Fall 2002, Vol. 5, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2002

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Articles in this issue

Our Muslim Neighbors

9/11 On Our Mind

Scandal Without End

After the Globe

Choosing Up Sides in the Middle East

Reading the Koran in Chapel Hill

Faith Based Administration

Amazing Graceland

Sex in the (Catholic) City

Scandal Without End
By Andrew Walsh

Over the past year, the immense "Catholic crisis" has torn away many of the shrouds that have traditionally kept the inner workings of the American church from public view. Journalists have gained unprecedented access to the church’s internal discussions, struggles, and divisions, and by and large they have risen to the occasion, producing a body of work that has steadily increased in insight, quality of sourcing, and vigor.

Although Catholics of all sorts have been deeply upset by the scandal, there has been little public criticism of the media. "If God could work through the Assyrians in the Old Testament, God can certainly work through the New York Times and the Boston Globe today, whether or not the Times and the Globe realizes (sic) what’s happening or not," the conservative Catholic scholar and activist George Weigel wrote in The Courage to be Catholic, one of the many "scandal books" now appearing.

And despite the eagerness of Catholic leadership to lay the scandal to rest, the media attention is not about to go away. "The problems this crisis has brought to the surface, or created, are so large, so complex, that there’s no way this crisis can be resolved quickly," Russell Shaw, the former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Associated Press’s Rachel Zoll. "Restoring confidence in the bishops, the priesthood, and the authority structures of the church will take a long time."

The American bishops are caught between a Vatican that resists structural change, and a laity and media that wants more accountability. American journalists had little trouble finding Vatican voices horrified by the "zero tolerance" protocol that the American bishops drafted under remarkable scrutiny at their Dallas meeting in June. The view from Rome, Frank Bruni of the New York Times reported on October 20, was that "the American bishops were responding to the child sexual abuse crisis in an almost secular, political fashion, rewriting rules, confessing fault, and acknowledging that they might need outsiders to keep them honest."

While there was widespread acknowledgement of the "due process" concerns articulated by the Vatican, the overall reaction to the changes that Rome ultimately mandated was very cool. "Bishops’ tepid policy makes the job tougher," the Boston Herald editorialized. "Catholic Bishops Would Censure All But Themselves," the Tampa Tribune complained. "Church Experts Say Bishops Bungling Crisis; Diverse Obervers United in Condemning Catholic Hierarchy," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Caught between an unhappy Vatican and an outraged laity, bishops have been showing signs of stress. Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose forthright and apologetic keynote speech in Dallas was universally praised, caught flak for his speech at the bishop’s Washington meeting. "Yesterday, his tone was more defensive, even defiant, as he took on what he called unfair criticism of the church and its priests," John Rivera reported in the Baltimore Sun November 12.

The strain on bishops handling the removal of accused priests was especially evident. In October, Peter Rosazza, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, was asked by Hartford Courant reporters Elizabeth Hamilton and Helen Ubinas why a Central American priest accused of sexual abuse had been allowed to celebrate Mass in a Connecticut parish after he had been terminated. "There’s a very good explanation for that," Rosazza snapped, "but I’m not going to give it to you."

The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein captured the mood of many bishops in a November 19 piece headlined: "Catholic Leadership Is Looking to Past, Not to Change, as Response to Scandal." More than a third of the bishops meeting in Washington had signed a call to convoke a plenary council of American bishops—the first since 1884, to deal with the crisis. "The vision," Goodstein reported, "is for a grand gathering of bishops, theologians, religious women and men and laypeople, as well as Vatican representatives." One sponsor, Auxiliary Bishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, said the council would ‘reinforce the identity of the priesthood,’ emphasizing the commitment to celibacy and chastity and the importance of daily Mass, regular confession, asceticism and simplicity of life. It would also convey, just by its composition and agenda, that the identity of the priesthood does not include women, married men, or gays."

The "problem" of gays in the priesthood in particular has become very complicated. Increasingly, conservatives have focused on the emergence of a large gay presence in the priesthood over the past 20 years. While estimates vary wildly, many recent studies have suggested that between 20 and 50 percent of those ordained in recent years are gay, and that a large share of Catholic priests have always had a homosexual orientation.

Some of the finest journalism on the crisis has explored this issue. On July 31, for example, the Washington Post put Hanna Rosin’s outstanding 3,373 word piece on student life at the Catholic University of America’s elite Theological College on page one. The story, headlined "At Seminary: Unease Over Gay Priests; Unspoken Issue Created Atmosphere of Tension," recounted the experiences of two seminarians from Iowa, one gay and one straight, who studied at Theological College in the late ’90s. "Gay or not seemed to define social cliques, political camps, and many a classmate’s wrenching personal struggles," Rosin reported. "Yet being gay was never mentioned by the faculty except as an abstract possibility."

The two men did not experience Theological College as an arena of open gay sexuality. "It’s not like guys were walking around holding hands," Andrew Krzmarzick, the heterosexual seminarian, told Rosin. Instead, it was an atmosphere in which he felt like an outsider. His Iowa friend, David Kucharski, on the other hand, felt comfortable coming out during his two years in seminary, but realized that ultimately he would be expected to be very circumspect about how much he revealed about himself to those outside the seminary community. The message, he told Rosin, was, "Don’t talk about it out loud, and never outside the walls of the seminary." Neither man ended up pursuing ordination.

Church conservatives have tended to see sexually active homosexuals as theological liberals. As Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online put it in summarizing Michael Rose’s recent book Goodbye, Good Men, "Pervading these pink palaces is an out-of-the-closet atmosphere that is openly hostile toward orthodox seminarians who seek to selflessly serve God, and to obey, teach, and live what the Catholic Church actually represents."

But there is a strong possibility that many "orthodox" seminarians and priests are themselves gay. Rosin’s piece noted that, in the savage slang of Theological College, "the guys on the fourth floor who wore cassocks to class or did the 5 a.m. devotions in the chapel" were called the DOTS, the Daughters of Trent—gay "but praying to the Virgin to take it away." The consensus of social science on priests ordained in the last two decades is that they are both theologically more conservative and more likely to be gay than their older cohorts.

The complexity of the situation received careful attention in Shawne Wickham’s November 18 Manchester Union-Leader story that raised up a new term of art for the newly emphasized goal of many Catholic seminaries: chaste celibacy. "At this point, the feeling is that we would accept a candidate whether he is heterosexual or homosexual, as long as we were convinced that the person could live a chaste life," the Rev. Marc Guillemette, co-director of vocations for the Diocese of Manchester, told Wickham.

On November 25, Sacha Pfeiffer reported in the Boston Globe that over the summer St. John’s Seminary in Boston had expelled a 30-year-old gay seminarian named Gavan Meehan. Meehan, who told the Globe that he was celibate before and during his studies at St. John’s, ran into trouble after insisting on openly discussing his sexual orientation and making statements against homophobia. "I’m not a person who wears my sexuality on my sleeve," said Meehan, "but as I become friends with people, I tell them who I am."

Informed of his expulsion, Meehan responded with a bitter letter that included denouncing at least two other students as active, but secretive homosexuals. "I felt like I had to point out the hypocrisy," Meehan told Pfeiffer. "If you talk about being gay, even if you’re celibate, that gets you in trouble. But if you’re actually having sex and covering your bases, you don’t have to worry about a thing."

Indeed, the emerging institutional line is that gay orientation is not a barrier to ordination, but that priests are expected not to discuss their sexual orientation at all. "The judgment call is not based on whether a or not a man is gay or not," the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, the Archdiocese of Boston’s official spokesman and a member of the St. John’s faculty said. "The judgment call is whether a man is committed to a celibate lifestyle or not." What that meant, Coyne said, was that "it’s inappropriate for a priest to get up in a public forum, a pulpit, or even a private forum and talk about his sexuality, even if he’s celibate, because that is not a matter of public discourse."

Even if the Catholic church can escape this complex minefield, it must deal with a degree of lay disaffection from the hierarchy never before seen in the United States. In the weeks between the Vatican’s rejection of the June protocol and the bishops’ November meeting in Washington, there was a lot of coverage indicating that lay Catholics didn’t want the bishops’ to back away from their June policy statement.

"As he left church Sunday, parishioner Peter Melchiano said Catholics should consider a simple but powerful message about its handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal," John Chadwick reported in the October 21 Bergen Record in northern New Jersey. "‘I think it comes down to either zero tolerance or zero donations.’"

Especially in New England, a sense has grown that dramatic changes may be taking place in patterns of lay participation—changes that may echo the dramatic drop in attendance at Mass that took place in Ireland during the 1990s following similar scandals there.

The most obvious change is withdrawal. The New York Times’ Pam Belluck reported on November 12 that priests is suburban Boston are deeply concerned about dramatic changes in lay attitudes since the scandal broke. "‘We are in desperate straits,’" the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, said a group of priests told Cardinal Law at a meeting in Arlington in Boston’s near western suburbs. "The numbers of people who have stopped coming to church are between 10 and 30 percent. Most churches are taking about a 25 percent drop in collections.’"

It’s not yet clear whether these drops are temporary or permanent. But the focal point of discussion and agitation is not on Catholics who quietly drift away, but rather on lay groups that have organized in the wake of the scandal, most of all on the Boston-based Voice of the Faithful, which claims 30,000 members largely from the suburban and professional classes.

In an August 17 story, the Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson reported that bishops in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York had banned the group from meeting on church property. They distrusted its use of parishes as forums for open discussion of the crisis and demands for reform as well as for its stated commitment to "structural reform" of the larger church.

"I cannot support an organization like Voice of the Faithful, which appears to support dialogue and cooperation, but which in reality prosecutes a hidden agenda of conflict with the teachings of the Catholic faith," Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who banned the group from his parishes, told the Globe in October. "The Voice of the Faithful is using the current crisis in the church to advance an agenda that neither I, nor the vast majority of Catholics, can embrace."

Similarly, Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn told the New York Times’ Andy Newman, "You’ve got to have the pope, and you’ve got to have a bishop. I have no problem talking to people, and I have talked to them from the point of view of what they’re feeling and I think I could do more of it, but having said that, I want to be part of the discussion. Don’t shut me out. They want to make a point and the point in their participation in the church. And I just say it’s got to include the bishop, and if it doesn’t it’s not the Catholic Church."

While some conservative groups have risen to support the bishops—a Boston counter-group called Faithful Voice has begun to issue broadsides—it is perhaps more remarkable how strong lay criticism of the hierarchy remains. When Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, the head the national panel appointed by the bishops to oversee its new child-protection policy, delivered his first major speech at Regis College in suburban Boston, he used the occasion to advise Cardinal Law to talk to Voice of the Faithful.

Other prominent lay Catholics, like Regis College president Mary Jane England, have been at once willing to work with Law to achieve change and very blunt about their demand for a more responsive, more accountable church. "We have had scandals in the church before—popes may have sold indulgences—but this is the worst," England told Globe columnist Eileen McNamara October 6. "What matters is that we change the church. It’s not modern…They don’t get it about how we do business in an inclusive society. If we change the cardinal and don’t change that, where are we?" That’s a blunt statement for the president of a Catholic college.

Reacting to the Vatican’s objections to the Dallas "zero tolerance policy," University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio, the former director of President Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, asked, "What’s the Latin word for nonsense?" DiIulio had no known record of pushing for reform of the church.

"Only a crime-victims-be damned defense lawyer looking to get his clients off on legal technicalities could read the Dallas document the way the Vatican apparently does," he wrote in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed piece on October 27. "The church’s solicitude for treating fallen priests fairly is certainly justifiable, but contrary to what the Vatican’s letter implies, Catholic theology and teaching put children and victims first, and provide no moral or prudential bases for failing to protect the innocent or punish the guilty."

Even below the level of famous lay Catholics, it is clear that the lay activism stirred by the scandal has mobilized a far larger group than the Catholic reform groups supporting the ordination of women or married people, gay rights, or abortion rights. And when bishops have questioned their doctrinal orthodoxy, laity and even priests are, at least in New England, pushing back.

In November, Cardinal Law was visibly taking guidance from priests and changing some of his positions. Earlier in the fall, he had begun to meet with groups of abuse survivors and eventually issued a new apology that struck many as reflecting a fuller grasp of the human harm caused by his reassignments of predatory priests. Coyne, his spokesman, told the New York Times’ Belluck that many priests urged him to treat Voice of the Faithful differently.

"By condemning the Voice of the Faithful, that makes things more difficult for us," the Rev. Bullock told the Times, speaking for the parish priests, "because Voice of the Faithful parishioners are our parish council members, lectors, religious education teachers, eucharistic ministers….To say that these people are somehow illegitimate or are somehow a threat to our catholicity is absurd. To say these parishioners cannot use their own buildings, which they pay for, is ridiculous."

And so, like it or not, the Catholic hierarchy is faced with having to regain the trust of large elements of its flock. That won’t be easy in an atmosphere in which, for the next several years, dozens of criminal trials of priests will be taking place all over the country and some 300 recent cases of clerical suspensions will be working their way through whatever the church’s own final disciplinary process turns out to be.

Then there are the civil depositions of church leaders that will continue to be taken and released to the public. As the Boston Herald reported November 20, "Bernard Cardinal Law was personally aware of multiple sex abuse complaints against six priests between 1984 and 1989—and possibly more—but did not think his archdiocese faced ‘a major, overwhelming problem,’ according to testimony released yesterday." reported the Boston Herald November 20.

Meanwhile, the Vatican and many Catholic conservatives continue to push the bishops to circle the wagons. In the widely cited phrase of the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, their solution to the problem is "fidelity, fidelity, fidelity"—to the magisterial authority of the church. Tools like a plenary council can be used to advance this agenda.

For their part, reformers move with the general flow of the culture, which is not a minor force, and possess their own forceful rhetoric. "The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus claims the problem is rooted in the failure of fidelity. He’s right, but it’s not fidelity to vows of chastity or…anything that simplistic that has gotten us into trouble," the Rev. Thomas Doyle, wrote in a Boston Herald op-ed November 17. "It’s fidelity to the mission assigned by Christ, to take the soul-chilling risk of doing the right thing."

In this battle royal, journalists need to keep their ringside seats.

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