Catholic church's scandals go from bad to worse

Posted: Mar 13, 2002 12:00 AM
This is not so much a column as a cri d'coeur. A good Catholic is supposed to trust the church 's authority. And if you mean the church over time, shepherded by the holy spirit and making known God's presence in the sacraments, I do.

But I have two sons. As I sat in the pews last Sunday, obediently praying for an increase in religious vocations, the thought occurred: If one of my sons wanted to dedicate himself to a life of chastity, poverty and obedience, forsaking marriage (and my grandchildren!) for God's sake, would I trust my child to the care of people now running American Catholic seminaries? Should I? Should any mother?

This is the question raised in many staunch Catholic hearts by the series of revelations of priestly sexual abuse of teen-agers. Teen-age boys, to be exact. One of the big, obvious questions on everybody's mind that nobody in the American church hierarchy seems to be willing to address is this: Why, suddenly, is it only boys, boys, boys?

The same old church critics are using these scandals to target clerical celibacy as the problem and married priests as the solution. Right. As if wives are the answer to the sexual urges of men who get their kicks from adolescent boys.

The last straw was the resignation last week of the bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., after he admitted having sex with a 13-year-old seminary student in Missouri in the 1970s. It gets worse. Christopher Dixon was a student at the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo. He had been sexually used by his parish priest (and head of the Catholic elementary school he had attended) and also by the dean of students at the seminary. "I was confused. I was upset and didn't know what to do," Dixon describes the time period. "O'Connell said he was trying to help me come to terms with myself, with adolescence, confusion about my sexuality. And in order to try to help me come to terms with my own body, he ultimately took me to bed with him."

A 13-year-old kid, seeking a life of chastity and service to God, finds not one but two priests who turn him to their own sexual use instead. And instead of helping him, Anthony J. O'Connell, then the head of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, says, Hey, here is a chance to get my jollies, too!

More bad news: How do you suppose Bishop O'Connell got appointed to his post? The previous Palm Beach bishop had stepped down because of his habit of molesting boys. And yet more than 100 local priests have apparently signed a petition urging the Vatican to refuse to accept Bishop O'Connell's resignation.

That two successive bishops could be involved in sex scandals with minor boys -- and that 100 priests could decide one of these bishops should stay -- suggests widespread systemic corruption in the institutions of the American church dedicated to clerical formation. Good priests are being demoralized (and seminarians undoubtedly turned away from vocations) as a result.

When the church announced that nothing barred the ordination of celibate homosexuals, that made sense to me. The Catholic tradition teaches that men and women are made for each other. Any sexual union outside of marriage between a man and a woman is wrong. But all of us are subject to sexual temptations, and there is nothing in Catholic theology to suggest God is harder on same-sex sins than any other kind.

I still believe that. But now certain sexual -- not theological -- truths seem apparent too: It is simply not practical for an all-male organization committed to celibacy to ordain men who are sexually attracted to males. Am I the only one who sees this?