Scandals, Sexuality, and the Monster at the Table (Off the Record Insights from a Catholic Priest)
A few years ago, I was in a coffee shop working on a project with some fellow Communication majors when a Roman Catholic priest walked in, clerics and all. He was an older man with white hair, and I was delighted to see him on account of my newfound interest in the Catholic Church. The others in my group, however, were not as thrilled. Priests made them nervous, and they suddenly became very self-conscious. I asked them why.
“I feel like he can see every wrong thing I’ve ever done,” said one. She had actually been raised Catholic.
“You know he can’t though, right?” I asked.
Another said, “I’m afraid he might shoot red lasers from his eyes.” Yeah, she was not really familiar with Catholicism at all.
As the priest got closer to our table, I made eye contact and said, “Good morning, Father!”
He said hello, stopped and talked with us for a moment. As it turned out, he was a quirky old man with an offbeat sense of humor, happy to spend a moment of his morning chatting with “a table full of beautiful young ladies.” Maybe it wasn’t a conversation that brought anyone closer to Jesus, but by the end, my companions definitely weren’t afraid of him anymore.
What is it about Catholic priests that can elicit such varied and extreme reactions from people living in all walks of life? And why did my classmates seem to think that this awkward, aging gentleman had super powers that were somehow connected to his distinctive collar that apparently glared out at them like the Eye of Sauron?
So far, the film Spotlight has inspired me to offer my own response to the notorious priest sexual abuse scandal, as well as share with you my friend Kelly’s personal experience living in the midst of the crisis. But I felt the series would be completely incomplete without a look into the world of Catholic priests from an insider’s perspective. It’s one thing to talk about priests, but if I were among those who felt I could not talk directly to them, I’m honestly not sure if I would have ever become Catholic.
Thankfully, one of my favorite priests was willing to speak candidly with me about the scandal which—as the film’s description on imdb.com suggests—shook “the entire Catholic Church to it’s core.” I was able to ask all of my earnest questions about what the priesthood is, how something like this could happen, how we should understand the situation, and what we should do about it.
Then, after over an hour of discussion, he says to me, “Oh! I forgot, and I hope this doesn’t mess things up, but I can’t be quoted using my name unless we go through the archdiocese media people. And if we do that, there’s a chance they’ll say no, because it’s such a sensitive subject. So you might just have to say priest friend or something.”
Ummm… yes, that is just a minor important detail Father Priest Friend. I did understand, though.
“What do you want your name to be, then?” I asked.
“Whatever,” he laughed. “I don’t care.”
So anyway, my friend, Father Gustave Rafiki Pumpernickel, was able to shed some excellent light on these very serious matters. But since he really is such a good priest friend, we’ll just call him Father Gus.
WHAT IS A CATHOLIC PRIEST, ANYWAY?
It was Passover, and Jesus was about to be betrayed. But first He took bread, broke it and told His disciples to eat it. “This is my body,” He said. Then, He took the chalice, and told his disciples to drink from it. “This is my blood,” He said. In doing this, Jesus established two sacraments for His Church—The Eucharist and Holy Orders (a.k.a. Holy Communion, and the Priesthood of the New Covenant).
Like all religious leaders, Catholic priests have a responsibility to govern and to teach. What sets them apart is their particular mission to make the life and ministry of Jesus present in all times and places through their governing and teaching, but especially through the Sacraments of the Church.
“The sacraments are these moments of encounter with Christ in His humanity and His divinity where He communicates His love, His life, that which saves us through these seven signs,” Father Gus explained. “Some of the sacraments are celebrated as milestones in our lives, some of them we repeat constantly, but each one is an opportunity to encounter the living Christ and His love for us. And so the priest has the unique duty to bring those sacraments to the world. Because of that, we say he acts in the Person of Christ when he is confecting the sacraments. That’s one of those weird words, confecting.”
Very true. Some Evangelicals tend to think that their Christianese dialect can get out of hand, but it’s really nothing compared to the fancy vocabulary you’ll most likely never hear in any other situation besides talking about Catholic stuff. It’s all part of the wonder of trying to articulate realities that words are never sufficient for in the first place.
Father Gus continued, “The priest is supposed to be a servant. He’s supposed to be the most humble, one whom everyone feels comfortable with, whom anyone can approach, because he doesn’t put on airs, and doesn’t think he is anything special. I mean, he thinks he is someone special only so far as he is a Child of God, and brings Christ into the world, but not special in the sense that he is above or beyond anyone else. In reality, the priest is supposed to be the lowest of everyone so that he can serve in the way Jesus taught his disciples to serve.”
WELL, WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED, THEN?
Clearly, there are some discrepancies between the humble servant leader that Father Gus described, and the scandalizing lords of the flock that have hijacked the priestly reputation. I asked, “If that’s the way the priesthood is supposed to be, how did this whole situation even happen in the first place?”
Father Gus said there are many factors to look at when trying to get to the bottom of how these men came to commit such atrocious crimes, and completely go against their entire mission. He explained that in many parts of the world where Catholicism has been the predominant religion, a particular culture of Catholicism has developed around the faith itself. It’s easy to assume that a culture would encompass the genuine, personal spirituality, but as it turns out, that is not always the case.
“There are a lot of good things in that culture,” he said. “Values are transmitted through culture. But there can also be the negative aspects that can go against the Gospel, and just get so entrenched in the culture. One of those things is this sort of privileged clergy class where a family would be honored if one of their children would become a priest. It is a great honor, that’s true, but it was looked at as too much of a worldly honor. There was a sense that if you were becoming a priest, you were getting ahead in society. So there were certainly attractive elements to the priesthood that were not in line with the Gospel, and some people sought the priesthood for those elements, rather than the call to follow Christ, and be a servant as He is.”
So these very imperfect men, just as susceptible to spiritual and psychological wounds as anyone else, were placed on their pedestals and perceived as though they could do no wrong. But it wasn’t just the Catholic culture that fueled the crisis.
“In every age,” Father Gus explained, “the Church tends to take on certain characteristics of the era it’s in—for good and for bad. So in this age, the leadership in the Church can kind of take on the CEO mentality of just keeping the ship running, trying to keep things smooth, you know, maintenance mode.”
In addition to corporate mentality, there was a movement in the mental health field that claimed you could send sexual predators to treatment centers, and they could be completely healed. And the secrecy thing? Definitely not a strictly Catholic phenomenon.
“At the time in society, especially in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, [sexual abuse] was rampant all over the place,” Father Gus explained. “There was a culture of secrecy, regardless of whether the abuse happened in the church, or at home, or at school, or at sports teams, etc. People didn’t want to talk about it. And when it was found out, they wanted to deal with it quietly. In all fairness, it wasn’t just the bishops that wanted this, but the parents did too, and the police and the government officials also came at it in a secretive way. There was this misunderstanding that as long as we just don’t make a big deal of it, the people won’t get hurt.”
As a result, the abusive priests themselves became just the beginning of the problem. What Spotlight revealed, and what so many are yet to recover from, is the fact that there were administrators who knew about the abusive patterns, and did not prevent these sick men from ruining more lives.
Father Gus acknowledged that the Church should have known better, and should have realized that we couldn’t hide these things. “There was a kind of pride that came in,” he said.
That does make sense. One of my favorite go-to's when my mind just needs to be filled with light is Bishop Robert Barron’s youtube teaching on Seven Deadly Sins; Seven Lively Virtues. In it, Bishop Barron points out that while lust is a deadly sin, it is not the deadliest. Pride is the deadliest. And this crisis seems to exemplify that concept. While the abuse itself was the knife in the back, the pride that led to a scandalous cover-up was the slow twist that created a wound yet to stop bleeding.
“The abusive priests being moved over and over, that I just can’t comprehend,” Father Gus said. “That is the mystery of evil.”
IS CELIBACY THE CULPRIT?
In a culture where sex is money is king, the priestly vow of celibacy can seem like an extremely bizarre phenomenon for the vast majority of our population. I’ve heard many self-appointed theorists speculate that priests act out in weird sexual ways as a result of being forced to repress their sexuality. Father Gus says this is both an misunderstanding, and a scapegoat.
“Celibacy lived out in a healthy way looks so much different than just abstaining from sexual expression,” Father Gus explained. “The goal of sex is self-giving love, at least it should be. And the goal of true celibacy is the same. It is an act of love where you give up the physical expression of sexuality in order to live a life of love and intimacy that is primarily found in relationship with God.”
He explained that celibate priests are not meant to repress their natural passions, but integrate them into other intimate forms of love, such as prayer and friendship. And because God is where they seek intimacy first and foremost, celibacy can bring healing to your sexuality, allowing you to love others for who they are, and not what you can get from them.
St. Maximilian Kolbe exemplifies another great purpose in the case for celibate priests. His single-minded zeal and devotion to Christ in the Church during World War II resulted in his imprisonment at Auschwitz, and ultimately in his freedom to voluntarily take the place of a fellow prisoner who was to be executed. The man he replaced had a wife and children, and Kolbe did not. He had no other earthly attachments or responsibilities other than to know Christ and make Him known.
“Love really heals so much,” Father Gus continued. “To live a life of love, which celibacy invites us to do in a sacrificial way, is actually supposed to expand our hearts and make us less self-centered. Less selfish. And it works! If you do it with God’s help, it works. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel loneliness at times, but you can lift that up to God and let Him sort of love through you in that.”
That said, Father Gus insists that individuals absolutely must have the maturity and depth of spirituality to embrace the celibate lifestyle. “It’s a beautiful gift, but it’s not one that you can just take on lightly, and expect everything will work out. You have to really take it on just like marriage.”
Not sure how big that example will win, seeing as how even Holy Matrimony is a commitment lost on so many people these days. But in case you’re still not convinced that celibacy is not the problem, Father Gus adds, “The majority of sexual abuse that occurs is from married people, and people who are in sexual relationships outside of the abuse."
John Hamlin from the University of Minnesota Duluth pointed out in his List of Rape Myths that an estimated 77% of reported sexual abusers are parents (57% of the total being natural parents), 16% are other relatives, and 6% are non-related.
"It’s a much deeper issue than whether you’re having sex or not,” Father Gus concluded.
OKAY, SO WHAT’S OUR COMEBACK STRATEGY?
The movie Spotlight ends with a long, sobering list of places where priest sexual abuse scandals have been reported, but offers no mention of the Catholic Church’s efforts since then, leaving the issue open-ended as if the Church has not been addressing the issue. In reality, the scandal’s surfacing has changed a lot in the Church over the past several years. For example, potential seminarians now undergo a rigorous amount of testing and scrutiny in order to be admitted into the priesthood formation program, including psychoanalytical screenings. And in June 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unanimously approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, thus adopting a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual abuse. Several other efforts are—and have been—underway, though many would argue that there is so much more that should be done. And they're right! But what, exactly?
Father Gus has read the first two articles in this series, so I reminded him of Kelly’s response to my question of how we are to recover from this. Kelly started by saying, “I think we fix it by having good priests come in and be humble, and realize that unfortunately, you’ve got a mess to clean up.”
Father Gus agrees that is part of it, but he says there’s more. “I think it’s not just a mess that we have to clean up,” he began.
Then, he paused briefly before saying something with so much resonance that it startled all the tiny birds off the tree branches of my mind.
“It’s holiness,” He said. “We have to let God love us where we are, and as we are, and let ourselves be totally taken up into His Love. And into His mercy. To be able to experience that mercy, and then bring it to others—That’s the way I think the Church is going to be healed. It’s through holiness of life. Not a kind of holiness that says, ‘I’m just gonna fight and fight and fight until I become holy, and avoid all the snares of the past.’ No. It’s a holiness that recognizes our own sinfulness, and our brokenness, and our constant need for God’s love. We need to be able to plug into that constantly throughout our day, and bring that to others.”
“And that’s not just the priests,” I added. “That’s everybody, yes?”
“Exactly!” he replied. “Exactly. The priest is part of it, for sure, but it’s all of us. We’re all in this, and so we all need to be in the work of letting God’s love and mercy through Christ flow into our lives, and reach others who are in such need of that mercy.”
He has this crazy notion that when Catholics actually live as if God exists, and let that reality actually affect our lives, we tend to change the world for the better, and not for the worst. Good Ol’ Father Gussy… As if overcoming sin with the power and simplicity of true holiness was the very thing Jesus was about.
IT’S NOT THE MONSTER’S TABLE
Around the same time the original Spotlight articles surfaced in 2002, Gustave Rafiki Pumpernickel was but a young buck growing passionate about his Catholic faith, and beginning to discern his vocation (which is Catholic speak for "figure out what he's supposed to do with his life"). He says the notorious events did not really affect his view of the priesthood at the time. If anything, he saw a need for healing, and felt compelled to do his part.
“I remember, I heard one great thing that always stuck with me,” he recalled. “How Jesus himself picked 12 apostles, and one of them became a monster. And that’s one out of twelve! You know, the portion of bad priests is probably similar with the sexually abusive priests being even less.”
His mention of Judas struck a chord with me, too. I added, “Every time I read the verses about the Last Supper, and the Institution of the Eucharist, I am always so perplexed that Jesus calls Judas out first, and then consecrates the bread and the wine while Judas is still there. I always wonder why He didn’t kick Judas out first, or just wait until Judas left, and then establish the priesthood. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to take away from that.”
“Well, just that that is the power of God,” Father Gus replied. “God doesn’t will evil. But the evil that unfolds as a consequence of our choices, God incorporates into His plan. He incorporates it into the way His providence is guiding all things to the greatest good. The beauty and mystery of God’s love is that He uses it all.”
I’m sure the dear souls who wrote the summary for the movie Spotlight truly meant well when saying the scandal shook “the entire Catholic Church to its core.” It has been devastating, no doubt. But I am even more certain that these writers did not fully understand what core they were speaking of—the core that has given life to the Church for 20 unbroken centuries so far. Our core is Christ Himself—our beloved Savior who calls us to His table in every single Mass. And He does so through His priests. Yes, Judas is still with us at the table for some inexplicable reason that is beyond my understanding, but so is Peter. So are James, and John, and other James, and Matthew, and Andrew, and all the rest. Most importantly, so is Jesus, still saying to us, “This is my body… my blood… do this in remembrance of me.”
So we still do. And always will.
Catholics on 'Spotlight', Part 1: I knew about the priest sex abuse scandal, and I became Catholic anyway
Catholics on 'Spotlight', Part 2: Perspective from a Boston Catholic who still loves and serves the Church