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Commentary

Nailing Our Demands to the Door of the Catholic Church

Scandal may incite a religious civil rights movement.

June 10, 2002|MARCOS McPEEK VILLATORO | Marcos McPeek Villatoro, writer in residence at Mount St. Mary's College in L.A. and author of "Home Killings" (Arte Publico Press, 2001), hosts "Shelf Life" on KPFK, Pacifica Radio. Web site: www.marcosvillatoro.com.

As the United States Catholic Bishops Conference starts today in Dallas, many of us lay Catholics will be figuratively standing outside, ready to nail a few demands on the conference door.

What do we want?

Anything that will bust down the doors of the good-old-boy Roman Catholic hierarchy. Married priests. Women priests. Women bishops. And of course, the abolition of mandated celibacy.

We want a new theology of sexuality, one that does not shame Catholics with puritanical teachings that inevitably lead to a stunted sexual development among our pastors.

We want priests who have to do what most employed adults need to do: Get in the employment line. Fill out the application. Apply for the pastoral position. Be responsible in order to keep their jobs. Take the evaluations. Pay their bills.

Bottom line: We want our church to grow up.

Here's what we don't want: Our gay brethren blamed for the pedophilia rampant in the clergy.

As the bishops gather in Dallas, they should keep in mind the mood of the Catholic community. They should keep in mind stories like mine.

In 1980, as an undergraduate college student, I entered the Roman Catholic seminary, the academic and theological training ground for priests. There I witnessed the best and worst of priesthood.

My fond memories are of scholarly work, learning biblical exegesis, the study of the history of Christianity.

But as a seminarian, I also had access to a world that I had never seen among the laity, a world where supposedly celibate men (how many kept that vow?) had secrets, ones never shared with the congregation.

In the seminary, something happened to me and to a few other students that, at the time, seemed anecdotal, an anomaly in a world of holy men.

Today, the incident becomes another report in a thickening file.

This priest liked his sex partners young. Most were younger than me. I was 19, "legal" in the eyes of the law.

I should have seen the warning signs: the teen pornography stacked in the closet of his rectory apartment, the strange videos, the alcohol that he kept offering me.

Correction: I did see the signs; but he was a priest. His spiritual rank had more power than my deductive logic.

After telling me about his affair with a 15-year-old at a local high school, and telling me how he sent the teenager off to juvenile detention for threatening to tell the authorities, the priest asked if I wanted to take a shower with him. Finally, an alarm went off. I declined.

I learned later that he had pulled this same ploy with some of my classmates.

Soon after this incident, I decided not to be a priest. But before I left the seminary, I and some others reported the priest who had approached us.

Instead of handing him over to a civil authority, however, our bishop took it upon himself to deal with the problem by moving him to another part of the diocese.

My story is not unique. And as more people talk about what once happened to them or to their loved ones, we question more deeply that which was once unquestionable: the hierarchy.

These days a Catholic looks twice at the collection basket, wondering if her weekly check written to her local parish for the last two decades has gone to fill the hush-money line item of the ecclesial budget.

What would happen if she held back a percentage? Just part of it, maybe 25%. That might cover the amount that has gone to buy silence from decades of sex-abuse victims.

How would that influence the theological conversations held in Dallas this week?

With so many men defrocked and hauled to jail, the priests who have done nothing wrong stand before us on Sundays, wondering how to talk to a suspicious congregation. It's a rough time. A really rough time to be Catholic.

Thank God, at least for those of us who want the church to change.

What will happen in Dallas? Will it be the beginning of fundamental policy changes? Will something radical occur? Or will this Catholic nightmare be too much for us? Will we lay people get quiet again and turn away from the media, which will then turn to another story?

Many don't want that to happen. Some laity and clergy see this as the beginning of a Catholic civil rights movement. It's time, once again, to stand at the door and nail up some demands.

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