In the wake of the terrible storm of the revelation of clerical sexual abuse in Boston and beyond in 2002, priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley wrote a book entitled Priests: A Calling in Crisis. The purpose of the book, according to its author, is to “report the sociological facts about the Catholic clergy as these facts emerge from analysis of survey data” in order to correct the misinformation on the priesthood and abuse of minors disseminated by an uninformed press, inexpert clerical or ex-clerical spokespersons, and individuals and organizations with an ideological axe to grind.
There is a tradition of research on the priesthood that could provide a very different and more nuanced perspective on the Catholic priesthood in the United States, one in which most people were not interested during the fateful year of 2002 because, like all responsible research, it presents a picture that is gray, ambiguous, problematic, and hence easier to quote out of context and to ignore. Reaching back into the late 1960s and extending to an analysis of the 1993 Los Angeles Times study of the priesthood (Greeley, 1995), it presents priests as on average happy, mature, and self-fulfilled men. I hope this book contributes to the continuance of that tradition.
The storm that hit the United States in 2002 recently appears to have begun wreaking havoc in Western Europe. We are already seeing comments about celibacy as a possible direct or indirect cause of the abuse; there is no doubt that homosexuality and the “disproportionate number” of gay priests will be once again dragged out as another probable cause of clerical sex abuse. It is useful, then, to take another look at Greeley’s study, which is based on the 1993 Los Angeles Times survey of the priesthood as well as a replication of the survey, with slight modifications (“The second Times survey is the first time that a national sample of priests have been asked directly about their sexual behavior”), conducted by the newspaper in 2002. Each of the surveys polled approximately 2000 priests.
The 2002 survey revealed that approximately 16 percent of priests “admitted that they were either homosexual or inclined in that direction, hardly the large number claimed by such ‘studies’ as those of A.W. Richard Sipe or the Kansas City Star.” The number is, however, larger than generally accepted percentages of homosexuals in the wider population. While the percentage of celibate heterosexual priests is higher than that of gay priests, Greeley notes that “most homosexual priests appear to be celibate. Thus those who shrilly insist that it is time to say ‘goodbye to good men’ are merely displaying their own homophobia.”
One must consider also the possibility that a priesthood with a higher percentage of homosexuals might provide a haven for child abusers. While most homosexuals are not abusers and most abusers are not homosexuals, the propensity of Catholic conservatives to claim that child abuse is essentially a homosexual problem must be considered. However, those who argue in such fashion, no matter how exalted their positions in the Church might be, have yet to offer anything but their own unsubstantiated assertions to support their argument.
Since many abuses were committed by men who were ordained long before homosexuality became visible in the seminaries and the dioceses, the argument that there is a link between the increased presence of homosexuals and child abuse seems inherently improbable.
A preliminary report commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to investigate clerical sexual abuse has also found that there is no connection between homosexuality and the increased likelihood of sex abuse. In fact, according to a CBS report on the survey, “many experts on sex offenders reject any link between sexual orientation and committing abuse.” The study was prepared for the USCCB by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. At the meeting held for the release of the report one bishop asked a researcher from the college whether “their study indicated that homosexuality should be considered when evaluating a candidate for the priesthood.” The response was that if the exclusion of a homosexual candidate for the priesthood “were based on the fact that that person would be more probable than any other candidate to abuse, we do not find that at this time.”
Celibacy has also been cited as one probable cause of the clerical sex abuse crisis, both in 2002 and most recently in relation to the European situation. The highest ranking bishop in Germany, where victims of abuse have come forward in large numbers in the past few weeks, has denied that there is a link between sexual abuse of minors by priests and celibacy. The eminent theologian Father Hans Küng, no friend of the Church hierarchy, has termed the archbishop’s denials “erroneous.” The London Times reports:
He said it was the case that abuse was found also in families, schools and other churches. But he asked: “Why is it so prevalent in the Catholic Church under celibate leadership?” He said that celibacy was not the only cause of the misconduct but described it as “the most important and structurally the most decisive” expression of the church’s uptight attitude to sex.
In Priests: A Calling in Crisis, Father Greeley notes a similar response to the 2002 crisis in the United States.
Most of those who spoke to the media or wrote on the subject assumed that the reason [the abuse occurred] was obvious. Priests could not marry, either because of church law or because they were incapable of mature sexual love with a woman. Therefore they preyed on the young and innocent. The only way to stop the abuse was to eliminate the foolish celibacy rule and with it the sinister clerical culture that supported abusers. For Catholic “liberals” the abuse scandal provided a rallying point to push their demands for a married clergy, women priests, and a more democratic church.
Occasionally someone observed that abusers of the young were usually men with deep and perhaps incurable personality problems and that, if they marry, they often abuse their own children. Marriage then does not seem to be a cure for abuse. Almost no one said that it degraded women to assume that the abolition of celibacy would stop abuse.
Journalists sought out “experts,” mostly former priests, to answer their questions. Some former priests hinted that those who remain in the priesthood are not real men because they do not sleep with a woman. They spoke of the infantilism of the male clerical culture, which produced and protected abusers. They questioned the psychological maturity of priests, and their fidelity to the promise of celibacy.
These “experts” were not widely known in the Catholic population and had little influence in general on Catholic thinking—though most priests have heard about them. However, they used their fifteen minutes of celebrity to reinforce the general assumption among Americans that celibacy is unhealthy and that it was no surprise that celibates are freaks, and perhaps monsters.
Greeley goes on to show that there is no sound evidence, from either psychologists or sociologists, that celibacy results in psychological maladjustment among priests, maladjustment that would lead to acting out through the sexual abuse of minors. Through analysis of the data in the Times surveys, Greeley demonstrates that in fact the opposite is true and concludes:
Priests are clearly happy and satisfied men. They report on the average that the priesthood has been better than they had expected it would be, that they are very satisfied with their lives as priests, that they would choose to be a priest again, and that they are not likely to leave the priesthood. They score higher on measures of satisfaction than do doctors, lawyers, faculty members, and Protestant ministers.
The 2002 Times survey produced some interesting and surprising data about the attitudes of priests to the abuse scandal. Question 60 on the survey asks: "Thinking now about the recent allegations of sexual misconduct by priests….Do you think that most, many, some, or only a few of the allegations are true?” Only 19 percent of the respondents believed that most charges were true. 42 percent thought that many of the allegations were true, and 38 percent believed that only some or none of them were true. “It would appear that most priests even in the summer and autumn of 2002 were still in denial and do not understand the horror of the abuse of the victim and the victim’s family.” In fact, “[w]hen asked what troubled them most about the allegations of abuse, only 5% said that it was the suffering of the victims.”
It would appear that the respondents to the 2002 study tend to wash their hands of personal responsibility. You blame bishops and the whole Church and the media and the cover-up and the reassignment, and you worry about false charges and the greed of lawyers, and you regret the loss of credibility, but not many of you feel any personal responsibility and only 5% of you worry about the suffering of the victims.
You don’t ask yourselves how many times you knew or suspected that something bad was going on in a rectory or how often you demonized a victim and his family or blamed lawyers for causing the problem or how often you insisted that in a given case the priest was innocent. Had he not denied the charges? Had not the doctors and the police cleared him? How often did you admit even to yourself that maybe you were kidding yourself because of loyalty to the priesthood? So, of the various characters involved in the tragedy, the bishops and the media and the victims and the lawyers did bad things. But not priests. Forty-one percent want the responsible bishops to resign, and 11% want them to be indicted and sent to jail. But not the priests who might have cooperated in the cover-ups and certainly not those who knew deep down inside that something was wrong and did not speak up.
Greeley attributes this denial of responsibility to the “norms of clerical culture,” which include a taboo on “betraying” a fellow priest. “The problems in the priesthood come from neither celibacy nor homosexuality. The problems come rather from the iron law of denial and silence that clerical culture imposes on priests.” Bishops also belong to this band of brothers and often their first impulse is to help and protect a priest when he is in trouble.
This is not an excuse for their behavior but merely an attempt to put it in the context of the ideology of clerical culture. Cardinal Egan wrote sympathetically that a Bridgeport priest whom he reassigned was “graceful.” No one had told him that most abusers are charming men and graceful liars. Abusers often seem to their friends to be “one of the guys.” You stand by one of the guys even if you are a bishop.
Greeley believes that the bishops who reassigned abusive priests, especially after 1992, when guidelines for handling abuse cases had been set in place, committed grave sin. The worst of their sins was re-victimizing the victims by refusing to acknowledge them, by refusing to recognize "the terrible wreckage that sexual abuse causes for human lives.” He says that these bishops “were, in fact, according to the strict canons of the old moral theology, necessary cooperators in evil and objectively as responsible for the evil as those who actually did it.”
Priests with “deep and perhaps incurable personality problems” were responsible for the horrific abuse of young people both in America and in Europe. These priests should have been removed from ministry by their bishops. While it is possible that bishops did not understand the nature of pedophilia or ephebophilia when most of these abuses were taking place, it is not possible to imagine that they or their vicars general could not have been aware of the terrible pain suffered by the victims—children, innocent and helpless in the face of demands from such esteemed and holy men as priests—and their families. In his book on the Boston crisis, Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, author David France recounts the experience of a mother, whose son had been abused by the priest Joseph Birmingham, when she confronted Monsignor John Jennings, head of personnel for the Boston archdiocese, about the serial abuse committed by Birmingham at her parish and expressed her concern for the potential victims at the parish to which the priest had just been reassigned.
Monsignor Jennings motioned for the women to sit on chairs arrayed before his expansive desk on a hand-tied Tibetan carpet. Elaine gestured to have her sister tuck in on her left and Judy Fairbanks on her right. “Make sure I don’t lose control,” she said under her breath, “because if I lose control we’ll screw the whole thing up.”
After introductions she got right to the point. “Our main concern is, number one, we want Father B. to have psychiatric help.”
Jennings held up a hand. “We wouldn’t agree to something like that,” he said.
“We want his new pastor to be notified that this problem exists. That way he can keep an eye on him.”
“We wouldn’t agree,” he scowled.
“Three, not to have any contact with young children. If he has to be around them put him in with the high school kids, and they’ll probably knock his block off if he tries something funny.”
Jennings shook his head as though to say the entire matter was out of everybody’s hands.
“Why can’t you have psychiatric treatment for him?” one of the women interrupted.
In its wisdom the church had done what would be done. “It’s not in the cards,” he said.
The women pressed their agenda, futilely visiting and revisiting the group’s three goals. Ultimately Jennings signalled the end of his patience. “Ladies, “ he exploded. He raised a scolding finger at Elaine. “You must be very careful of slander.”
Elaine climbed to her feet, tugging against her sister’s efforts to restrain her, insane with anger. If the desk had been any narrower, she knew she would have slapped the monsignor’s face. In her mind his collar had disappeared and he was no more noble than any common man. She raised her own finger back at him.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she said. “where do you think my husband would be if he pulled this shit? If he pulled this shit he’d be in jail. He’d never be able to have another teaching job in his life. Furthermore, if this archdiocese doesn’t have enough money to send Father B. for psychiatric care, I don’t know what religion is if it doesn’t even take care of its own. And if you can’t afford it, I suggest you people hock this Oriental rug!”
Elaine and the ladies left Jennings’ office and went immediately to see Father John McCormack who had previously been pastor of their parish and whom Elaine knew well. She was sure that he would help her, but all she got was a blessing.
She would never set foot back inside a Catholic church. She would even withdraw her son from St. John’s Preparatory, where he was expected to begin his freshman year in the fall. “I don’t know if you’re harboring the same type of men at your place or not, but I can’t take that chance,” she explained. The administration refused to refund her $500, and that became the last penny the Catholic church ever got from her or her family.
Even so, it did nothing to assuage her guilt and bitter self-recrimination. Over the following year she was back and forth to her doctor for high blood pressure and anxiety. She wasn’t sleeping. Her doctor said he had never seen such profound stress in such a young woman. Before the year was through, she would suffer a massive stroke that would freeze the right side of her body and close one of her eyes. She was thirty-seven years old.
The case of this woman and her son symbolizes the pain of families all over the U.S.—and as is now being revealed, in many countries of the world—caused by the callous indifference of the clerical hierarchy to the profound suffering of victims of abuse. I was going to say that the example was perhaps extreme and France’s retelling of the story somewhat melodramatic. On second thought, I am certain that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar “extreme and melodramatic” stories, all of them true, in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Ireland, and elsewhere.
I have said before that I am an unabashed moral relativist. The bishops—and particularly the Bishop of Rome—have emphatically declared that they are not. Yet it seems to me that the repeated victimization of children and the abetting of that victimization by the very shepherds who are divinely charged with watching over them is always and absolutely morally wrong. Blaming the horror of sexual abuse on homosexuals in the priesthood or on clerical celibacy is either monstrous ignorance or, worse, a smokescreen to cover the real sin. And the real sin is the failure of those in high positions—and perhaps even the highest position—to love and protect the children of God, and their failure, when their sin is exposed, to retreat in shame and in penitence to a monastery.