The Big Catholic Story of the week was the church-funded and church-coordinated audit of church compliance with the church’s plan for preventing sexual abuse by church workers. If there seemed a few too many churches in that sentence, you can already see the problem, and won’t be surprised to hear that the church — and the bishops who called for the audit — passed with flying colors. Next time I take a test, I’ll be sure to make up all the questions, too, and maybe hire the teacher while I’m at it.
According to The Boston Globe‘s Michael Paulson, “church officials released the audit… exactly two years after a report in the Globe… set off a nationwide scandal that led to the ouster of several hundred priests. The crisis also led to lawsuits that have cost the church millions of dollars and to changes in civil law aimed at protecting children.”
We will indulge the Globe its self-satisfaction in all that it has wrought. With the story now two years old, however, it becomes increasingly odd to read about the scandal, in the Globe and elsewhere, as if its particular religious context merely provided the costumes for the players. Is it just me, or is there a big, celibate elephant in the room that no one wants to write about? That this is a story not just of abuse, lies, and accountability but of the intersection of theology and sexuality is a fact that most coverage seems wholly unable to grapple with, or even consider.
On this score secular journalists could actually learn a thing or two from the religious media. In an email newsletter from the Catholic magazine Crisis (subscribe here; but be forewarned, it’s angry stuff), publisher Deal Hudson writes of the audit, seeing some progress in the way the church hierarchy has been addressing the scandal, but remaining “cautiously optimistic” about the findings. “I’m also concerned,” he adds, “that a big part of the sex abuse problem has been ignored — homosexuality in the priesthood. In fact, this reality is covered up with language about ‘protecting children and young people.'”
From there Hudson goes on to show himself to be a knee-jerk homophobe, toeing the conservative Catholic line with an enthusiasm unexplainable by simple orthodoxy (not too surprising given his regular Crisis column). Before he goes that far, though, he does make a good point: Part of the abuse issue is homosexuality in the priesthood. Another part is heterosexuality in the priesthood. The great ignored element — and, indeed, it has been covered up with the language of “protecting children” — is the role of sexuality in the priesthood and in Catholic culture generally.
There is much to be written about changing theological conceptions of the body; the hidden intimacies of clerical culture; the isolating, and perhaps damaging, training of priests. All of these have bearing on the crisis in the church. If Catholic bishops want to undertake an audit that makes a difference in the lives of the faithful, these topics might be a good place to start. Ditto for journalists who want to write stories about the scandal that do more than report the latest settlements or allegations.