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Spotlight Report

The scourge of celibacy

By endowing priests with an aura of discipline and trust, celibacy fosters pedophilia and facilitates coverups

By Garry Wills, 3/24/2002


C he revelations about Boston's pedophile priests had many dismaying aspects beyond their worst aspect, the victimization of the young. One disturbing thing was the way these revelations were greeted by some - as news that was new. There were, of course, new details; but everything disclosed in news reports, including the scale of the offenses, has been discovered before, elsewhere in America or Canada, Ireland or Australia. But after each dismaying explosion of information, people are lulled back into forgetfulness. They are assured that these things, however awful, are mostly in the past, some of them unverified, some exaggerated, and that church officials have already adopted measures to prevent the recurrence of such scandals.

For two decades those assurances have been given, yet the hierarchy continues to let these things occur and to cover up their occurrence.

A cloud of sophisticated pooh-poohing is thrown up around the event ("One should not be shocked, since pedophiles are found in all walks of life"). These smoke screens help church officials avoid facing the brutal reality, which is this: Worldwide, there is a clerical epidemic of parallel crimes, crimes against the young and the crimes of covering up those crimes. For many Catholics, and not just bishops, that is a reality too horrible to absorb. So we don't.

I had hoped that the great attention given the Boston cases would at last dispel this cloud of evasion, but already the pooh-poohing has begun. "Beliefs" column author Peter Steinfels in The New York Times (February 9) writes: "By 1993, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was apparently combing his archdiocese's records to remove from priestly service, especially in positions with regular access to minors, any clergy aginst whom plausible complaints of molestation had been received," and that he "seems to have succeeded." The cardinal's only fault, in Steinfels's eyes, is that he did this good deed in secret. So there is no excuse for "the categorical condemnation and blanket outrage now being heard in Boston," which just encourage lawyers in "inflating charges and using the news media to play on public fears and prejudices in hopes of embarrassing the church into settlements." That is a line that has been used in almost every one of the earlier outrages, and it helped the outrages continue. The cardinal must have loved the column.

Conservative Catholics have praised a book published by a reputable press (Oxford University) in 1996, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, by Philip Jenkins. It is a handy guide to evasion, worth looking at again, because so many Catholics still resort to one or other of its methods for avoiding the truth. Jenkins begins the book proper with a chapter called "The Anti-Catholic Tradition," as if "the recrudescence of anti-Catholic imagery" were the most important element in the scandals. Actually, civil authorities and the press have bent over backward being kind to the Catholic Church. When they stopped colluding in coverups for the church, this was interpreted as being anti-Catholic. Jenkins finds "at least temporary substance to declarations that molestation charges were part of a broad anti-Catholic conspiracy."

It is seductively easy - and used to be reductively effective - to blame any reference to priestly failings on anti-Catholicism. Catholics were the easiest marks for this con, but they have grown up since.

Yet Jenkins is still working this old routine at the old stand. He says that the pedophile crisis is the product of opportunists wanting to cash in on it. These unsavory people include:

  • Self-seeking prosecutors. "Law enforcement agencies came to appreciate that political capital might actually be gained by showing themselves tough on offending clergy."

  • Journalistic sensation-mongers. "Media coverage of the pedophile priests consistently presented the issue so that it appeared as harmful and threatening as possible."

  • Militant feminists. "Feminist activists stood to profit from the abuse issue," since it helped them advance their "theology of abuse."

  • Self-aggrandizing therapists. "The clergy-abuse issue arose at an opportune time for medical professionals."

  • People with other agendas. The exaggerations fostered "the political interests of the activists and groups who used the media to project their particular interpretation of the putative crisis. . . . The scandals actually offered a rich opportunity for reformers to pursue their goals."

    Jenkins thus concludes that the pedophilia scandal is a tempest in a teapot, an artificial construct fitting his definition of a panic: "A panic is a sudden manifestation of exaggerated public fear and concern over an apparently novel threat" (emphasis added). The sense of dire peril, therefore, is "fatuous." There is some pedophilia, he admits, but not as much as has been claimed and not more than in other professions, and the problem has not grown - only our panicky awareness of it has. We have been duped by anti-Catholic lawyers and therapists and prosecutors and "activists" cashing in on a good thing. We should just trust the bishops, not their detractors, who have private interests at heart, while bishops are looking, in a balanced way, to the good of the whole church.

    So, as Steinfels tells us, it is time to cut the blanket outrage. Perhaps we Catholics will. It is what we have done every other time these sordid matters have come to light. Outrage flares up but rapidly flickers out. Why is that? Why do so many Catholics find ways to blame everybody else, rather than the sacerdotal perpetrators and their episcopal defenders? Why have we been so ingenious at defending the indefensible?

    I think the real reason for Catholics' inability to come to grips with the problem is the sense we all have - a justifiable one - that the bishops of the Catholic Church are not moral monsters. Since only moral monsters could cover up such despicable crimes, we must conclude that they did not cover up the crimes - not deliberately, anyway; not consistently; not on a continuing and widespread basis. Any critic of the bishops who tries to present them as moral monsters is actually coming to their defense. He or she will not be believed.

    Our problem, then, is to see how both things can be true: that the bishops are not moral monsters, but that the bishops have covered up crimes. How are we to put together such apparently contradictory truths? The place to begin is with the role of mandatory celibacy in forming the mind-set of the bishops. One of their most common responses to the priest scandals is that pedophilia has nothing to do with celibacy. That is not quite true at one level - that on which the original crimes occur. And it is entirely untrue at the next stage, where the crimes are covered up. Celibacy has everything to do with that. The "grace" (charisma) of celibacy, a thing now suspect, was the source of a priest's high standing, of the special aura that set him apart, and the bishops feel a great urgency (an apostolic one, they would say) to protect that aura, if not at any cost, at least at very high cost.

    Prestige is what gave rise to priestly celibacy. There was no connection between celibacy and the priesthood in the New Testament period. For centuries, priests and bishops (including famous and holy ones) could and did marry. That began to change in the fourth century, when, as the great British historian Peter Brown has shown, ascetics of the desert became so famed for their heroic abstinence that people began to consult them and to look down on priests as insufficiently holy to be given the kind of reverence that hermits had earned. Celibacy was adopted by priests in order to compete for credibility with the great self-deniers. It was, in this contest, a response to popular demand.

    Once priests had acquired the prestige of holiness, much of the medieval period was spent in enhancing and enforcing and celebrating the aura around the priesthood. Polishing that halo was felt to be a duty in service to the saving truths taught by priests, since people would heed priests more if they were seen as set apart from ordinary men. Thus priestly celibacy advanced the Gospel. It is that truth-enhancing aura that bishops feel is still at stake in their reaction to anything that might discredit the priesthood itself.

    The aura and access

    Yet that aura, if it does not cause pedophilia, does (where priests are concerned) foster and protect it, giving ease of access and of subsequent coverup, since Catholic parents have been trustful of priests and unwilling to damage their aura, even after their children have been abused. Many parents have kept silent after church authorities begged them "not to damage the church." It is truthfully said that service professions dealing with children always run the risk of harboring pedophiles.

    There have been scandals involving Boy Scout leaders, teachers, athletic coaches, psychiatrists, and other counselors. But no profession had the easy access on a basis of trust that a priest enjoyed until recently. He was presumed to be disciplined by his code of sexual abstinence. He did not just help a boy at camp or in the gym but had the whole care of the child's soul as his province. He was not just a technician of one particular skill, but a man set apart from others by a spiritual mission, with important roles to play in church, at school, in homes, and in various kinds of Catholic activities. There was no obvious way to delimit his activities. (One does not normally invite the athletic coach over for dinner, nor do one's children go to his home.)

    Parents - especially devout Catholics - relied on the priests, and the priests recognized targets of opportunity. The devout would not only be more trusting to begin with, more resistant to suspicion or accusation, but would also be more reluctant to demand open confrontation with the predator's defenders, ecclesiastical, therapeutic, and legal. So credible was a priest's word that parents might even distrust their own children if a priest said they were exaggerating or misinterpreting what he had done with them. The very term "Father" gave priests license to show special affection.

    Defrocked priest John J. Geoghan of the Boston Archdiocese liked to go to poor families, where his desires would look like Christian compassion. Single mothers were especially vulnerable to the attentions of Geoghan and other priest molesters; they were women who felt the need for some male assistance with their children, and who could be safer for that than a priest? If the man showed no sexual attraction to the woman, she could presume he was a true celibate, never suspecting that he was after her child. Children of "dysfunctional families," as Geoghan put it, could be more susceptible to manipulation, because of their emotional neediness, and they would be less convincing witnesses against their molester. Prayer with the boy was often a part of the seduction technique. Praying with others at any time of day did not look suspicious when done by a priest. The pathos of many cases was the way the priest traded on the trust given him precisely because of his priestly aura. That gave him access, cover, and further opportunity.

    A typical pattern was that of the Miglini family in Dallas. When they found out in 1984 that one of their boys had been sexually assaulted by a priest, they did not tell their other son, for fear that he would lose respect for all priests - and so a different priest abused that boy. When a Scout leader or a coach tries to abuse a child, the parents can withdraw their children from the organization or the sport. But good Catholics will not blithely leave the church of their faith, even after outrages committed on their children - and if they stay in the church, they can hardly avoid priests. In all these ways, the aura of celibacy was definitely an advantage to the predator from the outset of his crimes. It then became a further advantage when church authorities provided him protection.

    The aura and protection

    If loyally Catholic parents are hesitant to damage the aura of the priesthood, bishops and other superiors are obviously even more concerned to protect that aura. They can see that a wrong has been done to a few children, but they feel that the souls of all children depend on their receiving the truths of the faith with respect for the carrier of that good news. This is the higher good next to which bishops have weighed too lightly the harm done to the abused.

    We must be careful how we frame this matter to ourselves. It is unjust to say that the bishops did not care at all for the wronged young people. They are persuasive when they say that they believed in the faulty assurances given them by therapists in the past. They would not deliberately put a man not "cured" near other children, since that would mean harming the aura even more by repeated crimes.

    It is clear, on the other hand, that concern for the children was inhibited by the desire to obscure or minimize their ordeal. Parents were asked not to seek public recognition of the crime. If they insisted on a settlement, that was given in return for an agreement not to reveal either the cause or the terms of the settlement. These secret agreements and sums make nonsense of Philip Jenkins's claim that the cases of priest pedophilia have been overreported. They have been, on the contrary, underreported - much of the time, unreported.

    Jenkins and other protectors of the hierarchy also complain that many of the publicized cases are old ones. But that is only because reports of abuse and settlements were suppressed, making it seem hopeless to bring charges against a church so untainted in the public mind. Many of those abused had believed the clerics' assurance that their cases were exceptional, that the priest needed to be "cured," not punished, that new procedures would prevent others from offending.

    Why damage the church at large for a few odd bad apples in the barrel? Of course, lawyers were telling bishops that they could not admit to any large-scale abuses or large public settlements if they wanted to keep their insurance policies at manageable rates, while the insurance agents said that a refusal to contest charges would disqualify them for further insurance. So the protection of the church took on a financial aspect. Does one want to bankrupt the whole spiritual edifice because of a few unfortunate crimes?

    Ironically, the huge (largely secret) settlements have been reached in order to prevent financial loss and retain insurance - though the settlements nationwide already exceed $1 billion, according to former priest and psychotherapist A. Richard Sipe, an expert on such cases. And that figure does not include the high costs of therapy for both victims and perpetrators.

    The aura's scope

    It is not as if the problem of preserving the priestly aura had to do only with pedophilia.

    The same desire to maintain a reputation has colored the treatment of other priestly embarrassments - alcoholism, peculation, affairs with women, priests with AIDS. In all such cases, an attempt to suppress, to deny, or to minimize anything that would damage the aura has had a high priority with church officials.

    A good example is the hiding and denying of the number of priests with AIDS. The best study of that, by an investigative team at The Kansas City Star in 2000, found AIDS occurring in the United States at four times the rate for men in the general population. When the popular former president of the Jesuit Rockhurst College in Kansas City died in 1999, Jesuit officials said that the priest died of respiratory problems, but a Star reporter found only one cause listed on his death certificate: AIDS.

    There are compassionate reasons for concealing some things, but when a large-scale pattern of concealment becomes entrenched, admitting almost anything that taints the priestly aura can itself be presented as the real offense. In the past, legal and journalistic cooperation in such "compassion" was recruited with great success.

    From the Irish cop not giving "the good father" a speeding ticket to the ignoring of large-scale alcoholism in the priesthood, the public was not aware, and much of it did not want to be aware, of priestly sin.

    Admittedly, all organizations would like to underplay any scandal affecting their personnel. But there is greater urgency with priests. They are supposed to be different. If celibacy is not a sign of difference, what is it? Men who are supposed to be able to contain their sexual appetite were presumed to be in firm control of themselves. This gave them a certain prestige that no cleric wants to see squandered. That is why an elaborate framework of interconnected pretenses has been built up over the years.

    This is complicated by the many layers of pretense involved in maintaining teachings from Rome that have lost all credibility. Priests ignore teachings that are overwhelmingly rejected by their congregations while pretending to the Vatican that they are not doing so. The laity ignore the ban on contraception. The priests ignore the forbidding of homosexual acts. Pedophilia is a crime, and so is covering it up. But Rome claims that the use of contraceptives is a serious sin, as are homosexual acts. The reasons for covering up hypocrisy tend to spread.

    From just one Jesuit seminary in Missouri, five priests who were novices during the 1960s later died of AIDS. A new academic survey of the Jesuit order - Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits, by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi - finds that straight young Jesuits now feel outnumbered by gays. They agree with a priest who is quoted in the book as saying: "Some of my former Jesuit friends would mention the large number of gay Jesuits and the impact that had on community life as being a big reason they left. A relatively young Jesuit who is heterosexual, I believe I am in the minority."

    These gay priests live in glass houses. No one wants to see anyone pick up a stone.

    Though being gay has nothing to do with pedophilia, and a gay ministry is increasingly being accepted in other religious denominations (which do not require celibate ministers), the claim of celibacy is obviously being hollowed out by sexual activity, whether heterosexual or homosexual, whether with consenting adults or with abused minors. The protection of the aura of celibacy demands the coverup of a whole range of activities with the common denominator of tarnishing the aura of celibacy.

    This puts priests in a situation of mutual blackmail. A gay bishop who is innocent of pedophilia may be hesitant to push for punishment of a fellow priest if that could expose him and his own partners to unwanted scrutiny. The gays can rightly say that church authorities have been very protective in the past of priests having affairs, long-standing or briefly exploitative, with women. Speaking to this subject at a 1972 synod of bishops in Rome, Cardinal Franjo Seper, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said, "I am not at all optimistic that celibacy is being observed."

    Given this weave of mutual vulnerabilities in the "celibate" priesthood and the perceived duty to maintain a comparatively holy aura around their work, it is no wonder that bishops are anxious to look the other way or to make others do so. The whole celibacy structure is really a house of cards, and honesty about any one problem can make the structure of pretense come toppling down. The priesthood itself has become an esoteric school of pretense. Treating pedophilia as a separate problem is impossible, since it thrives by its place in a compromised network of evasions.

    The aura's rationale

    Some blame the Catholic Church's trouble with sexual matters - whether contraception or masturbation or abortion or divorce or homosexuality - on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the highly charged sensuality of our time. But the problem with celibacy arises from a much longer-term cultural change. Celibacy arose as just one component in a thoroughgoing theology of asceticism. The desert father who pioneered the practice of celibacy adopted it as just one part of a larger pattern of isolation and meditation, of fasting and other forms of mortification. When priests adopted celibacy, they brought with it some of this structure and most of its rationale. They were not set apart from other men by just one thing. In the monasteries, for instance, silence, isolated cells, long communal chanting of the office, and self-scourging were common. Cloistered men and women were cut off from worldly life in general, not just from sexual activity.

    But, progressively, the celibacy of priests became not the expression of a whole ascetical form of life but a substitute for it. Priests began to think that their sexual abstinence was a warrant for other indulgences. If they had given up that one big thing, they deserved some reward in little things. So modern priests do not look much like desert fathers. They are not known for other forms of asceticism, besides celibacy. Most of them eat and drink well, drive nice cars, have no serious material deprivation. A priest who eats out or goes to a play or concert often has a generous layman to pick up the tab. In this situation, celibacy becomes a mark of nonexistent difference. But celibacy without its supporting ascetical discipline cannot be sustained all on its own.

    With the lack of the original justification for celibacy, as the sign of a calling to a whole ascetical way of life, the proponents of celibacy have to fall back on weaker arguments. The Scripture defenses of it are risible - St. Paul said he had every right (if he wanted to use it) of traveling with a wife, as Peter did (I Corinthians 9:5). Pope Paul VI's favorite text for defending a celibate clergy, that on self-eunuchizing for heaven (Matthew 19:11), has nothing to do with the priesthood, any more than do the passages on self-maiming and self-blinding for heaven (Matthew 5:28-29).

    The "practical" arguments are even worse. We are told that a family would distract a priest from the entire dedication to his whole "flock" (a significantly sheepish term). How entirely dedicated have bishops been to the most vulnerable members of their flock, the abused children? The worries of a family are nowhere so debilitating as the nervous defensiveness, the looking-over-the-shoulder anxiety of priests having to maintain so many different but interrelated hypocrisies.

    Does anyone seek out a bachelor doctor on the ground that lack of a wife to love will make him care more for oneself? Does anyone think women would not be more at home with the counseling of female priests than with men? If they really want only men, why do 80 percent of US Catholic laity now support a married priesthood?

    Celibacy, remember, was made a priestly characteristic in response to popular demand. It was called for by the laity. Now the opposite is being called for by them. The Vatican has not only ignored this call but has ordered Catholics not even to consider or discuss the subject of priestly marriage or women's ordination. But the thinking and discussing go on, as the numbers of priests dwindle. Rome's refusal even to face the problems of the modern priesthood just means the inevitable transition will be more wrenching and emotionally costly when extremity makes it necessary. No one expects an overnight change - mandatory celibacy should be phased out in stages, as it was introduced in stages. Celibacy should be made optional. Some seminaries would train those who still want to be celibate, and others would train women or those intending to marry. There is already a practical exception to mandatory celibacy for Episcopal priests who become Catholics - they are allowed to remain married (and the sky has not fallen).

    Rome, of course, resists all this. Then pressure must be put on Rome, by the laity on priests, by priests on bishops, by bishops on Rome. That is what happened when celibacy was adopted. It was not accomplished by a top-down order that effects change overnight. One way for lay pressure to make itself felt was suggested by Thomas Cahill, the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, who said recently: "The only way the laity can take charge is by manipulating the one lever they have under their control: contributions. And if the actual church [the people of God] decides to rise up, they can do it tomorrow afternoon."

    A Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll of the archdiocese in early February showed that more Catholics want Cardinal Law to resign than want him to stay. The larger group should withhold all money from the archdiocese until he is gone. That would guarantee that this flurry of indignation would not simply fade away like others. It could prompt similar action elsewhere. Only in response to measures like that can church authorities begin to recognize their real enemy. Their real enemy is celibacy. For their own good, it is time to break the celibacy racket.

    Garry Wills, an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University, is the author of the recent Saint Augustine's Childhood and the forthcoming Why I Am a Catholic.

    This story appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine on 3/4/2002.
    © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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