was presented in the Boston Public Library on May 20, 2010 to a group of
guests invited by Bishops Accountability.
INTRODUCTION: Coming to Boston is a home coming for
anyone who has been concerned with the clergy sex abuse crisis in the
United States. We all know now that some Catholic clergy for decades,
(and centuries) were abusing boys and girls while bishops covered up the
crimes, but it took the “guts of the Globe”, The Spotlight Team, to
ferret out the documents and deliver the news, really to the world,
beginning on January 6, 2002.
Boston provided the flashpoint of the Catholic
clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States. Lawyers fought for
victims: prominent among them Eric Mac Leish, Mitchell Garabedian and
The combination of press exposure, victims’
pressure, legal support and public outrage propelled the bishops into
action; within six months they instituted a “zero tolerance” policy
toward priest abusers (but not against abusing bishops). They
established a National Review Board under lay direction and employed the
John Jay School of Criminal Justice to conduct a survey of the U.S.
diocesan files. Both unveiled their reports on February 27, 2004.
Meanwhile the pope called the American cardinals to Rome and accepted
the resignation of the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law.
Boston lay forces mobilized: Terry McKiernan and
Anne Barrett-Doyle founded and operate BishopsAccountability.org
the single most valuable repository of documented information about the
sex abuse of bishops and priests.
The Voice Of The Faithful organized “to
support the sexually abused; to support priests and bishops of
integrity; and to help shape the structural integrity of the Church.”
VOTF spread from Boston across the country.
Secular authorities neither in Boston nor across
the country were mollified; in 12 jurisdictions from Massachusetts to
Los Angeles civil officials instituted Grand Jury investigations to
evaluate the pattern and practice of the Roman Catholic Church in
dealing with sex abuse of minors by its clergy. Every one found the
bishops negligent or complicit in a problem they “could not manage.”
Despite all of the evidence to the contrary the
voice of the hierarchy remained defiant and clear: The head of the U.S.
bishops, Wilton Gregory, proclaimed the crisis, “history” and Pope John
Paul II pronounced the crisis, “an American problem.” Even in 2010 a
researcher for the U.S. bishops declared sex abuse of minors by American
priests essentially a fluke of history and a temporary deviation from a
The revelations of abuse in Europe and its cover up
by church authority belie the assumption that sexual abuse by priests
and bishops is geographically limited or a temporary phenomenon.
Now is the time to be direct and honest about where
we are. The pope has a sex problem. Its dimensions cannot be
solved or even contained without serious and fundamental reconsideration
of the origins and dynamics of the phenomena.
POINT ONE: The sexual abuse of minors by Roman
Catholic clergy is a symptom of a systemic problem rooted in church
structure and teaching.
Recently an editor of the New Yorker
reminded me of a comment I made before a conference of 300 victims in
1992: I said, “the current revelations of abuse are the tip of an
iceberg, and if the problem is traced to its foundation the path will
lead to the highest halls of the Vatican.” The current revelations
of sexual violations in Europe have shifted attention and the matrix of
the conundrum of sexual abuse of children and minors by proclaimed
celibate men to Rome.
It is clearer to most observers in 2010 than 1992
that the tip of the clergy abuse iceberg is truly a symptom. Symptoms
need to be addressed and must be managed and controlled, but they are
not THE problem. Symptoms are indicators of systemic infection or
Roman Catholic leadership has failed to deal
credibly and openly with all of human sexuality. Making one or another
adjustment in church discipline, for instance making clerical celibacy
optional, will not meet the epic challenge the pope now faces, because
there are a tangle of sexual issues that clog up the church’s agenda.
Like a house of cards its stability rests on maintaining their
interrelationship. Danger looms that any revisioning in discipline or
the moral teaching about chastity would undercut the entire edifice of
power and control.
The pope’s sex problem is harrowing and monumental,
but desperately begs to be addressed.
Theologian William Shea already outlined the
challenge in 1986 when he listed the issues that need discussion: “divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control,
abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, [women’s ordination, mandated
celibacy] and the male monopoly of leadership.” He opined that the
fear and perhaps hatred of women could be at the bottom of the ecclesial
It would be disingenuous to protest that the Church
has discussed these issues or invites dialogue about human sexuality.
True enough, the Vatican has made pronouncements and declarations on
every item on the list, but none invite dialogue. They pose fundamental
questions that remain undigested and unresolved in believable terms.
POINT TWO: The pope has a problem talking about
sex because Catholic teaching is basically no longer credible in
terms of modern understanding of sexual nature. It has boxed itself in
by presenting all of sex as settled and beyond discourse.
Despite Pope John Paul’s four-year effort to define
a Theology of the Body he never transcended some of the basic
constraints of church teaching that maintain sex is sin. Sex remains
permissible and holy only within a valid marriage. At one time he said
that a man could commit a “sin of lust” with his own wife. A Freudian
slip, perhaps, but one that nonetheless expresses a deep conviction
about sex and sin.
A chronic problem with church pronouncements about
sex is their use of the idea of natural law as they define and
apply it (in its narrow sense). The Vatican represents their
interpretation of sexual human nature as an absolute determination. It
First they also isolate the idea of natural law and
impose it as an instrument of control.
Second, the approach fails to acknowledge that
natural law is also the inherent practical sense of right and wrong and
a reasonable guide of conscience, independent of revelation.
Many Catholics use natural law as the road map to
guide their sexual behavior. For instance natural law often trumps the
dictates of Humanae Vitae in matters of family planning. Some
behaviors labeled by the Church “contrary to natural law” (masturbation
one instance among many) should be open for examination and dialogue in
the minds and hearts of many serious Catholics.
“Intrinsic” is a church-word that seals off
any possibility of conversation. Birth control is presented as
intrinsically evil; so is abortion and masturbation. Sex of a cleric
with a minor girl, however, is not considered intrinsically evil, only
POINT THREE: The pope has a problem with
homosexuality not only because of his designation of acts as an
intrinsic evil, but also because a great number of Catholic clergy have
a homosexual orientation.
This dynamic between theory and practice has been a
chronic problem for modern popes. A 1961 Vatican document sent to all
religious superiors and seminary rectors said that men with a homosexual
orientation should not be admitted to religious life nor promoted to
One of the points of the Vatican investigation of
U.S. Seminaries commissioned in 2002 and reported on in December 2008
was to determine the status of homosexuality in these institutions. (It
noted some problems.)
Despite this decree and a series of pronouncements
about the unsuitability of gay men for priesthood knowledgeable Catholic
insiders all agree that a larger proportion of gay clergy—bishops and
priests—inhabit the ranks than exist in the general population.
Conservative estimates range from 30 to 50 percent.
The pope has made formal pronouncements declaring
that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” A 1986 document authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that homosexual
orientation although not sinful in itself, “is a more or less strong
tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the
inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” As if the
concept of Original Sin were not sufficient to cover all human beings of
any orientation or inclination.
It is unfair to judge a person’s sexual orientation
from externals, but gossip around Rome about the pope’s orientation are
commonly circulated in high places; he does little to counter suspicions
among the press corps and others.
POINT FOUR: The pope has a problem with sex as
sin. The problem he has far outstrips his admission that “sin within
the church” is the cause of the clergy abuse crisis. Although
that stance is a welcome shift from the defensive modes of denial,
blaming others, and presenting itself as the victim, it is a far cry
from a realistic dialogue about the structure and function of a celibate
ministry that presents itself as a guide to all sexual moral behavior.
A serious consideration of sex and sexual behaviors
in terms other than sin would mean that the church would share moral
authority where it asserts dominance.
Dominican theologian Yves Congar once said, “In the
Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the
only sin, and obedience the only virtue.” This dynamic dichotomy forms
the linchpin to the structure of the entire clergy sexual abuse crisis
currently embroiling the Catholic Church.
The definition of sex as sin establishes and
maintains authoritarian control because bishops and priests (alone) have
the power to forgive mortal sin. They are lords over the inner territory
of the soul where secret violations are stored. Catholics are required
to submit grave sins in sacramental confession for a priest’s absolution
at least once a year. All sexual sins—thought, word, desire and
action—of course, are grave according to Catholic moral teaching.
The operation of bishops throughout the clergy sex
abuse crisis in the U.S. demonstrates their belief that sex with minors
by a cleric is primarily sinful and only secondarily criminal. This
clerical stance has led to the revelations of monumental harm plus the
exposure of unrepentant clerical arrogance.
Within the clerical system the repentant
priest-abuser is easily forgiven—repeatedly—by the power of absolution;
the innocent child-victim is abandoned with the undeserved psychic
burden of guilt and shame. Religious leaders have demonstrated a lax and
forgiving spirit toward clergy misconduct. Clerical sex is so common
that its meaning and consequences are minimalized.
A number of church related treatment centers to
comfort and help control abusive clergy have been established since
1946. The dismissive attitude toward victims of abuse as bothersome
adversaries stands in stark contrast to the protective and tolerant
concern for clerics.
The Vatican insistence that every question about
human sexuality is settled and beyond discourse—it is only for a person
to obey and conform—takes important life decisions out of the realm of
moral inquisition, dialogue and responsibility for all
Christians—priests and people. The refusal of the Pope and Vatican to
enter into serious open dialogue about the real, vital sexual/celibate
agenda has stripped the Church of its moral leadership and credibility
and continues to be an essential component in the worldwide Catholic
clergy sex abuse crisis.
POINT FIVE: Celibacy is a problem for the pope
because it is a fundamental means of controlling a homo-social clergy
and also in practice it is not a well-observed discipline.
Celibacy is the requirement that a man promise or
vow “perfect and perpetual chastity” before he can be ordained a priest.
The subject has been in dispute and disrepute for centuries. Mandated
celibacy of clerics has vital connections with the problem of sexual
abuse of minors within the clerical system. It is not a neutral
Clerical culture provides fertile ground for the
abuse of power and privilege. Celibate practice lags far behind the
ideal of perfect and perpetual chastity.
At any one time no more than fifty percent of
priests are practicing celibacy. Some men within this circle of
influence and atmosphere will inevitably become abusers. History has
Studies, usually self-survey, protest that “priests
are the happiest men” in America. Huge proportions respond that they are
“satisfied” with celibacy and would seek ordination again. But these
attempts to prove that priests keep celibacy ask and say nothing about
sexual behavior. Certainly some priests are happy because they have
“ministry with privileges.”
Secrecy (the scarlet bond) within the Catholic
clerical system is the cornerstone of the social construct of clerical
celibacy and its violation. The reverence accorded sacramental
confession is stretched beyond all reason to cover and justify known
clerical sexual violations and liaisons.
Mandated celibacy is the capstone of clerical
power. The power structure of the Catholic clerical elite has done all
it could to keep the abuse of minors a secret and to deflect blame
outward. The fight to protect the power system persists in the church’s
violent and irrational opposition against the dissolution of statute of
limitations for crimes of abuse.
Pope Benedict invoked the name of St. Peter Damian,
patron of church reform, when dedicated 2009 as the “Year of the
Priest.” Yet he failed to acknowledge in any way that Peter Damian
pointed out in no uncertain terms the violations of celibacy by clergy:
concubinage, but even more strikingly the sexual plague of priests
abusing boys and young clerics.
POINT SIX: Sex within marriage is a problem for
the pope. The 1968 papal determination that the use of artificial
birth control (the pill, etc.) is a mortal sin—intrinsically evil and
against the natural law—does not make sense practically or morally to a
majority of Catholic couples.
Similar clerical reasoning about the use of condoms
even in a marriage to avoid the spread of the AIDS virus strikes serious
people as frankly ridiculous.
What of courtship? All intimacy is sin before
marriage. All sex forbidden for the widowed or divorced.
The callowness and insensitivity to children and
families demonstrated by clergy abuse only spotlights the deficient
understanding of the clerical culture to the realities of sexual love
and relationships. The church makes everyone a sinner and then justifies
clergy sexual indulgence and assaults as being “just like everyone
Abortion and gay marriage are issues
that the pope pulls out to reinforce the moral superiority of the clergy
that are seemingly above these struggles. Guilt is a tool of control and
self-justification. My experience of over 50 years observing clerical
sexual behavior belies the assumption that priests are free of both
struggles. They more often than not urge or demand that the woman they
impregnated get an abortion. The common result is that the partner does
seek an abortion and the priest goes on to be promoted in the clerical
Catholic clerical culture produces men who use sex
to control others—women and men—the most egregious is the rape of
minors. Sexually active clerics are not the exception, but the rule,
even if only a minority assault children.
CONCLUSION: The Roman Catholic Church today is
corrupt sexually and financially. (Every bit as corrupt as
in 1510 when the young monk Luther visited Rome and was forever scared
by the behavior of the Roman clergy or in 1049 when Peter Damian
addressed his most memorable letter (31) to Pope Leo IX about the sexual
abuse of boys and young clerics. Fr. Marcial Maciel
Degollado and the Legionnaires of Christ exposed by investigative
reporter Jason Berry are but one contemporary paradigm.)
The symptom of sexual abuse of minors by clergy
rests on foundations that tremble or will crumble when external
examination or exposure penetrate them. The devious way the U.S. bishops
have reacted to the crisis begins a process of exposure that cannot be
reversed, contained or denied.
The problem is now in the pope’s hands.
The pope cannot solve the panoply of his sexual
problem with any pronouncements that alter any one part of sexual
teaching or discipline.
The pope is at an epic juncture. Only a sexual Copernican shift that will reconsider basic assumptions about
sexual teaching and discipline that affect all Catholics will be
sufficient to meet the basic crisis that now inundates us.
Consideration of the pope’s sex problem raises
1. Will the pope’s sex problem require a Council
to resolve it? The Implications of the clerical sex abuse crisis
that now exposes a corrupt pattern and practice of a system has escaped
and confused many good, brilliant people and left generations paralyzed.
There is no need to point fingers, but the solution to the pope’s sexual
problem is beyond him or any one person. The challenge of sex is
2. Should the pope
resign? Nine of the 265 Roman Catholic popes have allegedly resigned
their office, most for the good of the Church. The first according to
the historian Epiphanius was Clement I around the year 100. The most
recent was Gregory XII who abdicated at the Council of Constance in 1417
to help settle the claims of three competitors for the papacy.
Benedict is a
conflicted papal name. Two Pope Benedicts have resigned. In 964, after
one month in office, Benedict V abdicated the throne at the insistence
of Emperor Otto I. Pope Benedict IX served three different terms between
1032 and 1048 when he resigned and was charged with simony and
excommunicated by his successor Leo IX. There is no legitimate Benedict
X in the line of papal succession. A “Benedict X” who acted as pope for
nine months in 1058 was declared an anti-pope and excommunicated. The
actual number of Pope Benedicts is technically incorrect. Joseph
Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI is actually only the fifteenth Pope
Pope Benedict XVI is a
descent man and a lifelong servant of his church. It takes nothing away
from whatever good he has done to suggest that he should resign his
office. However, the Roman Catholic Church is in a period of Reformation
as profound (and breathtaking) as any its history has ever recorded. The
voluntary resignation of Pope Benedict XVI could be a gesture that would
match the epic challenge that faces Catholicism today.
Such leadership might help break the pattern and practice that holds the
church hostage to a past that no longer serves the Christian message.
The monarchy that rules the church has outlived its service in the
evangelization of peoples, an evangelization that Paul the apostle
taught and that Pope John Paul II championed.
The People of God—hierarchy included—are shackled by a secret system
designed to control rather than free them. Unresolved sexual issues are
at its core.
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