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Priests are Human, and Sexual, Too.

Personal tragedies mount as the Church remains in denial

Sometimes one feels sorry for the Catholic priest in this secular world. Sexuality is everywhere, and yet he has to take a vow of chastity and celibacy. He is ill prepared to deal with sexuality in others as well as in himself.

Probably not since the sixteenth century, when the scandalous sex lives of the popes figured in the criticism of the Protestants against Rome, has the Catholic Church had such difficulty in dealing with the sexuality of priests. Large numbers of priests have officially married and been more or less removed from the priestly ranks (interestingly, not all have been officially defrocked); many more, including bishops, have taken mistresses, or in the case of homosexual priests, other bedmates; and hundreds, if not thousands, have been involved in sexual activity with prepubescent boys. The church has made a valiant attempt to sweep all of these issues under the rug, arguing when they are uncovered that it indicates that priests are only human. But the refusal to confront these issues has incurred a tremendous cost to its integrity and, equally important, to its pocketbook. Over the past 20 years or so, various dioceses in the United States and Canada have paid out several billion dollars in damages to parents f or priestly involvement with their minor children. Every one of the 187 dioceses in the United States has been sued over priestly sexual abuse of children, and some, such as the New Mexico diocese, have been almost bankrupted.

Priestly celibacy is not a matter of doctrine with the Catholic Church, hut rather a discipline or regulation adopted for political reasons in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, reaffirmed in the sixteenth, and with exceptions continued until today. The exceptions have been many. All the Byzantine rite Catholic churches (that is, churches whose ritual was not originally in Latin) who looked to the pope as their head have allowed married priests providing they married before they were ordained. This was true of the American Byzantine rite Catholic churches until the 1950s, when the regulations were changed in order to make their practice consistent with that of other Catholic churches in this country. The change stopped what had been a growing trend of transferring Latin rite priests who became involved with women and could no longer keep their vows of chastity and celibacy, Still, even today the Catholic Church accepts as converts married priests (even those with children) from the Episcopal and other chu rches.

Many stressed-out priests have turned to alcoholism to cope with their problems, but even the problem of drunken priests has often been denied, although the Brothers of the Paraclete in their St. Louis operation run a major rehabilitation unit. Alcoholism is nothing, however, compared to the sexual issue, particularly pedophilia. For 20 years the Brothers also ran a major unit in Jiminez Springs, New Mexico, trying to deal every year with a hundred or more religious who had been referred by their dioceses for treatment because of sexual problems, mainly pedophilia. In the last month or so of their treatment, they were sent out to assist in underserved New Mexico parishes, where many, even under the supervision of their mentors, managed to become involved with altar boys. Eventually the New Mexico diocese, after paying out millions in damages, put enough pressure on other bishops not to send priests to the Jiminez center, and it was transferred to St. Louis, where it still functions.

The psychiatrist consultant to the center while it existed in New Mexico, Jay R. Feierman, examined some 1,000 Catholic priests who were being treated there for various sexual problems. He has stated that it must have been from the priests that President Bill Clinton acquired his solution to homosexuality in the armed services: "Don't ask/don't tell." This, he said, was the practice of the Church toward almost any sexual feeling, and this policy made it more difficult for the priests to come to terms with their sexuality even after they had been caught in some type of sexual behavior prohibited by the Church.

Early this year, Bishop G. Patrick Zieman resigned as Bishop of Santa Rosa after a lawsuit was filed against him by a 41-year-old priest alleging sexual battery, forced oral copulation, and abuse of authority. The bishop admitted the relationship with the priest, but said it had been consensual. Zieman is the fifth Roman Catholic bishop in the United States to resign over sexual issues since 1990. Another bishop, Emerson J. Moore of the Archdiocese of New York, died in a Minnesota hospice of AIDS-related illness, although originally his death certificate attributed his death to "unknown natural causes" and listed his occupation as "laborer" in the manufacturing industry. It was only after a Minnesota AIDS activist filed a complaint that officials changed the cause of death to "HIV-related illness." His occupation, however, was not corrected.

The Church, in fact, does almost everything it can to cover up the problems it has with sexuality. The Kansas City Star in January of this year found, by examining death certificates, as well as through interviews, information on approximately 1,000 priests who had died of AIDS nationwide since the mid-1980s. This is only part of the story, however, and knowledgeable researchers estimate that the real number is at least three or four hundred, with some calculating it as high as seven or eight hundred. Almost all the incidents of AIDS have been determined to be the result of sexual intercourse. One priest is known to have infected at least eight other priests.


Much of the difficulty with AIDS, pedophilia, and heterosexual activities among the clergy in the Church has been its basic refusal to deal with sexual issues. This is particularly aggravated for those who commit themselves to a priestly career in their early teens and are sent off to isolated and segregated seminaries, where information about sex is never given, and, if encountered, the seminarians are told simply to avert their eyes. In fact, any bull session about sex might subject those involved to discharge from the seminary. This perhaps helps explain why researchers into the sexuality of priests have repeatedly reported that the majority of them are psycho-sexually underdeveloped. The standard way sex has been treated in seminaries in the past was to cut short the discussion and urge the troubled individual to go to Mass every day and pray harder. Many, according to Feierman, have obsessive-compulsive disorders and are overly inhibited in a variety of ways. Inevitably, many priests try hard to deny any sexual desires and can deceive themselves into believing they are not sexually attracted to anyone. This self-deception ends in a rude awakening when desire thrusts itself upon them, and they find themselves unable to cope with reality.

The Catholic Church, in one of its studies, found that a significant number of males entering the seminary, perhaps even a majority, had homophile tendencies, although the feeling might be nebulous and not well understood. This should have emphasized the need to develop programs within the seminary to help priests grow into healthy adults with integrated sexuality. In 1983, as a sort of first step, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry issued a 59-page booklet entitled "Human Sexuality and the Ordained Priesthood." It was designed to give priests an "a structured, objective basis" to reflect personally and talk about important realities. Topics included loneliness, celibacy, and relationships.

The report was more or less ignored, and the result has been a mounting crisis in American Catholicism about the sexuality of priests. There is nothing wrong with a priest being attracted to the same sex or opposite sex; what is wrong is the refusal to deal with sexuality. It is becoming more and more difficult for the public to ignore the existence of large number of priests with AIDS, increasing numbers of priests leaving the priesthood to marry or settle in with a partner, and the disproportionate number of pedophilic priests. The list could go on, since priests are simply human, and in spite their special calling they remain so. They always had the same needs and failings as other humans, but in the past the Church could operate with greater secrecy and use its authority in the United States to prevent public awareness.

This is no longer possible, and it is high time that the Catholic Church conclude, as Martin Luther did nearly 500 years ago, that a required vow of celibacy and chastity is not particularly realistic. It is not a matter of Church doctrine but rather of Church control, and one that ought to be modified if the Church is to retain any semblance of integrity.

Vern L. Bullough is professor of history at California State University in Northridge and a well-known sex researcher whose books include The Wandering Womb, Prostitution, and Contraception.
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Author:Bullough, Vern L.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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