Sex scandal shakes church's fundamentals


(Original publication: March 18, 2002)

No one knows where the national scandal over child abuse by priests will end, but speculation is growing that the fallout will change the Roman Catholic Church in America in fundamental ways.

Revelations that dioceses have paid abuse victims unknown millions to cover up complaints may produce demands from lay Catholics, and even priests, that the church hierarchy begin to operate openly and with some accountability, scholars and others say.

Additionally, factions within the church already are using the scandal to support various causes, ranging from calls on the left for optional celibacy for priests to concerns on the right that the growing number of gay priests is hurting the church. Even the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston declared last week that these are urgent questions that American Catholics will continue to ask.

At the grass roots, dioceses have to be wondering how the negative headlines of recent weeks will affect vocations and the collection plate.

"One has to be depressed by the damage that may come over the church, and I don't mean just the enormous financial damage," said Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, who wrote a respected book in 1996 arguing that the Catholic Church's pedophilia problem was overstated by the media.

"The fact that dioceses were still transferring abusive priests in the 1980s is inexcusable, and will hurt the reputations of good priests, the great majority," Jenkins said. "I don't think there's ever been a period with so much potential for tension between priests and the bishops who really messed up."

American Catholics traditionally have been very supportive of their bishops, while holding that the church should be more open. That conflict may soon have to give, said William Barnett, a professor of religious studies at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse. In October, a national poll of Catholics conducted by Le Moyne and Zogby International found that 82 percent were satisfied with their bishop's leadership, but that 62 percent wanted the church to be more democratic.

"I don't think this scandal is going to subside," Barnett said. "It's too public and has affected too many people, not only with regard to abuse, but with regard to money. I have a hunch that the long-lasting effect of this scandal will be a call from lay Catholics for more accountability in regard to how priests are assigned and how money is handled."

Catharine Henningsen of Rye Brook, editor of The American Catholic, a progressive lay newspaper, said the sex abuse scandal is intensifying the laity's interest in seeing the church hierarchy change.

"This issue is waking up the laity in a way that few issues can," she said. "When they say, 'You can't do this to our children anymore,' the tables are turning. People are going to demand change and accountability."

If the end result of the scandal is the demystification of the priesthood, it may actually help priests better relate to the laity, said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, former rector of St. Mary Catholic Seminary in Cleveland and author of 2000's "The Changing Face of the Priesthood."

"I think we're seeing the unraveling of the clerical culture, a system of prestige and privilege and exemptions that was considered a part of the Catholic priesthood for a long time," Cozzens said. "We have to remember we are not only disciples of Christ and called to a remarkable ministry, but we are part of the faithful."

In the Archdiocese of New York, where Cardinal Edward Egan's chief priority has been increasing the number of priests, the head of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers said he is counting on young men with a calling who are looking beyond the problems of the day.

"The church has been gifted with saints who emerged out of trying times and bad times," said Monsignor Peter Finn, the seminary's rector. "We are aware that there is a need for corrections and reforms as far as what has taken place. But among young people I've spoken to, there is a realization that this is not the priesthood, but a percentage or element that betrayed the priesthood."

As far as collections, the annual "cardinal's appeal," now under way, seems likely to reach or pass its target of $15 million, said Joseph Zwilling, Egan's spokesman.

"It would not be a surprise if the campaign was up this year over past years," he said.

Two controversial issues that are being spotlighted by various Catholic groups as a result of the sex abuse scandal are celibacy for priests and the growing number of gay priests. Even so, many experts insist that neither subject has any connection with the abuse of children.

Progressive and liberal Catholics have long promoted the idea of voluntary celibacy for priests, making the argument that mandatory celibacy gives people with sexual disorders a place to hide.

"There are many good priests who can manage celibacy, but not all," said Sally Dolan of Bedford, a clinical psychologist and a Westchester representative of Call to Action, a national church reform group. "Maybe celibacy was managed better in the past. Or maybe, it was never managed better, but just covered up."

Joseph Varacalli, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College and a self-described traditionalist, said that celibacy was not a cause of the church's problems. Instead, he blamed Catholic seminaries that have not weeded out people with potential disorders and that have been too open to homosexuals.

Most researchers say that homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to prey on children. Still, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, spokesman for Pope John Paul II, recently told The New York Times that the church needs to prevent gays from becoming priests.

"There has been a failure on the part of people running seminaries, many of whom are progressives, to root out men with sexual dysfunctions, whether homosexual or heterosexual," Varacalli said. "In addition, I hear that there are so many homosexuals in our seminaries that orthodox Catholics are discouraged from even entering. The seminaries have failed in their mission."

Dean Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who has a new book coming out about ex-priests, said that the church's overall problem is an inability to deal with sexuality. He said the ex-priests he researched had been afraid to talk about celibacy, homosexuality and many other issues.

"The church doesn't speak out on any of these things," Hoge said. "Many priests, who just want to live a good, priestly life, feel lost."