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Church's Scandal Starts With Celibacy

March 27, 2002|Steve Lopez

On my way to hear Cardinal Roger Mahony speak in Long Beach Monday night, I stopped to visit a Catholic priest who thinks the greater church's response to the nationwide sex abuse scandal is all wrong.

"What amazes and dismays me," the priest had said in an e-mail, "is that bishops appear to believe that with stricter policies alone

Father Frederick, as I'll call him, greeted me at his residence in Orange County.

"In Africa," he said, "nuns are being sexually abused by priests. In other parts of the world, concubinage is a practice among priests." In the United States, clergy abuse of children has gone on for generations.

And the connection?

"These are all issues of human sexuality," Father Frederick said.

Of course they are, and the church does not discuss sexuality in any way other than to regurgitate its own outdated policies.

"On marriage, abortion, contraception and homosexuality, we don't deal with the fact that millions of people don't comply with church teachings," Father Frederick said. "We're not addressing the real circumstances of people's lives and the impact of these teachings."

About halfway through our discussion, Father Frederick told me he's gay. A vast number of his colleagues are gay, too, he said. "I'd say at least 10%."

Of course, you don't go around telling people you're gay if you're a priest. It's another sexual reality the church prefers not to acknowledge, let alone discuss.

There is no known connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, by the way. But among those attracted to the priesthood are straight and gay people who haven't dealt with or don't understand their own sexuality. And once they're in, they're required to suppress powerful natural urges for the rest of their lives. If you were actually trying to create a laboratory for sexual dysfunction, you couldn't do better than this.

I asked Father Frederick if it's time for the church to reconsider the celibacy vow and let priests marry, and he grinned before answering.

"Isn't it obvious?" he asked.

Yes. To everyone but the pope.

The fact that I can't tell you Father Frederick's real name is half the story. The last Orange County priest who spoke to me about reform got sent to Canada. So Father Frederick has no idea what exile might await him for talking openly.

Why stick around? I asked him.

Because despite its flaws, Father Frederick said, he cares deeply about the church and would like to see it advance into the current century.

A lot of what he had to say reminded me of my conversations with Richard Sipe, a former priest now living in La Jolla with his wife and family.

"The church's understanding of human sexuality is inadequate at best and false at worst," says Sipe, who has written books on the subject and has been an expert witness in dozens of sex abuse cases involving priests.

"Jesus Christ never said anything about masturbation or contraception, and the moral reasoning the church uses to establish [its] teaching is not only ephemeral, it's false. It does not fit with what we know scientifically about human nature."

By dusk on Monday, Our Lady of Refuge in Long Beach was packed pew to parking lot. Three hundred priests at the "Mass of reparations" heard Cardinal Mahony say the sins of a few had soiled the reputations of hundreds. Actually, it was the refusal of church leaders to come clean--here and elsewhere--that raised suspicion and shattered trust.

In the news conference after Mass, I asked Mahony why several priests were only recently dismissed if he's had a zero-tolerance policy in place for more than a decade. He spoke, but he didn't get close to answering. This gives me something in common with L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who sent a letter to Mahony asking him to share what he knows.

But, as Father Frederick had said, the church's problems extend far beyond the specifics of child abuse.

And so I asked Mahony if he were open to a kind of self-examination that includes broader reforms, such as letting priests marry. Given that Mahony is probably the most powerful cardinal in America, and that the Vatican does not operate a democracy, I thought I knew the answer.

"I think all these questions are open; I never said they should not be raised," Mahony said, keeping me off balance, contradicting Pope John Paul II, and giving Father Frederick a measure of hope.


Steve Lopez writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at steve.lopez

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