Sex abuse, power abuseJames Keenan
- 11 May 2002
Homosexual priests could emerge as the scapegoat for the sex abuse crisis in the United States, a professor of Christian ethics fears. But, he argues, the scandal was brought on not by sex, but by a misuse of power by priests and church authorities.
JUST before the cardinals came to Rome, many of them tried to use the media as scapegoats for their own scandal. But when no less a figure than Cardinal Law acknowledged that the scandal was not the result of a media frenzy, a new scapegoat emerged ? priests, and gay priests specifically.
This new ruse first appeared in March when Dr Joaqu?n Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, tried blaming gay priests for the scandal. It re-emerged on 23 April when Bishop Wilton Gregory started talking about gays taking over the seminaries. ?Ah?, I thought, ?the new sacrificial lamb?.
I was right. By the end of their meeting there were discussions about homosexual priests, about the need to visit seminaries and to screen out those candidates of a homosexual orientation, and about the need to investigate the type of sexual ethics being taught.
After the meeting we heard more about these priests. The New York Times reported Philadelphia?s Cardinal Bevilacqua as saying that gays were not suitable for the priesthood, even if they remained celibate. In a particularly ungracious remark, he added, of a gay man who feels called to the priesthood: ?By his orientation, he?s not giving up family and marriage. He?s giving up what the Church considers an aberration, a moral evil.?
In St Patrick?s Cathedral in New York, Mgr Eugene Clark proclaimed that any seminary that accepted gay men was a ?breeding ground for later homosexual practice after ordination, and the manifest danger of man-boy relationships?. His remarks were circulated in a transcript his office gave the Associated Press.
Bishop Gregory, Mgr Clark and Cardinal Bevilacqua are in line with the Vatican?s position: if there were no gay priests, none of this would have happened. Thus the cardinals cited two urgent tasks in their concluding communiqu?: to ?promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care?, and to promote ?a new and serious apostolic visitation of seminaries and other institutes of formation?, to be ?made without delay, with particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church?s teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of the suitability of candidates to the priesthood?.
Evidently they have found the problem: gay sex. They now propose to censure any moral theologian who has anything positive to say about it, and to screen out any seminarian who may be inclined to it.
In last week?s Tablet, Fr Donald Cozzens, a man whose writings are particularly illuminating, kept the focus on gay sex. He wrote: ?There is one essential element of the scandal that has not received the attention it deserves. Most priest abusers are not paedophiles ? adults whose sexual drives are almost exclusively directed toward pre-pubescent boys and girls ? but ephebophiles (from ephebeus, one of the Greek nouns for a post-pubescent youth).?
He continued: ?As the distinction takes hold, it is accompanied by the disturbing realisation that most of the reported victims of priest abusers are not children, but teenage boys?the predominance of male teenage victims raises a thorny issue?the presence of significant numbers of homosexually oriented men in the priesthood.?
I do not deny that there are many gay priests. Nor do I deny that many of the priests who sexually abused the children abused male teenagers. But I believe that the problem is not the abusing priests? homosexuality, but rather their immaturity and their abuse of power. And their faults, like all the faults in this scandal, are primarily (though not exclusively) about power.
In ethics, I learnt that rape is not primarily about sex, but about power; that sexual abuse is not primarily about sex, but about power; and that sexual boundaries are needed, not primarily because of sex, but because of power.
The molestation and raping of children are not primarily sexual acts; they are violent acts of power. By these actions children are harmed, sometimes destroyed. These actions are about power. In fact, most of the scandalous actions of which we read are about power.
When the bishops moved these priests around and assigned them to new parishes and let them have access again to children, these were not sexual acts, but acts of power.
When the bishops and pastors denounced the parents and relatives who charged that priests had abused their children, these denunciations were acts, not of sex, but of power. When the cardinals tried to blame the media for unleashing a frenzy, these were not charges of sex, but of power.
When Boston?s Cardinal Law tried to issue a gag order to prevent the release of the records of one of our more notorious paedophiles, Paul Shanley, this was an act of power, not of sex. Similarly, when Cardinal Law?s lawyers faulted a six-year-old boy and his family for not being more vigilant about Shanley, the issue was power, not sex. And when Cardinal Law recently told his priests not to work with an alliance of pastoral councils, his concerns were with power, not sex.
The great task for us to face as a Church is the use of power. Rightly, Dr Mary Jo Bane of Harvard?s Kennedy School of Government talks about a culture of accountability ? and that accountability is about the use of power.
How is it that the cardinals returned from their meetings in Rome talking not about Bishops Dailey, Banks or McCormack, and all the other bishops and cardinals who made these irresponsible decisions, but instead about gay priests, moral theologians and seminarians? Was it sex or power that led them to take aim at the latter rather than the former?
And what of the gay priests? Why are they so quiet? Is it that they refuse to be open about their sexual identity because they enjoy their hiddenness, their closets, their silence, or is it that they know that the leadership will not tolerate any testimony about how well God works within them? Is their silence about sex or power?
To tell you the truth, I think many priests would be happy to talk about their sexuality. For instance, in my 20 years as a priest, I have belonged at different times and in different places to priests? support groups. In those groups, we have shared the graces and challenges of the priesthood and we are fairly open about many issues, including sexual orientation. My experience there is that straight and gay priests get along very well. Of course, my experience is only anecdotal, but so is Fr Cozzens?s and everyone else who speaks on this topic, precisely because those with power are so opposed to such revelations. Still, I find that, for the most part, we priests are happy with the emerging diversity in our ranks and we are glad that the days of ignoring our sexuality by ?leaving it outside the door? are over. I find that priests, both straight and gay, believe that.
Nonetheless, I too am for married priests, but not to offset the presence of gay priests. I think married priests would be good, because many are called to marriage and to ministry and because a married priesthood would also be a good for the Church. I think, too, that we have to have women in leadership as well. Again, not because we have gay priests, but because women have these vocations and because the Church certainly needs the leadership of women.
I also want to see the cardinals acknowledge that there are many gay priests and bishops, not to expel them, as some assert, but to recognise that many of these gay men are good, caring, ordered, and generous. I think many gay priests would sob tears of relief were they to be accepted publicly as priests and as gay. I think many of the laity, both straight and gay, would weep as well.
And I think that with such a recognition many seminarians, both straight and gay, would find in such openness a call to healthy and holy maturity, responsibility and honesty.
But we cannot begin to talk about such possibilities until we ask why they are at present so improbable, and the reason is the determinations of those with power.
In fairness to Fr Cozzens, he has advocated an end to the clerical culture. He has encouraged priests to a maturity and ownership of their lives. He is a leading light, but his insistence that we need to recognise the ?thorny issue? that many of our priests and bishops are gay is dangerous in that he does not add that many in the Church?s leadership, rather than acknowledge that many gay priests function with integrity, would prefer to rid its seminaries and even its rectories of any trace of homosexuality. This is a serious omission on Cozzens?s part. It suggests that gay priests are simply unwilling to speak the truth. It fails to recognise the power issues at play. And, worse, it gives considerable support to those who want to make this scandal primarily an issue of sex and not of power.
Seminarians, priests and, even more so, bishops and cardinals do not need stronger or clearer teachings about chastity. We do not need to hear more lessons about the ?disorder? of homosexuality. We do not need to hear more about the ?deep-seated crisis of sexual morality?. We need to know that we have power. We need to know that we have more power than we realise and that, as some of us move up the hierarchical ladder, we grow exponentially in power. And, as we grow in power, we grow in the capacity to abuse power. Unlike the lessons we received about chastity and homosexuality, we were never taught much about power.
We in the priesthood, from seminarians to the Pope himself, need to learn more about power, about sharing power and about accountability in the exercise of power. Certainly, we need to have a visitation of our seminaries ? and of our rectories and our chanceries ? conducted not by the Vatican but by competent lay people and priests. The aim should be to see whether we are learning about the extent of our power, of the uses of that power, and of our accountability to God and to the People of God. In the light of those lessons, assuredly, we would see the need to recognise the vocations of others.
James F. Keenan SJ teaches at Weston Jesuit School of Theology.