A forum of Catholic Thought


The Viral Scandal of Clerical Unchastity

Help us expand our reach! Please share this article on social media

Submit a Letter to the Editor

There is an important lesson here that this flood of stories is making increasingly clearer: We cannot eradicate the cancer of the clerical sexual abuse of minors while allowing the tumors of clerical infidelity with adults to grow unaddressed.

Father Roger J.

Early in the book of Job, the blameless and upright man is besieged with a series of catastrophes: Sabeans steal his oxen and murder his herdsmen, lightening wipes out his sheep and shepherds, Chaldeans seize his camels and slay those tending them, winds collapse the house where his seven sons and three daughters are feasting and finally he himself is struck with severe boils from his feet to his head. The suffering compounded and came from all sides.

Those who love God and the Church might be excused for feeling similarly overrun lately by news of rampant sexual infidelity among the clergy. This week in the Vatican there's a summit on the sexual abuse of minors across the globe. Throughout the last month, there has been growing attention to the sexual abuse of women, including religious women, by priests and bishops, which Pope Francis acknowledged in his airborne press conference returning from the United Arab Emirates. And there has been a feature story in the New York Times on sexually active gay priests and a salacious 576-page book released this week entitled, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.

Clerical sexual abuse of minors. Clerical sexual abuse of women. Clerical sexual abuse of men. The deluge of stories of sexual unchastity among clergy, including in the Vatican, might lead one who doesn't know many priests to question whether clergy cheating on their vocations and promises of chaste celibacy are the rule rather than aberration.

There is also a second level of corruption, which involves the failure of those in positions of authority to address and attempt to eradicate sexual infidelity when they become aware of it. Such failures have gotten much attention with regard to the abuse of minors, with some now being held accountable. But it still hasn't been substantially addressed with regard to clergy who are unfaithful with women or men.

The practical toleration in many places of clerical unchastity with adults has helped foment a culture of hypocrisy, secrecy and cover-up that has enfeebled the Church's response to the abuse of minors: when those in authority get accustomed to looking the other way with regard to sexual sins with adults, it facilitates similar omissions with respect to the molestation of minors.

There is an important lesson here that this flood of stories is making increasingly clearer: We cannot eradicate the cancer of the clerical sexual abuse of minors while allowing the tumors of clerical infidelity with adults to grow unaddressed.

If we're going to permit priests to abuse nuns, do we really think that we're going to stop their abusing innocent children? If in the Vatican, or in dioceses or religious orders, there is widespread, tolerated homosexuality activity, do we really anticipate that we're going to get true reform?

There are three ways to respond to this problem.

The first is to try to pretend that it doesn't exist. There are many who choose this path.

Some don't want to know the extent of the degeneracy, because when they turn over the rugs they will have to face the reality of cleaning the dirt they discover. They don't think they have the strength or the stomach for it.

Others just don't want to admit to a culture of sin because they prefer to keep a culture of happy appearances in which sin and redemption aren't urgently necessary.

Others try to say a few prayers, passing the responsibility to God to fix the problem by miraculous means.

These responses are all immature, unhelpful, and abet the problem.

The second response is to try to baptize the sins. If there's a problem with priests' living chastely, then the problem must be with chastity rather than with the priests. There are many who think this way.

Chaste celibacy, some imply, makes moral monsters. The solution, therefore, to the same-sex molestation of teenage boys -- which accounts for four of five abuse cases -- is somehow to allow potential molesters to marry women.

Others, like the openly gay Frédéric Martel, author of In the Closet of the Vatican, or Andrew Sullivan, author of the New York Times feature, advocate to have same-sex attracted priests leave the closet and not feel ashamed for acting on their attractions, Christian sexual ethics notwithstanding.

Others recognize that the chaste celibacy of priests and religious is the last barricade against the triumph of the sexual revolution. If the Church admits defeat, and either overturns celibacy or acknowledges that chastity is impossible for even the so-called spiritual elite, then everyone who has violated Church teaching against the sixth commandment will somehow be exonerated and be able to share in the spoils.

But none of this, of course, will solve the problem of sexual abuse. It will exacerbate it. The sexual revolution doesn't protect victims of abuse, but ultimately gives those who would be prone to take advantage of others for sexual gratification the green light.

The third response is to acknowledge and attack the problem.

This demands eliminating a culture of unchastity in the clergy by communicating quite clearly that sins against chastity will not be tolerated. This means reaffirming the basic standards of insisting clergy be faithful their promises, and if they refuse, or discover they can't, to remove them from a situation in which they can take advantage of their office to engage in spiritually incestuous relations with the sheep and lambs Christ has entrusted to their care.

But it also requires providing much greater continual formation in celibate chastity throughout the life of the priest. In general, good, solid formation is provided in most seminaries, but insofar as temptations don't stop at ordination, neither should formation.

Much of the ongoing training in celibate chastity for priests is negative, focused on not violating boundaries, etc. It must be complemented by much greater formation in the virtues of chaste celibacy, temperance, love, purity and piety.

Many of the falls would be eliminated if bishops and clergy directors held priests accountable for the ordinary means of priestly spiritual growth, like spiritual direction, regular confession, and retreats, where priests can develop an intimate and ever-deepening friendship with Christ and learn to imitate his philia (loving friendship), agape (sacrificial love) and chaste celibacy.

The story of Job, as we know, ends well. For the Church's reform to have a similar outcome, we must approach the problem with the same faith as Job and be aware of "friends" with false solutions.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

Help us expand our reach! Please share this article on social media

Recent articles in the Faith & Family section