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Fault Line Exposed in Vow of Celibacy

Roman Catholic Church files disclosed because of sex abuse scandal rekindle debate on merits of abstinence.

July 20, 2003|Rachel Zoll | Associated Press Writer

Tom McMahon lived with the woman he called his wife and their sons 10 miles from where he worked in Northern California. But he hoped his boss would never find out: McMahon was a Roman Catholic priest, torn between his calling, which required celibacy, and his family.

He forwarded the rectory phone to a special line at his house in case parishioners called. When one of his sons, still a toddler, attended a church event, McMahon held the boy as if he were someone else's child.

It all ended in 1980 when his bishop discovered the secret.

"I want to get ... out," McMahon told the bishop, then left the priesthood after 26 years and got married.

Largely ignored amid the clerical sex abuse crisis that has washed over the church for 19 months, stories similar to McMahon's have been found in the thousands of files pried from dioceses during the hunt for priests who molested children.

The documents make public what many within the church have already acknowledged: Although no one knows the precise number, it is not uncommon for priests to break their vows.

The disclosures have helped rekindle a debate hundreds of years old on the merits of celibacy, and whether it is part of the problem or the solution to the sex abuse crisis.

Molestation victims believe that priests and bishops who are sexually active with adults create a web of dishonesty in the church. These men are reluctant to reveal wrongdoing by fellow clergy, including child molesters, for fear of being exposed themselves, victims say.

Liberal Catholics argue that it would be better for the church to recognize priests' human need for companionship and to drop the celibacy requirement.

Conservatives also view disobedience to vows as a problem, but they want clergy to renew their commitment to celibacy, not abandon it. Another group of Catholics believes that celibacy creates sexual problems that can lead to improper behavior and should be optional.

Some insights are expected from the National Review Board, the lay panel that U.S. bishops formed to enforce their disciplinary policy on abusive priests. The board plans a psychological and sexual study of the priesthood as part of its analysis of how the crisis happened, but the report isn't expected to be completed for at least a year.

But even after the church moves beyond the scandal, the temptations that lead clergy to break their vows will remain.

Priests work closely with lay people in parishes and socialize with them outside of church. They are high-profile, respected community members -- seen by some as attractive sexual partners, said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America who has researched the priesthood for years. And because of the priest shortage, many struggle with loneliness while living on their own.

The breaches range from onetime sexual encounters to serial affairs to fathering children.

Last year, an auxiliary bishop in the New York Archdiocese acknowledged that he had affairs with several adult women. A priest in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, was convicted of soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. In May, a priest was fired as a residence hall rector at the University of Notre Dame after acknowledging that he had a sexual relationship with an adult woman.

"The reality is that it surely does exist in all kinds of ways," said Father Thomas Krenik, who taught for 10 years in St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and wrote the guidebook, "Formation for Priestly Celibacy."

Priests discovered breaking their vows customarily are sent for counseling, then brought back into parish work without public disclosure of their slip.

For a long time, bishops used a similar approach for clergy who molested children, contributing to the past year's scandals.

However, Krenik contends that the strategy is appropriate for men involved with adults. He compared a priest who breaks his vows to a husband who has an extramarital affair: It's either a temporary crisis in an otherwise sound relationship or it ends the marriage.

"If the breaking of vows was with a minor, the results of that are very serious," said Father Gerald Coleman, who teaches human sexuality at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. "If a priest sexually breaks his vows with an adult, I think a different methodology would come into play. Is this a pattern? Is it a onetime situation?"

But Alexandra Roberts said the church often fails to recognize the damage that these priests cause.

Roberts, who is not Catholic, had been friends for years with a Jesuit priest when their relationship became romantic. She said he told her that he wanted to marry her, but broke off their affair when his religious order discovered his behavior and sent him to therapy.

"When he met me, I was a single mother, dealing with rebellious teenage kids. He played sympathetic ear just beautifully," said Roberts, of Milpitas, Calif. "They target people who are vulnerable and isolated."

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