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Inside The Seminary Closet

A gay ex-student at a conservative Catholic seminary denounces culture of sexual secrecy

Reader Gabe Giella and I have been e-mailing about his own story. Gabe attended a small New England seminary in a conservative diocese in the era immediately after the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in Boston. Today, as an out gay man, he is unable to do ministry in the Catholic Church as a priest or lay person, so he has ceased to practice the Catholic faith. He has agreed to let me publish his account of seminary life here:

I’d kept two secrets for a very long time. First that I was gay and second that I wanted to become a priest. An unlikely, awkward combination for a public high school student in the 90s.

One way to avoid the topic about my sexuality was to play up the notion of a divine call to the priesthood, especially to my devout Catholic family and friends.

My first year of state college near Boston gave me the distance and freedom to explore and discover people who supported me as a gay person — a piece of information I shared mostly with spiritual mentors — and also in ministry. Part of that included leading a trip to Canada to hear the late Pope John Paul II speak at World Youth Day. The clergy sex abuse scandal was unraveling like a spool of yarn, a web with connecting points all across the globe. The pope was doubling down. He encouraged the thousands of youth gathered to not let the failings of a few keep us from following Christ as priests or nuns.

I now had the zeal I needed to make this transition. It was summer after a successful first year of college. I had planned on joining a fraternity in the fall and had a social and academic life that was flourishing, but I was compelled to put it aside to explore the priesthood.

A well connected priest whom I met on the bus en route to Canada and lived near me seemed to simply snap his fingers, and with very little questioning, an MMPI test given to me to fill out at home. A therapist asked what my sexual orientation was (I said straight), and within two short months I was enrolled in a small house of formation for undergraduate men pursuing the priesthood.

Having been raised with four sisters and no brothers, it was certainly a learning curve to live with almost twenty other men. I didn’t really know what was normal or commonplace or acceptable. I had to rely on my gut to navigate what increasingly seemed more like training for some sort of game than for ministry. I also felt both seen and understood as a gay person, but strangely and simultaneously also very cautious around that topic, if not downright fearful and secretive. I wasn’t a sicko. I hadn’t done anything wrong. There was simply no context to be myself.

I should be clear that this seminary experience on the outside had every appearance of orthodoxy, and even of traditionalism. This was not a place that promoted homosexuality whatsoever. In fact on paper, we were led to come down very hard on “liberalism” and anything of the like. We scoffed at guitar masses and nuns without habits. We would pass around books like Goodbye, Good Men, which chalked up the low numbers in seminaries to devout traditional men being turned away by so-called liberals and nuns who’d supposedly hijacked seminaries.

This seminary was nothing of the sort. It was an old boys’ club, complete with all the gin (usually scotch) and lace and incense one could imagine, and a love for Latin. Add a penchant for dressing up statues of the Virgin of Fatima with sumptuous fabrics and tiaras, too. In a frat house, there might be Victoria’s Secret catalogues strewn about. At the seminary, it was vestment and liturgical furnishing catalogs.

It was also an atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. Nothing quite seemed clear, transparent, or holistic. It felt like acting school. The ethos, speech, and behavior that permeated the environment did not match the rather staunch vintage-like Catholic culture we were being trained to live and promote.

One seminarian openly went by a woman’s name as an alter ego.  “She” would come out with some choice words over bad choices in liturgical music, bad weather, or complaints about our seminary chef.

There were seminarians in their late twenties who had uncomfortably close friendships with high school boys.

Half-drunk priest guests would be leaving the bishop’s and clergy quarters at the crack of dawn while I was sitting in the refectory eating cereal, usually unable to sleep.

I remember feeling that there was an awful lot of overly casual familiarity between many of the senior priests and monsignors and the well-connected seminarians. Trips, stipends, lots of scotch, and lots of smoking. In what other world does a young man walk out of high school and into a social life almost exclusively with other men three times his age?

Two seminarians had told me each separately that their mutual confessor had alerted them of their sexual desire for each other in the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) telling them he had been informed of this by an inner voice he attributed to “Our Lady of Medjugorje”

At our fall retreat which was focused on “brotherhood” I was taken on a long walk through the woods by one of the well connected seminarians. He spoke cryptically about who I could trust and how I had to be careful with whom I associated and shared personal information. It would become clear when we returned to the rest of the group after our walk that some of the other men had been upset and jealous that we had been gone for so long. I felt the discomfort within me, but at the time, I wasn’t fully able to understand or see what was happening. Perhaps I didn’t want to.

As increasingly uncomfortable as things became, there remained a familiarity among us, as though perhaps most if not all of us shared the same secret.

The winter retreat was at cozy coastal retreat center. Its theme was “spirituality.” This experience began a spiral of events starting with the sacrament of reconciliation, and with confidential discussion being used as a backchannel for communicating gossip. At this time one of the seminarians had confided in me that he was attracted to another seminarian. It made for an uncomfortable winter wherein this man would openly be suggestive about my own sexuality in front of others on a number of occasions. By conjecture, he decided I would somehow appreciate him putting stacks of newspapers with headlines like “Gays in the Priesthood” outside of my bedroom door, as these were common during the unfolding of the sex abuse crisis. He would also place himself in the hallway to check out a particular seminarian just leaving the shower in a towel, and did it in an ostentatious way to involve imply I was checking they guys out as well. Eventually, these events seemed staged.

At the time it was popular to visit seven churches on the night of Holy Thursday. That’s always a big party night in rectories for its connection to celebrating the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. On that night there is usually a specially decorated shrine set up for people to pray into the late hours of the night; traditionally they will do this by stopping at seven different churches.

But that year, after hearing a drunken sermon during the liturgy, there was a large dinner party with the older seminarians who’d returned home. Everyone was fed copious amounts of red wine regardless of age. That Holy Thursday night it was declared in the hallway by the “in crowd” of seminarians that they  would be doing their “seven rectories devotion” in which they would play a game they referred to as “which priest will follow us into the bathroom?”

One of these seminarians, upon returning from an evening of “seven rectories,” pulled me into his room and closed the door and asked me to perform oral sex on him.

It was sudden and bold, and the result of a late night of drinking at multiple rectories. While all signs pointed to something like this eventually happening, I still felt like I was caught up in something surreal and so upsetting it couldn’t possibly be real. It had all the elements of a soap opera.

Perhaps I said nothing at all. Perhaps my own facial expression said enough. Perhaps I told him off. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but do I remember the presumptive sneer on his face turning to a look of concern when he realized I was not complying with his request.  I went back to my room and found  the seminarian who’d admitted having a crush on the one who had just propositioned me sitting in my chair crying. He had positioned himself in the room next door, and had heard what had happened. He explained that he was crying out of jealousy that I was asked to perform a sexual favor rather than him.

“You’re so attractive,” he said. “You’re in great shape and you have beautiful clothes. Come on, you must know that everyone is staring at you all the time. You know full well that every guy here including the priests and even the bishop would f*ck you if they had the chance.”

It was a disturbing, puzzling, and fear-filled Easter, seeing friends and family and trying to tell them what a great time I was having in seminary, despite all that was happening.

A few days after Easter recess I was invited into the room of the seminarian who had been crying in my chair on Holy Thursday night. He had a fully stocked bar under the sink in his room which was totally against the protocol (and I think the law, too, as I don’t believe he was 21 at the time). He offered me a drink, which I took. He began flirting, taking the liberty to enjoy a campy conversation since I was one of the only people who knew the truth about him. We were sitting on his bed chatting and laughing and trying to keep our volume down since it was late. He abruptly got up and ran down the hall, yelling and knocking on doors and declaring that I was trying to remove his clothes, and that I had removed mine. Meanwhile I was standing there, fully clothed, ashamed and in shock, holding a Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I ran across the hall and locked myself in my room. What was happening?

A day or two later I received a call on my wall phone from a friend who had just seen both the seminarian who tried to frame me with the alcohol, and the seminarian who propositioned me, speaking to one of the priests in charge. My friend had heard my name mentioned. In my gut I knew what was happening. Their secret was out with me, and they had no dirt on me. That fact put me in a position of power, and so I had to be taken down. I had seen and learned and observed just enough to make me a liability, but I determined that I had to speak up. I determined that it might be worth risking being outed. I even thought in my naivete that the powers that be might appreciate the opportunity to address this unhealthy system, in light of the discovery of countless clergy sex abuse cases coming to light.

I was wrong.

I told the clergy staff, spiritual mentors,  and vocation directors what had happened leading up to this, and also confessed any wrongdoing I had done that year (the worst of which was taking a bottle of wine from the refrigerator and sharing it with a friend). A number of seminarians were also questioned over a period of a couple of weeks. Finals were looming, and there was a great amount of stress. I understood the term “walking on eggshells” in a new way. I hadn’t claimed to be perfect, or flawless, or angelic. I’ve not always kept boundaries as best as I could have done either. But I never tried to blackmail anyone. Surely, it was the job of the bishop and clergy in whom I’d confided to protect me…

It would be determined on the first day of finals that I would be asked to leave the seminary for “admitting the stealing and drinking alcohol.” The one who had shared the wine with me had a lesser punishment, and the others had none; they are both ordained now. I was ordered to pack up all of my belongings and leave that day. One of the staff priests was weeping and said he was sure this was “part of the Holy Spirit’s plan.” How would I explain this to my family and friends?

I had lived with the secret of my sexuality for years. Had I been obvious? Had I done something to deserve this? Would I “out” myself if I questioned or brought any of this to someone’s attention? I decided it was not worth the risk. I would have held anyone’s secret in order to keep my own from being exposed. The reason I lay these stories bare now it because of my strong belief that this pervasive dysfunctional culture is at the deepest core of the cover-up, abuse, and scandal of all forms–not just sexual–that continue to be rampant in these church circles.

I also call to attention the scapegoating of gay men by the Catholic Church regarding the sexual abuse of people of all ages. We are not talking about healthy, out, integrated men who are aware and unashamed of their sexuality. We are not talking about men who are simply repressed because they follow their vow of celibacy diligently. We are talking about deeply dangerous minds in the highest and lowest ranks of the Church’s clergy and hierarchy.

Years later, I was speaking with a priest who was in seminary with me while all of this happened. He is not celibate and doesn’t believe a great deal of the Catholic Church’s teaching, but maintains a high profile. I asked why he didn’t just leave our join another denomination so he could have a free and honest relationship with another man. “That’s not what I’m looking for,” he said. “Marriage, no thanks.”

Over the more than fifteen years since this happened to me, I have been able to put words to what I believe is behind the culture of sexual coercion, coverup, child abuse and so many other heinous crimes continually being committed by clergy:

Sexual secrecy is the currency in the church and learning how to use it is almost treated like an art form in seminaries. This culture has been woven into the fabric of Roman Catholic clergy culture for centuries. The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration. Sexual secrecy and blackmail is the clergy’s bitcoin by which position, power, and control are bartered in the shadows, costing children and adults alike their faith, their safety and well being — and in some cases, their lives.

I asked Gabe if he would answer a few questions from me. He agreed. Here they are:

1. In your story, you’ve given an account of a localized version of what has been called the “lavender mafia” — that is, groups of gay priests who work in concert to exercise power, often by getting rid of threats … like you, even though you’re gay. How should we think about cliques like this, with regard to the scandal?

I believe it is these cliques that are and have been the source of scandals of all kinds for centuries. Catholic clergy in particular have for centuries been notorious for operating sexually in the shadows and sometimes even in the open. Think of historic popes whose own sons were appointed as cardinals. Think of John Paul II, who held up rapist and molester Marcial Maciel as a “sure guide for youth.” The cliques that form in these so called lavender palaces are founded on a deep fear of being found out, and those who are in these circles — the ones I’ve encountered being the most “conservative” and “traditional” you could imagine — will go to any length at all to remain in the shadows.

They aren’t interested in genuine intimate friendships and healthy relationships outside of their circles, even with family members, who often are among those they are most trying to hide from. They will often dabble in a spiritual book or go to confession someplace far away where they won’t be recognized, as a way to sort of “reset” when they start feeling a little dirty — and then they do it all over again. It looks very much like a typical scene from a mafia movie with an underlying life of scandal and dishonesty often veiled with “family values” or in the case of the priesthood, traditionalism.

2. What is the answer, then? Father James Martin, SJ, has said that gay priests who are celibate should be free to come out within the Church. Do you agree? What about priests who do not intend to stop having sex?

I call on all Roman Catholic clergy to come out of the shadows about who they are. Those who have exploited sexuality through the perversion of pedophilia must come forward and go to the police. The bishops who know about them must turn their cases over to the police. All clergy — including bishops who are gay and celibate — must come out of the closet if they are to live with dignity, and if they are to acknowledge that their congregations have a right to the truth. This act could bring relief to the millions of Catholics who live closeted, shame-filled lives.

Priests who are not celibate must come forward and acknowledge it, and if they earnestly believe in the Church’s current teachings on homosexual relationships and celibacy, they must repent and stop. If they have simply been pretending to be celibate while not practicing celibacy, they need to acknowledge that they have been deceiving their congregations. If their behavior is due to their honest disbelief in the church’s current teachings, then they must be honest about that as well, and be open to the immense conversation and decisions that might result from that.

Bottom line: if priests were honest and or stood up for themselves as they are, and not out of self preservation against the very institution they represent, a tidal wave of change would happen. There would be a Pride Parade at the St. Peter’s Square if most of these men came out.

3. One striking aspect of your story is how outward manifestations of traditionalism hid an inner hothouse culture of homosexuality within the seminarians and clergy. What would you say to conservative Catholics who think the scandal is a liberal thing, or the fault of Vatican II? 

There are sick, broken, power hungry, scared men on both sides of the “liberal/traditional” Catholic fence. We have to stop blaming differences of opinion about things like guitar music at mass vs. the use of a pipe organ as the source of the problem. Priests who celebrate the Tridentine mass are often guilty of abusing their power. Priests who couldn’t care less about their choice of vestments are too. Some priests who preach against gay marriage are having gay sex. Some priests who preach acceptance of all people are having gay sex too. A particular priest who ended up sexually assaulting me, after rambling on about his love for the Tridentine Mass, responded to my question of how this results in anyone’s greater holiness and well-being with, “It doesn’t. That’s not the point.”

What is? The mystery and nostalgia hit evokes a time when priests would never have been suspected of anything, and the word gay just meant “happy.”

Conservatives have for decades now been scapegoating the Second Vatican Council for every problem to hit the planet, and this is no exception. It’s simply not the case. No side is innocent, and no display of liturgical, theological, or ideological extremism is a sign of a priest’s well-being.

4. You are against “scapegoating” gays in the priesthood for the scandal. I agree with you that the problem cannot be reduced to gays in the priesthood, but I also believe that it cannot exclude the problems that come with having gays in the priesthood. I think both the scapegoaters (“It’s entirely the gays’ fault”) and the see-no-evil crowd (“Gays in the priesthood have nothing to do with this”) are both dishonest. What kind of honest but healthy conversation should we all be having about the issue of gays in the priesthood, in light of the scandal? In other words, what do both sides have to bring to the table, and what do both sides need to leave behind?

I hinted at this above when I called for gay priests who are living under the guise of celibacy but who actively engage in or want to engage in gay relationships. I believe their numbers are legion, though I believe they share great comfort and status within the Church, and whatever relationships they do engage in don’t beg of them any level of accountability. The church is essentially the “other woman” (or other man in this context) to these men. It is not who these men find attractive (unless it’s minors) that’s the problem — it’s the secrecy around it.

For instance, in the Episcopal Church seminaries are filled with gay, straight, and people in between. Surely there are abuses of power there too, but in general they are not having conversations about things like whether or not “gay mafias” are there. I believe that gay priests coming out of the closet will challenge the church’s stance on homosexuality in general, or could have the power to. For every Catholic, that signals a change in identity. As we can see from the way politics have been playing out in the last few years, we know that a crisis of identity may be the crisis people are most afraid of accepting, even at the cost of accepting all manner of sexual dishonesty and blackmailing among the very leaders who create and enforce this identity.

UPDATE: Peter Mitchell, the laicized priest who was formerly of the Lincoln diocese, e-mails:

I thank Gabe Giella for his courage in sharing his painful story. It is very important for lay people to realize how broken and disillusioning the experience of entering the seminary is for so many good young Catholic men. You couldn’t make up how bad it is, because if you did, you would try to make your story believable, not as dark as the reality. Like so many of us who were inspired at World Youth Day by Pope John Paul II to enter the seminary, we soon found that when we did, we were immersed in a nightmare of distrust, suspicion, and secrecy. Six weeks after World Youth Day 1993, I found myself at a college seminary residence where guys were smoking marijuana in the woods out back and I was cleaning up vomit in the bathroom on Sunday morning from the guys down the hall who came in drunk at 3am from a local bar, not knowing how to square all this with my desire to be a priest. I felt angry and alone and didn’t know who I could trust to talk to about it.

I think that is one of the most painful experiences that seminarians across the spectrum share in common: from the minute you enter the seminary, you don’t know who to trust, and of course you can’t tell your family and friends back home what it is really like (because they simply would not believe you and it would “scandalize” them), so you just withdraw inwards and keep trying to “make it through.” Sadly, entering the seminary often does not help a young man find the healing that so many youth in today’s broken, hyper-sexualized culture need. It actually usually only increases a young man’s wounds of shame, because he feels he has to hide any struggle he may have if he wants to get ordained. This experience of “hiding” the truth about oneself leads to deep loneliness and alienation, which often sadly only further drives a young man into destructive behavior, sexual or otherwise. If a man has a priestly vocation, the institutional church’s seminary system often does not help him mature and become virtuous. Instead it teaches him to rationalize, ignore misconduct so as to get along (as in, now that you are a seminarian, come to bed with Uncle Ted), and shut down inside.

On the few occasions where I summoned the courage to actually go and talk about what was going on to the priests in charge at the different seminaries/houses of formation I lived in in New York, Philadelphia, and Rome (naively thinking that the priests in charge would want to know what was going on and address it), I was met with essentially the same response: “You are the problem for speaking out about this. There is nothing we can do about it. Grow up and accept that this is the way it is. If you want to be a priest, you will need to learn to be accepting and forgiving. We are now making a record in your personal file that you are a rigid and judgmental. You are more of a problem for the church than the person you complained about.”

It is extremely difficult for the average lay Catholic to understand something that is at the heart of the present crisis: The seminary system as it now exists actually destroys vocations in many instances. The evidence is overwhelming.