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If the Catholic Church has any success in defining sex abuse by priests as a gay problem, it is because the public has revoltingly short memories.

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Cardinal Bernard Francis Law of Boston, accused of sheltering predatory priests, walks in a procession in Philadelphia, April 26, 2002. Tim Shaffer

Priests' Forgotten Victims

by Kelly Cogswell

May 1, 2002. About 100 gay activists gathered in the rain outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Sunday to protest what organizer Matt Foreman called the Catholic Church's, "very calculated, orchestrated campaign to shift the blame of this public relations and moral disaster onto gay people."

In fact, as evidence piles up that the Church shuffles incorrigible sexual predators between unsuspecting parishes, the Catholic hierarchy has gotten increasingly vocal and vicious in its attacks on gay priests. The Vatican's official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, declared that "people with these inclinations" shouldn't be ordained. Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, blamed the presence of a "homosexual dynamic" in the nation's seminaries for scaring away heterosexual priests.

In New York City, one of Cardinal Edward M. Egan's closest lieutenants, the rector of St. Patrick's, Msgr. Eugene V. Clark, in his April 21 homily, overtly characterized gay men as pedophiles: "In some seminaries in the United States, known homosexual young men have been accepted as candidates against every rule of church wisdom and church requirements. One need say no more of this as a breeding ground for later homosexual practice after ordination, and the manifest danger of man-boy relationships."

The backlash has also begun in Latin America. Dominican Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez called for a purging of gays from the priesthood, starting with the seminaries, and blamed the United States for fostering sexual predators because it tolerates gays, and allows them to openly demand civil rights. He said there must not be "hombrecitos flojos" or limp-wristed queens, in the Church. Instead, he wants priests that are "varoniles, viriles" — manly and virile.

If the Catholic Church has any success at all in defining sex abuse by priests as a gay problem, it is because the public has revoltingly short memories. It was only last year that the National Catholic Reporter, an independent U.S. journal, published groundbreaking stories detailing the rape of nuns in Africa by heterosexual priests, and the Catholic hierarchy's all too familiar response of burying accusations, denying the problem, and protecting the priests.

NCR's story focused on a 1994 report produced by medical missionary, Maura O'Donohue, a physician, who based her findings on six years as AIDS coordinator for the London-based Catholic Fund for Overseas Development.

Typical of the report was a Malawi diocese where the local priests had impregnated 29 sisters. When the Mother Superior complained in 1988, she was relieved of her duties. In another instance elsewhere, a priest responsible for impregnating a nun and forcing her into a fatal abortion attempt, later officiated at her funeral Mass.

"Groups of sisters from local congregations have made passionate appeals for help to members of international congregations and explain that, when they themselves try to make representations to church authorities about harassment by priests, they simply 'are not heard,'" quoted O'Donohue.

She mitigated her charges explaining that celibacy may have different meanings in different cultures, describing a vicar general in one African diocese who had said that "celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married, but does not mean he does not have children." She also said that priests who once frequented prostitutes turned to nuns because they "had come to fear contamination with HIV by sexual contact with prostitutes and other 'at risk' women."

It is a mistake to imagine the problem is a matter of cultural interpretation. O'Donohue documents how violated nuns were usually ejected from their orders, and left to fend for themselves and any resultant children, while bearing the burden of a devastating social stigma.

Although most of O'Donohue's accounts came from Africa, the report included stories of abuse from 23 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America. Yvonne Maes, a former Canadian nun, was raped in 1985 by an Irish priest at a retreat in Durban, South Africa.

Instead of taking action on behalf of Maes, who had been a nun for 24 years at the time of the assault, her superiors imposed a gag order on her. Maes said, "There was no investigation of my allegation, or others, against the same priest. There were no real consequences for him, except his receiving a suspension for a few weeks." After the rape and subsequent accusation, her attacker continued to work as a priest in England.

O'Donohue's report was presented to the Vatican as early as 1995. The problem was reiterated in a November 1998 paper by Sister Marie McDonald of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa which was presented to several groups including the Vatican office that oversees religious life, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. In September of 2000, Benedictine Sister Esther Fangman raised the issue in an address at a Rome congress of Benedictine abbots.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church maintained silence on the abuse of nuns until The National Catholic Reporter broke the story last March, when it caused a brief whirlwind of stories, one or two protests, then sank like a stone. Maybe we didn't care much because most of the incidents happened in far off Africa. Maybe because it was women and girls, and not young men, being abused.

Either way, both Catholics and non-Catholics must pressure the Church to be accountable for the behavior of its priests, and to acknowledge that abuses are only tangentially about sexual orientation, or even sex, though the impact of celibacy, as well as the effect of entering the priesthood on young gay men should certainly be addressed.

The main thing to remember is that the aim of both hetero- and homo- sexual predators is the exercise of power over the weak, and that the abuse of power is far too easy in a system built on secrecy, silence, and a hierarchy scornful of women, young male parishioners, and gay people alike.

Related links:

For Reports of abuse, about the sexual abuse of nuns by priests in the National Catholic Reporter.

For New Groups Push for Change in NCR.

For Dignity/USA's outraged reaction to Bishop Gregory's homophobic remarks. Dignity/USA is the nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered Catholics organization.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Africa

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

Africa Emerging
News, opinion, politics from Algeria to Zimbabwe. Including homophobia in Southern Africa and the colonial legacy everywhere.

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