August 17, 2018

“With revelation after revelation, a new wave of sexual abuse scandals is rocking the Roman Catholic Church and presenting Pope Francis with the greatest crisis of his papacy.” — Chico Harlan observation in the Washington Post on August 12, 2018.

Then on August 14, 2018, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an 884-page report on sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. In often chilling detail, the grand jury report details how the Catholic Church spent decades covering up sexual abuse claims against 300 “predator priests” who abused nearly 1,000 children. The report covers 70 years of clerical misconduct and a negligent church response. One can find the report here:

Click to access InterimRedactedReportandResponses.pdf

I have been reluctant to write about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, because so many have been writing about it. It is a major issue. It is clearly not going away. It may very well reduce the Catholic Church to a mostly conservative Christian sect.

A longer reflection this week end, since many readers have been asking me for my thoughts about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. So, at last, I agreed to offer my own reflections.

Five opening observations:

(1) I am indeed a Catholic theologian. My big concern continues to be: coming to a better understanding of what it means to be a contemporary believer.

(2) Some suggest that I am basically anti-Catholic. Very truthfully I am NOT anti-Catholic. I am committed, however, to seeking evidence, examining reasoning and assumptions, and analyzing basic concepts. I am a critical thinking and critical speaking Catholic, because as an historian I know that it is a dangerous development when institutional leaders say one cannot ask questions or challenge the accuracy or truthfulness of ecclesiastical pronouncements. (The same holds true for political statements and positions; but I am staying clear of politics this week end.)

(3) I have worked for Catholic educational institutions – schools, parishes, and universities — all my professional life — for more than fifty years. For a good twenty-five years I was very actively involved in the education and formation of Catholic seminarians and ordained ministers (priests), and the continuing education of ordained ministers and men and women in lay pastoral ministry.

(4) I have known, and still known, a great many wonderful priests, bishops, and cardinals. They are genuinely fine people who deserve strong affirmation and public support. Over the years I have tried to be particularly supportive of young ordained ministers, who have also suffered from the bad press generated by abusive clergy. I remember well one young priest, one of my former students, who wrote that he never wanted to wear a Roman collar in public. When he did, he said teenagers would pester him and run after him yelling “Hey Father! Having fun? How many kids did you screw today?”

(5) I have also known some bishops who were deceptive and immoral men. Some, for example, were strongly anti-gay in public but privately ran after young men or had live-in boyfriends often disguised as “nephews” or “private secretaries.” A broken clerical culture can only be repaired when church leaders openly confront the truth. Unfortunately, even the Vatican has had a tradition of soft-glove treatment for predatory bishops. The latest example of course is no-longer-cardinal-but-still-archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

I should share a bit of personal history. I was never an ordained minister but came very close. I went to seminary high school and college. Never witnessed any abusive sexual experiences there, but it was a healthy place back then. After college, my bishop then sent me, in 1965, to the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium (his alma mater) for my formal theological education. Louvain (today we say more often LEUVEN) had a big impact on me. My Dad often said “Jack was never the same after Louvain.” Louvain professors encouraged me to think, to question, and to do research using original documentation. I learned the “historical-critical method.” Asking critical questions became a major part of my life outlook. It changed my life as well in big ways.

After three years in Louvain, and just one year before my ordination, I realized I did not want to spend my life as a life-long “celibate” bachelor. And I had some theological issues like the prohibition of artificial contraception and extreme clericalism and misogyny in the church. I realized my “calling” was to become a critical-thinking theologian and teacher, not an ordained minister. I informed my bishop. He was not just disappointed in me but became furiously angry. He told me I had sold my soul to “1960s humanistic sex-craving secularism.”

Some months later, one of the bishop’s key advisors invited me to have a “friendly chat” with him. We met in his rectory. He welcomed me with a Scotch on the rocks and we started talking. Very friendly. Then he became very serious: “You know of course that the bishop is very disappointed in you. The bishop and I want you to come back. Please come back. Forget that marriage nonsense. Most married people are unhappy and the sex is not always that good. We want you to understand that, as a priest, you can always have a boy or a woman whenever you need sexual relief.” That was my introduction, and invitation, to clerical sex abuse. As I sat there, speechless, staring at him, my host started laughing and continued “God loves his priests and will always give his priests cute guys and sexy women for their sexual comfort.” I put my glass on the table and walked out. Never saw the man again.

Clerical sexual abuse springs from a warped and unhealthy understanding of human sexuality; but it is primarily about power over people. It is not about love or intimate affection. It is about using and abusing people, for selfish personal sexual gratification.

Last week, Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who spent much of his life studying the roots of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, died in San Diego. He was 85. I had great respect for him. His research into celibacy and sexuality within the clergy helped establish a foundation for those studying and responding to the ongoing sexual abuse crisis. Sipe estimated that 6 % of all priests were sexual abusers of children and minors, and that, at any given time, only 50 % of priests were celibate.

“Sooner or later” Richard Sipe wrote in a 2016 letter to Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego “it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among, and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children….When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.” Well we have now seen that in the revelations about the sexual lifestyle of former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with seminarians and young priests.

People interested in the complete letter from Richard Sipe to Bishop McElroy can find it here:

In the church and outside the church we need to educate and help people form a healthy understanding and / experience of human sexuality. Human sexuality is not just about genital acts. It is about a way of being: the way people experience and express themselves physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

What are the moral values in human sexual behavior that promote the wholistic growth and development of the human person? I am a theologian not a sexologist; but here — gathered from my own reading and reflection — are some human sexuality values that I believe are a good start. They apply to people in all kinds of relationships, genders, and lifestyles.

(1) Sexual activity should be other-enriching. Healthy human sexuality gives expression to a genuine concern for the well-being of the other person. It is, therefore, sensitive, compassionate, and supportive. It does not use people.

(2) It must be honest. Healthy human sexuality expresses openly and truthfully the depth of the relationship that exists between people.

(3) It must be faithful. A healthy sexual relationship is characterized by a consistent pattern of concern and support. Fidelity promotes stable relationships anchored in mutual respect.

(4) Healthy sexuality is socially responsible. Healthy sexuality is not just about individual responsibilities but acknowledges the responsibilities of individuals for the larger community. A healthy sexual relationship and sexual behavior should promote and help sustain the common good.

(5) Every expression of human sexuality should be life-serving. A healthy relationship that brings life and/or promotes and sustains life.

(6) And finally, healthy human sexuality should be joyous. Human sexual expression is meant to be enjoyed without feelings of guilt or shame.

Here I remember the observations of my old 1960s Louvain professor of moral theology. I was in his class with a group of seminary classmates. Our venerable professor was talking about marriage and sexual intercourse. He smiled and said it was “wonderful, a blending and a union of body, mind, heart, and spirit. Something wonderfully unique, wonderfully human, and a taste of the divine.” One of my classmates leaned over to me and whispered: “If this is true, what are we doing here in the seminary?”

Next week some thoughts about contemporary Christian belief.


24 thoughts on “Sex in Church

  1. Excellent reflection Jack.  But yuu should have acknowledged that your points were take from the CTSA study of sexuality years ago which was squelched by higher authority in the society.  Too bad.  It’s the most comprehensive re-evaluation of sexuality that I have seen.Patrick Collinu

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I found this sentence particularly poignant: “Clerical sexual abuse springs from a warped and unhealthy understanding of human sexuality; but it is primarily about power over people. It is not about love or intimate affection. It is about using and abusing people, for selfish personal sexual gratification.”
    We have a mini-crisis brewing here and your words need to be heard.

  3. Had the same Leuven experience. Appreciate your personal experience. The most extreme abuse of power of any institution is the control of one’s most intimate human self expression (Humanae Vitae, male celibate priesthood, and gay discrimination), only exceeded by a hypocritical cover up. Need to recognize the limits of episcopal magisterium and realize the sure gift of faith is given to the Church as a whole (Dei Verbum No. 8) and that Vaticum II offers its teaching (sensus fidei, Lumen Gentium No 12) as an essential component for the contemporary Catholic.

  4. I think this is one of the most powerful reflections you’ve ever written because it’s based in part on your own experiences and observations. Also, your notes on healthy sexual behavior are much needed. Well done!

  5. I shared your post on my facebook page and a priest I know who has worked with a seminary in Latin America appreciated it and shared it with his network. He wrote : “muchas gracias por compartir este valiente análisis…” Feel free to contact me by e-mail (jadonaghy in gmail) if you want further information. Your analysis is extremely helpful.

  6. Your thoughts are very pertinent. Much appreciated. Nothing will change until the people of the Church force it. Cradle Catholics cling too closely to “the Church” rather than doing what they know it will take. I love the people and our worship traditions, but I no longer respect those in the priesthood, who are supposed to be leaders. The “good ones” should be screaming at their bishops, cardinals, pope until something changes, but they do not.

  7. A very good start. As you are aware all this abuse, denial, deliberate misunderstanding, and sinful obtuseness is a vast culture, and, Venn-diagram like, it overlaps into ideologies, political cults, and national self-understandings that affirm and reaffirm a view of sex which has long since departed both The Creator, and the Gospel. Modern sexuality is so often viewed in terms completely independent of the “life” Jesus wants us to have as Full Children of God.

  8. About the time that ~ 6% of the priests were thought to be involved in committing CSA, there was an estimate that about 30% to 50% of their superiors, (Abbots & Bishops) had a strong suspicion or certain knowledge of these crimes or were involved in covering up the truth…

    About the same time, a wave of parish mergers/closings also were happening…
    I noticed that despite 1/4 less parishes, not one diocese or archdiocese was ever merged into another!! If a deep financial audit would have been done in these cases, would these coverups have come to light sooner, as a result of “following the money”?
    Certainly many perps had to have found the money from somewhere to take those abusive vacations, trips, entertainments, fancy personal clothes, etc, with the victims!!

      1. We are the Church, the the hierarchy are to be faithful servants, not royalty…put a man on a pedestal, he will likely fall off. Time to remove the trappings of office and don sackcloth until the cancer is excised. Francis says we are all sinners. There will be no healing without repentance.

        When will these folks realize that leading a healing service is not an appropriate response to revelations of institutional failure and sin. Something more akin to the truth and reconciliation process from So Africa would be more appropriate. Better to fess up and weep now than later.

        See also Heidi Schlumpf’s NCR article re: Theologians jand lay leaders calling for mass resignations of US bishops..

  9. Dear Jack, as a life-long friend and contemporary traveler along your life journey, I cherish your insight and understanding. And I have long ago concluded that much of the Church’s leadership is victim to hubris and hypocrisy. Theologians cannot afford to remain theologicians and propagandists; we must speak poetry and prophecy courageously to a people in deep need. Thank you for this first installment of your much-needed critical reflections.

  10. Brilliant Jack. My own research is leading me to the same conclusions. I also have been looking for a [positive approach to sexual relationships and one of the best I have found is a short article written by Karen Lebacqz called “Appropriate Vulnerability”. Worth looking for though hard to get. I have also tried to get the message across about clergy sexual activity’s role in the cover up or inaction of clergy abuse, but few want to listen, especially those on the more liberal side of the church. It’s as if it’s too threatening for them to believe. Why? Anyway, thank you for a brilliant overview.

    1. Thanks Stephen….An important book is still this one: Human sexuality : New Directions in American Catholic Thought : a study
      by Kosnik, Anthony; Catholic Theological Society of America

      Publication date 1977
      Topics Sexual ethics, Sex
      Publisher New York : Paulist Press

  11. Two comments, and some questions:
    1. I have a younger brother who felt a vocation to religious life. He eventually chose a community to join based at least partially on the fact that the vocation director for this order had not sexually assaulted him on the discernment retreat, whereas on the other two retreats with two other orders – they had. How sad is that.

    2. Yes, Catholics should be shouting, their voices and their tears should lift up the victims who have no tears left, who have given up the search for justice, compassion, physical, psychological, and spiritual healing, who have given up living. I am sickened when I hear again of an apology from church leaders. These are empty words. I have heard bishops offer them for decades, even as they are sending their representatives to lobby against changing the statutes of limitations, even as they allow the advice of lawyers to govern their response to victims: don’t offer help, it will give the impression of accepting responsibility and admitting that the abuse occurred, even if we believe it did.

    3. Where are the church funded (but not sponsored) centers for the treatment of victims? Where are the therapists and doctors chosen by the victims and paid for by the church but who don’t answer to, or report to the church and its lawyers? Where is the public outcry for extensions of the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse of children? Will I ever be able to read these news stories and not begin the nightmares all over again, feel the anxiety and PTSD symptoms ramp up, feel violated all over again

    Thank you for continuing to be honest and continuing to write with integrity and passion.

  12. Dear Jack…thank you very much for this reflection. It is truthful and reflects a genuine understanding of the terrible crisis we are facing in our church today. From the reader’s perspective, the Pennsylvania report is horrific. I cannot begin to imagine the impact it has on survivors and their loved ones. We are broken and some kind of serious action is needed for the faithful to live in peace as the people of God.

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