Articles in this issue
9/11 On Our Mind
After the Globe
Choosing Up Sides in the
Reading the Koran in Chapel
Sex in the
Scandal Without End
By Andrew Walsh
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,
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
"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.