The Priesthood’s Open Secret

“I look at it this way,” says Jason Berry. “The church has failed as an institution to confront the conflicts of human sexuality within the clerical culture itself. The gay clergy culture has within it a sort of strange variant of men who are psychosexually immature and narcissistic, and whose psychosexual maturing process seems stunted.”

Gays have told Berry angrily and in no uncertain terms that such men are not the homosexual norm. Berry knows they’re not. “But there is something within the culture of the priesthood,” he says, “that has drawn men like this, men fixated on teenage boys.”

What is that something? In the last couple of weeks, he says, more than a dozen reporters have called him to ask. These are reporters who want to push coverage of the latest sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic church beyond who, what, when, and where to why.

Berry is waiting. “I’ve yet to see anybody explore it in depth in recent weeks,” he says. “It’s a very tough issue to confront, and it’s a minefield of political correctness.”

It’s hard enough to cover a crisis in the church as a crime story without trying to diagnose it. But in 1992 Berry, a journalist based in New Orleans, entered the minefield, publishing the book Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. “I took some flak from some corners of the gay-rights movement because I had a very long section on the gay-clergy culture. There were some activists who felt that by even dealing with the two phenomena in the same book I was tarring gay people with a broad brush. At the same time, I got slammed by quite a few members of the ultraorthodox Catholic camp, who claimed I was not sufficiently critical of what they called the quote homosexual network close quote.”

The subject of priests’ abuse has never gone away–“Every six or eight months there’s a big case that generates coverage,” Berry says–and he’s continued to dwell on it. In January the biggest case yet came along: the Boston Globe began publishing stories that documented not simply abuse, but the Boston archdiocese’s decades-long pattern of hiding the abuse and protecting the abusers. The Boston story quickly became national, and Berry’s phone began to ring.

James Bowman is a former Jesuit priest and Chicago Daily News reporter who E-mails subscribers a weekly newsletter of his musings. Last week he complained in “Blithe Spirit” that “reporting on sexual abuse of children by RC priests may be unduly truncated, plagued by an unnecessary lack of specificity, in that it does not refer to abuse of boys, which most of it is. That is to say, unlike clergy sexual abuse among the Protestants, this is not mainly men on women, for instance, as in harassment by counselor, but mainly adult male on under-age male.

“In other words,” Bowman continued, “in the RC Church we have mostly homosexual and pederastic abuse. But neither church authorities nor media want to call it that, the former because it calls attention to its gay-priest and gay-seminarian problem, the latter because media in general go easy on gay-originating criminality.”

“He really is drawing a circle around the complexities of the issue,” says Berry.

Skeptical of Bowman’s critique, I scanned recent coverage of sexually abusive priests, especially the Globe’s. I often found the specificity Bowman missed. For example, the January 6 Globe story that broke the scandal began: “Since the mid-1990s, more than 130 people have come forward with horrific childhood tales about how former priest John J. Geoghan allegedly fondled or raped them during a three-decade spree through a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes. Almost always, his victims were grammar school boys. One was just 4 years old.”

But whenever the lens widened, the details blurred. “Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy,” the Globe reported on January 31, “the Archdiocese of Boston in the last 10 years has quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests, according to an investigation by the Globe Spotlight Team.” In 19 of these cases the Globe had court records to examine, with four of the cases–including one of Geoghan’s–concluding in criminal convictions. Yet the article was relentlessly nonspecific about the sex of the children abused. It lowered its guard twice: naming a man who now regrets accepting hush money from the church after he’d accused a priest of abusing him back in the 60s, and noting that a priest “accused of raping teenage boys” denied the accusation even though the church settled financially with his accusers.

The press is more willing to write about “teenage boys” than “little boys.” There’s an explanation–or at least a rationale–for this: men who abuse teenage boys–most priests’ victims are teenage boys–are distinctly different from men who abuse teenage girls; but it’s the age, not the sex, of the victims that distinguishes the pedophile (whose victims, insofar as the press has lately documented them, nevertheless seem to be consistently male). Berry opens his book to page 267 and reads aloud the observations of Sister Fran Ferder, a Seattle therapist who’s treated pedophilic priests. “A homosexual and a pedophile are not synonymous,” said Ferder. “A true diagnostic pedophile does not necessarily have a good grasp of his sexual orientation. There can be a lot of crossover between little girls and little boys.”

The press might be choosing its words carefully, but it’s not hiding what’s going on. The headline on the cover of last week’s Newsweek spoke of “priests accused of child abuse”; a photograph the magazine chose to illustrate the story inside was of a 39-year-old California woman who–according to its caption–had been molested by a priest when she was 13 (the woman wasn’t mentioned in the article itself). The word “homosexuality” was never used. Yet these choices seemed cosmetic. Whenever the article got down to specific victims, they were boys.

“The big problem,” says Berry, “is that the bishops will not sanction a reliable study of the sexual behavior patterns of clerical life, because they don’t want to think priests are sexual.” Berry suspects that the baby boomer generation of American priests is predominantly gay, which would give bishops all the more reason to let priests’ sexuality go unexamined. He recalls a 1986 letter from the Vatican to Catholic bishops. It declared the homosexual “inclination,” though not a sin per se, to be “more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” This clumsy language is “outrageous…callous…insensitive,” says Berry, “yet this is the same church that refuses to change the celibacy law and thus restricts the priesthood drastically. And a lot of men with serious sexual problems have gone into the priesthood probably thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a priest, therefore I won’t be sexual.'”

Fran Ferder commented on this profoundly naive wish in Berry’s book. “One could speculate,” she said, “that there is a tendency among many homosexual men, particularly in their twenties, to experience a delayed adolescence. When they have no way of engaging in homosexual dating while living at home, sexual exploration gets put on hold and acted out later on….I think some Catholic gay men delay it altogether and choose seminary as an acceptable way of not having to deal with sexuality. And then it comes out when they’re in their twenties or thirties, emotionally at an age of fifteen or sixteen–a regressive homosexuality.”

Like Bowman, A.W. Richard Sipe left the priesthood to marry. He’s now a psychotherapist and author, two of his books being A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy and Sex, Priests, and Power. Sipe is blunter than Berry. “I think there is a homosexual network at work within the church that runs very high into the hierarchy, that then constructs an atmosphere that kind of condones or allows or forgives sexual behavior in spite of its celibate assertions,” he says. “This problem is not the problem of a few bad priests. It’s a problem of the sexual system that exists within the church and within celibacy itself.”

The more I talked to experts such as Berry and Sipe, the easier it was to see why lay editors would want to leave their paper’s dissection of that sexual system for another day. Bowman takes a more temperate line in the latest “Blithe Spirit.” He acknowledges that the media aren’t fuzzing the hardest, police-blotter facts. “When they specify Boston’s notorious ex-Father Geoghan’s crime, they say boys….He sexually abused boys, so he’s in jail. As for the regular ‘child abuse’ in these priests’ cases, it’s shorthand, and you can’t expect every newswriter on deadline to make the case that 90% of children abused by priests are boys.”

Bowman goes on, “Nor should this mean gay priests are not overwhelmingly non-criminal in their dealings with boys. Probity is assumed, and anyhow the chief issue these days is whether bishops should shuttle abusers parish to parish, as Cardinal Law of Boston did. They shouldn’t, it’s now agreed, and Law is sorry he did it.”

“You got me thinking,” Bowman adds in a note to me. He says he remembers looking around for a book topic several years ago and getting in touch with a woman “who wanted a book about a Jesuit who had left a string of women around the U.S., she being one of them. Others too were full of philandering-priest stories, like the sap who enjoys a woman for 20 years, then as old age approaches for them both, gets religion, confesses to his superiors, and hies himself to the monastery, safe in one world and ready for the next.”

It’s clear to Sipe what specifics the press has shorted. “What’s been neglected has been the sexual abuse of young women and older women,” he says. “It’s more sensational to talk of sexual abuse of boys, and among priests it’s more common than sexual abuse of girls. But sexual abuse of women by priests is larger than sexual abuse of children. This is the untold story.”

How Kass Sees It

Too much logic can ruin a newspaper column. John Kass is happy to demonstrate that his mind works like everyone else’s–in the same muddle of logic, emotion, loyalty, and vengefulness that’s kept the world spinning for centuries. This Tuesday he championed Lisa Madigan, and he frankly said why. Four years ago Glenn Poshard ran for governor, and Kass liked Poshard. Poshard ran in the Democratic primary against John Schmidt, who aired an ad Kass still remembers because he thought it likened Poshard to Hitler, just as he remembers the “smirk” that crossed Schmidt’s face when he asked Schmidt about it. And though Poshard beat Schmidt, he then lost, possibly weakened by the Schmidt ad, to George Ryan, whom Kass detests. But Mike Madigan, speaker of the Illinois house, supported Poshard, which is something Kass says “primary voters might want to remember.”

What’s more, Kass likes Madigan’s daughter Lisa. Like a lot of the rest of us, he’s probably a sucker for spunky young women. So he supports her over Schmidt for attorney general. And that’s fine. His motives are no worse than most of the ones that drag us into the polling booth.

But in his column smiling on Lisa Madigan, Kass said this: “Many people in my business have a problem with Mike Madigan. They think he’s too powerful. So they attack the daughter to get at the father….When almost the entire media pack in Chicago gathers together to denounce someone–as the pundits are denouncing Lisa Madigan–it makes you wonder if she’s as bad as they say.”

This is kind of silly. There’s no such pack, and I speak as a wannabe gray wolf who squandered his youth searching for the den where it met. There is, however, a handful of nonconspiring writers (pundits, if you will) who in this instance agree. The Tribune’s Eric Zorn, for instance, who’s described Lisa Madigan as “an impressive and politically enlightened young lawmaker.” And the Sun-Times’s Mark Brown, who called her “a sharp, dynamic candidate.” And the Sun-Times’s Steve Neal, who praised her as “the most lightly qualified candidate to seek this office in recent memory.”

Oops! I guess Neal went straight to the point the others arrived at more gallantly. Which is that, in Neal’s words, Schmidt “has the knowledge, political skills and legal experience to make something of the office.” Lisa Madigan, whatever her personal virtues, “is the poster child for blatant nepotism.”

Just this Monday the Tribune editorial page made the same point yet again. Endorsing Schmidt for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, it said he “may well be the best-prepared candidate ever to seek the job.” As for his opponent, the Tribune added to the calumny being heaped on Lisa Madigan’s head by calling her “intelligent and committed to public service” and nominating her for a “good citizenship medal,” possibly even a race for Congress.

“But not the attorney general’s post,” the Tribune went on. “At least not until she completes her apprenticeship as an attorney, and not while her father controls the votes, the campaigns, the jobs and the salaries of so many people whom she would have to keep tabs on, too.”

For as the Tribune said about the father in a separate editorial the same day, “So goes life in Mike Madigan’s little House of horrors: the shabby Sheahan stunt, the muscle on Lisa Madigan’s behalf, the costly redistricting bonuses, the refusal to responsibly budget, the shameful betrayal of poor citizens who rely on the state for their health and welfare.

“Oh yes–and the sleazy pork payouts from Madigan’s crew to groups with political clout. Of course that’s something the next attorney general can investigate–whoever he or she may be.”

Like everyone else, the Tribune didn’t need to attack the daughter to get at the father. It attacked the father. If Kass thinks he understands something everybody else doesn’t–that the long litany of Mike Madigan abuses of power is totally bogus, while Madigan’s endorsement of Poshard in 1998 shows the real guy–he can now strut his stuff by writing the column that says so. And he can leave Lisa Madigan out of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.