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The Elephant in the Sacristy

Mary Eberstadt

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What [the crisis reveals] is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore, though many labor mightily to avert their eyes. Call it the elephant in the sacristy. One fact is that the offender was himself molested as a child or adolescent. Another is that some seminaries seem to have had more future molesters among their students than others. A third fact is that this crisis involving minors--this ongoing institutionalized horror--is almost entirely about man-boy sex. There is no outbreak of heterosexual child molestation in the American church. In the words of the late Rev. Michael Peterson, who co-founded the well-known clergy-treating St. Luke Institute, "We don't see heterosexual pedophiles at all." Put differently, it would be profoundly misleading to tell the tale of Rudolph Kos--what he was and what he did--without reference to the words "homosexual" and "gay."

One singularly fearless such examination was published well before the Boston scandal broke in January. This was an extraordinary essay called "The Gay Priest Problem," published in the magazine Catholic World Report in November 2000. In it, Jesuit Paul Shaughnessy took aim in orthodox language at what he called "the ugly and indisputable facts: a disproportionately high percentage of priests is gay; a disproportionately high percentage of gay priests routinely engages in sodomy; this sodomy is frequently ignored, often tolerated, and sometimes abetted by bishops and superiors." Citing controversial Kansas City Star pieces reporting that priests were dying of AIDS at some four times the rate of the general population, Shaughnessy also drew attention to the fact that certain orders and institutions were noticeably more affected than others. (Of seven novices ordained in the Missouri Province of the Jesuit order in 1967 and 1968, for instance, he reported that "three have (to date) died of AIDS, and a fourth is an openly gay priest now working as an artist in New York.") He further noted that gay priests themselves "routinely gloat about the fact that gay bars in big cities have special 'clergy nights,' that gay resorts have set-asides for priests, and that in certain places the diocesan apparatus is controlled entirely by gays." Shaughnessy also sounded a prescient note in daring to question what he called "the dogma that the preponderance of male victims [of clerical sexual abuse] is entirely unrelated to priestly homosexuality."

The case of Stanley Kurtz is comparable. Though he writes most frequently for National Review, Kurtz, a non-Catholic, has stated publicly that he does not believe homosexuality is a sin. Nevertheless, he has been more adamant than any other observer in connecting the dots between the priest scandals, on the one hand, and such explosive political issues as gay marriage, on the other. "The uproar over priestly sex abuse," he argues, "offers spectacular confirmation of nearly every warning ever issued by the opponents of gay marriage." The American church presents "a case in which gay sexual culture has not been tamed, but has instead dramatically subverted a venerable social institution." In defending this essay, Kurtz also linked the scandals with yet another issue of society-wide significance: gays in the military. "Surely much of the difficulty" in the Church cases, as he put it, "derives from an institutional setting in which large numbers of gay men, whatever their internal psychological state, room and travel together, and are given intimate access to young men. Gay-rights advocates have tried to pretend that, in cases like the military, such access does not matter. But it does. . . . [O]ne lesson of this scandal is that the integration of homosexual and heterosexual men in the same living areas can in fact break down 'unit cohesion,' thereby causing institutional disruption."

The author of these and many other unminced words on the subject is no icon of Catholic traditionalists, but rather their bete noire Andrew Greeley--jet-setting Jesuit sociologist, racy novel writer, and no one's idea of a Church reactionary. Here is Greeley again, in 1990, urging the archdiocese of Chicago to "clean out the pedophiles, break up the gay cliques, tighten up the seminary, and restore the good name of the priesthood." Greeley, for one, has not hesitated to identify the elephant. In that sense, his unassailable standing as a political liberal in all other respects has likely proved invaluable. Recall the outcry that greeted Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit in recent weeks for observing that the Church's problem was "a homosexual-type problem" and that "it is an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.'' Yet Maida's are milder words on the subject than many of Greeley's over the years. One can only imagine the explosion had any traditionalist recently written, as Greeley was quoted years ago saying, that "the two phenomena [of homosexuality and pedophilia] shade into one another."

Read the entire article on The Weekly Standard website.

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