Change of heart:
Catholic priests must choose between celibacy and love
Torn between celibacy and a woman. It's a dilemma for Catholic priests who love in secret.By James D. Davis South Florida Sun-Sentinel June 28, 2009
The Rev. Bob Deshaies never dated while growing up in Waterbury, Conn. He went to a Catholic high school seminary, then a Catholic college, then a major seminary. "You'd be giving up your ministry for a cheap piece of fluff," his spiritual director told him.
Then he met Deborah Cabral, a youth worker at a parish in Worcester, Mass. He got to know her first as a co-worker, then as a friend, then as a girlfriend. That meeting in 1985, and the relationship that followed, led into marriage, then out of the Catholic priesthood and into the Episcopal Church within two years, preceding Alberto Cuti by two decades.
"When you meet a woman who opens up your heart and soul, it's mind-shattering," says Deshaies, now rector at St. Benedict's Episcopal Church in Plantation. "It got me to rethink everything."
Cuti's exit from Catholic ranks, and his wedding at an Episcopal church this past Friday, have highlighted the issue of priests who are involved with women — relationships kept in the shadows by the requirement of celibacy.
As a handsome TV priest and pastor of a South Beach parish, Cuti made headlines worldwide with his relationship — and drew a loud protest at home.
On May 28, the day Cuti joined the Episcopal Church, Archbishop John C. Favalora said his actions "have caused grave scandal [and] harmed the Archdiocese of Miami — especially our priests."
Non-celibate priests also drew fire from Pope Benedict XVI, even as he announced the Year for Priests. "The Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity on the part of some of her ministers," Benedict's June 16 letter said.
Given the stigma, studies of priest-women relationships are rare. But some numbers are available.
In 2002, the late sociologist Dean Hoge of Catholic University of America estimated that 20 percent to 30 percent of resigned priests left because they fell in love with women; 5 percent to 15 percent because they fell in love with men; and 20 percent to 30 percent because they rejected celibacy in general.
According to psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, 25 percent of all American priests have had relations with women at one time or another since ordination. "I think Cuti has done everybody a big service by getting it talked about," says Sipe, whose books A Secret World and Sex, Priests and Power shocked Catholic circles in the 1990s. "The average priest has the identical struggle. They're just not on film or video."
The men, therefore, must often sort through the issues alone. So do the women.
Veiling the truth
Nancy Nevius was furious when Tom Brooks told her he was a priest six months into their relationship.
The two were working in the late 1990s as psychotherapists at South County Mental Health in Delray Beach, and he didn't wear a collar on the job.
Then a friend told her of Brooks' other job. "I couldn't imagine a relationship with a priest," she says. She confronted him over dinner, yet he didn't apologize.
"People are often put off when they first hear you're a priest," says Tom Brooks, who's retired but still performs occasional weddings.
"But then we talked about it, and the relationship got more serious after that." He wrote Pope John Paul II and said he was leaving the priesthood. Nevius and Brooks married in 1992 and now live in Tequesta.
Although Tom and Nancy Brooks attend meetings with a group called Celibacy is the Issue (CITI), they don't bother lobbying anymore.
"What's important is not dogma but relationship," says Nancy Brooks. "I feel equal and treasured. Many people don't have that."
'Not lesser people'
Judy Hein enjoyed being with Father Paul Veliyathil, whether helping with his master's thesis, or sharing chicken at KFC, or just walking around the neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
His traditional Indian mother objected strongly, and they stayed apart for more than a year. Yet their love lasted, and they married in 1988 over the objections of both their families.
"It seems like a lame excuse, but we had to believe God brought us together," says Judy Veliyathil, a receptionist at a foster care agency.
They now attend Royal Palm Christian Church in Coral Springs, and Paul Veliyathil works with a hospice. He's also with Rent-A-Priest, a network of men like himself who were never laicized, or formally released from the priesthood. They do sacraments such as weddings and baptisms, although the church doesn't sanction them.
Judy calls herself "perhaps naive," but she prays the church will eventually allow priests to marry.
"It's just too bad that men can't be who they are," she adds. "If they can live celibate, let them go for it. But they're not lesser people because they love."
One of the newer groups dealing with priests and women is the Apostles Wives Club, a blog launched in August by Marcella Paliekara of Fond du Lac, Wis.
She was looking for women like herself who married Catholic clergy. But almost from the start, the focus shifted to women secretly involved with priests.
Paliekara posts her own comments and says she gets 85 to 100 page views a day.
She's reluctant to divulge much of what women tell her, fearful they might feel she's betrayed their confidence. But she says some think "it's something special to love a priest, like being in love with a president or a celebrity."
Another organization, Good Tidings Ministry in Canadensis, Pa., has handled contacts from 2,000 people — 90 percent of them women — since it was founded in 1983. Its current head, the Rev. Cait Finnegan, is hardest on the priests. "We thought priests would be looking to find a way out of their moral dilemma," she says. "We found they just didn't want to get caught. Many of them are playboys, serial womanizers."
That may have been one issue with two ex-pastors at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach. The Revs. John Skehan and Francis Guinan were found guilty this year of stealing thousands of dollars from church coffers, spending it partly on girlfriends.
Finnegan puts the ball in the priests' court because of the Catholic Church's celibacy rule. "The regulations become the men's personal decision on how to behave. A lot of them are dating, experimenting, like teenagers, at 30 or 40 years old. But without the responsibility of a man."
Organizations like Leaving the Priesthood also get entangled with the issue. The Colorado-based group, founded by an ex-priest in August, has gotten inquiries from about a dozen women who have fallen in love with priests.
The Rev. Robert Kippley, who himself left the priesthood to marry, says he finds patterns on both sides that disturb him.
Some women are frustrated if a priest doesn't express his love, says Kippley, now a Lutheran pastor. Sometimes the priest flirts, leads a woman on — a practice Kippley condemns as "emotional abuse."
For their part, some women are "attracted to forbidden love," he adds. He asked one e-mailer: "What if he left the priesthood and offered to marry you? Where would your love be in six months?" She stopped writing to him.
Almost to a person, the activists want a church-wide discussion of optional celibacy.
"There is so much secret stuff going on," says Deshaies, the Episcopal priest in Plantation. "The church has got to admit it."
James D. Davis can be reached at jdavis@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4730.
Copyright 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel