The former pope, Benedict XVI, has become the latest Church leader to blame gay priests for the clergy sexual abuse crisis, a myth which continues to be discussed despite clear evidence that homosexuality is not a cause of the crisis.
In a rambling letter published April 11, Benedict blamed clergy’s abuse of children and subsequent cover ups on “the Revolution of 1968” that led to “all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms” and to society’s dismissal of God. Refusing to comment on his own alleged complicity in the crisis as one of the Church’s highest officeholders for nearly three decades, Benedict instead attacked gay priests as a cause of abuse. Reuters reported:
“Benedict wrote that after the Second Vatican Council there was a ‘far reaching breakdown’ of the traditional methods of priestly formation that coincided with a dissolution of the Christian concept of morality.
“‘In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries,’ he writes, adding that the situation has now improved.”
Theologians and observers roundly denounced Benedict’s letter. Brian Flanagan of Marymount University described it as “embarrassing,” while Santa Clara University’s Julie Rubio said the letter was “deeply flawed” and “stunning” in its claims. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter concluded his criticism with, “Was there no one who loves [Benedict] enough to save him from the embarrassment that this will cause?”
Jamie Manson, books editor and a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, criticized Benedict for “papal-splaining,” but said that, in reality, the letter helped clarify “precisely how the institutional church got into its current psychosexual mess.” Manson wrote:
“While some commentators, such as NCR’s Michael Sean Winters, have speculated that Benedict’s age and declining health may have contributed to his gloomy disposition in this letter, Benedict’s suspicions of the world have always been a hallmark of his theology. . .
“Benedict, you may recall, coined the shudder-worthy phrase ‘intrinsically disordered’ to describe essentially any kind of sex act that isn’t missionary-style intercourse between one man and one woman who are bound in matrimony. And, so, for his 32 years in power, first as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005) and later as pope (2005-2013), he constantly reinforced a moral theology that treated nearly all sexual acts and sexual desire as shameful and unnatural in the sight of God.”
Manson detailed the history of Benedict, then acting as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who oversaw the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and censured theologians and pastoral workers rethinking sexuality. But now, she explained, Benedict inadvertently is right:
“When I was in Rome for the sex abuse summit in February listening to bishops for four straight days, one aspect that stunned me was this general sense that if the hierarchy could come up with the best practices and policies and procedures, they could somehow administer the problem away. There was absolutely no sense that the sex abuse crisis had anything to do with the church’s limited, taboo-based teaching on sexual morality. There was no sense of a need to re-think the teachings on sex; no need to reckon with the hierarchy’s authoritarianism and understanding of its own power as beyond questioning or reproach.
“In a strange way, Benedict is right to bring sexuality into the conversation on what caused the sex abuse crisis. What he doesn’t see is that the rigid, shame-based sexual morality that he enforced for decades only exacerbated the problem. . .[W]hat he really shows us in this piece is how very small and sheltered his world is, and how profoundly that has limited his theological understanding of the ways in which God is alive is the loves, longings and sufferings of all of the people of God. Too bad he never gave us the chance to explain that to him.”
Other LGBTQ advocates weighed in on Benedict’s letter. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told Gay City News that Benedict’s letter “does not deal with reality at all,” adding:
“‘Those are accusations that can be made with no proof behind them. . .They’re just red herrings that he throws out to scapegoat gay men in the priesthood — but with no evidence. Benedict is responsible for this greatly.'”
Michael Meenan, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, defended gay priests and linked the causes of LGBTQ equality and survivor justice as complementary. Meenan continued saying the presence of healthy gay priests could actually benefit the Church:
““A young boy or girl should be so lucky to have an out gay man or an out gay woman teaching them because they have the benefit of having such a positive role model, whether or not the child is gay or straight or regardless of sexuality. The fact that we have gay priests in our schools is the worst kept secret that the Catholic Church has ever tried to hold.”
Aaron Bianco, who resigned from his role as a pastoral associate after right wing groups harassed and threatened him, said he was “shocked” by the former pope’s letter. Claims about a “homosexual clique” only aid these right wing groups rather than, “blaming the Church for ordaining and keeping men they know are pedophiles.”
The issue of gay priests and clergy sexual abuse is still discussed in right wing circles, and the attempted scapegoating and disparagement of good priests continues. Having previously written on the topic (here, here, and here), Andrew Sullivan against struck against such scapegoating, recently calling it “wicked, evil and wrong” at a Boston event.
It is perhaps expected that Benedict would perpetuate further these “wicked, evil and wrong” attitudes underpinning the attacks on gay priests. But it is nonetheless tragic because the former pontiff’s irresponsible words cause real harm. An apology letter would be a good idea, but given this most recent epistle, it is probably best he just remain silent.
New Ways Ministry has re-launched our campaign, “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” to show our support for gay men and religious who faithfully, dutifully, and effectively served the People of God and to call on church leaders to end the falsehoods about and lift the ban on gay priests.
To add your name to this show of gratitude and solidarity, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 25, 2019