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Issue Date:  October 21, 2005

Sexual hypocrisy from the Vatican


The Vatican has decided how to deal with its sexual problems. It will sit in judgment on gay seminarians. It won’t ban all of them from the priesthood, just those who are “out” -- who dare to identify with the gay community; who have had sex as long as three years ago; and most disturbingly, whose homosexual orientation is deemed, by what criteria we have no idea, to be too “strong” and “permanent.”

The Vatican’s underlying message is this: Since so many clerical sexual abuse cases involved boys, this will take care of the problem. In fact, that is a far cry from the truth. Many Catholic girls and women have been victims of clerical sexual transgressions, ranging from pedophilia and child sexual abuse to sexual exploitation, harassment, molestation, rape, beatings and potentially negligent homicide. Many sexually active priests have left a trail of wounded women and fatherless progeny in their wake. Others have prevailed upon their women lovers to have abortions, made the arrangements for those abortions and paid for them.

It’s been spilled all over the tabloids that the Catholic church’s clergy sex scandal has revisited the New York archdiocese, and it has nothing to do with pedophiles or gay men. Msgr. Eugene Clark -- rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, high-profile fundraiser, and crusader against American cultural immorality and homosexuality -- has resigned, accused of having an affair with his married secretary 30 years his junior, which he denies. The defense of archdiocesan spokesperson Joseph Zwilling was telling: He said Msgr. Clark was not accused of molesting boys. In 2002, New York Auxiliary Bishop James F. McCarthy resigned after admitting to “a number of affairs with women over several years,” including a woman “approximately 21 years old.”

In fact, the whistleblowers in these cases -- often women who work for the church -- continue to be in great jeopardy. Most recently, Regina Soares Jurkewicz, eight years a professor at the Theological Institute of the Catholic diocese of São Paulo, Brazil, was fired, this right after she published the results of her doctoral research on sexual violence against women by Catholic clergy in Brazil. Her findings were in keeping with the findings of internal church reports from the 1990s, which documented the sexual exploitation and abuse of nuns and other adult women by Catholic priests in 23 countries on five continents.

Finally, it is widely known that many Catholic priests around the world -- in Mexico, Latin America, Africa and the United States -- are involved in consensual relationships with women that are serious and last over decades. Many other priests are involved in consensual relationships with adult men. In fact, the majority of clergy sexual involvements -- from criminal to consensual -- are with adults. Even the National Lay Review Board established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops attested to this.

It is obvious that the crisis in the church is much larger than pedophilia or the sexual abuse of minors. It is about crimes and criminals, sex and power, yes. But fundamentally, it is about hypocrisy. By forbidding priests who choose to be sexual in mature ways that include commitment, responsibility and respect, and by protecting them from the costs of their sexual exploits, the church has effectively condoned a clerical sexual free-for-all. That heterosexual and homosexual behavior may thrive in the Catholic priesthood does not reflect anything inherent about homosexuality or heterosexuality but is rather an indictment of the hypocrisy and duplicity of an elite, closed, all-male system, a secret society of sorts that condones, indeed, demands, lying about the reality of one’s sexual life at all costs.

In the face of outrage over the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic church, one might have expected the hierarchy to back off its rigid, unrealistic sexual prohibitions. Instead, the hierarchy has chosen to brutally enforce those prohibitions and to purge the church of transgressors.

This new inquisition is actually a very broad one. The Vatican regularly denounces Catholics in gay relationships, who use birth control or condoms to prevent AIDS, who support assisted reproduction or abortion under any circumstances, who divorce without an annulment, or who dare even speak of women’s ordination. Some of those Catholics may even be refused holy Communion. All are being abandoned by a church founded by a man who abandoned no one.

There is one consolation. As a Catholic woman reformer told me: “I’m grateful I don’t live in a time when they’re burning us at the stake.”

Angela Bonavoglia is the author of the book Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church (Harper-Collins/ReganBooks).

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

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