Catholics Respond to New Abuse Report

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 19, 2011

A new report that reiterates that the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is not the result of gay priests has prompted some to call for apologies from those who used the crisis as an opportunity to bash homosexual clerics. Others denounce the report as a distraction from the conduct of bishops who responded to clerical predations. And some say that not only are gay priests a longtime part of the church; they should be celebrated as such and not relegated to a clerical version of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

The Associated Press reported on May 18 that the study, "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010," released that same day by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice--the third to be commissioned nine years ago by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when the scandal broke--disproved several popular perceptions about predator priests. One myth was that the priests were pedophiles--that is, individuals with sexual urges focused on pre-adolescent children. Rather, the report said, only a fraction of abuse cases involved pre-pubescent victims.

Another myth that the report shattered was the claim that gay men perpetrated the abuse. That notion was reinforced by the fact that many victims of male abusers were also male; but the report noted that the abusers selected their victims based on who was available, rather than on gender preference. Priests had easier access to boys, the report noted.

The study further disproved the idea that gay priests were the culprits by noting that as more gays entered the priesthood in the 1970s and 1980s, sexual abuse incidents by priests were actually decreasing--not increasing along with a greater gay presence in the clergy.

The report has drawn criticism by those who take issue with the exact definition of pedophilia and pubescence, since the report regards victims as young as 10 as not being pre-pubescent children. Critics also charge that the report shifts focus from the bishops who reassigned predators from parish to parish, thus providing them with fresh victims to exploit.

"We feel the bishops have hidden, protected, shielded and enabled the predators to continue to molest; we feel that is the greatest failing," stated Barbara Dorris of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), reported anti-gay religious site OneNewsNow on May 18. "They have failed to take action when they have had credible allegations of child sexual abuse."

But within the Catholic world, the report has prompted calls for attacks on gay people of faith to be eased--and apologies to be made.

"Initial reports that the study found no link between the sexual orientation of the priests and the sexual abuse crisis leads us to believe the Vatican and our bishops will stop trying to scapegoat this problem on gay priests, but whether they're ready to address the institutional lack of transparency that allowed this problem to continue is not yet clear," Phil Attey, the head of Catholics for Equality, said in a May 18 media release.

"Catholics for Equality also calls on anti-gay political operative Bill Donahue, President of the anti-gay conservative Catholic League, to issue formal apologies to New Yorkers and to the nation for using the sexual abuse scandal to demonize gay people," the text of the media release said. "Donahue [on] April 11, 2011, commissioned a full-page ad in the New York Times, asserting that homosexual priests were the root of the sexual abuse scandal. The timing of the ad coincided with the introduction of legislation to make civil marriage legal for gay and lesbian couples in New York."

"Bill Donahue needs to apologize to New Yorkers, to the LGBT community and to American Catholics--and mostly to the sexual abuse victims--for using the sexual abuse scandal to demonize gay people for political gain," Attey declared. "As Catholics we're again ashamed of this man. New Yorkers need to know that Bill Donahue does not speak for the overwhelming majority of Catholics in New York and across the country."

A May 17 article at Catholic weekly publication America Magazine reported on the study and noted that "nearly every reputable psychologist and psychiatrist, not to mention almost every scholarly study, decisively rejects the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, as well as any cause-and-effect relationship."

The article went on to posit that a culture of secrecy around the sexual orientation of gay clergy should be resisted and reversed.

"One of the main reasons that many persist in thinking that homosexuality is the root cause of the abuse crisis, and that homosexual priests are mainly pedophiles, is because there are almost no 'public' models of healthy, mature, loving celibate homosexual priests to rebut that stereotype," the article noted.

Secrecy is instilled in gay priests from the very start, in part because the Catholic Church takes as its stance a version of "love the sinner, hate the sin"--the "sin" in this case being any occasion on which two individuals of the same gender, no matter how devoted or committed they may be to one another, express their bond sexually.

The Church teaches that although gays do not "choose" to be attracted to others of the same gender, they are nonetheless "disordered" people whose sexual relationships are "inherently evil."

Moreover, the Vatican has said that would-be seminarians with "deep-seated" homosexual inclinations should be barred from entering vocational training and becoming ordained as priests. The institutionalized shame around homosexuality and the implicit threat that gay priests or gays with a clerical vocation who come out might be denied that vocation help lock many gay clergy in the closet.

The America Magazine article noted that the Vatican's directive has been subjected to widely varying interpretation, but also suggested a number of additional reasons for which gay priests may not wish to be open about their sexual orientation.

"First, these priests may be fearful of how their parishioners would react, especially if they are living in a parish where homophobia abounds," the article said. "Second, they might feel, not without reason, that a public declaration might place more emphasis on the priest than on his ministry and, likewise, serve as a distraction and even cause a serious division within the parish. Third, they might be fearful of reprisals or punishments by some less-than-understanding bishops or religious superiors.

"Fourth, they may be unable or unwilling to do so for a variety of personal reasons," the article continued. "For example, they may be of a generation where talk of sexuality simply wasn't done, or they may still be deeply embarrassed by their orientation, despite their celibacy and chastity." Moreover, the article said, gay priests might be ordered by their superiors in the Catholic hierarchy not to disclose their sexuality.

The study also found that the requirement that Roman Catholic priests remain celibate--regardless of sexual orientation--was not a factor in clerical abuse, as some had suggested. Allowing priests to marry would not address the problem.

But allowing those outside the clergy to marry might promote a more open and accepting environment within the Catholic faith tradition--an environment that is increasingly a reality, despite Vatican teachings on same-sex relationships.

"An April 2011 Siena College Research Institute poll found that 59% of Catholics in New York support civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples," the Catholics for Equality media release noted. "This statistic follows national polling this year showing supermajorities of American Catholics support for civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.