He said, He said: Kenneth Woodward, Carlo Maria Viganò, and “Homosexual Networks”

Archbishop Carlo Vigano

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?

Kenneth Woodward

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

6 replies
  1. Michael Brinkschröder
    Michael Brinkschröder says:

    Dear Christina,
    thank you for your article! However, I think that the discussion on Bondings 2.0 is too defensive and tries too hard to separate the issue of homosexuality from the sexual abuses. Those who are involved in both sides try to build a culture of secrecy and to avoid transparency. As openly LGBT Catholics we are confronted with different cultures of clerical homosexuality: 1. Those who have a homophile orientation and aesthetic, but would never allow this to become part of their full awareness about themselves. So they depend on personal and institutional repression. This my include split consciousness and denial if they have an active sexual life. 2. Those who I call “homosexual cynics”: they are fully aware of their homosexual orientation and they live it in secret -either with a partner or in a promiscuous way. At the same time they do everything to keep the church doctrine that homosexual acts are sinful in place, because they benefit from this systems that has provides them with clerical power (this type is most prominent in the Vatican and in highest clerical ranks). 3. The third type is the gay priest, who tries to integrate his sexual orientation into his personality in a conscious way and to support acceptance of LGBT people in church. Some of this group keeps the promise of celibacy, others don’t. – What is needed in my eyes is an analysis what kind of role these three different types of homosexual priests play in the sexual abuse system. – My position is clearly not, that homosexual priests are somehow more guilty of sexual abuse, but that the combination of celibacy and oppression of homosexual identities and homosexual sexuality is a main cause for the establishment of the Catholic clerical system. This system has created obviously more abusers and it has created more leaders who did everything to collude with the abusers by creating an intransparent system.

  2. Chester George Thompson
    Chester George Thompson says:

    As much as ABP Vigano and Raymond Cardinal Burke make disparaging remarks— it makes one feel “Methinks, the lady doth protest too much!!!” Could it be that by all of their Rhetoric, these two “need to clean their own skirts, of the shame of their own actions?” After all, they both seem to know more about what acts are committed by GAYS and GAY PRIESTS AND BISHOPS, that they MUST KNOW MORE THAN WHAT THEY TELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I personally think they need to repent of their OWN SINS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Mary Jo
    Mary Jo says:

    Ok, who is sick and tired of the obsession with this topic in the church? Look to the Episcopal Church, and others as well, who ordain women and men, gay and straight, married and single, and don’t obsess about priest sexuality but focus on the word and works of Christ? The vitriol and power struggles in the Roman Catholic Church are oppressive.

  4. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    The clergy is celibate and male. I might add…especially in previous generations prior to gay rights, the celibate male structure of the Church may have appealled to young closeted catholic gay men. There they could find a culturally acceptable coverup of their true sexual orientations. I would imagine many of these catholic boys/men would never have entered the celibate priesthood to begin with if their options were better outside the clergy. As part of a celibate male religious community, gay men could at least try to “ward off their sinful natures” by embracing the harmful anti-gay teachings of the Church. By entering the very institution that incubates homosexual self loathing, a young man might think he is safe from family rejection, social injustice, social stigma and rejection by God. But a hiding place does not promote a healthy sexuality or living Christ priesthood. The whole equation of a celibate male catholic priesthood + the foul RCC teachings on homosexuality (as in the CDF official teaching documents and the Catholic catechism) equals a combustible shame that continues to bring great harm to so many.
    by unbecoming Catholic

  5. Jorge R Palafox
    Jorge R Palafox says:

    Good discussion on the issue, but a bit off track with the priority at the moment. Yes, there must be further analysis regarding this church and all the aspects of its evolution which is a continuous process. We are now at a point where there exist an organization that seems to be steeped in traditions lingering from the Medieval mentality. The body of the Church, it’s people, are no longer of the serf demographics. The hierarchy is no longer in touch, or is losing touch, with its indigenous roots (grassroots) and has become part of the current patriarchal power structure. As such, it has resulted in corruptness (the old adage that power corrupts absolutely), shielding criminal acts, not to mention, in this case, complicit in providing cover of pedophilic crimes (adult sex issues are another discussion since I defer to them as adults with the ability of more mature faculties). However, the Catholic Church is not just an existential body. There is also the aspect of its spiritual embodiment. It is of God and by it’s nature created by Christ. Therefore the physical body must fall to be reconstructed (as the curtain torn asunder in the Jewish temple as Christ died on the cross). Here is where the people with all their God-given tools will get to the root of the matter (as this article is one to add to this attestation) and participate in the Church’s next direction . There is also an eschatological perspective to be renewed. In its current form the Church can sin no more, but, more primal, cannot be the cause of identifiable sin, especially violating the innocence of children and the destruction of family. the foundation of modern society. There needs to be a cleansing of some sorts to ensure fulfillment of its spiritual and holy mission. We have no idea how God works in addressing the arrogant hypocrisy, but truth, justice and compassion shall be served. Rather than look to one orientation over another, homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, etc. It’s the involvement of the laity, their knowledge and experience, in a 21st century discussion of healthy sexuality regarding committed love relationships between two individuals as its causation to a balanced and spiritual civil society. And for the hierarchy to look within its ranks to do the will of God and engage in its purpose of continual healing of the personhood, male abuse — a predominant factor –, and its power structure to influence culture’s improvement with vigilant eye on outcomes and on-going quality assurance. A perspective that includes the integration of laity input to resolve destructive abuses.

    CHRIS TOLTON says:

    One of the best commentaries on this subject is that of former Father AW Richard Sipe who studied the sexual abuse by clergy for over 30 years. In a series of depositions as an expert he made the following observations, among many:
    92. The widespread lack of celibate practice is relevant to the central issue of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy because a community that publicly proclaims the sexual safety of its members at the same time that it tolerates sexual activity restricts the ability of bishops, vicars, pastors and priests to properly supervise, discipline, and explore the criminal activities of priests who abuse children. Exposure of one part of the system——abusive priests——threatens to expose a whole system that supports a lack of celibate conformity within the priesthood.


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