Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ex-Monk Says Celibates' Wanting to Have Sex and Keep It Secret Fuels Sex Abuse Crisis

The National Catholic Reporter has posted a difficult but very accurate analysis of the clergy sex abuse crisis by Richard Sipe, whom NCR describes as "a mental health counselor and author who earlier spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and priest."

What is difficult about the article is that Sipe's writing style is sometimes an obstacle to the insights he wants to communicate. For example, in the first paragraph of his analysis, Sipe comments: "the sexual abuse of minors by declared celibate clerics poses special issues. There are three factors that draw special attention to the sexual practices of Roman Catholic clerics today." After several readings of the entire posting, I still can't fathom what the three factors are.

But what I do get--and, from my own experience, strongly agree with--is Sipe's diagnosis of the pathology of the Roman Catholic clerical culture.

His research and clinical experience lead him to conclude that requiring celibacy is the major factor that leads clerics to abuse minors--yet not among the clerics and vowed religious who are actually practicing celibacy, but among the large numbers of their confreres who can't live that ideal (Sipe estimates about 50%), who are furtively having sex and trying desperately to keep it a secret. Their need to keep their sex lives hidden and maintain the fiction that almost all priests are celibate impede them from restraining and reporting the much smaller percentage of priests whose sex lives fixate on minors.

Sipe asks pointedly: "What is the connection between this requirement of sexual abstinence and deprivation and sexual activity with minors? If one is going to be sexually active in defiance of a vow, why involve a minor? Is mandated celibacy alone causal to sex abuse of a minor?" He answers:

"As the single factor the answer is no. Vowed celibacy does not drive a bishop or priest to have sex with minors. The answer, however, is also yes. Required celibacy in concert with the clerical culture of entitlement and secrecy is a prominent element for some clergy seeking out minors as sexual partners."

He goes on to describe the pathology in strikingly accurate detail:

"Many priests who abuse minors were themselves abused as special friends of older priests or others. These kinds of liaisons are frequent in seminaries where solitary or mutual masturbation is looked upon as an 'innocent' failure. Secrecy about all clerical sex is sacrosanct within the system.

"Roman Catholic clerical culture favors doctrinal rigidity, conformity, obedience, submission and psychosexual immaturity, mistaken for innocence, in its candidates. These are the personality elements that lead to advancement and power in the clerical system. Single men are more easily controlled if their sexuality is secret. Double lives on all levels of clerical life are tolerated if they do not cause scandal or raise legal problems. Sexual activity between bishops and priests and adult partners is well known within clerical circles. The secret system forms a comfortable refuge for unresolved gay conflicts. There is a new emerging awareness of the systemic nature of sexual/celibate behavior within the Roman Catholic ministry that is increasingly destabilizing to the church."

Sipe's observation that "the secret system forms a comfortable refuge for unresolved gay conflicts" is also accurate. But it has led some who have commented on NCR's website to say that Sipe is confusing homosexual priests with pedophiles. I don't read him that way. I hear him saying that priests who feel compelled to be sexual beings and yet pretend that they are not sexual beings tend to feel those compulsions even in the case of a pedophile colleague. They can't out the colleague without fear of outing themselves and the entire culture of secret sex that a whole lot of 'celibates' actually live.

I was a member of two Catholic religious orders for ten years, from 1969 through 1979. For the first seven years I lived in novitiate and seminary settings, completing a masters degree in theology and eventually a Ph.D. I was ordained in 1976 and served my first year as the Catholic chaplain at a public university and then two years as one of three co-pastors of a suburban Catholic parish.

Without getting into some of the grimmer details, I can testify that I experienced many of the behaviors Sipe describes. I would say that I experienced them more so in the diocesan parish setting than the earlier ones. But I can affirm that I was aware of seminarians and priests having sex with each other and with lay people as well as non-Catholics and non-Christians, both male and female, and trying their utmost to keep it secret.

My concern at the time was how could we be effective or credible shepherds if we had to lie every day about who we really were. Lecturing others on sexual morality struck me as beyond hypocritical. Ironically, in those years I was never aware of pedophile behavior by any priest. In that respect, I learned much later how limited my experience had been. Perhaps the worst revelation was that a seminarian I was quite close to emotionally for several years abused several children a few years later; I learned this after he was convicted and sentenced to prison. I never saw that coming in the time we lived together.

I should finish that part of my personal story by saying that in 1979 I fell in love--and out of favor with my religious superiors--and that my partner and I have been together ever since. So the celibacy culture was not for me, and I continue to say "Thank God."

I agree with Sipe that exposing the "secret sex in the celibate system" could mean either of two outcomes. If the People of God are willing to face "the truth about clerical celibacy and its systemic corruption" the present crisis offers the opportunity for much needed reform. If on the other hand the traditionalists in Rome continue in denial about this pathology, Humpty Dumpty may be too kind a metaphor for the demise of European Catholicism.

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