This talk was presented in the Boston Public Library on May 20, 2010 to a group of guests invited by Bishops Accountability.

INTRODUCTION: Coming to Boston is a home coming for anyone who has been concerned with the clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States. We all know now that some Catholic clergy for decades, (and centuries) were abusing boys and girls while bishops covered up the crimes, but it took the “guts of the Globe”, The Spotlight Team, to ferret out the documents and deliver the news, really to the world, beginning on January 6, 2002.

Boston provided the flashpoint of the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States. Lawyers fought for victims: prominent among them Eric Mac Leish, Mitchell Garabedian and Carman Durso.

The combination of press exposure, victims’ pressure, legal support and public outrage propelled the bishops into action; within six months they instituted a “zero tolerance” policy toward priest abusers (but not against abusing bishops). They established a National Review Board under lay direction and employed the John Jay School of Criminal Justice to conduct a survey of the U.S. diocesan files. Both unveiled their reports on February 27, 2004. Meanwhile the pope called the American cardinals to Rome and accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law.

Boston lay forces mobilized: Terry McKiernan and Anne Barrett-Doyle founded and operate BishopsAccountability.org the single most valuable repository of documented information about the sex abuse of bishops and priests.

The Voice Of The Faithful organized “to support the sexually abused; to support priests and bishops of integrity; and to help shape the structural integrity of the Church.” VOTF spread from Boston across the country.

Secular authorities neither in Boston nor across the country were mollified; in 12 jurisdictions from Massachusetts to Los Angeles civil officials instituted Grand Jury investigations to evaluate the pattern and practice of the Roman Catholic Church in dealing with sex abuse of minors by its clergy. Every one found the bishops negligent or complicit in a problem they “could not manage.”

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary the voice of the hierarchy remained defiant and clear: The head of the U.S. bishops, Wilton Gregory, proclaimed the crisis, “history” and Pope John Paul II pronounced the crisis, “an American problem.” Even in 2010 a researcher for the U.S. bishops declared sex abuse of minors by American priests essentially a fluke of history and a temporary deviation from a celibate norm.

The revelations of abuse in Europe and its cover up by church authority belie the assumption that sexual abuse by priests and bishops is geographically limited or a temporary phenomenon.

Now is the time to be direct and honest about where we are. The pope has a sex problem. Its dimensions cannot be solved or even contained without serious and fundamental reconsideration of the origins and dynamics of the phenomena.

POINT ONE: The sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clergy is a symptom of a systemic problem rooted in church structure and teaching.

Recently an editor of the New Yorker reminded me of a comment I made before a conference of 300 victims in 1992: I said, “the current revelations of abuse are the tip of an iceberg, and if the problem is traced to its foundation the path will lead to the highest halls of the Vatican.” The current revelations of sexual violations in Europe have shifted attention and the matrix of the conundrum of sexual abuse of children and minors by proclaimed celibate men to Rome.

It is clearer to most observers in 2010 than 1992 that the tip of the clergy abuse iceberg is truly a symptom. Symptoms need to be addressed and must be managed and controlled, but they are not THE problem. Symptoms are indicators of systemic infection or dysfunction.

Roman Catholic leadership has failed to deal credibly and openly with all of human sexuality. Making one or another adjustment in church discipline, for instance making clerical celibacy optional, will not meet the epic challenge the pope now faces, because there are a tangle of sexual issues that clog up the church’s agenda. Like a house of cards its stability rests on maintaining their interrelationship. Danger looms that any revisioning in discipline or the moral teaching about chastity would undercut the entire edifice of power and control.

The pope’s sex problem is harrowing and monumental, but desperately begs to be addressed.

Theologian William Shea already outlined the challenge in 1986 when he listed the issues that need discussion: “divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, [women’s ordination, mandated celibacy] and the male monopoly of leadership.” He opined that the fear and perhaps hatred of women could be at the bottom of the ecclesial hang up.

It would be disingenuous to protest that the Church has discussed these issues or invites dialogue about human sexuality. True enough, the Vatican has made pronouncements and declarations on every item on the list, but none invite dialogue. They pose fundamental questions that remain undigested and unresolved in believable terms.

POINT TWO: The pope has a problem talking about sex because Catholic teaching is basically no longer credible in terms of modern understanding of sexual nature. It has boxed itself in by presenting all of sex as settled and beyond discourse.

Despite Pope John Paul’s four-year effort to define a Theology of the Body he never transcended some of the basic constraints of church teaching that maintain sex is sin. Sex remains permissible and holy only within a valid marriage. At one time he said that a man could commit a “sin of lust” with his own wife. A Freudian slip, perhaps, but one that nonetheless expresses a deep conviction about sex and sin.

A chronic problem with church pronouncements about sex is their use of the idea of natural law as they define and apply it (in its narrow sense). The Vatican represents their interpretation of sexual human nature as an absolute determination. It is not.

First they also isolate the idea of natural law and impose it as an instrument of control.

Second, the approach fails to acknowledge that natural law is also the inherent practical sense of right and wrong and a reasonable guide of conscience, independent of revelation.

Many Catholics use natural law as the road map to guide their sexual behavior. For instance natural law often trumps the dictates of Humanae Vitae in matters of family planning. Some behaviors labeled by the Church “contrary to natural law” (masturbation one instance among many) should be open for examination and dialogue in the minds and hearts of many serious Catholics. 

“Intrinsic” is a church-word that seals off any possibility of conversation. Birth control is presented as intrinsically evil; so is abortion and masturbation. Sex of a cleric with a minor girl, however, is not considered intrinsically evil, only gravely sinful.

POINT THREE: The pope has a problem with homosexuality not only because of his designation of acts as an intrinsic evil, but also because a great number of Catholic clergy have a homosexual orientation.

This dynamic between theory and practice has been a chronic problem for modern popes. A 1961 Vatican document sent to all religious superiors and seminary rectors said that men with a homosexual orientation should not be admitted to religious life nor promoted to ordination.

One of the points of the Vatican investigation of U.S. Seminaries commissioned in 2002 and reported on in December 2008 was to determine the status of homosexuality in these institutions. (It noted some problems.)

Despite this decree and a series of pronouncements about the unsuitability of gay men for priesthood knowledgeable Catholic insiders all agree that a larger proportion of gay clergy—bishops and priests—inhabit the ranks than exist in the general population. Conservative estimates range from 30 to 50 percent. 

The pope has made formal pronouncements declaring that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” A 1986 document authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that homosexual orientation although not sinful in itself, “is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” As if the concept of Original Sin were not sufficient to cover all human beings of any orientation or inclination.

It is unfair to judge a person’s sexual orientation from externals, but gossip around Rome about the pope’s orientation are commonly circulated in high places; he does little to counter suspicions among the press corps and others.

POINT FOUR: The pope has a problem with sex as sin. The problem he has far outstrips his admission that “sin within the church” is the cause of the clergy abuse crisis.  Although that stance is a welcome shift from the defensive modes of denial, blaming others, and presenting itself as the victim, it is a far cry from a realistic dialogue about the structure and function of a celibate ministry that presents itself as a guide to all sexual moral behavior.

A serious consideration of sex and sexual behaviors in terms other than sin would mean that the church would share moral authority where it asserts dominance.

Dominican theologian Yves Congar once said, “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue.” This dynamic dichotomy forms the linchpin to the structure of the entire clergy sexual abuse crisis currently embroiling the Catholic Church.

The definition of sex as sin establishes and maintains authoritarian control because bishops and priests (alone) have the power to forgive mortal sin. They are lords over the inner territory of the soul where secret violations are stored. Catholics are required to submit grave sins in sacramental confession for a priest’s absolution at least once a year. All sexual sins—thought, word, desire and action—of course, are grave according to Catholic moral teaching.

The operation of bishops throughout the clergy sex abuse crisis in the U.S. demonstrates their belief that sex with minors by a cleric is primarily sinful and only secondarily criminal. This clerical stance has led to the revelations of monumental harm plus the exposure of unrepentant clerical arrogance.

Within the clerical system the repentant priest-abuser is easily forgiven—repeatedly—by the power of absolution; the innocent child-victim is abandoned with the undeserved psychic burden of guilt and shame. Religious leaders have demonstrated a lax and forgiving spirit toward clergy misconduct. Clerical sex is so common that its meaning and consequences are minimalized.

A number of church related treatment centers to comfort and help control abusive clergy have been established since 1946. The dismissive attitude toward victims of abuse as bothersome adversaries stands in stark contrast to the protective and tolerant concern for clerics.

The Vatican insistence that every question about human sexuality is settled and beyond discourse—it is only for a person to obey and conform—takes important life decisions out of the realm of moral inquisition, dialogue and responsibility for all Christians—priests and people. The refusal of the Pope and Vatican to enter into serious open dialogue about the real, vital sexual/celibate agenda has stripped the Church of its moral leadership and credibility and continues to be an essential component in the worldwide Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis.

POINT FIVE: Celibacy is a problem for the pope because it is a fundamental means of controlling a homo-social clergy and also in practice it is not a well-observed discipline.

Celibacy is the requirement that a man promise or vow “perfect and perpetual chastity” before he can be ordained a priest. The subject has been in dispute and disrepute for centuries. Mandated celibacy of clerics has vital connections with the problem of sexual abuse of minors within the clerical system. It is not a neutral psychosexual element.

Clerical culture provides fertile ground for the abuse of power and privilege. Celibate practice lags far behind the ideal of perfect and perpetual chastity.

At any one time no more than fifty percent of priests are practicing celibacy. Some men within this circle of influence and atmosphere will inevitably become abusers. History has proven it.

Studies, usually self-survey, protest that “priests are the happiest men” in America. Huge proportions respond that they are “satisfied” with celibacy and would seek ordination again. But these attempts to prove that priests keep celibacy ask and say nothing about sexual behavior. Certainly some priests are happy because they have “ministry with privileges.”

Secrecy (the scarlet bond) within the Catholic clerical system is the cornerstone of the social construct of clerical celibacy and its violation. The reverence accorded sacramental confession is stretched beyond all reason to cover and justify known clerical sexual violations and liaisons.

Mandated celibacy is the capstone of clerical power. The power structure of the Catholic clerical elite has done all it could to keep the abuse of minors a secret and to deflect blame outward. The fight to protect the power system persists in the church’s violent and irrational opposition against the dissolution of statute of limitations for crimes of abuse.

Pope Benedict invoked the name of St. Peter Damian, patron of church reform, when dedicated 2009 as the “Year of the Priest.” Yet he failed to acknowledge in any way that Peter Damian pointed out in no uncertain terms the violations of celibacy by clergy: concubinage, but even more strikingly the sexual plague of priests abusing boys and young clerics.

Damian recommended zero tolerance for any cleric who abused a minor. This was in 1049. He also invoked the sanctions violators recommended by the council of Ancyra (314) namely: “Any cleric or monk who seduces young men or boys, or who is apprehended in kissing or in any shameful situation, shall be publicly flogged and shall lose his clerical tonsure. Thus shorn, he shall be disgraced by spitting in his face, bound in iron chains, wasted by six months of close confinement, and for three days each week put on barley bread given him toward evening. Following this period, he shall spend a further six months living in a small segregated courtyard in custody of a spiritual elder, kept busy with manual labor and prayer, subjected to vigils and prayers, forced to walk at all times in the company of two spiritual brothers, never again allowed to associate with young men.”

Clergy simply are not taught celibacy. The religious system is deficient and inadequate to meet the demands of celibate/sexual knowledge and practice today. The seminary system established at Trent (1543-65) wherein the monastic-like daily schedule and the mentorship of a spiritual director were intended to form the man in celibate commitment is no longer serviceable.

The faculties are not psychosexually mature enough, and at times even lax and seductive. The demands of modern ministry are beyond the scope of anything offered in any seminary. Jesuit John L. Thomas said that a priest should know everything there is to know about sexuality short of experience.

Beyond those deficiencies are the crippling effects of sexual doctrine and discipline that are not credible. The seminary system sets men up to lead double lives or worse to develop sociopathic personalities that adapt and operate well in the clerical power structure.

POINT SIX: Sex within marriage is a problem for the pope. The 1968 papal determination that the use of artificial birth control (the pill, etc.) is a mortal sin—intrinsically evil and against the natural law—does not make sense practically or morally to a majority of Catholic couples.

Similar clerical reasoning about the use of condoms even in a marriage to avoid the spread of the AIDS virus strikes serious people as frankly ridiculous.

What of courtship? All intimacy is sin before marriage. All sex forbidden for the widowed or divorced.

The callowness and insensitivity to children and families demonstrated by clergy abuse only spotlights the deficient understanding of the clerical culture to the realities of sexual love and relationships. The church makes everyone a sinner and then justifies clergy sexual indulgence and assaults as being “just like everyone else.”

Abortion and gay marriage are issues that the pope pulls out to reinforce the moral superiority of the clergy that are seemingly above these struggles. Guilt is a tool of control and self-justification. My experience of over 50 years observing clerical sexual behavior belies the assumption that priests are free of both struggles. They more often than not urge or demand that the woman they impregnated get an abortion. The common result is that the partner does seek an abortion and the priest goes on to be promoted in the clerical system.

Catholic clerical culture produces men who use sex to control others—women and men—the most egregious is the rape of minors. Sexually active clerics are not the exception, but the rule, even if only a minority assault children. 

CONCLUSION: The Roman Catholic Church today is corrupt sexually and financially. (Every bit as corrupt as in 1510 when the young monk Luther visited Rome and was forever scared by the behavior of the Roman clergy or in 1049 when Peter Damian addressed his most memorable letter (31) to Pope Leo IX about the sexual abuse of boys and young clerics. Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado and the Legionnaires of Christ exposed by investigative reporter Jason Berry are but one contemporary paradigm.)

The symptom of sexual abuse of minors by clergy rests on foundations that tremble or will crumble when external examination or exposure penetrate them. The devious way the U.S. bishops have reacted to the crisis begins a process of exposure that cannot be reversed, contained or denied.

The problem is now in the pope’s hands.

The pope cannot solve the panoply of his sexual problem with any pronouncements that alter any one part of sexual teaching or discipline.

The pope is at an epic juncture. Only a sexual Copernican shift that will reconsider basic assumptions about sexual teaching and discipline that affect all Catholics will be sufficient to meet the basic crisis that now inundates us.

Consideration of the pope’s sex problem raises questions:

1. Will the pope’s sex problem require a Council to resolve it? The Implications of the clerical sex abuse crisis that now exposes a corrupt pattern and practice of a system has escaped and confused many good, brilliant people and left generations paralyzed. There is no need to point fingers, but the solution to the pope’s sexual problem is beyond him or any one person. The challenge of sex is monumental.

2. Should the pope resign? Nine of the 265 Roman Catholic popes have allegedly resigned their office, most for the good of the Church. The first according to the historian Epiphanius was Clement I around the year 100. The most recent was Gregory XII who abdicated at the Council of Constance in 1417 to help settle the claims of three competitors for the papacy.

Benedict is a conflicted papal name. Two Pope Benedicts have resigned. In 964, after one month in office, Benedict V abdicated the throne at the insistence of Emperor Otto I. Pope Benedict IX served three different terms between 1032 and 1048 when he resigned and was charged with simony and excommunicated by his successor Leo IX. There is no legitimate Benedict X in the line of papal succession. A “Benedict X” who acted as pope for nine months in 1058 was declared an anti-pope and excommunicated. The actual number of Pope Benedicts is technically incorrect. Joseph Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI is actually only the fifteenth Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict XVI is a descent man and a lifelong servant of his church.  It takes nothing away from whatever good he has done to suggest that he should resign his office. However, the Roman Catholic Church is in a period of Reformation as profound (and breathtaking) as any its history has ever recorded. The voluntary resignation of Pope Benedict XVI could be a gesture that would match the epic challenge that faces Catholicism today.

Such leadership might help break the pattern and practice that holds the church hostage to a past that no longer serves the Christian message. The monarchy that rules the church has outlived its service in the evangelization of peoples, an evangelization that Paul the apostle taught and that Pope John Paul II championed.

The People of God—hierarchy included—are shackled by a secret system designed to control rather than free them. Unresolved sexual issues are at its core.

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