Celibacy, Law Enforcement, and the Catholic Crisis

News & Politics

The current crisis in the American Catholic church over revelations of widespread pedophilia among priests may have ignited a media frenzy, but there does not seem to be a crisis of faith among American Catholics.

Reports that numerous instances of abuse have been covered up, victims paid off, and offending priests quietly moved from parish to parish, have left many Catholics feeling betrayed. Some have expressed a sense of frustration and cite the revelations as further proof that celibacy as a requirement for all priests is an antiquated and destructive tradition. Some see the crisis as further proof that the church is a boys� club, and that there should be a larger role for women. Despite that, however, most Catholics seem able to separate "a few bad apples" from the rest of the barrel and view the current situation as a crisis in the clergy or in the Church, not a threat to their own relationship to God, or even to their own sense of being Catholic.

It has long been possible to see oneself as falling short of the Church's teachings and still be a Catholic. Christianity itself encourages the faithful to see themselves as imperfect. Thus, there are people who are gay, people who are sexually active out of wedlock, and people who use birth control who consider themselves to be Catholic.

There are people who consider themselves to be Catholic who openly disagree with Church policy and who think that priests should be allowed to marry, or that women should be able to be ordained.

Comfortable Catholicism

Buffalo is a heavily Catholic town. Here there is great comfort with Catholicism, and for many people there is great nostalgia for the good old days when nuns wore the habit, a local parish was a fiefdom and grandmothers attended daily mass. This is a world fondly recalled from the 1950s and which was immortalized in Tom Dudzick's play, Over the Tavern. Over the Tavern, with its comfortable myth of a Catholicism that transcended any manner of family problem. The play was so popular in Buffalo that it returned to Studio Arena Theatre for several seasons and spawned two sequels. Over the Tavern gave us Sister Clarissa, a Catholic archetype, the teaching nun who had affectionately terrorized three generations of one family into righteousness.

Sister Clarissa, of course, is a mythic character. She never really existed, and by 1960, the myth of her world was on its way out. Indeed, 1960 was a pivotal year in the history of American manners and morals.

It was, for instance, the year the Food and Drug administration approved birth control pills. With this single event, women took reliable control of contraception for the first time.

With women no longer dependent upon the willingness of men to use condoms or the forethought to install a diaphragm, attitudes towards sex changed. We entered a new era of "family planning," a socially acceptable euphemism for sexual freedom. Until now, a moral code dictating that nice girls should not submit to their boyfriend's carnal desires until after marriage was underscored by the threat of pregnancy and the stigma of babies born out of wedlock. Among Roman Catholics, the code was more rigorously enforced by the dictate that sexual behavior should take place only within heterosexual marriage and for the exclusive purpose of procreation.

With one little pill, the walls began to come tumbling down. To the surprise of almost no one, it turned out that nice girls weren't merely submitting to their boyfriend's desires -- nice girls had these same desires. And the implications did not end there. If sex did not just exist for the purpose of procreation, then a major argument against homosexuality was also shattered.

The Law's Oral History

Of course, the nation had already seen the Kinzie Report in 1948. It turns out that there was a hidden side of American life. The Kinzie survey of American sexual attitudes and behaviors revealed that unmarried Americans were already quite sexually active outside of marriage and that they were engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual relations. Still, publicly, we maintained an illusion of Victorian rigidity throughout the 1950s quite consistent with the Roman Catholic prohibition against sex, except within the confines of heterosexual marriage and for the exclusive purpose of procreation. Cultural artifacts of the period reinforce this ethic at every turn, especially in television, a brand new entertainment medium in which even married couples slept in twin beds. Indeed, even Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the real life Mr. and Mrs. Desi Arnaz, slept in twin beds on the "I Love Lucy" show, which made its debut in 1951 and ran until 1960.

The current crisis further reveals the hidden lives beneath the American myths. The question of how the problem of pederasty among priests could go seemingly undetected for so long is not a mystery to historian Edward O. Smith, Jr., chair of the History and Social Studies Education Department at Buffalo State College. Smith observes that the lives of the clergy have always been prone to the foibles of human frailty, and that the clues are to be found in the oral history of law enforcement.

"This sort of history is very hard to document," observes Smith, speaking from his Buffalo State College office. "Stories are frequently shared, but the moment if it's 'for the record,' you will be met with silence. If I can suggest an analogous situation, when I was in college there were problems with students going into town and getting into mischief. The police would nab them, put them in a cell, and then call the dean of students. There would be a long charade with the desk about whether or not to book the kids. It was meant to scare them; there was never any intention to book them.

"The civil authorities interacted with the church, and not just the Catholic Church, in much the same way when a member of the clergy got into trouble," Smith continues. "A clergyman caught with a prostitute, or caught drunk, or something of that nature would be returned to his superiors, and nothing was ever done. Anglicans were great with these stories; wonderful talkers, but not on the record! This practice even extends to the death of a priest in the 1960s that was never reported as a possible homicide. The story goes that there was a gay relationship involved and that the bishop at the time simply wanted the problem to go away. It did.

"In terms of anything sexual, there was a definite naïveté. There were priests in the gay community throughout the '50s and '60s. You could not get any of them to talk, surely. AIDS provides evidence. If you follow the history of the disease, you will find that priests began to die of the disease in the 1980s, revealing their actual history.

"There are also people who can attest to priests having heterosexual relationships. In terms of the current situation and the scandal in Boston, historically, bishops have obviously thought that priests who promise not to offend again wouldn't, and they were functioning from an old value system that evolved before everyone was so litigious. In Boston, it has caught up with them. What started as a courtesy to churches and an effort to maintain community, has ended up blowing up at the Church's doorstep. With no legal action taken against offending priests, victims are holding the institution itself accountable." Former Erie County Sheriff Thomas Higgins concurs that he recalls every manner of situation involving clergy from his years in law enforcement.

As a devout Catholic, he has also been following the current situation. "As much as I detest the situation, I understand it," says Higgins. "In this case, the situation is so severe it is inexcusable. Priests tend to be too forgiving. They are accustomed to hearing confessions. They are acting in the stead of Christ in forgiving sins, but in this case they have gone too far.

"Without some kind of report, there is nothing law enforcement can do. So things blow up and we're asked 'Why didn't you do anything about this?' Well without proof, there is nothing to be done. I heard rumors about [the sexual conduct of] priests while I was a police officer, but without proof, we couldn't do anything."

Western Values

Back in the '50s, you didn't have to say that priest and nuns were "celibate," you only needed to say they were "unmarried." It amounted to the same thing -- at least in theory. The prototypical good girl of the 1950s was Doris Day, with runners up Sandra Dee and Debbie Reynolds close behind. In real life, Doris Day was the child of divorced parents and had gone through a couple of husbands herself, but to the public mind, she was the embodiment of American wholesomeness and virginity.

Virginity was so much a part of the Doris Day persona that Louis B. Mayer once quipped, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." Similar observations could be made of her sometimes co-star Rock Hudson, who was hurried into a studio-arranged marriage when rumors of his homosexuality began to become a liability to his heterosexual screen persona. In the reality of the 1950s and early 1960s, being a masculine "he-man" was almost cover enough. By the end of the decade, we'd seen the Stonewall riots, signaling the start of the Gay Liberation Movement and The Boys in the Band. 1972's Broadway hit, Grease, would lampoon both Day and Dee specifically for the implausibility of their professional celibacy, along with Dee's co-star, Tab Hunter who, like Rock Hudson, shielded his homosexual private life from public view.

Though Day herself would remain colossally popular well into the 1960s, the formula for her films was wearing a bit thin. In 1958, Liz Taylor became the Widow Todd, but by 1960, she had stolen a husband from little Miss Debbie Reynolds, and by 1962, she had Richard Burton in tow.

Western values were on the move, and the Roman Catholic Church was by no means oblivious to the change. By 1959, Pope John XXII had already stated his intention to convene a Second Vatican Ecumenical Council Dedicated to the Immaculate, or what would come to be known as "Vatican II."

Within the discussion of the current crisis in the church the term "Vatican II" has been tossed around quite a lot. For most people, this translates to the Mass being said in English instead of Latin and the priest facing the congregation. The First Vatican Council was adjourned in 1870, following the solemn definition of papal infallibility. Pope John XXII announced his intention to convene the Ecumenical Council in January, 1959, only three months after he had been elected Pope. Pope John wanted the Council "to increase the fervor and energy of Catholics to serve the needs of Christian people." In short, it was his contention that the Church must be brought up to date and adapt itself to meet the challenges of modern times. Many Catholics contend that the equivalent of Vatican III is needed today.

A Call to Action

The cover story of this week's Artvoice argues that "The scandal is bringing new, intense pressure to bear on an organization with a long history of dedicated resistance to change." But resistance may be wavering. Gallup polls show that three in four Catholics in America believe the church has been handling the scandals badly. And in June, at a conference in Dallas, Texas, the bishops� statements showed that they are more sensitive than ever to public opinion."

In Buffalo, Western New York Call To Action is an advocacy group working to motivate change within the Catholic Church. Jim Orgren, President of the local chapter indicates a number of activities in response to the current crisis and intended to encourage bishops to listen to the laity. He envisions a church "not so imbued with top-down management."

Orgren, who was a seminarian himself for eight years from 1949 to 1957, also sees a crisis of faith, however. His involvement in Call To Action is inspired, in part, by his disappointment that only one of his six grown children is a practicing Catholic. "We need to give young people a reason to stay with the Church," he laments.

Call To Action, which goes by the initials, CTA, held a statewide conference in Utica this May on the subject of "Catholic Renewal in the 21st Century." On July 15, they hosted a panel discussion on possible responses to the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" developed at the bishops conference in Texas. They also held a panel discussion on the pedophilia scandal itself. These activities stand in stark contrast to the lack of response within the official church.

On Monday, July 22, CTA will host an event at St. Joseph University Church, 3269 Main Street, sponsored by the Commission on Women in Church and Society of Interfaith Woman called "Gathering Stones and Building Together." The gathering, in honor of the feast of Mary of Magdala, is intended to celebrate women of many faiths who have lived lives of love and service. Interested individuals can contact CTA via email at wnycta@adelphia.net, by phone or fax at 716-688-4584, or at WNY Call To Action, 23 Laurie Lea, Williamsville, NY 14221.

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