By JASON BERRY
Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1999
NEW ORLEANS – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s recent decision to prohibit an American priest and nun from doing pastoral work with gays and lesbians underscores a moral myopia in the Vatican. How long can the church officially deny ministry to homosexuals on the outside while ignoring the impact of homosexuality within its own ranks?
Pope John Paul II’s mastery of the geopolitical stage is undisputed. His eloquent statements on the evils of materialism and the horrors of poverty have made him, in many ways, a global figure transcending his church. His orchestration of and participation in the church’s celebration of the millennium will solidify his international standing. Yet, his failure to confront the sexual crisis in his own clerical culture can only weaken his stature as a moral leader.
The Vatican investigated Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, founders of New Ways Ministry for gays and lesbians, for 12 years. The two urged gay people to see themselves as children of God and had hoped that the official church would take a more tolerant view of their work, despite a 1986 letter, authored by Cardinal Ratzinger, that called homosexuality "an intrinsic moral evil." It was Nugent’s and Gramick’s refusal to endorse Ratzinger’s language that triggered the cardinal’s order to halt their work.
The church’s refusal to deal with lay homosexuality on any terms other than as an issue of free will may explain its conflicted response to a sexual revolution taking place within its own ranks. Studies show that heterosexuals continue to leave the priesthood because of the church’s celibacy law. According to Fran Ferder, a Seattle nun and therapist who has treated many priests, the church has a tendency to attract young men who could not openly discuss their gay proclivities with their families, so they "choose seminary as an acceptable way of not having to deal with sexuality. And then it comes out when they’re in their 20s or 30s, emotionally at an age of 15 or 16 – a regressive homosexuality."
In civil litigation sparked by alleged sexual abuse by clergy, plaintiff attorneys have often discovered that ecclesial authorities tolerate consensual homosexual activity by priests within a pattern of concealing child abuse by a much smaller number of priests. This is not to confuse homosexuality, an orientation, with pedophilia, a pathology. Most gay people, like most straights, don’t molest kids. But a celibate culture honeycombed with sexual secrecy has its own unique crisis.
On July 21, Bishop Patrick Ziemann resigned after a priest in his Santa Rosa,Calif., diocese accused the bishop in a lawsuit of coercing him into homosexual acts. Ziemann admitted having had sex with Father Jorge Hume Salas but said it was consensual. Salas, who was removed from his parish for stealing church funds, was also accused by parishioners of making sexual advances toward young Latino men. Despite the accusations, the bishop reportedly took no disciplinary steps against the priest. Salas’ suit alleges two years of sexual involvement with the bishop, in exchange for Ziemann’s silence about theft of the $1,200 in church funds.
For years now, an unofficial group of therapists associated with facilities that treat problem priests has tried to get the bishops to assess data on the range and implications of sexual conflicts in clerical life. They have made little headway, according to Dr. Leslie Lothstein, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Living, a mental hospital in Hartford, Conn.
"The study people in the church don’t want us comparing deviant sexual behavior among Protestant, Jewish and Catholic clergy," says Lothstein. "We’ve seen over 200 priests involved with teens or children in the last 12 years. Of about 50 ministers of other denominations I’ve counseled, the vast majority have been involved with adults – women."
In assessing the social implications of the church’s unwillingness to deal with its internal homosexual problem, Lothstein says: "When people live a contradiction, they build a house of cards. . . . The Catholic Church is so powerful that there’s no telling what the effect of the denial will have on its structures. I’m always amazed at how individual Catholics have faith in their religion but shy away from making substantive changes to make the institution healthier."
Finding scapegoats is one way the Vatican has tried to deflect scrutiny from the church’s own conflicted culture. Cardinal James A. Hickey, as archbishop of Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, forced New Ways to leave his archdiocese, a move that curried favor for him in Rome. Then, in 1987, Father Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist on whom Hickey and many bishops relied for advice in treating pedophile priests, died of AIDS. Members of Hickey’s staff knew that Peterson had been in the closet. At the burial mass, Hickey praised Peterson’s work at St. Luke Institute, a clergy psychiatric facility in a suburb of Washington.
After reports in the early 1990s of priests with AIDS, dioceses began requiring seminary candidates to pass an HIV test before beginning priestly studies.
The most glaring example of the Vatican’s conflicted attitude toward homosexuality is Father Marcial Maciel, head of the Legion of Christ, an ultraconservative religious order that operates elite prep schools in Latin America, Europe and the United States. Maciel founded the Legion in Mexico in 1941. Courting wealthy supporters, he soon established seminaries in Spain and Rome. In 1978, when the Legion’s American leader, Juan Vaca, left the order, he wrote a letter that was sent to the pope by officials in the Rockville, N.Y., diocese. The letter detailed a history of sexual activity he had had with Maciel, beginning as a teenage seminarian and continuing into his 20s. He accused Maciel of having had sexual relations with other Legion students. When Vaca left the priesthood in 1989, he wrote a second letter repeating his charges. A Florida priest who left the Legion sent a similar letter to the pope.
But the Vatican never contacted the men. Seven other Mexicans sent similar messages to church officials, accusing Maciel of abusing them as seminarians. They didn’t file suit or ask for money. They simply wanted Maciel removed from his position. In 1997, they gave their account to the Hartford Courant.
"The pope has reprimanded Germans for lack of courage during the Nazi era," said one of the men, Jose de J. Barba Martin, a Harvard-trained literary scholar in Mexico City. "For years we were silent. Then we tried to reach authorities in the church. This is a statement of conscience."
The Vatican refused comment. Father Maciel refused to be interviewed but denied the accusations. Subsequently, the pope named Maciel a special delegate to a synod of bishops in Rome.*
Jason Berry, Who Won an Alicia Patterson Fellowship for His Work on David Duke in the Late 1980s and Early ’90s, Is Author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," Which Won a Catholic Press Assn. Book Award