Rev. John Shuster
Given the sexual purity ethic that is fibrously embedded in the fabric of our faith, the Catholic in the pew doesn’t want to think about these realities, much less confront them. Most won’t even believe it when inconveniently confronted with its reality – and that is a major reason why the “celibacy” cloaking system continues to work so well for gay men in the priesthood. In response to the occasional emergence of this reality in the media, the Vatican responds that its priests may be gay, but they are celibate. That is a quick sound bite dodge comprised of technical language. People hear “celibacy” and they think “purity”. In reality, celibacy only means that a priest has not publicly married a woman – that’s the last thing a gay man wants to do. The canonical definition of celibacy focuses on public legal marriage, not on personal sexual continence for priests, although that aspect is also covered in Canon law. Most Catholics are unaware of this distinction and consequently are easily manipulated back into their comfortable, compliant pew seats.
For VOTF to be an instrument of change in the church, it is critical to factor into your strategy the fact that the corporate priesthood and hierarchy will not allow any changes that might expose or threaten the safe haven that protects and benefits its gay majority. The problem is not that priests are gay - that is accidental. The issue is that their political agenda is driving people away and contributing to problems that offset all the good things about our Roman Catholic faith. They are well aware that the Roman Catholic community will not support a predominantly gay and sexually active priesthood. They hide the reality of who they are, and the “laity”, who have lifetime investments in the religious insurance program component of Catholicism, are more than willing to enter into and embrace the illusion of priests as straight men living a life of sexual purity to retain their life long annuity investment in the promise of eternal life.
Church Reform Groups – a history of NOT changing the institutional church
There are numerous church reform groups that have come into existence since the repression of the spirit of Vatican II that began in the 70’s. In all that time, none of these groups has effected any real change in the role of Catholics in the institution, transparency of the hierarchy, accountability of church leadership, or the less than chaste and simple lifestyles of priests and church officials.
The reform groups still in existence today are essentially support groups – people who have gathered in response to injury. They have developed cottage industries of information exchange – conferences, speakers’ bureaus, newsletters, fundraising advertisements, national conventions, etc. These are worthwhile activities, but are only internally efficacious and operate primarily for the members’ mutual benefit. They have little to do with reform.
All of these activities have helped reform-minded Catholics personally as a subset group of the Roman Catholic Church, but they have not opened the priesthood to all who are called to serve. They have not made local bishops accountable to their people for ministerial project focus, general diocesan policies, or financial decisions. Their organizations have not stopped parishes from being closed. They have not slowed the attrition of straight priests leaving the corporate priesthood or the defection of cradle Catholics to other denominations. They were not able to detect, expose, or stop decades of systemic sexual abuse of our children. Some even deny the depth of this problem and told me and other supporters of the survivor’s movement in the mid 90’s to stand down because “the bishops are taking care of this problem.”
Church reform groups have essentially served the Vatican’s objectives well. These groups provide a place for Catholics to go when they figure out what is really going on in their institutional church. The Vatican knows this and is more than willing to let reform groups exist because they play a key role in its overall control strategy. Arch/bishops will even grant audiences to, and receive studies and position papers from well-meaning reform groups. The reform group members feel that they have achieved a great accomplishment in gaining an audience with the prelate. In reality, they have simply delivered him a detailed summary report of their activities. Pleasantries and mutual good wishes are usually exchanged between the prelate and his concerned guests in these rare meetings, but in the short and long run nothing changes. At the end of the meeting the reformers have been contained and led on by their own good intentions and the false hope and gratitude extended by their local arch/bishops.
Catholics who belong to reform groups usually continue to attend their local parish churches. Each Sunday they donate money to their local church, which is legally owned by the bishop or a corporation that the bishop controls. This system of episcopal ownership supports the Vatican’s agendas. There is an element of self-deception here – the idea that “I am just going to support my local parish because we have a good thing here.” Unfortunately, that is part of the codependency that is required for being a good Vatican Catholic. You focus on your local parish, but your donated resources are immediately added to the bishop’s balance sheet and continue to support the same mindsets and special arrangements that enabled the sex abuse atrocity to take place and be covered up by a predominantly gay hierarchy for decades. Partaking in this donation and ownership arrangement makes the laity full enablers of the Vatican agenda.
VOTF – key things to realize and do if you really want to change the church
Hope is not a strategy. If you want to change an institution, you need to use the techniques applied by people like Saul Alinsky, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This means leafleting parishes, presenting letters to the archbishop with the media taping you for the evening news in front of his residence, and a relentless commitment to the art of polite public confrontation in multiple venues. Do you have the stomach for that as individuals and as an organization? I think you do because according to Vatican II, you are the real Roman Catholic Church. Today’s Catholicism is like a good meal being served on a dirty plate. Your institutional church has been hijacked and you as a group have the ability to take it back and restore its wholeness and respect in the eyes of the world.
Don’t be afraid to get into an adversarial relationship with church leadership. You will not risk eternal damnation for stepping out of the monarchical cult of personality model we have been trained in since childhood. Holding church officials accountable as equals is the only way you are going to accomplish change in the institutional church. Be pleasant, be polite, be confrontational, and go into any meeting knowing what you want to accomplish beforehand. They have their goals, so you must have yours. When they tell you that you are being a bad Catholic, you must answer that they are being bad arch/bishops.
Realize that your religious leadership is predominantly gay. Nothing is going to change unless it benefits the safety and sustenance of the gay majority that has taken control of the hierarchy and priesthood. Just as the Jewish leadership of the early church had to undergo a change of heart to open up the message of Jesus to Gentiles, today’s predominantly gay priesthood/hierarchy needs to open their leadership chairs to everyone. They will only do so if they are assured of their safety and your support.
Much hope is being placed on the John Jay study about the etiology of the sexual abuse crisis that is due out next year. This study has been funded by the bishops for over $300K. Imagine a university study declaring the safety of cell phone radio frequency radiation that was funded by a major cell phone carrier. I don’t put much hope in its outcome based on some of the initial information being leaked to the media. I believe it will provide many talking points to enable you to keep driving for truth and justice in our church. You will do much better to derive your information on clergy sex abuse from researchers like Tom Doyle, Louise Haggett, Patrick Wall, Marie Fortune, Marci Hamilton, M. G. Frawley-O’Day, and Richard Sipe, among others.
This past October, Chicago auxiliary bishop Paprocki, who is a professor of law at Loyola, addressed the legal community during a “red mass” in Grand Rapids, MI. Referring to the many lawsuits brought against priests and bishops in the past 5 years, he described the church as carrying a cross in dealing within the litigious culture of the United States. He lamented that “the Church is under attack” and declared that these attacks are coming from “the devil”. No arch/bishop that I am aware of has publicly rebuffed Paprocki for his comments or made the effort to clarify where responsibility belongs for the abuse. This says volumes about the mindset of today’s hierarchy. With this attitude coming from a bishop who is a law professor at a Catholic university, it is clear that our children are still very much at risk. VOTF has plenty of work to do in supporting SNAP in changing state statute of limitation laws and creating look back periods (“windows”) so that today’s survivors can bring their perpetrators to justice. When SNAP requests people to be present with them at government offices, local VOTF members should ride in like the cavalry to the rescue. Since justice cannot be found in the complicit chancery offices, we must achieve it for victim/survivors in our civil courts.
Individual survivors of clergy sex abuse have found strength, hope, and inspiration from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). VOTF has the same potential, on a much wider scope, to influence every Catholic in the pews who is confused, ashamed, and wanting to feel better about the administration and public image of their church. To gain their trust and support, you need to take concrete action to expose financial and sexual improprieties in our church leadership. I was very glad to see Mary Pat Fox quoted in two recent articles about clergy sex abuse. Every controversial article about the church should include a rebuttal statement from VOTF. You need to be available to the media to provide the other side of the story. You need to be standing up and demanding accountability of church leadership. You must require them to explain in detail what is driving their decisions. That duty of citizenship is honorable in our country and is worthy of praise and public support. That level of VOTF activity should be happening in every major city across the country. As an initial project, I suggest you support the vigiling parishes with media-attracting demonstrations of large numbers of people. Tell the world that clerical excess should not mean that communities have to lose their parish churches to pay off the legitimate restitution to survivors of clergy sex abuse by priest perpetrators and the arch/bishops that enabled that abuse.
VOTF leadership personnel who are directly or indirectly in the employment of the church are a liability to your effectiveness. The corporate world has a place for constructive criticism and progressive and successful companies welcome such from their employees. Church leadership has shown its lack of tolerance for internal reformers presenting constructive criticism and its vindictiveness in dealing with those who are not faithful to the power and control agendas of the arch/bishop. Anyone in your leadership who pays their mortgage with a church paycheck is compromised. The hierarchy will quickly bring pressure to bear upon them – either publicly or clandestinely.
The primary allegiance of the arch/bishops is not to the Catholics of the United States – it is to the Vatican. The Vatican comes first. Your needs are secondary. Your role is ancillary. Your arch/bishop’s task is to manage and control you – for your own spiritual and temporal good, of course. This all happens in a friendly and spiritually coated milieu, and it is your Catholic duty to comply with the will and directives of your arch/bishop. The episcopal world is monarchical in its mindset. Your interaction with arch/bishops happens within a Machiavellian framework – not the American democratic political arena of fair play and elections every four years. American Catholics are politically bi-cultural. The freedoms you exercise as a citizen do not exist as a parishioner. Don’t confuse the two and assume rights in the church that you really do not have to exercise. As a Catholic, you are a subject in a stratified monarchical church organization. Obey or pay the price.
Canon Law is about creating lines of clerical authority over church members and the punishments for crossing those lines. You will never win a contest within the institutional church using Canon Law arguments. The deck is stacked so the clerical establishment always wins over the laity in a Canon Law contest.
The church is much richer than you are led to believe. As survivors have found over the years, the bishops have almost unlimited resources to spend against any efforts that challenge their position. Bankruptcies have conveniently served as a two pronged strategy for the hierarchy – to stop legal proceedings that will reveal unsavory details to the public and to cry poor to the people filling the collection baskets on Sunday. Church revenue comes not only from parishes, but from educational institutions, medical enterprises, retirement facilities, land holdings, investments and more. The bishops will spend money to thwart your effective witness against their shortcomings. They will spend large amounts of church money to hire legal dream teams and top-tier public relations firms to stop bad press about their sexual and financial transgressions.
You do not own your parish church or school or other real or financial asset– the bishop owns them, according to your state laws, under the corporation sole of the current arch/bishop. Legally, you are a guest in the bishop’s church building. You are allowed to be there at the pleasure of your pastor and his arch/bishop. The vigiling parishes in the Boston and New York can provide fresh and specific details on the harshness of this reality. Even though you and generations of your family raised money for church building funds, you do not own your church. When you leaflet your parish, you will be asked to step off parish property and stand on the sidewalk. If you do not obey, the police will be called in by the pastor or the arch/diocesan lawyer to deal with you as a trespasser on “private property,” meaning the bishop’s private property.
VOTF is losing membership because the bishops have effectively co-opted your issues in the eyes of many Catholics. They’ve marketed their charter for the protection of children and young people and instituted diocesan “audits” to assure compliance. They are doing exactly what the donating Catholic wants to make all the ugliness go away. You must create new cogent issues that have gut-level appeal to the Catholic in the pews. VOTF is made up of a lot of sharp people. You have the brains and acumen do this effectively. You also have the Holy Spirit on your side. Once the issues are chosen, practical strategies with achievable outcomes must follow and be acted upon concretely. Never give up. Always be planning the next move. Like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”, remember that the pursuer always has the tactical advantage and the greatest chance for success.
Push your “priests of integrity” to join you and to work with you in your new issues and strategies. This will be a litmus test for them because it will put them right in the middle of the action and push them to take a position. The real priests of integrity will do the right thing and stand with you. You’ll find out who your true clerical supporters are when you ask them to join you in the streets.
Do you recall the traditional Catholic social concept of the “preferential option for the poor”? This principle has its roots in the biblical notion of justice where God calls us to be advocates for the voiceless and the powerless. The “poor” of our 21st century are the victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Support them even more than you have in the past because they are today’s voices crying in the desert. Use your prophetic voice—loudly, clearly, and often. Stand in the rain with the survivors when they call you for help. When victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse achieve justice and healing, our church will be well on the road to achieve the same and regain the respect we Roman Catholics and our abundant church tradition deserve in the eyes of the world.