Home/Rod Dreher/Sex, Lies, And Clericalism

Sex, Lies, And Clericalism

Andrew Sullivan writes on his blog accusing me of “sexual panic” in my writing about the situation in the Church, a remarkable thing to say for someone who knows as well as I do how sexual corruption within the Church has led it to this rotten place. If it’s “sexual panic” to complain that the sex lives of bishops and monsignors and priests and religious have a lot to do with the sex abuse cover up, then fine, I’ll accept that charge. It is apparently the case that believing that what the Catholic tradition teaches about sex, pornography, and so forth, and expecting priests to live up to their vows of celibacy, makes me guilty of sexual panic. If so, yes indeed, I’m guilty. Just as long as we’re clear about that. Anyway, Andrew writes:

Where Rod errs, I think, is in believing that covering up child-rape has a direct link to homosexuality.

That word “direct” does a lot of work in that sentence. I don’t believe that homosexual = pedophile, and never have believed that. The way the homosexual subculture in the priesthood is connected to the scandal is in the keeping of sexual secrets, and the promotion within the priesthood of people who are sexually compromised, and who are therefore “tame” — that is, can be trusted not to speak out against sexual abuse and misconduct among the priesthood, for fear of outing themselves. You learn to turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct among your fellow priests, because your own “safety” depends on your silence. The “lavender mafia” amounts to an informal network of priests, bishops, abbots, religious order leaders, monks, and seminary staff and faculty who work together to cover each other’s sexual activity, and to exclude priests and others who disapprove of it and would pose a threat to its continued existence.

I doubt most sexually active gay priests approve of sexual molestation of minors by other priests. But they — especially if they’re bishops — may be too personally compromised to do much about it. And straight priests and bishops aid and abet this phenomenon by turning a blind eye to it, for the sake of protecting the image of the Church. I have heard from several sources over the past few years that a particular archbishop came to power determined to clean up the network of sexually active gay priests within his archdiocese, only to be handed a list of 80 or so priests who would be outed if he, the archbishop, pushed on this. The archbishop backed down.

One authority to read on this phenomenon is A.W. Richard Sipe. Sipe is a former Benedictine monk who left holy orders decades ago to marry. He has studied clerical sexuality for many years. I do not endorse everything Sipe says, believes, or does. Sipe is definitely on the liberal side of the Church, and seems to be open and affirming of gay sexuality. But he is not in the same denial that many on the left are about the exploitative homosexual and homosocial culture within the priesthood. This is from his basic primer on how to understand sexuality, homosexuality, celibacy, and the scandal:

The culture of Catholic seminaries and religious houses actively cultivates sexual and affective isolation. It is also a culture that signals a safe and satisfying place for gay oriented men—a good place for gay men to thrive. …

For the last several decades bishops and the Vatican have propagated the myth that the problems of sexual abuse by clergy are minimal—“a few bad apples,” exaggerated by the press, an anti-religion/ anti-Catholic attack, and the result of poor selection of candidates for ministry.

These are public relations myths aimed at diverting focus from one basic problem in the clerical culture’s sexual reality: namely bishops and priests in positions of authority who are serving in ministry (sometimes with distinction) at the same time that they have sexual partners, male and female.

Many Roman Catholic bishops and priests do have a sexual life. Because much of it is with age-appropriate and legal partners they seem to miss the connection between their own behavior and clergy who have sex with under-age boys and girls. [Emphasis is Sipe’s. — RD]

In a further comment, Sipe writes:

First, if seminaries were serious about teaching their students about chastity and celibacy they would clean out inadequate rectors and faulty faculty – they are legion.

During the course of my career I have met dozens of seminary rectors and faculty. Many, indeed, were fine men conscientious and upright in every way. I can name many. There were, however, a goodly number whose moral performance did not match their scholastic stature.

Secret private lives betray major character and personality deficits. Those who have to cover up their own secret lives hinder and impede the work and influence of more qualified clergy. Like abusers they undermine “the credibility of the Church’s message” to use the words of Pope Benedict XVI.

Who, in the clerical culture, however, is going to report clergy malfeasance? And to whom? If the janitors of Penn State were afraid to speak up about the violations they saw, what of a priest or seminarian who will lose everything – and not be believed anyway – in a system whose very existence depends on secrecy and the myth of sexual safety

The clerical power structure is laced with blackmail and cover up. Scores of priests and bishops are aware that their comrades are having questionable, or even criminal relationships, how many have reported that activity?

It all starts in the seminary training. Rectors and faculty members who have sexual relationships with their students or who are involved in affairs with women or men do exist. (The account A Tale of Two Bishops on this Site is but one example.) I know of many others. The known cases would make Boccaccio blush.

One rector had a series of sexual partners selected serially from among his students. Another restricted himself to encounters with students who had already left the seminary. He justified his actions because they were of age and no longer studying for the priesthood.

Some students are marked for seduction while in studies and only after ordination inducted into a sexually active fraternity. (Documents record the process.) One professor engaging a newly ordained in a sexual encounter said, “I have waited eight years for this”.

A few faculty form a coterie of initiates and can incorporate students into their coven before ordination. Their sexual liaisons are wide ranging and extend high into the power systems of the church.

That is why oversight currently is impossible. “It was rigged,” said one rector who was personally involved in the Vatican visitation of U.S. seminaries. After I read the summary published in 2009 (in English) I spoke with him and a number of seminary faculty members who agreed it was a “fraud”.

Dangerous administrators impose their destructiveness both from their sexual activity and because they are extreme company-men, conformists, careerists, and yes-men eager for promotion. Sociopaths and narcissists unfortunately are accurate descriptors of too many clergy in positions of power. They are the system.

This description matches what I learned from priests and seminarians in my years of writing about the scandal. I interviewed one former priest who had left the priesthood to marry, as did the four other heterosexual members of his ordination class. The reason, he said, was because they were the only ones in the archdiocese who were living out celibacy. The gay priests were open about their sexual activity, and the archbishop knew all about it. In one instance, he said, the archbishop conducted a sham investigation into gay sexual harassment at a local seminary, and pronounced the harasser not guilty. The fraudulence of clergy life in that archdiocese wore the straight men down, and they all dropped out. This former priest told me that if he and his heterosexual colleagues had decided to get girlfriends, the gay priests in their archdiocese would have been fine with it.

Andrew Sullivan adds:

I used to think that the gay question was important to me but not that important in the context of the whole church. But as the years have gone by, I wonder if it isn’t actually central to the crisis in Catholicism today. We need honesty – honesty about gay priests who need to come out as a way to buttress their celibacy; honesty about how priests are human beings and can benefit from a stable relationship in ways that enhance rather than detract from their ministry; honesty about the absurdly high proportion of the priesthood that is gay; honesty about the desperate need for wives and daughters to be part of a priest’s life in order to help him understand the flock he is supposed to tend to; honesty about the total arbitrary nature of the ban on women priests; and a recognition that gay priests have been among the greatest leaders of the church and still could be if allowed an option for a loving relationship with another human being – as Cardinal Newman had his whole life.

“Be not afraid!” John Paul II once wrote. “Of what should we not be afraid? We should not be afraid of the truth about ourselves.” This conclave – created by one of the gravest crises in the history of the church – needs to lose fear. It needs to face the truth about itself. And it needs to grasp the opportunity Benedict XVI has given it: the chance for a new birth, a new era, a new broom.

You can well imagine where I, a theological conservative, dissent from Sullivan’s view here, but I endorse his call for the need for honesty and truth-telling about homosexuality in the priesthood, and the truth about clerical sexuality, period. People need to face the facts, as painful as they will be. And you know, even though I would support a married priesthood, that is by no means a cure-all. We have in the Orthodox churches problems too with sexually compromised priests and bishops, and other bishops who are too spineless to stand up to them and to protect the integrity of the Church and the Gospel. This is not just a Catholic problem.

Finally, a Catholic reader writes:

This is an extreme, almost insane time for the Catholic Church. My hope is that this humiliation will be helpful and will flush out the crap. Not, of course, that everything will be fixed, but that something can be dislodged. I’d hoped that Benedict would have been able to do something on curial reform–he was in the Curia but not of it, an ‘outsider’ insider who knew where the bodies were buried–and he did get the ball rolling on sexual and financial transparency. But, the next pope has to address these matters head on, whether directly or through an powerful Secretary of State who’ll be his surgeon and hatchet-man.

My hope is that Benedict’s resignation has created the conditions in which something new, something radical can be done. I believe, with all my heart and my mind based upon long familiarity with the trajectory of his life and thought, that Benedict desires this renewal and knew that his resignation could open things up for something new. (My already-high esteem for Benedict went through the roof with his resignation; I say this as one who loves Ratzinger-Benedict, not as a Catholic progressive happy to see him go. For all of his limits, he is a better man that most of us deserve.)One last thing: you hit the nail on the head about the outrage of ‘devout’ parents who are trying to raise children to be believers. Combine the corruption symbolized by O’Brien’s resignation (and Mahony’s stupefying self-pity) with the take-no-prisoners propaganda of the media and others on marriage and sexuality (e.g., your WaPo post), and you’ve got an incredibly high hurdle to get over. I have to deal with this as the father of young children and as a college theology teacher. We can’t afford mediocrity in the Church anymore, as the stakes are too high. The first rule of medicine is, “Do no harm.” So few bishops and cardinals are willing–or able–to speak openly about the challenges facing the Church. It’s all either happy talk or ‘ism’-criticism: relativism, secularism, individualism, materialism, etc. There is no self-criticism. So few hierarchs speak to the laity (or their priests) like adults to fellow adults in the Church. Even highly-intelligent cardinals speak to the laity like we’re good-but-slightly-slow children. Even their tones of voice are patronizing and slightly inhuman. This is the tragedy of a self-enclosed, self-referential system that replicates itself and is divorced from reality.

And, yet, Rod, I love this Church and know that we’re all stuck with each other, we’re all in it together. There is nowhere else to go; no imagined, hoped-for Church; no self-selected community of the like-minded. This is the only Church there is, and we must love it and all of its members the same way that God loves us all. As Karl Rahner once put it:

“Could we not say to God: Here is someone with whom I cannot get on. She belongs to you. You made her. If you do not will her to be the way she is, at least you allow her to be that way. Dear God, I want to put up with her the way that you put up with me. Would we not find our heart a little lighter, more at ease, more patient?” (The Great Church Year, 379)



about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles