A Priest Responds to the Catholic Church’s ‘Summer of Shame’

(Max Rossi/Reuters)
The ongoing scandals are the bitter fruit of a corrupt clerical culture, marked by a widespread failure to accept traditional teaching on sexual morality.

A few weeks before I was ordained a Catholic priest in the late autumn of 1994, my superior in the seminary told me that, in his opinion, it was probably the most difficult time in a century to become a priest. Yet, he went on, it was also the most exciting time. I really did not take much notice of what he said. In fact, in my overconfidence, I thought he was talking nonsense.

The Nazis had a special section of the Dachau concentration camp for priests. The “evil empire” of the former Soviet Union tortured, imprisoned, and executed thousands of priests. And, of course, more recently, many faithful priests have been murdered by Islamists in multiple countries. To even speak of “suffering” priests in the West over the past 24 years would be absurd, histrionic, and untruthful. It would also be an insult to all those brave and faithful men who have truly suffered for their profession of the Catholic faith.

Perhaps it would be more reasonable for me just to describe the experience of being a priest, especially during 2001–02, and at this moment of crisis for the Church. I do this not to elicit sympathy. It is possible that having experienced what seemed to be the worst of times, and now experiencing them again, I might be able to collect some thoughts and shed some light on ways forward.

Sitting in my small living room in the rectory I shared with another priest in the summer of 2002, I spent one sweltering evening surfing all the news channels. Each one, without exception, was leading with, and in great detail, descriptions of the “abuse crisis in the Church.” The horrors of Boston, the cover-ups, the malfeasance: It was relentless, nauseating, and exceptionally depressing. The grotesque sins — crimes — of some priests had besmirched the priesthood, leaving all priests, in the eyes of many, “potential pedos.” The biblical image of “striking the shepherd and the sheep scattering” came to mind very easily. If ever priests had been on a pedestal, it had now been quickly kicked away, and with some glee. The anger, revulsion, and desire for change were all justified. There was, and is, no excuse — and no suffering that was not deserved, even by the majority of priests who were living faithfully.

The U.S. bishops, charged both with being spiritual fathers to their priests and with the duty to protect their flock, rushed through what was called the “Dallas Charter,” to protect minors and put in place measures to discipline and remove priests, and others who worked for the Church, who had been “credibly accused” of abuse. Notably, the bishops themselves were not subject to the charter’s disciplinary measures. The scandals ebbed and flowed in subsequent years and the U.S. Catholic Church, according to many external auditors, became of a model of safe practice. Ministry changed — Church employees, including all priests, had to undergo all kinds of training, courses, lectures.

Still, that barely concealed veil of suspicion over the priesthood was ever present. Wearing clerical attire could, in some heavily Catholic parts of the country, such as New York City or Washington, D.C., still elicit a smile and a cheery “Hi, Father,” but in secular Vermont, for example, it was not unusual to receive invective shouted from passing vehicles, or hostile glances in the supermarket. Yet there was no suffering that was not deserved, even by the innocent, because of the betrayal of the few.

Jump forward to this summer of 2018. In Chile, Honduras, and, of course, the United States but not only there, a new “crisis” has emerged, and now it is the bishops who are the focus of the scandal. This time it appears, on the surface, to be quite different, but appearances can be deceiving. Although there are allegations that minors were abused, most of the scandal is now centering on three related issues: abuse of power, homosexual abuse and the failure to observe celibacy, and the failure of the bishops to police themselves.

I heard the nonsense, often spouted by members of religious orders vowed to chastity, that celibacy meant only ‘not getting married’ and did not preclude sexual activity, although the Church’s teaching is clear that sexual activity outside marriage is illicit.

The details of the latest scandals are well known, and this piece is, as I say, a personal response from lived experience, which is why I can say that I believe that the crisis of 2018 is exactly the same crisis as the “long Lent” of 2002. The elephant in the sacristy, then and now, is the conflation of those three issues.

Owing to the immense power of a “gay lobby,” as it has been called by critics within the Church, and to the unwillingness of the press to report the full facts, most cases of abuse reported in the past 30 years were not of pedophilia but of ephebophilia, the abuse of teenage males by older men — in this case, priests who had taken vows of celibacy. Make no mistake, it was most certainly abuse, it was often a crime, and it deserved serious and life-changing penalties.

“Uncle Ted” McCarrick rose through the Church — and “everyone knew,” including many in the Catholic and secular press — and got a free pass for his abuse of minors precisely because of its homosexual character. During my seminary years I heard the nonsense, often spouted by members of religious orders vowed to chastity, that celibacy meant only “not getting married” and did not preclude sexual activity, although the Church’s teaching is clear that sexual activity outside marriage is illicit. I know of one famous cleric, now dead, who boasted (and it turns my stomach to think of a priest living so brazen a lie) of a male friend with whom he had sex regularly.

Failure to live vows, which are promises freely made — seminarians have six or seven years to decide on their commitment, engaged couples often have only a year or less to decide — is at the heart of the abuse crisis. That failure has been fed and nourished both by external oppression from the sexual revolution and by internal pressure in the form of the unwillingness by many in the Church to be formed by the timeless moral teaching of the Church instead of by the secular culture of our day. Many priests with same-sex attraction, just like heterosexual priests, practice chastity and live exemplary lives. To fail — that is, to  sin— is possible and forgivable, but to live a lie, like an adulterous spouse who besmirches the sanctity of marriage, demands that those who will not keep their priestly promises leave the ministry.

A related fundamental question is whether those called to leadership in the Church, both bishops and priests, believe the defined teaching of the Church on human sexuality. Simply put: There are some — many, perhaps — who believe that, just as the Catechism of the Catholic Church has recently been changed with regard to formerly accepted teaching on the death penalty, so teaching on homosexuality will also receive an “update” in the near future, so that what was formerly considered “disordered” will gain not just acceptance but a blessing.

Tacit acceptance of illicit relationships among the clergy, noticeably among those formed in the tumultuous years from the late 1960s to the late ’80s, allowed the abuse of power that seemed to have reached a peak with the revelations at the beginning of the century but now has reemerged both with McCarrick and the seminary abuses in Chile and Honduras. There is a feedback loop: Illicit behavior allows and encourages illicit power structures, which in turn allow the illicit behavior. The behavior cannot continue without the connivance or tacit acceptance of those in command of the structure. As in 2002, so in 2018, the most charitable explanation for the failure of the bishops to police themselves is naïveté, often coupled with mediocrity of character and intellect. The darker explanation is that some, certainly not all, were practitioners of the very things they were called to condemn.

Bishops are assumed to be in essence high-level bureaucrats and are chosen usually because they have proved themselves by being efficient lower-level managers — a vicar general, perhaps, or the head of a curial dicastery.

To regain some credibility, and to avoid the mob mentality that always emerges in times of crisis and is driven to tear the whole structure down — a difficult proposition for Catholics who, like their Orthodox brethren, believe that bishops are the successors of the Apostles — the bishops need to do some considerable soul-searching. As all priests have experienced during the “summer of shame,” bishops need to realize that there isn’t much love going around for them at the moment, and not much respect.

How about dropping the formal addresses and titles “Your Excellency,” “My Lord,” “His Eminence?” If your title is that of a medieval duke, it is unsurprising that some actually behave like one. A considerable part of the reason for the moral collapse that led to this “summer of shame” and to the “Long Lent” earlier this century has not been deliberate malfeasance. That is not an excuse, but the reality is that bishops have become less successors of the Apostles and more like senior management at a large bank. In my experience, that is at the very heart of the problem. Bishops are assumed to be in essence high-level bureaucrats and are chosen usually because they have proved themselves by being efficient lower-level managers — a vicar general, perhaps, or the head of a curial dicastery. So often it is the confirmation of the ecclesiastical Peter Principle, the theory that members of a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Writing to the novelist Evelyn Waugh in the 1930s, the historian Hilaire Belloc described the English hierarchy as a “fog of mediocrity.” In both the U.S. and the U.K., much of the present crisis indicates that the fog has not yet cleared.

Faithful and good Catholics, the kind I have been blessed to have served over the past quarter-century, want their bishops to be real spiritual fathers, more at home in the confessional or before the altar than in the boardroom or the banquet hall. They want their priests to be fearless in the proclamation of the complete teaching of the Church and faithful in their personal vows and promises. As the Church calls married couples to model Christian fidelity in a pagan world, so this “crisis,” as George Weigel pointed out during the Long Lent at the beginning of the century, is, in the biblical sense of the word, also a moment of opportunity, for reform and renewal. True reform always begins with personal reform, with fidelity to the truth and with a desire for holiness. The Church does not need a tearing down by the mob. It needs a building up by saints.


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