A kingdom of priests

I smirked when I read at Religion News Service that, according to a newly released (May 18) John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, the “social cataclysm of the sexual revolution” of the 1960s was a factor in the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Seriously? Seriously.

Let Karen Terry, the lead investigator, elaborate:

There’s a sexual revolution, there’s an increased amount of drug use, there’s an increase in crime, there’s an increase in things like premarital sex, in divorce. In a number of factors, there’s change. And the men who are in the priesthood are affected by these social factors.

I suspect the researchers were on firmer ground when, as David Gibson reported for RNS, they criticized “the clerical culture that fostered and concealed deviance by priests.”  Priests in general are different from people in general.

But I will interpret this a bit differently than the John Jay researchers did. According to Gibson, they narrowed in on the “well-defined pattern of crisis management in large institutions” (i.e., denial and cover-up), the stress and isolation of priestly work, and the fact that the Church is a “hierarchical organization that operates in a decentralized way, with each department (or diocese) an authority unto itself and not inclined to open itself to oversight.”

Yes, those are issues. But let me tell you about a random, average parish—mine—and the priests who have staffed it over twenty years. The sheer profusion of their various problems suggests a priestly soul sickness, something beyond the reach of bureaucratic myopia, something deeper than bad working conditions as we usually think of them, something other than the Sixties.

My long-time pastor was deeply good, pastorally-minded, and sagacious. He was also an alcoholic and a champion chain-smoker. He overcame his addictions, but he spent his last years toting his oxygen tank everywhere he went.

An associate pastor, whom I vaguely remember from when I was around five years old, disappeared after a brief stay. He was accused of abusing minors. Another associate from around that time, a wan-faced, skeletal young man, also abruptly disappeared. He had died of AIDS. It was understood that “risky behavior” was involved.

Yet a third associate was a polished, urbane priest known for his fine singing voice, his intelligence, and his rapport with the young. He became vocations director. We expected him to become a bishop. Indeed he might have, had his gambling addiction not led him to steal two hundred thousand dollars.

During summers in college, I worked as a janitor at my church. The two head custodians told me about the previous pastor, who rarely went without a beer in hand. They also told me about a recent associate pastor who was well-known to one of their friends, a video store clerk, for renting porn tapes.

During my last summer, we janitors helped our then-associate move out. Until then, Father always forbade anyone, even the housekeeper, to enter his apartment. Once inside, we were astonished at the snack mix and mouse droppings on the floor, at the leaning towers of miscellaneous stuff, at the malodorous and yellowed carpet.

I scrubbed his bathroom. I used so much cleanser my fingertips developed a chemical tingle. When at last Father left, he dragged out giant bottles of cheap wine as gifts for all three of us. The combination of filth and abundant booze seemed ominous.

My pastor periodically brought in retired priests to help out. One, an excitable, perpetually sputtering Augustinian, served maybe weeks before vanishing. I later learned he was subject to nervous breakdowns.

One priest had a terrible temper. He got into such a heated dispute with a parishioner that he shoved her, grabbed her coat, and ripped out a pocket. Then he called the police on her.

I have known both balanced priests and messed-up laity. But overall, my priestly acquaintances have lived much more obviously dysfunctional lives. And I have restricted my stories to my parish; if I expanded to my college, or parishes my friends or coworkers have attended, I could tell you much more.

I think celibacy really is a factor. If you renounce sexual intimacy, which involves not only physical expression but also profound emotional growth and exchange, you had better do so as an experienced, worldly-wise adult. Otherwise you are likely to stunt yourself, and researchers like Richard Sipe argue that many sexually abusive priests are a subset of such stunted priests. So too, I think, are the priests I too often encountered: explosive priests, self-medicating priests, pig-sty priests.

More important is the priestly culture of power, separateness, and mystique. It maintains an idealized image of priests as Catholic Jedi. Not only selfless servants but insecure and damaged men are attracted to such an image, which promises to make their fractured selves whole.

Above all, whenever priests fall short of the ideal, their problems accumulate because they cannot be addressed openly. The divine-right exaltation of Catholic Jedi depends on the interplay between the power of their image and the imagery of their power. If you expose the man behind the curtain, clergy become the fallible among the fallible, fellow travelers rather than rulers, a prospect presumably appalling to many who are called Your Excellency or Your Eminence.

If some use the John Jay report to get stuck in the evil secular Sixties (and some will), we must keep them firmly anchored in inconvenient realities closer to home. If you are dubious about just how close to home, look at your own parish and get back to me.

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One thought on “A kingdom of priests

  1. As recently as my own father’s generation, just a couple decades before the changes of Vatican II, the seminaries were selecting students as young as twelve — right at the threshold of sexuality — to start studying for priesthood. When I think back to myself and my friends at that age, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that so many men whose sexual growth was stunted at around that age would have trouble functioning as adults. Yeah, the Sixties might have exacerbated the problem, but the infection had already been festering for a while by that point.

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