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What the Pope Knew: Plenty, but He Keeps his Mouth Shut

This weekend I watched a CNN documentary, “What the Pope Knew” about the never-ending child sexual abuse scandal. I was hoping I would learn something new, but they didn’t have much original reporting, other than tracking down some victims and letting them express outrage. The rest of the show rehashed what I already knew from The New York Times, while packaging it with a dark, dramatic soundtrack and lots of pictures of crucifixes, flickering candles, statues of saints, confessionals and guys in vestments. The story of the abuse is riveting, complex and international, but this report was fairly superficial. It did, however, spur me to do some more searching and thinking, as well as imagining a conversation tomorrow night, when I’m hosting a very small house Mass and dinner party with my spiritual director, her husband and a new friend, an Episcopal priest from New Jersey by way of Toledo.

I fantasized that if we discussed this horrible issue (not exactly dinner party-thrilling), they might press me to say what I think is really going on. I’ll tell you in just a sec, but more important is what the research shows, what the facts are.

I imagined telling my friends something like this. “We know that clergy pedophilia has been going on for decades; there are cases that go back to the 1950s and even earlier. My suspicion is that it’s been going on for centuries, in a somewhat systematic way, aided and abetted by underground friendship networks of priests, such that the pedophiles tended to know each other and advise each other on how to keep out of trouble.”

I base this not on any knowledge of pedophiles, but some first-hand experience of Gay Catholic priests. Child abuse and Gayness within the clergy aren’t in any way the same, except that Gay Catholics, and especially the clergy, are also driven underground by the Vatican. And we all know that people in the closet develop their own ways of finding each other; for centuries this was the only way of finding a safe Gay friend.

You drop a hint one day, quickly change the subject and wait for the other guy’s response to your hint; he might be outraged, neutral or enthusiastic, and then you go on from there until you’re out to each other.

I can’t believe that male pedophiles worldwide each independently came to the notion that becoming a Catholic priest was the perfect cover for plying their trade. But it is; an all-male priesthood, an official vow of celibacy whatever the reality turns out to be, clergy put on a pedestal by the faithful (and taught to build those pedestals by the priests), all backed by an authoritarian hierarchy that considers a culture of secrecy essential to its mission.

Catholic ordination is the perfect setup for pedophiles’ criminal enterprises.

Protestant clergy abuse children and adults too, but the institutions backing them up aren’t nearly so rich, powerful and impermeable from the outside. An Episcopalian has a bishop, vestry and diocesan convention to answer to; Baptists and others have a board of deacons to keep an eye on them. Nearly every Protestant group has some kind of accountability system (whether it works well or not) that the Roman Church not only lacks, but rejects.

“So the issue,” I’d tell my dinner guests, “isn’t the criminal infiltration, it’s the secrecy.”

From this little adventure in Walter Mittyism, I actually Googled “Catholic secrecy,” and ran across a brief but fascinating article by a former Benedictine monk and priest – published in the National Catholic Reporter, “Secret Sex in the Celibate System.” It’s a gem of concise clarity.

Ratzinger’s (2001) document demands that all canonical cases of clergy sex abuse of minors be sent to his office under the requirement for strictest secrecy.

And this is considered a reform, that there’s now an office to receive such reports. No one in the hierarchy has challenged the secrecy demand, because the benefit of the doubt always goes to the priest, not the accuser.

Unlike CNN, which wanted to gain ratings by trying to assess Cardinal Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict 16’s) personal culpability for covering up decades of child abuse throughout the world, I think it’s more helpful to focus on the secrecy and why it’s in place; how it both shields the innocent and operates as a mutual protection racket.

Ratzinger had to wait until John Paul 2 was dead before he could take down Fr. Marcial Maciel, the serial abuser who founded the Legionaries of Christ, a protegé of the late pope’s who raised millions of dollars and used to pass out money, cars, tickets and apartments to his Vatican friends.

What did Fr. Marcial know about John Paul? And does it seem likely to you that the pope didn’t have informants inside the Legionaries? Wherever you have secrecy, you have spies.

But before we get lost in the many hallways, reliquaries, catacombs, museums, libraries, archives, nooks and crannies of the Vatican, let me clearly say: It’s to Benedict’s credit that he did take control of the Legionaries once he got Peter’s keys. That little bit of intrigue is now effectively over.

Instead, let’s restage this drama on a lesser scale, in a small obscure diocese somewhere.

The bishop has served respectably for 20 years; people like him, or at least respect him, and he’s done some good here and there; he’s hoping to retire in peace. One of his priests on the far rural fringes of the diocese serves three rural parishes that once were served by their own local priests; now this guy is doing the work of three men. The bishop has had some minor success in scaring up new vocations, but the current generation doesn’t believe in priestly celibacy anymore, so clergy are at an absolute premium; the bishop appreciates what that local pastor has done. Meanwhile the pastor is Gay and has a lover, another priest who works a few miles away. They both have official residences, but they keep an apartment together in the see city away from their prying parishioners. The bishop doesn’t approve of this arrangement, but if he were to try to punish these two priests, he’d end up with six churches needing new pastors that he hasn’t got. So what does the bishop do? He pretends not to know what he knows; he keeps the secret.

When the bishop keeps the secret, those two lover-priests have no reason not to open the reality of their lives to all their brother priests in the diocese – many of whom have similar situations; a male lover, or a longtime girlfriend, or a wife and a couple of kids.

The lack of vocations ties the bishop’s hands; thousands of Catholic men would love to be priests, but they get stopped by that celibacy rule, so the bishop has to scratch and claw for every seminarian he can find. God only knows what happens to the small rural parishes if Fr. NN gets sick or drops dead; the bishop needs every priest he can get.

So he keeps the secret. It isn’t even that much of a secret anymore; all the clergy know, and a quarter of the laypeople, who would worry too if Fr. NN got sick or dropped dead.

Now multiply this scenario times a billion Catholics in 200 countries; and you can see why secrecy is how the Church keeps going. It doesn’t take conspiracy theories. It isn’t necessarily a matter of good people doing bad things; the issue is personnel management.

Is the celibacy requirement one of the villains here? I think so, but I’m an Episcopalian. Read what the ex-Benedictine wrote in NCR.

Celibacy was a voluntary ascetic practice of early Christian monks and some clerics, but not universally required of Roman Catholic priests until 1139.

Roman Catholic priests now are mandated to make a promise or vow of celibacy before they can be ordained. Clerical celibacy precludes absolutely any willful sexual release.

Questions about mandated clerical celibacy have bombarded general consciousness in light of the onslaught of reports of clerical abuse and its cover-up by church authority. It is fair to ask: What is the connection between the demand for cultic purity and abuse of minors?

The current crisis poses a serious challenge for church authority to answer that question.

“Poses a serious challenge for church authority” means in the vernacular, “Is totally nuts and may destroy the church.”

This is why every Western church that has broken with Rome – Lutherans, Anglicans, Old Catholics, Baptists, Quakers, Huguenots, Presbyterians, everyone – has quickly abolished clerical celibacy. It’s untenable, unsustainable, it isn’t Biblical (St. Peter was married), it’s historically dishonest (you think popes weren’t married and screwing around?) – and it isn’t what God requires.

I’m in favor of it when people can do it, but celibacy is a gift of God dispensed to very few; meanwhile the Church needs priests.

Still, I think it’s wrong to blame clerical celibacy first, or even the all-male priesthood. (I’m an Episcopalian, I favor women’s ordination.) The celibacy requirement contributes greatly to the problem; pedophiles wouldn’t have such perfect shelter if normal people could be priests. But secrecy and authoritarianism – how the Church is governed – is the problem.

The Roman Church operates as if the autocracy and divine right of kings is still viable. It isn’t; thinking, educated people won’t put up with it. But Catholics are still kissing bishops’ rings like serfs groveling before the lord of the manor.

When the Church is governed by a czar – whether that’s “Bishop Eddie” Long or Benedict 16 – without a self-correcting mechanism, you’re guaranteeing yourself trouble. Somebody has to be able to tell the emperor he’s naked.

More to the point, someone has to tell the emperor that if he doesn’t cover himself in two minutes flat, he’s going to be out on his fat and naked behind.

Checks and balances; you can’t run a church without them.

But Rome doesn’t see it that way, and indeed it completely misunderstands its mission; feed the hungry, heal the sick, proclaim freedom to the captives and justice in the year of the Lord’s favor.

Rome believes its mission is to teach what Jesus taught, and “the Church has always taught” (though it hasn’t; celibacy came in 10 centuries after Jesus) against all dissenters, ignoramuses, fools and enemies. Indeed, dissent has become the enemy – and Benedict is as bad at that as any pope ever has been.

I wouldn’t cross the street to set foot on St. Peter’s Square. I approve of Catholic people (including priests), but I wouldn’t give you five cents for all the bishops put together.

It’s all one gigantic con!

And Rome knows it; our correspondent says half the priests are screwing around, and it starts at seminary.

Although the church propagates the myth that bishops and priests are celibate, this is not based on fact. Several modern studies have used various methods to measure the degree of celibate observance. No researcher so far has assessed that more than 50 percent of Roman Catholic clergy at any one time are in fact practicing celibacy.

He doesn’t give citations, but the National Catholic Reporter isn’t the Journal of Secret Catholic Social Science; it’s the mainstream magazine for educated people in the pews.

Sexual abuse of minors is only one type of clerical sexual activity. The 2004 John Jay Report concluded from a survey of church files that 6.5 percent of priests ordained between 1960 and 1984 were involved in sex abuse of minors. My study from ethnological data concluded that 6 percent from that same period were abusers.

It is nonetheless a significant symptom of pathology within clerical culture.

Pathology is right, buddy. Six percent of Catholic priests are pedophiles? Maybe so, but that sure sounds high; it may be evidence that child molesters gravitate toward positions of authority and power.

Now read ’em and weep; emphasis added.

Is mandated celibacy alone causal to sex abuse of a minor? As the single factor the answer is no. Vowed celibacy does not drive a bishop or priest to have sex with minors. The answer, however, is also yes. Required celibacy in concert with the clerical culture of entitlement and secrecy is a prominent element for some clergy seeking out minors as sexual partners.

Many priests who abuse minors were themselves abused as special friends of older priests or others. These kinds of liaisons are frequent in seminaries where solitary or mutual masturbation is looked upon as an “innocent” failure. Secrecy about all clerical sex is sacrosanct within the system.

Roman Catholic clerical culture favors doctrinal rigidity, conformity, obedience, submission and psychosexual immaturity, mistaken for innocence, in its candidates. These are the personality elements that lead to advancement and power in the clerical system. Single men are more easily controlled if their sexuality is secret. Double lives on all levels of clerical life are tolerated if they do not cause scandal or raise legal problems. Sexual activity between bishops and priests and adult partners is well known within clerical circles. The secret system forms a comfortable refuge for unresolved gay conflicts. There is a new emerging awareness of the systemic nature of sexual/celibate behavior within the Roman Catholic ministry that is increasingly destabilizing to the church.

Dire consequences will follow the exposure of this sexual system embedded in a secret celibate culture. Authorities who are or have been sexually active, although not with minors, are hard put to publicly correct clerics who are abusing minors. The need for secrecy, the cover-up, extends beyond defending criminal activity of a sex abuser.

The easiest way to control a man is to grab him by the balls. And that’s what the celibacy policy does – of every priest.

St. Peter was married!

But the popes knew exactly what they were doing when they made celibacy mandatory 1000 years after Christ. The control issues – thought control, primarily – dominated every other consideration. And secrecy is the result.

When Rome defined itself as the only defender of “orthodoxy,” Catholicism, Christianity and Christ himself – and not the whole world’s bishops meeting in council, considering that Eastern Orthodoxy walked out in the Great Schism after getting sick of control freakery out of those Romans – it set in motion everything that’s followed, including the Protestant Reformation, worldwide pedophilia scandals, bankrupt dioceses and the almost complete loss of Europe.

The power and control that holds the Roman Catholic church together depends on preservation of the celibate myth. The Vatican and Pope John Paul II declared its inviolability.

Well, it’s tragic to watch but I’m not sorry. A church more worried about its power, authority, control, secrets and approval ratings than it is about 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee abused by Fr. Murphy deserves whatever it gets. (CNN did a good job talking about the deaf boys tonight.)

The NCR author, A.W. Richard Sipe, a mental health counselor and former Benedictine, closes with this.

If celibate violations beyond minor abuse and cover-up are exposed, will the church fall like Humpty Dumpty? Or will the truth about clerical celibacy and its systemic corruption lead to a needed reformation?

I would never underestimate the cunning and skill of the Vatican to resist its own destruction; after all, they’ve learned how to do this for 2000 years, and if need be (considering their warped mission of the Church’s survival at all costs), they’ll lie, cheat, steal and worse to ensure their own power, which they mistake for Jesus Christ’s.

But what I sense will happen – probably not soon – is that they’ll fall like Humpty Dumpty, who couldn’t be put together again.

We are after all talking children here, all over the world. So let a little child lead them.++

George Lucas's inspiration for Jabba the Hutt.

3 Responses

  1. In my diocese there was a priest accused of molesting someone and the bishop took him into his office and in the style of Henry VIII back in the 16th century, lopped his head right off, right then and there. Furthermore, so it could be a lesson to other would-be abusers, and to convince the media that he was actually DOing something, he plopped that severed head right up there on the steeple of the cathedral. As far as I know, there have been no further cases in OUR diocese. Some victims were happy and Amnesty International was appalled. Whatever it takes. . .

    Yep, there are lots of angry people out there who hate the Catholic church. And the appetite for more and more details from more and more victims of sex abuse seems to just grow and grow. Sex abuse is a terrible crime and abuse by someone in a position of trust makes it that much worse. What Ratzinger knew or did or wasn’t able to do back then is not nearly as important as what Pope Benedict and the church is doing now. Common sense might take precedence over canon law but the same thing can be said for civil law where criminals go free on all sorts of technicalities and the police just wring their hands. People in leadership positions can’t just DICTATE what they want and have it happen. Most are bound by rules, laws, and protocol. This tragic story has so many ignorant experts waxing indignant and eloquent. And all of it totally misses the point that there really is no way to totally repair the damage of sex abuse and there really is no punishment that is adequate for those who violate that sacred trust of a young person. Sex sells and more details, make it sell better. Isn’t anyone getting sick of this yet?

  2. But the Pope can in fact DICTATE exactly what he wants – and Ratzinger was his #2.

  3. Where is the link to the beheading (Henry VIII didn´t actually ¨do¨ it Joy…it seems you´re taking joy in spreading more ¨stories¨ while defending a Pope who ought take responsibility for ALL of his actions, both then and now…the man is deceitful and arrogant and irresponsible (no matter how much he weeps for ¨the Church¨)…I weep for him as he is a very sad case.

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