National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002
This week's front page

Church in Crisis

Sex offense: one part of his story

Following is an account by a priest who asked to remain anonymous. We are assured that, though a few details have been slightly altered to preserve anonymity, the account accurately reflects one priest’s experience. It is rare that NCR allows a piece to be published anonymously, but the editors believe the content warrants the exception. The tale points up the complexity of the sex abuse scandal and raises serious questions about such absolute and quick solutions as the “one strike and out” proposal in disciplining priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.

Why have priests sexually abused minors? Many of the answers being offered to this question are based on stereotypes, usually the most notorious cases involving serial predators. But these are not the typical cases, most of which go back 20 to 40 years and do not involve many victims. I myself am a priest who committed this crime nearly 30 years ago. This is my story. It is not the whole story of my life, my calling, my spirituality or the good I have accomplished in the priesthood -- just the bare facts that led me to offend, and what happened afterward.

I was a “lifer.” I entered minor seminary in the early 1960s at age 14 and went straight on to college seminary, theology and holy orders. We had no seminaries in my diocese, so I boarded at seminaries elsewhere. Discipline in minor seminary was very strict; rules were rigid. Vocations were plentiful, and dismissals occurred regularly, especially for serious offenses like talking back to a priest or leaving the property without permission. Once in a while someone would be dismissed because he was effeminate or it was suspected he was homosexual. Such boys would just disappear without any goodbye or explanation of their going. We only heard rumors.

I had been attracted to girls in grammar school (and I’m attracted to women now), but in minor seminary I never saw any girls my age. The only women were the nuns in the kitchen. Even on summer vacation, seminary rules dictated that we could not go on dates or frequent the company of girls, and my pastor had to sign a document at the end of the summer testifying that I had observed these rules.

In my junior year, when I was 16, I became aware that I was furtively glancing sometimes at other boys in the dorm as they were undressing. Because no normal male would ever do such a thing, I concluded that this strange habit could only mean that I was homosexual (“gay” still meant “happy” then). As soon as I admitted this to myself, I instantly recognized that I could not possibly discuss this thought with anyone, because if the truth were known I would be abruptly booted out under a cloud of shame and my vocation to the priesthood would be over before it started.

For the next six years of high school and college seminary, I totally suppressed the terrible truth about my sexual orientation -- as I knew it then. No one would have identified me as a homosexual -- or a heterosexual either. I became the perfect, asexual seminarian who was never troubled by fantasies or masturbation. During all my years of seminary, no issues of sexuality were discussed with us by the priests (only priests were on staff then), except for human reproduction in biology class. Anything to do with sex was grave matter to be handled by the seminary confessor, a retired priest whose indignant voice roared through the chapel when he scolded a boy for masturbating. I don’t blame the priests on the faculty for this. They were good and dedicated people, and they gave us an excellent education in all subjects. They treated sex as everybody did then; it was not a subject for public discussion.

When I was 22, I went to a big seminary for theology. It was refreshing to meet many new people and make new friends. Vatican II had ended a couple years earlier; the windows had opened, and fresh winds were blowing. The rigid seminary rules were a thing of the past; the atmosphere was relaxed and open. We were treated like adults. We could leave the property anytime we wished, and no one asked where we went. Gone was the prohibition of the college seminary on visiting each other’s rooms. I had a sense of freedom that I had not felt before. But I was not ready for it.

This was the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s, the time of the sexual revolution in segments of the popular culture when “free sex” was touted as normal, healthy and hip. We were part of this young generation and affected by the new ideas. I read a book on situation ethics. The basic theme was that no act is objectively evil; its morality or immorality depends on the situation. I reasoned from this that all sex acts are basically good since God had created us sexual beings, or at least they were morally neutral. They are only evil if they harm someone (like rape or incest or infidelity).

The early ’70s was also the time when gays started coming out of the closet in American society. For the first time, people were publicly discussing the very thing that I had kept a dark secret since I was 16. Gays were openly admitting who they were and saying they were proud of it. In the church, hundreds of priests were leaving to marry, and the common wisdom was that celibacy would soon be optional. Things were changing, and I thought that this progress would only continue.

When I began my theological studies, I still had never masturbated, much less had sex with anyone. Then I read a statistic, reported in a newspaper, that 99 percent of adolescents masturbated. I believed it and thought maybe I was strange. So, a period of sexual exploration began. It started with masturbation, and later I had several sexual encounters with classmates in the seminary. It was pleasurable.

I was ordained at 26. My first assignment was to a parish more than three hours distant from my hometown. I went home to visit my family once or twice a month, but I rarely saw my former classmates anymore. I had no friends of my own age in this town. The only time I interacted at any length with other young adults was when I was preparing them for marriage or on occasional visits of classmates to me or I to them. I lived with two other priests, a pastor in his 50s and an associate in his upper 60s. We had little in common.

A principal ministry assigned to me by the pastor was working with the high school-age youth. I had no particular aptitude or enthusiasm for this work, but I was the new priest and it was expected of me. The other priests certainly were not going to do it. Fortunately, the youth group already existed and was well organized. From the start, I let the teens themselves plan and run things, while I assisted with ideas and support.

One particular boy (I’ll call him Bill) took a real liking to me and was always coming around the rectory to see me, talk and kid around. He was also one of the officers of the youth group, so I relied a lot on him to keep things going smoothly. We became pals and did a lot of things together. I had known him a year or so when we first had sexual contact. It started gradually and built up to the real thing. He was 16 then. I had suspected he was gay, and he was. He liked me and admired me. If he felt any shame, it was apparent to no one. We stayed friends and had sex off and on, but that was not the center of our relationship for either of us.

I did not feel guilt at the time, or at least I deluded myself into thinking I actually was doing something good for Bill. I did not want him to live his youthful years suppressing his sexuality as I had done. I wanted him to feel liberated, like I thought I was. I wanted to be a positive role model. I recognize the irony in that now; I didn’t then.

The factor that contributed the most to my offending was ignorance. I had no knowledge about sexual abuse or harassment. I had no idea that having sex with a 16-year-old was a crime, that he was legally incapable of consenting, or that our sexual activity could cause him any harm in later years. Today, this must sound utterly incredible, but back then these things were not discussed, not in the media, not even in our psychology textbooks. If I had known it was a crime, or if I had known it could cause harm, I would not have done it. I was sexually immature, lacking crucial knowledge and unfaithful to my promise of celibacy, but I was not stupid, reckless or intentionally hurtful.

After Bill went away to college and I was assigned to another parish, we saw each other only a few more times and then gradually lost contact. We were growing up and going our separate ways. Some years later he telephoned, and we chatted a long while. He was living in California; he had a good job and a nice house he shared with his lover, a man his age. He sounded happy.

In my next parish, I was not involved in youth work but was most energized by adult education and faith formation. I was not sexually active. It was not that I was suddenly converted to the position that gay sex is intrinsically disordered. In reality, I was too busy, there were no opportunities for sex, and I’m not sure I would have acted even if there had been. I had noticed a change in myself. I now had begun to think that I must really be a bisexual, because I could not deny anymore that I felt attracted to women.

I was working closely in the parish with a religious on the staff (I’ll call her Karen). We were planning the liturgies, offering programs in adult education, and leading a prayer group together. We shared similar interests and values. We went to movies and restaurants together. She became my best friend, but our relationship was Platonic. Over time, Karen and I recognized a mutual attraction that had an emotional and erotic dimension to it. We kissed. It could have led to sex, possibly to marriage, but it did not. She was mature in dealing with her feelings about us and where we were heading. We discussed our relationship openly, something that was new to me. I was not good at it, but she brought me along. We worked through it and decided that we both wanted to remain in ministry. We would use the energy of our love in friendship and in service. She is still my closest friend.

I have had no sexual relationships during my priesthood other than the one with Bill. My experience with Karen was the turning point for integrating celibacy in my life in a way that made sense to me. Keeping my promise of celibacy became a matter of personal integrity. I did not want to be living a lie. Although not intellectually convinced of the value of mandatory celibacy, I knew I had to be faithful to my promise for the sake of the people who put their trust in me.

Nine years ago, my bishop called with very bad news. He told me that a lawyer for a Mr. N (Bill) was seeking monetary damages for the emotional harm I had caused by abusing him. I was devastated. I admitted it immediately. I wanted to call Bill, to see how he was doing and apologize for having hurt him, but the bishop forbade that. The diocesan lawyer had made it clear that under no circumstances was I to contact the victim, that it would only compound the harm. Later, my own attorney told me that the diocesan lawyer was following standard procedure, because an apology could be used by the lawyer on the other side to get more money from the diocese.

Why did Bill now have this emotional turmoil, I wondered, when he never gave any sign of it before? Did he need the money? Had his lover left him for someone else and he was miserable? Was he trying to protect other boys from me? Did all the publicity surrounding other cases in the news at the time give him a sense of shame he had never felt before? Or, had I really hurt him, and he never got in touch with it until now? I will never know the answer. I wonder whether he himself knows.

A leave of absence was hastily arranged. I was a pastor by then, and another priest was named administrator. I told the parishioners I was under great stress (which was true) and I needed some time off. They were understanding and supportive. I entered a treatment facility that specializes in the mental health of Catholic priests and religious. While I was there, a cash settlement was arranged by the lawyers representing both parties, and the case was closed.

After the standard six-month treatment, I received positive evaluations from the experts and was judged to be at low risk for re-offending. Following a brief period in a halfway house, I returned to the parish and finished my second term there. The case has not become public.

I am now a pastor in another parish in my diocese. So far, my bishop has not made any move to dump me, as has happened to priests like me elsewhere. I hope and pray he continues to withstand the pressures of the present time, and I pray that Bill has found peace and healing in his life. I want to keep serving the church. I feel I can better make up for the sins of my youth by doing good for other people than by rotting away for the rest of my life in some “safe house.”

I worry now whether I could continue in ministry if my bishop were to expose me. I’m sure I would have the backing of my family, friends, mental health professionals and most parishioners. They know I am not a pervert. Shouldn’t their judgment matter more to the church than that of the media, the pressure groups and the lawyers who would know nothing of who I really am, other than that I had once offended?

I pray for the church in this time of crisis, especially for healing for priests, victims and the communities affected. I pray also for our bishops, who are overwhelmed now by the turmoil surrounding them. May the Holy Spirit give them wisdom and patience.

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