The turn of a new year does not seem to have stilled the search for scapegoats in the sex abuse crisis. Lost in the shuffle is a slightly different claim. Last fall, during the storm over Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s statements, veteran journalist Kenneth Woodward argued in Commonweal “that homosexuality has played a role in the abuse scandals and their coverup [sic].” Woodward has made a career as a fan of Catholicism who is also a pretty even-handed truth teller—about how Catholic saints are really made, how miracle stories function in the lives of religious communities, and many other things. That’s why his claim is so hard to dismiss. How should we assess it?
To be clear, Woodward rejects Viganò’s assertion that same-sex attraction is “the root cause” of the sex abuse crisis. He does not want to root out gay priests. As he says, “we have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs.” Still, he says that Viganò’s letters confirm his own long-term suspicion: Catholic institutions, including the Vatican, have harbored
“groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.”
In other words, Woodward and Viganò agree that the invisible “homosexual collusion” of underground clerical groups is the unaddressed problem of the sex abuse crisis.
Neither Woodward nor Viganò provides incontrovertible evidence of such groups, although coverage of Legion of Christ founder Marcel Maciel’s significant financial contributions to the Vatican suggests that in at least one case money bought protection for priestly abuse of seminarians and children.
But, in terms of structure, they do have a point worth examining. If ostensibly celibate men wanted to create closed, secretive networks that endorsed and perpetuated a hypocritical sexual double life and influenced the Catholic hierarchy at all levels, the hierarchical all-male Roman Catholic priesthood would be the near-perfect incubator. As Viganò notes, priests’ secret sexual relationships with lay women—no less reprehensible in themselves than same-sex clerical sexual relationships—are less likely to create institutionally destructive in-groups of clergy committed to each other’s protection. If these groups involve powerful bishops and even cardinals, there’s no telling how they might “throw” Vatican decisions.
What can we make of this argument? To begin with, on behalf of the twenty percent of sex abuse victims who are female, we should resist the intimation that opposite-sex abuse is “less bad” than same-sex abuse because it does not potentially add the crime of collusion to the crime of violent physical exploitation. We might also note an irony: the clergy would be unlikely to harbor “same-sex networks” of mutually involved men if the requirement for celibacy were eliminated and if women were ordained.
More immediately, we have to ask that even if sexually active “same-sex networks” do exist among Catholic clergy peers, what does that have to do with the sex abuse crisis, which is about exploitation of unequal power, particularly clerical power over lay people and seminarians? And why would these networks be any more reprehensible than other clandestine power networks?
Surely, we should agree with Woodward that clerical corruption of all kinds—sexual, financial, and political—must be investigated thoroughly and resolved. Catholics must demand transparent investigations of the “gay networks” charge, not because the alleged networks are gay, but because they are collusive—just as we should get to the bottom of Vatican Bank practices, priestly sexual abuse of nuns, and diocesan sexual abuse settlements that silence victims.
Linking “gay” and “corruption,” even with as much nuance as Woodward did, leaves the impression that episcopal cover-ups were primarily matters of “gayness” rather than of unethical exertion of power. Surely, same-sex relationships were sometimes or even often involved. But as we all learn in Introduction to Statistics, even correlation is not causation. A wonderful example is the statistically significant inverse relationship between Mexican lemon imports and US highway fatalities: More lemons yield fewer deaths! Or is it fewer deaths, more lemons? The two trends are causally unrelated. Similarly, does sex make the clerical network? Or does the clerical network invite sex?
We should be worried about any “networks” that surreptitiously use blackmail, bribes, or rewards to influence church teaching, appointments, or assignment of resources. And we should be wary of structural qualities—the celibate male priesthood is only one—that make the church vulnerable to such networks. On this point Woodward is right:
“The danger of clerical double lives—of secrets that can be used as weapons to protect other secrets—should now be clear to everyone. There will be clerical hypocrisy as long as there is a church, but we can and should do more to combat it.”
We sinful, fallible humans will always find ways to collude in the abuse of power. History, including recent US political history, suggests that sex, money, and probably both will be among our most potent tools in this regard. But “homosexuality” is a significant potential element of Roman Catholic clerical abuse of power only because the clergy is celibate and male, not because same-sex attraction is “fashionable” (as Pope Francis recently claimed) or degenerate.
Algebra provides a better analogy than lemons and highway deaths:
If same-sex times isolated hierarchy equals same-sex times corruption, “same-sex” drops out of the equation. Isolated hierarchy equals corruption. Period.
–Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, January 14, 2019