How Did This Happen, Part 3--Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Any honest discussion of sexuality and the Roman Catholic priesthood must start with the elephant in the room--something approaching a majority of priests are closeted gay men of one form or another.  That seems impossible to believe for many people, but no one speaking honestly has ever seriously challenged this premise, at least not to me.  And my own experience confirms this assessment.

If you think it through, though, it's not really surprising.  In a pervasively homophobic culture, a priesthood in which you were not allowed, and thus not expected, to enter into a (opposite sex) marriage would be logically attractive to men who understood that such a marriage was not an option for them.  It doesn't even have to work on a conscious level.  I remember asking an elderly priest how he knew he had a vocation to the priesthood, and his response was, "I remember being 14 and seeing all my friends starting to get really into girls, and I was never particularly interested, so I took it to mean that I had a vocation to be a priest."  Knowing this man (now deceased), I believe it never occurred to him that he may not have been interested in those girls because he was not straight.  Whether or not he was gay I can't say, but you can imagine how someone who was would be steered toward becoming a Catholic priest by this thought process.

Another factor that encouraged the presence of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood is the operation of what writer Libby Anne calls the "Two Boxes" model of sexual morality.  The Two Boxes model of sexual morality says that there is one box labelled "acceptable sexual practices"--in the Catholic account, sex between a married man and woman that is "open to the transmission of life"--and one box labelled "unacceptable sexual practices" which is everything else.  Critically, in the Two Boxes model, the "everything else" is not differentiated into gradations of more or less unacceptable, but basically lumped together into one mass.

We will turn later to how pernicious this model actually is, but for now the key point is that the Two Boxes model "turns down the heat" on gay men inside the priesthood.  Yes, it is true that they are expected not to have sex, but so are their straight brother priests.  And, if they were to have a sexual encounter, it is not treated as some unique and terrible act, but is instead rolled in with other sorts of sexual violations.  If everything is equally bad, then your thing is not uniquely bad in the way it was generally viewed in the outside culture (the paranoia around homosexuality in the priesthood, which I understand is pervasive now, is really a modern phenomenon--more on that in the next post).

In any event, the point is that there have always been more gay men in the Catholic priesthood than what would be predicted by the percentage of gay men in the population as a whole.  And, if you know where to look (dig through the comments section of Father D's satirical blog to start), there is no shortage of stories of prominent clergy having, shall we say, a gay old time in the days before Vatican II.  But the period immediately after the Council changes the game in two substantial ways.

First, there is a massive exodus of priests who leave the priesthood to get married.  This raises the percentage of gay men in the priesthood substantially.  It's a math exercise--if there were 40 priests in 1965 and 20 of them left to get married by the time you get to 1975, then the percentage of gay men among the remaining 20 can be expected to be double in 1975 as compared to 1965.  As a result, the clergy class in the aftermath of the Council was thus more gay and the gay men who remained were more essential to the operation of the Church.  Bishops (who, of course, very well may have been gay themselves) couldn't afford to lose any of the men who remained, whether they were gay, straight, or otherwise.

Then there is the cultural change in which LGBT people and LGBT relationships began to become more acceptable to the broader culture.  On one hand, this made the idea of gay men who were priests more acceptable and comprehensible to the broader world, removing to some degree the need to be secretive.  But, the opening of a possibility of an "out" normal gay life ran head-long into the culture of the priesthood and its insistence on having no external attachments outside of the tribe.  For straight priests, they always "knew what they were getting into"--they were knowingly and willingly giving up the possibility of a permanent relationship in the form of a wife and family.  This was not true of gay priests, and so the emergence of that possibility was a dislocating experience.  As a result, people were torn between being "in" and being "out."

This conflict got resolved, in the main, by splitting the difference.  The de facto rule with regard to priests, at least among themselves, was that actual celibacy (i.e. no sex) was more of an aspirational idea, while not having outside committed relationships was mandatory and enforced.  "Celibacy," in a sense, became interpreted as "no permanent commitments outside of tribe."  In fact, I had priests openly tell me that.  It wasn't that one was encouraged to have sex with folks of the gender of one's choice, but it was understood that such a behavior was not an insoluble problem, or at least not something that would result in you getting removed from the tribe, especially if one was discrete about it so as not to upset the laity.

And, after all, what was really important was to keep people in the tribe, for social reasons and theological reasons as discussed in the last post, as well as the practical reason of not being able to afford losing an active duty priest.  It is also important to understand that, contrary to the way it is spun by homophobic conservatives with an axe to grind, this status quo applied both to gay and to straight priests (see here for some stories).  After all, you can't afford to lose the straight guys any more than you can afford to lose the gay guys.  Plus, human nature says that if you see one group of people breaking a rule which you are holding on to by your fingernails, you are naturally inclined to say "the hell with it" and find someone for yourself (Fr. Alberto Cutie, a Catholic priest who got caught in a relationship with a woman [and then left Catholicism to marry her] is forthright about this dynamic in his own life in his book Dilemma).

Don't believe me?  Here's Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, speaking to the Royal Commission, on clerical celibacy.  Coleridge, it should be said, is by all accounts "one of the good ones," a guy who has spoken honestly and forthrightly about a variety of topics during the Synod on marriage.  And, indeed, perhaps Archbishop Coleridge was more forthright here than many of his fellow bishops would have liked.

"The relationship between a bishop and a priest, or a bishop and any other human being, is a very delicate one," Coleridge said.

"There are certain things that I am not entitled to know. I’m just trying to even imagine how that would work out practically, how I would discover the details of a priest’s sexual life?" . . .

The commission heard evidence on Tuesday from the US priest and former canonical lawyer for the Vatican Father Thomas Doyle, who said he believed half of all priests failed to keep their vow of celibacy.

Asked about that view, Coleridge said he had no idea how many priests within his diocese were celibate. He said Doyle’s figure may be accurate but that it was not his place to ask about the priests’ sexual activity. 

That prompted the royal commission’s chair, Peter McClellan, to ask Coleridge whether, given his position as bishop, he should know such things?

Coleridge responded: “Your honour, I can’t know the details of the sexual behaviour of the clergy with which I work, how can I know that?"

Chairman McClellan's incredulous question is typical of the common lay perception of the celibacy rule--that it is transgressed only rarely and assumed as such by everyone involved in the clergy class.  A violation of the vow of celibacy, in the common understanding, would be a huge deal within the clerical class.   Coleridge, though, tears through that misunderstanding (which, it should be said, the clerical class tries hard not to correct in the laity under their care) and lays out the truth--the order of the day for clerics with regard to celibacy is, and has been for at least two generations (and all but certainly much, much longer), "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."  Coleridge doesn't want to know who among his priests is celibate and who is not.  That's not part of his job.  Archbishop Coleridge is, as they say, just keeping it real.

And even when leadership did manage to find out about some issue, the basic principle of "celibacy violations are not a major problem so long as you don't go outside the tribe and build ties" still applied.  To see that in action, let's take a bit of a detour and consider the case of Thomas Williams.  In a recent New York Times piece on the relationship between Donald Trump's advisor/Svengali Steve Bannon and conservative figures in the Vatican, Mr. Williams is quoted as being the Rome correspondent for Bannon's propaganda operation, Breitbart News.  That name rang a bell, and after a little digging I discovered that Thomas Williams is formerly Fr. Thomas Williams of the Legionaries of Christ.  A bit more digging reveals this piece in Crux, where former-Fr. Williams tries very hard to pretend he cares about the situation of divorced-and-remarried Catholics who can't get an annulment.  In the piece, Williams mentions that he was laicized from the priesthood in order to marry the mother of his child, and chalks up the speed of that process (an almost unprecedented one year turn-around time) to the fact that his child has disabilities.

What Williams neglects to mention is that his child was born in 2005, eight years before he married the child's mother.  For the first seven years of his disabled child's life, Williams was a priest in good standing in his order, and indeed was one of its leading spokespersons.  For seven years, both Williams and his superiors knew that he had fathered a child, but no one saw that as a reason for Williams to leave the priesthood.  Indeed, I am confident that Williams would still be a priest today if it weren't for the fact that (1) he was indiscreet enough to have a child with the prominent daughter of the yet more prominent Mary Ann Glendon (a Harvard Law Professor, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, and darling of conservative Catholics), making it hard to keep things quiet; and (2) Williams got caught up in the catastrophic and pervasive sexual abuse scandal of Legionaries of Christ, which resulted in his actions being exposed in the press in 2012.  Once the lid was off, and with the guns trained on the Legionaries generally, Williams was cut loose.  But only when everything was exposed and only in the specific context of the very real possibility that the Legionaries of Christ would be suppressed did Williams's situation become a problem for the order.  Otherwise, no problem for them, and obviously no problem for Williams.

So, the modus operandi of dealing with sex issues generally was (1) keep everything in house (as discussed in the previous post), (2) don't ask inconvenient questions about a priest's personal business, and (3) find a way to keep someone in the fold if possible.  But that still doesn't fully explain the treatment of sex abuse cases; for that, we need to go back to the Two Boxes theory.  Because, just as the Two Boxes theory lumped gay and straight sex into the same undifferentiated pool, it also lumped child sexual abuse in with consensual sexual activity--especially if we are talking about near-pubescent and post-pubescent victims.

Until the 1917 revisions to the Code, the age of consent to be married (and, by extension, the age of consent for sex) under Canon Law was 12.  The 1917 Code bumped it up to 14 for women and 16 for men.  The current Code punts on the issue and says that "Pastors of souls are to take care to dissuade youth from the celebration of marriage before the age at which a person usually enters marriage according to the accepted practices of the region."  (Canon 1072).  Said another way, Code asserts that the prevailing cultural understanding of when a person is mature enough to have sex is something like a good guideline, but not a moral principle.  The point is that there is no clear Catholic theological basis for asserting that sex with at least older children (and a 12 year old is a child) is especially morally problematic.

A good example of this in action comes from well-known New York City priest Fr. Benedict Groeschel (who passed away in 2014).  Fr. Groeschel gave an interview with the conservative (and, at the time, owned by the Legionaries of Christ, just to complete the circle) newspaper The National Catholic Register that is a classic example of a "Kinsley Gaffe"--when a public figure reveals how they really feel about something they are supposed to keep to themselves.  Groeschel asserted that many of these cases of sex abuse by Catholic priests were the result of being "seduced" by their victims.  In making this comment, Groeschel reveals that he doesn't make any real distinction between (his example) a 14 year old and a 25 year old.  After all, if he had asserted that the adult partners in an affair often seduce the priest, most people would shrug it off as self-serving but not necessarily without merit.  Groeschel's training and world-view didn't, in fact, draw distinctions between 14 year olds and 25 year olds, and in his advancing years he was unfiltered enough to say that--by 2012, all Catholic priests understood that you can't say that, whatever you might think of that.  In 1970 or 1980 or even 1990, there was less reason to hide the ball.  Again, in a way, Groeschel was just keeping it real.

Absent some framework to distinguish between sexual abuse of children and other sexual offenses, the default position was to treat them the same.  Think of it this way--if a priest were to have an affair with an adult parishioner (let's say a woman), and that scandal came to light, quietly moving the priest to another parish once he promised to end the relationship would seem to many people as a reasonable (if not especially transparent) response to the incident.  We react with horror and outrage when that same game-plan was executed with regard to a child sexual abuser because we believe that the sexual abuse of a child is categorically different in kind from a consensual affair with an adult.  But to get to that place, you have to take on a set of ideas about consent and sexual development that come from secular principles, not from traditional Catholic theology.  If you don't take on those principles, then both situations start to look very similar, mandating similar responses.

Now we have all sorts of evidence that shows how damaging it is for an adult, especially an authority figure, to have sexual contact with a young person, damage that is categorically different and worse than other sorts of sexual relationships.  But all of that evidence is extrinsic to the theological system in which the clergy were operating.  To embrace this evidence is to rely, in the main, on psychologists and law enforcement personnel--people who, once again, are outside the tribe--over and against the wisdom of the tribe.  That runs directly counter to every instinct built into the culture of the clergy.

In the end, you have a clerical culture in which (1) it was understood by everyone who mattered (i.e. those of the clerical tribe) that many people were engaging in sexual activity that they were trying to keep quiet; (2) it was understood that you wouldn't ask probative questions about that activity; (3) everything possible is done to keep the essentially irreplaceable priest "inside the fold" notwithstanding the transgression; and (4) there was no framework for adjudicating between various manifestations of the "sexual activity people were trying to keep quiet."

You could not have designed a more favorable environment for child sex abusers to operate if you tried.  An abuser knew that his brother priests and superiors would not look too hard into what was going on in the rectory.  He also knew that if his conduct came to light, the basic response would be to lump him in with all the other priests who were having affairs with consenting adults of whichever gender, and find some "solution" that would allow him to stay around--and thus continue to act out.  Which is precisely what happened.

The sex abuse cover-up in the Roman Catholic priesthood was not, in the main, about wicked people doing self-consciously wicked things.  It was about people doing the things that their culture and worldview told them were the right things to do, when in fact those things were actually wicked.  All of the things that people are justifiably outraged over--the insularity, the closing ranks to protect their own, the secrecy, the lack of particular concern for the victims--are all products of a culture that mandated those responses to the situation in front of them.  As I said in the last post, it was a dysfunctional and sick culture playing out one strand of its sickness and dysfunctionality.


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