None So Blind

If American Church leaders still don’t notice what everyone else notices, perhaps it’s because they don’t want to notice.

The official, authorized, expert studies of the sex-abuse crisis in the US have discerned “no clear pattern of homosexual behavior.” Odd, then, that the latest statistics continue to show that more than 80 percent of the abuse victims were males.

We have been instructed, by the social scientists who brought forth the John Jay report: “Someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature but not have a homosexual identity.”

Sure. If you’re in the habit of performing random sexual acts, some of them will be homosexual acts. And if you’re playing dice, you might roll sevens several times in a row. It happens. But if you were playing dice with someone who consistently rolled the number he needed—more than four out of five times—how long would you stay in the game? If you kept playing, eventually you’d be bankrupt. Which, come to think of it, is just what’s happening to the American Catholic hierarchy

In January 2002, speaking about sexual abuse in his capacity as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, then-Bishop Wilton Gregory uttered the memorable words: “We have all been enlightened.” What were things like before the bishops’ Enlightenment?

Back in 1995, the bishops’ committee on women issued a statement entitled Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse. The document emphasized the critical importance of an effective pastoral response:

We are compelled to speak even knowing that the Church carries a heavy burden of responsibility in the area of sexual abuse. Some ordained ministers and religious brothers and sisters, as well as lay employees and volunteers, have sexually abused children and adolescents. We are acutely aware of the havoc and suffering caused by this abuse and we are committed to dealing with these situations responsibly and in all humility. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has established an ad hoc committee on sexual abuse by clergy to help church leaders take appropriate action.

The message: The bishops understood the problem. They were taking steps. Every diocese would enact policies. Don’t worry. Trust us. Again, that was in 1995.

Seven years later, the US bishops who gathered in Dallas, battered by adverse publicity, delivered the same message with a bit more emphasis. Now we really get it. Now we’re really putting policies in place. Trust us.

But why hadn’t the enlightenment come earlier? Say, perhaps, in 1995, when a committee of bishops was studying this very problem? The text of Walk in the Light provides a clue:

While we recognize that sexual abuse of boys is significant—some studies estimate it at 20 to 25 percent of all child victims—the overwhelming number of sexual abuse victims are girls.

Here the bishops were obviously using the overall statistics, which count the hundreds of men who fondle the teenage daughters of their live-in lovers. That is a serious problem. But it’s not the problem that the bishops’ committee set out to discuss when they mentioned the “heavy burden of responsibility” borne by the Catholic Church. The problem for the Church—the problem created by wayward priests—is the sexual abuse of adolescent boys. In 1995 the bishops were not ready to confront that problem. The message written between the lines in that passage of Walk in the Light is clear enough: “Don’t look behind that door.”

The challenge for American seminary rectors, the New York Times informed readers in a May 31 story, is “deciding whether gay applicants should be denied admission under complex recent guidelines from the Vatican that do not explicitly bar all gay candidates but would exclude most of them, even some who are celibate.”

The 2005 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education said that the Church should not admit homosexual men to the priesthood or, therefore, to seminary training. But some seminary officials found that instruction puzzling. Yes, they understood that they should not admit active homosexuals. But the Vatican’s instructions were not clear, they claimed— “less obvious,” as the Times helpfully put it—regarding men who identified themselves as gay but celibate. And surely the prohibition would not apply to men with a same-sex attraction who had not engaged in homosexual activities since—well, since the last time?

Actually the original instruction answered the question, explaining that the Church:

…cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deepseated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called “gay culture.”

But since the seminary rectors professed to remain confused, the Vatican spoke again, indicating quite explicitly that abstinence from homosexual activity was not enough to qualify a man for priestly training. “It is also necessary to evaluate his sexual orientation.”

That made it crystal clear, right? Wrong.

Some seminary directors were baffled by the word “orientation,” said Thomas G. Plante, a psychologist and the director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University, who screens seminary candidates for several dioceses in California and nationwide.

If you’re stuck on the word “orientation” in that sentence, you’re likely to have problems with “necessary” and “evaluate” as well. The Times says that the confusion can be traced to the complexity of the Vatican’s instructions. Yet ordinary readers, skimming those same instructions, see no difficulties. Why the confusion? Mark Jordan, a frequent critic of Church teaching on homosexuality, gives away the game:

“And not the least irony here,” he added, “is that these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay.”