header icons

A Letter on the Priesthood

Dear Friends,

I’m off this weekend to see four men ordained Holy Cross priests at Notre Dame. We all started off together as college freshmen 10 years ago.

When I talked to them a couple of weeks ago, one of them told me that their morale is low, as is that of most of the friends who are priests and seminarians.

And here in this world of Protestants, I find it a struggle myself to hold my head high in the light of all the scandal.

So here’s my (probably naive, definitely sympathetic) read of the thing:

I have nothing in particular invested in priestly celibacy. I think that it allows us to take people and train them well and demand way too much of them and pay them next to nothing. I think being here at Duke Divinity where people are in training to be pastors, I’m learning that for married clergy, it’s something that it’s easy to sort of drift into.

For Catholic seminarians, that’s not so much the case. There is great sacrifice and lifetime commitment required and everyone knows that. I think it allows us to ask of people that they make service to the Church their primary focus, in a way that wouldn’t be fair to ask of people who are also spouses and parents. But it could be structured differently, and that would be okay, too.

Jason Berry’s assessment that the secrecy associated with any violation of celibacy created and creates an atmosphere in which secrecy around pedophilia also happens is a tempting one, but I think problematic. It’s not as though other communities proclaim pedophilia from the rooftops.

My point is that pedophilia breeds its own secrecy; it doesn’t need a parallel secret active gay network to breed that secrecy. I’m not saying that network isn’t there, but I find it hard to believe that there is a whole lot to the cause-effect relationship of the two.

I think that concern for victims and perpetrators alike lends to such secrecy. I cannot believe that any bishop reassigned any priest thinking he would abuse again. Obviously, major mistakes were made, but I think that the mistakes were more about bishops being too forgiving and trusting of their priests’ repentance and “firm purpose of amendment” than about a lack of concern for the potential victims. I know that almost seems silly given some of these stories and how obvious it seems now; but hindsight sure is helpful in showing when you can’t trust the reform….

I’m really sick of the treatment in the press that seems to say celibacy is itself the problem. Larger statistics on pedophilia show that most child sexual abusers are straight men, usually married or otherwise sexually active (with adults). According to a friend of mine whose dad is a lawyer who tries such cases, the largest payout in a settlement or court case was made not by the Roman Catholic Church but by the Episcopalians (married priests abusing kids). I just don’t think celibacy has a lot to do with this.

And though bishops were messing up right and left with how they handled these things, I also don’t believe that there has been no response until now. I think that dioceses have quietly gotten more selective, have introduced more tests and psychological screening into their processes. Not that any of these things are foolproof, but I think that there has been more and more concern and more effort made to form priests who will be different kinds of priests.

One other complaint about the press: for some reason, they hate Catholics. Or better, they know that it somehow makes a better story if it’s a Catholic priest who’s the abuser. Not long ago, a headline in the Houston Chronicle read something to the effect of “30 Busted in Child Porn Ring, Including 2 Catholic Priests.” That was the headline. If you read on, you found that the 30 also included 4 Protestant ministers. But that wasn’t worth the headline. I wonder why. Perhaps it’s because there’s still, despite all this, enough integrity in the Catholic priesthood that it’s newsworthy when there is a breach of integrity there.

How many professions can say that?

Dana Dillon
Durham, North Carolina

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 3, May-June 2002.