Dialogue 10
Violations Can Be Legal But Destructive

How do American bishops and priests practice celibacy?

An Irish scholar recently contacted me and had some specific questions about clerical sexual contact with adult women. She was particularly interested in the long term spiritual effects on adult partners/victims.

The media worldwide in the last decade has exposed some sexual failings of Catholic clergy including bishops, cardinals, and abbots particularly with minors. Such stories just confirm the jaundiced pre-judgment of skeptics, believers and non-believers alike. An archbishop wrote me in 1990, "I guess there is a kind of voyeurism about the sex life of clerics and I wonder if it is really so healthy for the whole of society."

The curiosity people have about the sexual/celibate discipline and practice of Catholic clergy is neither voyeuristic nor anticlerical. People want models of the purity popes preach. (Note how Pope Benedict XVI emphasized chastity to the young people of Brazil on May 10, 2007.)

The public is most used to seeing and imagining bishops and priests in ministerial robes and roles—celebrating Mass, presiding at ceremonies, dedicating buildings, and rendering blessings. They are identifiable, symbolic, and inspiring, beautifully wrapped in robes of color and distinction. That is the way the public likes to perceive its spiritual leaders—witnesses to a world and reality above the mundane and certainly removed from the normal moral and sexual struggles that beset the mass of humanity. Others find the pageantry entertaining if not spiritually uplifting.

And many Catholics find their priests personally pastorally helpful, responsive, comforting, and inspiring.

Priests have difficult roles to fill. The public and private demands made on them are daunting. One time, teaching a seminary class the student discussion turned to the challenges and ominous burdens they anticipated once they were ordained. After they vented their fears sufficiently I pointed to the very large crucifix hanging on the wall in the front of the classroom. "This is your model. This is what you are in for."

But even the best students for the priesthood need to ask and know "How to be celibate—chaste as the pope preaches?"

Beneath the silks and satins of ceremony, and behind the black cassocks, suits and white collars there is a cross. There throbs a reality that should motivate and disturb every priest—for the good of the Church, the credibility and effectiveness of ministry, and his own dignity—that is: honesty about his sexuality.

There is an abundance of historical accounts (and novels) recording the sexual activity of popes, bishops and priests with women. The history of the 10th Century of the papacy was so sexually florid that it was called the Age of Pornocracy.1 More recent novels do recount the affairs of clergy with women—The Gadfly2, El crimen del padre Amaro3, The Thorn Birds4, and The Cardinal Sins5 to mention a few of the more popular tales. Although each of these novels and others have one focus on a celibately dysfunctional priest, but they have moral lessons and perspectives on reality that help to understand ministry, love, life, and redemption.

I have never found parallel treatments of homosexual Catholic clergy.

A reader recently wrote:

I became aware of the great number of priests who have sexual relationships with laymen. I am a gay man and very active in my religious life. I had a loving affair with a man that I hoped could be a permanent commitment. Only after two years I discovered that he was a Catholic priest. He broke off our friendship once I knew his true identity saying that all his previous relationships were with priests. He told me he thought it was best for him to return to that practice. He told me how many of his priest fiends lived the same lifestyle as he. He even identified highly placed clergy (two bishops) who have priest lovers. (He produced documentation.)

  1. Professor Thomas F.X. Nobel, Popes and the Papacy, A History. Lecture 6 "The Age of Iron." 2007.
  2. Ethel L. Voynich published her critically acclaimed novel in 1897.
  3. José Maria Eça de Queirós published Crime do Padre Amaro in Portuguese in 1875.This story was made popular with the Mexican movie produced in Spanish in 2002.
  4. The Thorn Birds is a 1977 best-selling novel by Australian author Colleen McCullough. In 1983 it was produced as a television mini series.
  5. Catholic priest Andrew M. Greeley published The Cardinal Sins in 1981.

He continued: I am a professional man and still fear outing myself. My academic standing has been a powerful constraint keeping me from going public; since my affair with the priest was not illegal, merely embarrassing and hypocritical, what good would be accomplished?

My few sexual affairs have been long term and with men in a profession similar to my own. But the degree of the sexual involvement of priests with laymen has shocked me. (I am a cradle Catholic, but all of my education has been in private secular institutions) I have retained my religion on a pedestal and still find the roots of my spiritual life grounded in Catholicism where I have many good priest and nun friends.

My eyes have been opened since my experience. I have since had conversations with other laymen and colleagues who have been in my situation. I have now even talked with some priests here in the US, Italy, and Belgium who told me that they regularly have sex with laymen.

A priest in Italy told me that his lay lover lives with him in the rectory, and their situation is known by most of the congregation. A priest with a post in a chancery office in California lives in the same situation. His lover is Jewish. Most of what I know from fact involves sexual activity between priests and laymen.

Am I presumptuous to assume that the numbers of priests and bishops who have sex with each other and seminarians is higher than those who have sex with laymen because of the accessibility?

Maybe we need a courageous priest or bishop who is willing to talk openly about it. Is that possible?


As the writer points out, there was nothing illegal about the affair the priest had with him. No one entered into the relationship under a power constraint. It was a deception, but not harassment. There was mutual attraction and the presumption of freedom on both sides existed.

Everything I know from research, observation, and experience as a priest and a psychotherapist convinces me that the rate of sex among or between clergy is high. Some priests within the church claim that the rate of homosexually oriented priests and bishops is quickly approaching 50 percent. At least half of these men become active at one time or another during their careers.

There is nothing illegal if two seminarians or two priests have sex with one another. There is nothing illegal about a bishop having sex with another bishop, a priest, or an adult seminarian if there is no power differential. The latter is not always the case. I have documentation on several cases of bishops or superiors who preyed on men in training or young priests. In the community to which I belonged it turned out that the major superior (abbot, seminary rector, novice master, and others in roles of authority) had sex with some of the men in training under the guise of spiritual direction. This is a violation, although only a few of the men came forward to complain. This is not what we are talking about here.

Sexual activity was especially common in seminaries (about 20 percent in 1984). The writer’s experience claims that many priests have sex with laymen. I do not know the comparative proportions. From observation this number is growing since the homosocial and homosexual features of the clerical culture is expanding in the wake of priests who have left the priesthood, the gay friendly aspects of the priesthood are exposed, and the secrecy within the clerical system is reinforced.

The writer is correct: The Church needs courageous priests or bishops who will speak openly about clergy sex. For over four decades priests have told stories of their past or present sexual activity with a priest, bishop, or cardinal—yes, don’t be shocked, some cardinals are or have been sexually active with men or women.


Does  it really matter? Or is merely a kind of unholy voyeurism?

Let’s pose those questions without moral strings—not talking about sin, right or wrong, health or illness, but rather tackling the problem into a clearer behavioral focus. Such a non-judgmental consideration can address the facts of behavior because some priests and bishops who have longstanding, non-abusive relationships with adults can argue that they are good pastors and effective ministers. Important questions remain:


What are the constraints that keep these issues under clerical wraps?


What effect do these behaviors have on other sexual behaviors of clergy that are criminal?


And what impact does the secrecy that preserves the fiber of non- criminal activity have on the credibility of the Catholic Church?

First, let’s talk about the reality of clergy sex (that is sexual activity within the circle of clerics) and second we can talk about how, with few exceptions, priests bind themselves with the scarlet bond of clerical secrecy that although it controls scandal in the end besmirches the innocent and hides the miscreants.

For more than 40 years scores of priests have consulted me or come for counseling that involved accounts of sexual approaches by, or activity with bishops, religious superiors, confessors, seminary professors, or other priests. Many of these men were not victims or participants in any overt behaviors, but were troubled by what they observed in their seminary, chancery office, rectory, and beyond. All of these men have a right to their anonymity. But the reality of what their experience represents is too large, too important, and too obvious to ignore any longer.

Confidentiality can be preserved at the same time we explore, point out and underline what is known and obvious—some bishops and priests have sex with men. That statement should not be sensational or even accusatory. It should represent facts that should be explored primarily for the good of the Catholic Church and its clergy.

When James (later Cardinal) Hickey was rector of the North American College in Rome (1969-1974) a notice was posted on the bulletin board: "Overt homosexuality will not be tolerated in this college." A priest visiting from the United States took a photo of the sign. Among some clergy the notice was the source of jokes about "covert" homosexuality and sites "outside this college."

William Levada (now Cardinal) gave an address on February 26, 2006 at this same North American College in Rome. During his address to the 170 seminarians at the installation of the new rector Levada urged "gay priests to remain in the closet." (Levada made the false and ambiguous connection between the pedophilia crisis and homosexuality. There is no truth to the assertion that gay men are more inclined toward sex with children than straight men. There is, however, a causal connection between the crisis of clergy abuse of minors and the tolerance of sexual behaviors, heterosexual and homosexual, among other clergy. The focus here is on bishops’ and priests’ sexual activity with each other.)

This forbidden activity, although not illegal, creates an atmosphere of toleration where behaviors that are illegal can be covered. In our study 56 percent of priests who were reported to bishops because of sexual abuse were reassigned. A pattern to cover up and deny sex abuse thrives in a system that has to hide other activity that is embarrassing and would cause scandal if it were made public.

The cloak of credibility that covered priests and bishops by presuming their practice of celibacy has been tattered. Exposure in the media and courts of the indefensible abuse of minors and the vulnerable by clergy has also begun to reveal the secrets beneath the sacred cover ups of bishops and priests who may not be criminals, but who contribute to a system of hypocrisy that fosters, tolerates, and crimes against children.

Posted: 31 MAY 2007

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