are not what they appear subverts that end, to say the least.

In what follows, therefore, I propose that we tunnel down through the diverting abstractions in which the debate has been shrouded, and then reason back upward from the level of simple fact. For in focusing precisely on the uncontested facts of cases, we do learn something potentially useful not only to the bishops as they hammer out policies for the future, but also to the victims, and possibly even the perpetrators, of this evil. In order to get there, however, we must be able to call the elephant by its name. The real problem facing the American Catholic church is that a great many boys have been seduced or forced into homosexual acts by certain priests; that these offenders appear to have been disproportionately represented in certain seminaries; and that their case histories open questions about sexuality that--verboten though they may have become--demand to be reexamined.


That the Catholic church is an institution sustained of, by, and for sinners is not exactly news to anyone acquainted with human history, let alone to any Catholic or other reader of today's papers. Even so, there is something surpassingly wicked about the scandal now exploded in North America. Of all that Christianity has represented since its inception, there has been one teaching in which believers could take particular historical pride. That was the notion, virtually unique to Christianity (and Judaism), that not only were sexual relations between adults and children wrong--a proscription that puzzled and irritated the ancient pagans, as it does the pagans of today--but that this particular exploitation of innocents was an especially grievous sin. Accordingly, from the earliest Church histories to the present, penalties for the seduction of boys by men have abounded. Anyone who doubts the historical consistency of the Church's teaching here should know that the advocates of pedophilia in the world today--the outright public enthusiasts for man-boy sex--vociferously deplore the Church specifically on account of its millennia-old condemnation of the sexual exploitation of the young.

It has therefore been perverse in the extreme, at least for many ordinary Catholics, to see that one prominent public reaction to the scandals has been to blame matters not on the molesters, but--incredibly--on the non-molesting rest of the Church. This is, after all, the meaning of the widespread attack on priestly celibacy. As one writer asked in Slate with apparent hopefulness, "Does the celibacy rule turn priests into child molesters?"

There was, to put the matter delicately, more than a touch of schadenfreude in this reaction to the scandals--even some humor, albeit very, very dark. After all, it is not as if all those dissenting Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and outright anti-Catholics chastising the Church these many months had hitherto shown much enthusiasm for its teachings about sexual morality. In its way, the fact that just such critics took out after celibacy did make perfect, if surreal, sense. As First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus shrewdly observed, "The celibacy rule is so offensive to many of today's commentators, Catholic and otherwise, because it so frontally challenges the culturally entrenched dogma that human fulfillment and authenticity are impossible without sexual intercourse of one kind or another."

The nagging problem with the attack on celibacy, however, has been that it does not hold up under any sort of inspection, and this for several reasons. There is, first, the historical point that celibacy has been widely practiced by various religions over the centuries (for a representative list, see the entry on "celibacy" in the "Encyclopedia of Religion"). While the sexual molestation of minors is not unknown in that history, neither does it break out all over--as it would if current critics of celibacy vows were right about the connection between the two. Americans being less historically minded than some others, it is perhaps understandable that the point did not surface more often. But there was also, as it turned out, a pragmatic problem with the same attack. Millions of baby boomer American Catholics had direct experience of being educated and otherwise influenced by priests, and they knew from personal experience that most priests had not been turned by celibacy into moral monsters.1

But the biggest problem with the argument against celibacy has been that it simply affronts common sense. To argue that vows of chastity lay somehow at the root of the priest scandal is like arguing that tee-totaling causes drunkenness, or that quitting smoking will increase the risk of lung cancer. The purported causality of the thing, as Michael Novak and others patiently explained, simply could not hold. Even more illogical, if that is possible, has been the idea that allowing priests to marry would somehow reduce the kind of sexual offenses of which the scandals were made. "Right," in conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher's tart words. "As if wives are the answer to the sexual urges of men who get their kicks from adolescent boys."

When the American cardinals returned from their April meeting with the pope, bearing the news that the Vatican was not about to abandon the celibacy rule no matter how many lapsed, anti- and un-Catholics in the United States demanded it, there surfaced another purported explanation of how the scandals came to be--that they were the outcome of a "culture of secrecy" within the Church. This argument had particular force because it has been put forward by the well-known reporter and Catholic Jason Berry, whose remarkable 1992 book, "Lead Us Not into Temptation," remains the single best factual account of the forces and personalities at work in the prophetic first round of scandals over a decade ago. "The crisis in the Catholic Church," as Berry put his larger argument recently in the New York Times, "lies not with the fraction of priests who molest youngsters but in an ecclesiastical power structure that harbors pedophiles, conceals other sexual behavior patterns among its clerics, and uses strategies of duplicity and counterattack against the victims." Closely related to this argument of Berry's was a similar procedural explanation of the origins of the scandals--that they were the result of "clericalism," or undue emphasis on the privileges and prerogatives of the clerical estate.

Both charges were, and are, undeniably true in a limited sense. No doubt, shameful efforts by some Church authorities to dodge rather than comply with the criminal law have allowed priests to continue molesting when they might instead have been confined in a cell. No doubt, either, that the personal grandiosity of certain prelates has also inhibited the desire to clean Catholic house. The criticism now raining down on the American hierarchy for its negligence is largely deserved.

Even so, in the effort to understand how the crimes happened, as well as the even more pressing business of deterring them in the future, the arguments about "secrecy" and "clericalism" amount to a sideshow. For while both phenomena obviously made the sexual assault of children possible, neither secrecy nor clericalism caused the assaults in the first place. Plenty of other institutions, from the CIA to 4-H clubs, keep institutional secrets all the time, and with no visible upswing in the sexual abuse of male children as a result. It is certainly arguable that post-Vatican II Catholic America has been bounded by a three-way collusion among disobedient priests, disobedient lay people, and child-molesting clergy benefiting from general laxity--a kind of ecclesiastical Bermuda triangle in which discipline and traditional moral teachings have mysteriously disappeared. But this is hardly the problem that writers who finger Catholic "secrecy" as the main factor in the scandals have in mind.

Yet another theory that serves to evade the elephant, this one prominent in some Catholic circles as well, is the argument that what "actually" lay at the root of the scandals was something called sexual (sometimes "psychosexual") "immaturity." Referred to frequently by A.W. Richard Sipe, among others, this theory blames minor molestation not exactly on molesters themselves, but on the all-male religious communities through which they pass. "There is a structure within the Church that fosters immaturity," as Sipe put it recently on PBS. "We're boys together, and the Church supplies all that. It is a kind of adolescent attitude, and there are those who turn to adolescents because of their immaturity."

Such analysis has a strong following not only among the sophisticated secular media, but also within the American Catholic hierarchy, as the language of its scandal-managing sometimes shows. (Thus, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said recently that what is needed is "to assure the people that the candidates for the priesthood are suitable people, and any problems that might lead to immaturity in behavior would have been caught or addressed in seminary.")

Nevertheless, even a cursory examination of reality brings the abstractions of "immaturity" up short. There is, first, the uncomfortable fact--or what ought to be an uncomfortable fact, especially for Catholics--that the explanation from "immaturity" bears no resemblance to the language of sin and redemption. It simply medicalizes the problem, emptying the abuser's acts of moral meaning and (literally, in this case) defining deviancy down. But that is not its only limitation. Rather, the fundamental shortcoming of the "psychosexual" argument is that it does not explain what it purports to explain--namely, where the scandals came from.

For if the argument is that perpetrators are somehow "frozen" in a stage of "immaturity," the objection immediately presents itself that most 9-, 13-, even 16-year-old boys do not act the way offending priests do. Immaturity in a boy may present itself in varied ways--sibling-teasing, homework-losing, bathroom humor--but a compulsive search for adult-orchestrated homosexual esoterica is usually not among them. Child and adolescent sexual exploration, to be sure, is hardly unknown; one thinks especially of Britain's famous boarding schools. But "intergenerational sex," with its inevitable elements of adult power and coercion, is not something children gravitate toward intuitively.

The theory about "immaturity" is perhaps a useful heuristic tool for theorists. But it obscures the real-life point that priests who molest the young do not sexually or psychologically resemble typical adolescents and children in the least. The exception, of course--and this is a point to which we will return--is that of children who are themselves sexually abused. For such children, compulsive sexuality--the attempt to inflict on other, younger children what they have been forced to learn themselves--is a well-documented clinical norm. (This is true for heterosexual and homosexual abuse alike.) But the psychosexual theory, recall, is that the institutions rather than the individuals explain the abuse cases. The problem with perpetrators, however, is not that they are "immature"; the problem is that they are all too mature, they are predatory, and they are also, according to most case studies, largely unrepentant.


When these sorts of substantive or quasi-substantive arguments failed to become the definitive case for what the scandals were "actually" about, another, more ideological response began circulating throughout the media. This was the argument that the "real" problem at hand was that Catholic conservatives would use the scandals as the pretext for a "witch hunt" to "purge" the Church of homosexuals. In the past several months, virtually interchangeable essays to that effect have appeared all over the American media--from mainstream newspapers and magazines to gay-activist or activist-friendly sources, including the Advocate, the Independent Gay Forum, Slate, Salon, and many more.

It is certainly true that some Catholic traditionalists--precisely because they have been unconstrained by the secular cultural imperative of evading the elephant--have been willing to point to one or another feature of it. "You cannot blame people," as Rod Dreher of National Review put it in one of his many plain-spoken contributions to the discussion, "for asking if there's something about the culture of homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood that fosters this phenomenon. . . . [I]t is not homophobic to ask." Writing from a very different corner of the Catholic world, Germain Grisez--one of the Church's leading moral theologians in the United States--has been equally blunt: "The bishops and those who speak for them," as he wrote recently, "should acknowledge honestly that most clerical sex crimes that have come to light have been seductions of adolescents and young men by homosexual priests." Other traditionalist lay Catholics have also violated the cultural imperative in their own discussions of the scandals.

One singularly fearless such examination was published well before the Boston scandal broke in January. This was an extraordinary essay called "The Gay Priest Problem," published in the magazine Catholic World Report in November 2000.2 In it, Jesuit Paul Shaughnessy took aim in orthodox language at what he called "the ugly and indisputable facts: a disproportionately high percentage of priests is gay; a disproportionately high percentage of gay priests routinely engages in sodomy; this sodomy is frequently ignored, often tolerated, and sometimes abetted by bishops and superiors." Citing controversial Kansas City Star pieces reporting that priests were dying of AIDS at some four times the rate of the general population, Shaughnessy also drew attention to the fact that certain orders and institutions were noticeably more affected than others. (Of seven novices ordained in the Missouri Province of the Jesuit order in 1967 and 1968, for instance, he reported that "three have (to date) died of AIDS, and a fourth is an openly gay priest now working as an artist in New York.") He further noted that gay priests themselves "routinely gloat about the fact that gay bars in big cities have special 'clergy nights,' that gay resorts have set-asides for priests, and that in certain places the diocesan apparatus is controlled entirely by gays." Shaughnessy also sounded a prescient note in daring to question what he called "the dogma that the preponderance of male victims [of clerical sexual abuse] is entirely unrelated to priestly homosexuality."

Another examination of homosexuality in the clergy from a traditionalist perspective--this one also written before the recent round of scandals, but published in tandem with them--comes in the form of Michael S. Rose's newly released book "Goodbye, Good Men," a scathing polemic charging that the "lavenderization" of American seminaries has driven vocations down. Much discussed in traditional Catholic circles, and largely, though not entirely, the object of cultural omerta outside them, Rose's book outlines in part the charge that a "gay subculture" has come to flourish in many seminaries.

There are, for example, the seminaries so homosexualized that they came to be known as "Notre Flame," "Theological Closet," and the "Pink Palace." In some, says Rose, seminarians make public outings to gay bars together. In others pornography is ubiquitous. In still others, sexual access to young men is so taken for granted as a perquisite that sexual-harassment lawsuits by former seminarians long ago ceased to be remarkable. Rose also reports--as has a recent, post-scandal story in Newsweek--that the role of the heterosexual seminarian in such a world is not an enviable one. He details cases of non-sexual harassment--by disciplinary action, coercive "counseling," or social ostracism--by which "lavender" seminaries punish or exclude heterosexual men who are perceived as theological or social threats. Rose's book is more anecdotal than systematic, and more than one review has criticized his impressionistic approach. But such charges do not diminish the shock effect of such anecdotes--or their effectiveness in illuminating just how lax in various ways authorities in some seminaries have been.3

DESPITE THESE and other piecemeal attempts by orthodox Catholics to assay the beast, however, the fact is that it is not Church traditionalists who have been in the forefront of diagnosing and publicizing the man-boy sex scandal. In fact, if traditionalists as a whole can be said to have shared a single fault in the scandal history, it is that many of them chose to look the other way as compelling evidence emerged--starting with Jason Berry's articles for the National Catholic Reporter in the 1980s--that both active homosexuality and minor molestation were increasing among priests. To many traditionalists, no doubt, these were subjects summoning such personal repugnance that they could not be faced. Some simply refused to believe that priests had been sexually active. To others--and this reaction remains powerful still--the mere notion of airing the Church's dirty laundry in the media is unthinkable. Either way, certain evils were not seen. In the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills has taken traditionalists to task for opting over the years toward the view that the scandals were being blown out of proportion. Evident though Wills's anti-orthodox agenda may be, on this point he is right. Confronted with the horrifying facts about man-boy sex instigated by Catholic priests, many such Catholics behaved as if the explosion of sexual abuse cases were just an expression of anti-Catholic bias.

Even so, the reluctance of the orthodox to face as much proves exactly how wrong the charge of a traditionalist "purge" really is. Orthodox American Catholics, far from brandishing their torches, are in fact (exceptions already noted) coming late to what others have established. What the "purge" argument really does is to deflect attention from something much more interesting--namely, the fact that points like Shaughnessy's and Rose's have been made repeatedly over the years by other writers, including some who cannot possibly be described as ideological tools of the would-be "purgers."

One such authority is Donald B. Cozzens, whose 2000 book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood" came endorsed, among others, by Theodore Hesburgh, liberal icon and former president of Notre Dame. Cozzens--a priest, professor of theology, and former president-rector of a seminary--observed that "the need gay priests have for friendship with other gay men, and their shaping of a social life largely comprised of other homosexually oriented men, has created a gay subculture in most of the larger U.S. dioceses. A similar subculture has occurred in many of our seminaries."

Like Rose, Cozzens emphasized two other consequences of this gaying of the priesthood: the reordering of what had been masculine social life along feminized lines drawn by gossip, favoritism, and cliques; and the consequent deterrence of some unknown number of actual and potential heterosexual seminarians. "Not infrequently," Cozzens explained, "the sexual contacts and romantic unions among gay seminarians create intense and complicated webs of intrigue and jealousy leading to considerable inner conflict. Here the sexually ambiguous seminarian drawn into the gay subculture is particularly at risk. The straight seminarian, meanwhile, feels out of place and may interpret his inner destabilization as a sign that he does not have a vocation to the priesthood." Writing in the Boston Globe earlier this year, Cozzens took the opportunity to put the same point even more forcefully: "My own experience as a former seminary rector made it clear to me that the growing number of homosexually oriented priests is deterring significant numbers of Catholic men from seriously considering the priesthood. Moreover, seminary personnel face considerable challenges dealing with the tensions that develop when gay and straight men live in community."

If the example of Cozzens suggests that there is more to the concern over active homosexuality than a traditionalist witch hunt, the example of Jason Berry proves the point. Berry's treatment of the role of overtly gay priests in the scandals, as National Review contributor Stanley Kurtz has acutely observed, is "all the more striking for coming from the pen of a Catholic who would himself like to see a liberalization of the Church's sexual teachings." Moreover, Berry obviously takes pains to be charitable toward gay priests. Even so, the reporter in Berry is unable to avoid the correlation of the scandals having grown in tandem with openly and actively gay priests. His own groundbreaking work on the scandals is shot through with ambivalence about just that.

Here, for example, is Berry writing of that very uneasiness ten years ago in "Lead Us Not into Temptation":

"I felt sympathy for most of the gay priests I interviewed; I also found myself troubled by things some of them said. Of eighteen priests . . . I interviewed on a [National Catholic Reporter] assignment about clergy, only two claimed to have honored celibacy. . . . It would be irresponsible not to note that a strain of gay culture is taken up with youth love. . . . Many gay bookstores feature books celebrating man-youth (if not man-boy) sex. . . . There are also some homosexuals who are drawn to an age zone of young manhood that hovers close to the age of legal consent."

The case of Stanley Kurtz is comparable. Though he writes most frequently for National Review, Kurtz, a non-Catholic, has stated publicly that he does not believe homosexuality is a sin. Nevertheless, he has been more adamant than any other observer in connecting the dots between the priest scandals, on the one hand, and such explosive political issues as gay marriage, on the other. "The uproar over priestly sex abuse," he argues, "offers spectacular confirmation of nearly every warning ever issued by the opponents of gay marriage." The American church presents "a case in which gay sexual culture has not been tamed, but has instead dramatically subverted a venerable social institution." In defending this essay, Kurtz also linked the scandals with yet another issue of society-wide significance: gays in the military. "Surely much of the difficulty" in the Church cases, as he put it, "derives from an institutional setting in which large numbers of gay men, whatever their internal psychological state, room and travel together, and are given intimate access to young men. Gay-rights advocates have tried to pretend that, in cases like the military, such access does not matter. But it does. . . . [O]ne lesson of this scandal is that the integration of homosexual and heterosexual men in the same living areas can in fact break down 'unit cohesion,' thereby causing institutional disruption."

The idea that the crisis is being stage-managed as a traditionalist plot ought finally to be put to rest by another whistleblower who has consistently exposed and decried both the scandals and the proliferation of active homosexuality in Church life. In 1989, this Catholic complained: "Blatantly active homosexual priests are appointed, transferred and promoted. Lavender rectories and seminaries are tolerated. National networks of active homosexual priests (many of them administrators) are tolerated." The United States, this writer went on to charge, is developing "a substantially homosexual clergy, many of whom are blatantly part of the gay subculture."

The author of these and many other unminced words on the subject is no icon of Catholic traditionalists, but rather their bete noire Andrew Greeley--jet-setting Jesuit sociologist, racy novel writer, and no one's idea of a Church reactionary. Here is Greeley again, in 1990, urging the archdiocese of Chicago to "clean out the pedophiles, break up the gay cliques, tighten up the seminary, and restore the good name of the priesthood." Greeley, for one, has not hesitated to identify the elephant. In that sense, his unassailable standing as a political liberal in all other respects has likely proved invaluable. Recall the outcry that greeted Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit in recent weeks for observing that the Church's problem was "a homosexual-type problem" and that "it is an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.'' Yet Maida's are milder words on the subject than many of Greeley's over the years. One can only imagine the explosion had any traditionalist recently written, as Greeley was quoted years ago saying, that "the two phenomena [of homosexuality and pedophilia] shade into one another."

If this is the stuff of a Catholic traditionalist "purge," it has acquired an unusual officer corps.

[Footnotes not available in original posted version.]


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