By REESE DUNKLIN and MICHAEL REZENDES
When the coronavirus forced churches to close their doors and give up Sunday collections, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte turned to the federal government’s signature small business relief program for more than $8 million.
The diocese’s headquarters, churches and schools landed the help even though they had roughly $100 million of their own cash and short-term investments available last spring, financial records show. When the cash catastrophe church leaders feared didn’t materialize, those assets topped $110 million by the summer.
“I am gratified to report the overall good financial health of the diocese despite the many difficulties presented by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Bishop Peter Jugis wrote in the diocese’s audited financial report released last fall.
As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found. And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.
Yet even with that financial safety net, the 112 dioceses that shared their financial statements, along with the churches and schools they oversee, collected at least $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed aid. A majority of these dioceses reported enough money on hand to cover at least six months of operating expenses, even without any new income.
The financial resources of several dioceses rivaled or exceeded those available to publicly traded companies like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, whose early participation in the program triggered outrage. Federal officials responded by emphasizing the money was intended for those who lacked the cushion that cash and other liquidity provide. Many corporations returned the funds.
Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion. That makes the Roman Catholic Church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis of data the U.S. Small Business Administration released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations. The agency for months had shared only partial information, making a more precise analysis impossible.
Already one of the largest federal aid efforts ever, the SBA reopened the Paycheck Protection Program last month with a new infusion of nearly $300 billion. In making the announcement, the agency’s administrator at the time, Jovita Carranza, hailed the program for serving “as an economic lifeline to millions of small businesses.”
Church officials have said their employees were as worthy of help as workers at Main Street businesses, and that without it they would have had to slash jobs and curtail their charitable mission as demand for food pantries and social services spiked. They point out the program’s rules didn’t require them to exhaust their stores of cash and other funds before applying.
But new financial statements several dozen dioceses have posted for 2020 show that their available resources remained robust or improved during the pandemic’s hard, early months. The pattern held whether a diocese was big or small, urban or rural, East or West, North or South.
In Kentucky, funds available to the Archdiocese of Louisville, its parishes and other organizations grew from at least $153 million to $157 million during the fiscal year that ended in June, AP found. Those same offices and organizations received at least $17 million in paycheck money. “The Archdiocese’s operations have not been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak,” according to its financial statement.
In Illinois, the Archdiocese of Chicago had more than $1 billion in cash and investments in its headquarters and cemetery division as of May, while the faithful continued to donate “more than expected,” according to a review by the independent ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service. Chicago’s parishes, schools and ministries accumulated at least $77 million in paycheck protection funds.
Up the interstate from Charlotte in North Carolina, the Raleigh Diocese collected at least $11 million in aid. Yet during the fiscal year that ended in June, overall offerings were down just 5% and the assets available to the diocese, its parishes and schools increased by about $21 million to more than $170 million, AP found. In another measure of fiscal health, the diocese didn’t make an emergency draw on its $10 million line of credit.
Catholic leaders in dioceses including Charlotte, Chicago, Louisville and Raleigh said their parishes and schools, like many other businesses and nonprofits, suffered financially when they closed to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Some dioceses reported that their hardest-hit churches saw income drop by 40% or more before donations began to rebound months later, and schools took hits when fundraisers were canceled and families had trouble paying tuition. As revenues fell, dioceses said, wage cuts and a few dozen layoffs were necessary in some offices.
Catholic researchers at Georgetown University who surveyed the nation’s bishops last summer found such measures weren’t frequent. In comparison, a survey by the investment bank Goldman Sachs found 42% of small business owners had cut staff or salaries, and that 33% had spent their personal savings to stay open.
Church leaders have questioned why AP focused on their faith following a story last July, when New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote that reporters “invented a story when none existed and sought to bash the Church.”
By using a special exemption that the church lobbied to include in the paycheck program, Catholic entities amassed at least $3 billion — roughly the same as the combined total of recipients from the other faiths that rounded out the top five, AP found. Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Jewish faith-based recipients also totaled at least $3 billion. Catholics account for about a fifth of the U.S. religious population while members of Protestant and Jewish denominations are nearly half, according to the Pew Research Center.
Catholic institutions also received many times more than other major nonprofits with charitable missions and national reach, such as the United Way, Goodwill Industries and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Overall, Catholic recipients got roughly twice as much as 40 of the largest, most well-known charities in America combined, AP found.
The complete picture is certainly even more lopsided. So many Catholic entities received help that reporters could not identify them all, even after spending hundreds of hours hand-checking tens of thousands of records in federal data.
The Vatican referred questions about the paycheck program to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said it does not speak on behalf of dioceses.
Presented with AP’s findings, bishops conference spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi responded with a broad statement that the Paycheck Protection Program was “designed to protect the jobs of Americans from all walks of life, regardless of whether they work for for-profit or nonprofit employers, faith-based or secular.”
The AP’s assessment of church finances is among the most comprehensive to date. It draws largely from audited financial statements posted online by the central offices of 112 of the country’s nearly 200 dioceses.
The church isn’t required to share its financials. As a result, the analysis doesn’t include cash, short-term assets and lines of credit held by some of the largest dioceses, including those serving New York City and other major metropolitan areas.
The analysis focused on available assets because federal officials cited those metrics when clarifying eligibility for the paycheck program. Therefore, the $10 billion AP identified doesn’t count important financial pillars of the U.S. church. Among those are its thousands of real estate properties and most of the funds that parishes and schools hold. Also excluded is the money — estimated at $9.5 billion in a 2019 study by the Delaware-based wealth management firm Wilmington Trust — held by charitable foundations created to help dioceses oversee donations.
In addition, dioceses can rely on a well-funded support system that includes help from wealthier dioceses, the bishops conference and other Catholic organizations. Canon law, the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the global church, notes that richer dioceses may assist poorer ones, and the AP found instances where they did.
In their financial statements, the 112 dioceses acknowledged having at least $4.5 billion in liquid or otherwise available assets. To reach its $10 billion total, AP also included funding that dioceses had opted to designate for special projects instead of general expenses; excess cash that parishes and their affiliates deposit with their diocese’s savings and loan; and lines of credit dioceses typically have with outside banks.
Some church officials said AP was misreading their financial books and therefore overstating available assets. They insisted that money their bishop or his advisers had set aside for special projects couldn’t be repurposed during an emergency, although financial statements posted by multiple dioceses stated the opposite.
For its analysis, AP consulted experts in church finance and church law. One was the Rev. James Connell, an accountant for 15 years before joining the priesthood and becoming an administrator in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Connell, also a canon lawyer who is now retired from his position with the archdiocese, said AP’s findings convinced him that Catholic entities did not need government aid — especially when thousands of small businesses were permanently closing.
“Was it want or need?” Connell asked. “Need must be present, not simply the want. Justice and love of neighbor must include the common good.”
Connell was not alone among the faithful concerned by the church’s pursuit of taxpayer money. Parishioners in several cities have questioned church leaders who received government money for Catholic schools they then closed.
Elsewhere, a pastor in a Western state told AP that he refused to apply even after diocesan officials repeatedly pressed him. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of his diocese’s policy against talking to reporters and concerns about possible retaliation.
The pastor had been saving, much like leaders of other parishes. When the pandemic hit, he used that money, trimmed expenses and told his diocese’s central finance office that he had no plans to seek the aid. Administrators followed up several times, the pastor said, with one high-ranking official questioning why he was “leaving free money on the table.”
The pastor said he felt a “sound moral conviction” that the money was meant more for shops and restaurants that, without it, might close forever.
As the weeks passed last spring, the pastor said his church managed just fine. Parishioners were so happy with new online Masses and his other outreach initiatives, he said, they boosted their contributions beyond 2019 levels.
“We didn’t need it,” the pastor said, “and intentionally wanted to leave the money for those small business owners who did.”
WEATHERING A DOWNTURN
Months after the pandemic first walloped the economy, the 112 dioceses that release financial statements began sharing updates. Among the 47 dioceses that have thus far, the pandemic’s impact was far from crippling.
The 47 dioceses that have posted financials for the fiscal year that ended in June had a median 6% increase in the amount of cash, short-term investments and other funds that they and their affiliates could use for unanticipated or general expenses, AP found. In all, 38 dioceses grew those resources, while nine reported declines.
Finances in Raleigh and 10 other dioceses that took government assistance were stable enough that they did not have to dip into millions they had available through outside lines of credit.
“This crisis has tested us,” Russell Elmayan, Raleigh’s chief financial officer, told the diocese’s magazine website in July, “but we are hopeful that the business acumen of our staff and lay counselors, together with the strategic financial reserves built over time, will help our parishes and schools continue to weather this unprecedented event.” Raleigh officials did not answer direct questions from AP.
The 47 dioceses acknowledged a smaller amount of readily available assets than AP counted, though by their own accounting that grew as well.
The improving financial outlook is due primarily to parishioners who found ways to continue donating and U.S. stock markets that were rebounding to new highs. But when the markets were first plunging, officials in several dioceses said, they had to stretch available assets because few experts were forecasting a rapid recovery.
In Louisville, Charlotte and other dioceses, church leaders said they offered loans or grants to needy parishes and schools, or offset the monthly charges they assess their parishes. In Raleigh, for example, the headquarters used $3 million it had set aside for liability insurance and also tapped its internal deposit and loan fund.
Church officials added that the pandemic’s full toll will probably be seen in a year or two, because some key sources of revenue are calculated based on income that parishes and schools generate.
“We believe that we will not know all of the long-term negative impacts on parish, school and archdiocesan finances for some time,” Louisville Archdiocese spokeswoman Cecelia Price wrote in response to questions.
At the nine dioceses that recorded declines in liquid or other short-term assets, the drops typically were less than 10%, and not always clearly tied to the pandemic.
The financial wherewithal of some larger dioceses is underscored by the fact that, like publicly traded companies, they can raise capital by selling bonds to investors.
One was Chicago, where analysts with the Moody’s ratings agency calculated that the $1 billion in cash and investments held by the archdiocese headquarters and cemeteries division could cover about 631 days of operating expenses.
Church officials in Chicago asserted that those dollars were needed to cover substantial expenses while parishioner donations slumped. Without paycheck support, “parishes and schools would have been forced to cut many jobs, as the archdiocese, given its liabilities, could not have closed such a funding gap,” spokeswoman Paula Waters wrote.
Moody’s noted in its May report that while giving was down, federal aid had compensated for that and helped leave the archdiocese “well positioned to weather this revenue loss over the next several months.” Among the reasons for the optimism: “a unique credit strength” that under church law allows the archbishop to tax parish revenue virtually at will.
In a separate Moody’s report on New Orleans, which filed for bankruptcy in May while facing multiple clergy abuse lawsuits, the ratings agency wrote in July that the archdiocese did so while having “significant financial reserves, with spendable cash and investments of over $160 million.”
Moody’s said the archdiocese’s “very good” liquid assets would let it operate 336 days without additional income. Those assets prompted clergy abuse victims to ask a federal judge to dismiss the bankruptcy filing, arguing the archdiocese’s primary reason for seeking the legal protection was to minimize payouts to them.
The archdiocese, along with its parishes and schools, collected more than $26 million in paycheck money. New Orleans Archdiocesan officials didn’t respond to written questions.
Without special treatment, the Catholic Church would not have received nearly so much under the Paycheck Protection Program.
After Congress let nonprofits and religious organizations participate in the first place, Catholic officials lobbied the Trump Administration for a second break. Religious organizations were freed from the so-called affiliation rule that typically disqualifies applicants with more than 500 workers.
Without that break, many dioceses would have missed out because — between their head offices, parishes, schools and other affiliates — their employee count would exceed the limit.
Among those lobbying, federal records show, was the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Parishes, schools and ministries there collected at least $80 million in paycheck aid, at a time when the headquarters reported $658 million in available funds heading into the fiscal year when the coronavirus arrived.
Catholic officials in the U.S. needed the special exception for at least two reasons.
Church law says dioceses, parishes and schools are affiliated, something the Los Angeles Archdiocese acknowledged “proved to be an obstacle” to receiving funds because its parishes operate “under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” Dioceses, parishes, schools and other Catholic entities also routinely assert to the Internal Revenue Service that they are affiliated so they can maintain their federal income tax exemption.
While some Catholic officials insisted their affiliates are separate and financially independent, AP found many instances of borrowing and spending among them when dioceses were faced with prior cash crunches. In Philadelphia, for example, the archdiocese received at least $18 million from three affiliates, including a seminary, to fund a compensation program for clergy sex abuse survivors, according to 2019 financial statements.
Cardinals and bishops have broad authority over parishes and the pastors who run them. Church law requires parishes to submit annual financial reports and bishops may require parishes to deposit surplus money with internal banks administered by the diocese.
“The parishioners cannot hire or fire the pastor; that is for the bishop to do,” said Connell, the priest, former accountant and canon lawyer. “Each parish functions as a wholly owned subsidiary or division of a larger corporation, the diocese.”
Bishops acknowledged a concerted effort to tap paycheck funds in a survey by Catholic researchers at Georgetown University. When asked what they had done to address the pandemic’s financial fallout, 95% said their central offices helped parishes apply for paycheck and other aid — the leading response. That topped encouraging parishioners to donate electronically.
After Congress approved the paycheck program, three high-ranking officials in New Hampshire’s Manchester Diocese sent an urgent memo to parishes, schools and affiliated organizations urging them to refrain from layoffs or furloughs until completing their applications. “We are all in this together,” the memo read, adding that diocesan officials were working expeditiously to provide “step by step instructions.”
Paycheck Protection Program funds came through low-interest bank loans, worth up to $10 million each, that the federal government would forgive so long as recipients used the money to cover about two months of wages and operating expenses.
After an initial $659 billion last spring, Congress added another $284 billion in December. With the renewal came new requirements intended to ensure that funds go to businesses that lost money due to the pandemic. Lawmakers also downsized the headcount for applicants to 300 or fewer employees.
A QUESTION OF NEED
In other federal small business loan programs, government help is treated as a last resort.
Applicants must show they couldn’t get credit elsewhere. And those with enough available funds must pay more of their own way to reduce taxpayer subsidies.
Congress didn’t include these tests in the Paycheck Protection Program. To speed approvals, lenders weren’t required to do their usual screening and instead relied on applicants’ self-certifications of need.
The looser standards helped create a run on the first $349 billion in paycheck funding. Small business owners complained that they were shut out, yet dozens of companies healthy enough to be traded on stock exchanges scored quick approval.
As blowback built in April, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned at a news briefing that there would be “severe consequences” for applicants who improperly tapped the program.
“We want to make sure this money is available to small businesses that need it, people who have invested their entire life savings,” Mnuchin said. Program guidelines evolved to stress that participants with access to significant cash probably could not get the assistance “in good faith.”
Mnuchin’s Treasury Department said it would audit loans exceeding $2 million, although federal officials have not said whether they would hold religious organizations and other nonprofits to the same standard of need as businesses.
The headquarters and major departments for more than 40 dioceses received more than $2 million. Every diocese that responded to questions said it would seek to have the government cover the loans, rather than repay the funds.
One diocese receiving a loan over $2 million was Boston. According to the archdiocese’s website, its central ministries office received about $3 million, while its parishes and schools collected about $32 million more.
The archdiocese — along with its parishes, schools and cemeteries — had roughly $200 million in available funds in June 2019, according to its audited financial report. When that fiscal year ended several months into the pandemic, available funds had increased to roughly $233 million.
Nevertheless, spokesman Terrence Donilon cited “ongoing economic pressure” in saying the archdiocese will seek forgiveness for last year’s loans and will apply for additional, new funds during the current round.
Beyond its growing available funds, the archdiocese and its affiliates benefit from other sources of funding. The archdiocese’s “Inspiring Hope” campaign, announced in January, has raised at least $150 million.
And one of its supporting charities — the Catholic Schools Foundation, where Cardinal Sean O’Malley is board chairman — counted more than $33 million in cash and other funds that could be “used for general operations” as of the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year, according to its financial statement.
Despite these resources, the archdiocese closed a half-dozen schools in May and June, often citing revenue losses due to the pandemic. Paycheck protection data show four of those schools collectively were approved for more than $700,000.
The shuttered schools included St. Francis of Assisi in Braintree, a middle-class enclave 10 miles south of Boston, which received $210,000. Parents said they felt blindsided by the closure, announced in June as classes ended.
“It’s like a punch to the gut because that was such a home for so many people for so long,” said Kate Nedelman Herbst, the mother of two children who attended the elementary school.
Along with more than 2,000 other school supporters, Herbst signed a written protest to O’Malley that noted the archdiocese’s robust finances. After O’Malley didn’t reply, parents appealed to the Vatican, this time underscoring the collection of Paycheck Protection Program money.
“It is very hard to reconcile the large sums of money raised by the archdiocese in recent years with this wholesale destruction of the church’s educational infrastructure,” parents wrote.
In December, the Vatican turned down their request to overrule O’Malley. Spokesman Donilon said the decision to close the school “is not being reconsidered.”
Today, the three children of Michael Waterman and his wife, Jeanine, are learning at home. And they still can’t understand why the archdiocese didn’t shift money to help save a school beloved by the faithful.
“What angers us,” Michael Waterman said, “is that we feel like, given the amount of money that the Catholic Church has, they absolutely could have remained open.”
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Now look what you’ve gone and done, Francis!
It fires gay workers, vilifies gay priests and alienates parishioners who can’t make any sense of this.
By Frank Bruni
Pat Fitzgerald, 67, has long loved being a Catholic, and the part he loved maybe most of all, for the past quarter-century, was his role as a spiritual mentor at retreats for students at a church-affiliated high school in Indianapolis, where he lives.
But he has been told that he’s not wanted anymore. His crime? He publicly supported his daughter, a guidance counselor at the school, after its administrators moved to get rid of her because she’s married to a woman.
The school’s treatment of Shelly Fitzgerald, 45, was a big local story last summer that went national; she ended up on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in September. It was one of many examples of Catholic institutions deciding almost whimsically to exile longtime employees — not priests or nuns but coaches, teachers, counselors — who had long been known to be gay but were suddenly regarded as liabilities.
Maybe they had quietly married their partners, formalizing those relationships and inadvertently drawing attention to themselves. Maybe some homophobic parent or congregant had belatedly learned about them and lodged a complaint. That’s what happened to Shelly Fitzgerald, and her 14 years of fine work at Roncalli High School no longer mattered. Only her 2015 marriage to her longtime partner did. She was told that she could stay on if she dissolved the union. She said no thanks and was kicked off school grounds in August.
The aftershocks still complicate the lives — and faith — of people around her: her students, their parents, her dad. On Facebook last month she posted a letter from him to the Roncalli community in which he explained that he’d just been disinvited from future retreats but thanked everyone for being such supportive friends over the years.
“Today my heart is broken,” he wrote, adding that the retreats he’d participated in — more than 40 in all — were “the most beautiful and holy settings I have ever witnessed.” He alluded only vaguely to his daughter’s case. “To people on both sides of this ongoing issue,” he wrote, “I hope you can find peace.”
But there’s no peace for the Catholic Church here. It’s too mired in its own hypocrisy. The tension between its official teaching and unofficial practice — between the ignorance of the past and the illumination of the present — grows tauter all the time.
Most Catholics support same-sex marriage, in defiance of the church’s formal position, and many parishes fully welcome L.G.B.T. people. Yet there are places, and times, when the hammer comes down.
Church leaders know full well that the priesthood would be decimated if closeted gay men were exposed and expelled. Yet the church as a matter of policy bars men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and considers gay people “objectively disordered.”
Catholics are supposed to show compassion. Yet Shelly and her dad were shown anything but.
She has been on administrative leave since August, and last month her lawyer, David Page, filed a charge of discrimination against the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It has up to 180 days to respond.
On Tuesday morning he showed me paperwork for a second charge of discrimination that he said he would be filing imminently; it cites what happened to her father as an unlawful act of retaliation meant to dissuade Shelly from pressing her case.
Pat Fitzgerald, uncomfortable with media attention, declined to speak with me, preferring to let his daughter do the talking. “His struggle comes from caring about Roncalli and being in conflict with what they’ve done to me,” Shelly told me. In October he attended a protest against the church’s treatment of L.G.B.T. people. His sign said, “Please treat my daughter Shelly kindly.”
There is, by many accounts, profound anger and hurt at Roncalli. As it happens, Shelly was one of two directors of counseling there; the other, Lynn Starkey, 62, is in a same-sex civil union and in November filed her own charge of discrimination with the E.E.O.C., claiming a “hostile work environment” in the aftermath of Shelly’s departure. For now she remains on the job.
Many students started an L.G.B.T. advocacy group, Shelly’s Voice, that also attracted parents and other adults in the community. A related Facebook page, Time to Be a Rebel, has more than 4,500 members.
But one parent told me that students who question Shelly’s dismissal fear repercussions. “Seniors are being told that if they speak out, they take the chance of not being able to graduate,” the parent, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, said.
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According to posts on the Facebook page, a small cluster of Roncalli students were invited last month to a lunch with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis, only to have him stress that homosexuality is a disorder and its expression sinful. One student called it an ambush.
For comment on all of this, I contacted the Roncalli principal, who referred me to a spokesman for the archdiocese. The spokesman sent me a statement that said that Pat Fitzgerald’s exclusion from student retreats reflected the “continuing attention surrounding his daughter’s suspension” and “his own participation in public protests over Catholic Church teaching.” He was still welcome at Masses, the statement said.
In regard to Shelly’s suspension, a past statement from the archdiocese reiterated what the Catholic Church has said in similar cases: Employees of Catholic schools are expected to live in compliance with church teaching. But is that legally enforceable?
Shelly’s E.E.O.C. complaint tests where federal civil rights law covers sexual orientation, a matter on which courts in different areas of the country have disagreed. Also, the Catholic Church has attempted to claim a “ministerial exception” from nondiscrimination laws that conflict with religious tenets, but there’s continued dispute about whether this applies to workers, like Shelly, who aren’t in the clergy.
Shelly pointed out that the Catholic Church isn’t generally going after teachers who flout its rules by using birth control or divorcing or having sexual relations outside marriage. “They’re going after L.G.B.T. people,” she said. “They’re going to die on this hill.”
And they’re going to hurt people — like Shawn Aldrich, who attended Roncalli, just as his parents and his wife and her parents did. He has two children there now. What has happened to Shelly astounds him.
“She was phenomenal at her job,” Aldrich told me. “So why are we dismissing her?” He knows what church leaders say about homosexuality but noted, “It’s our church, too.” Besides, he said, “All of us are made in God’s image.”
He and his wife plan to end their family tradition. They won’t send their third child, now in seventh grade, to Roncalli. “And that breaks our hearts,” he said. “That absolutely breaks our hearts.”
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Gay Catholic Priests Speak Out
The crisis over sexuality in the Catholic Church goes beyond abuse. It goes to the heart of the priesthood, into a closet that is trapping thousands of men.
Gregory Greiten was 17 years old when the priests organized the game. It was 1982 and he was on a retreat with his classmates from St. Lawrence, a Roman Catholic seminary for teenage boys training to become priests. Leaders asked each boy to rank which he would rather be: burned over 90 percent of his body, paraplegic, or gay.
Each chose to be scorched or paralyzed. Not one uttered the word “gay.” They called the game the Game of Life.
The lesson stuck. Seven years later, he climbed up into his seminary dorm window and dangled one leg over the edge. “I really am gay,” Father Greiten, now a priest near Milwaukee, remembered telling himself for the first time. “It was like a death sentence.”
The closet of the Roman Catholic Church hinges on an impossible contradiction. For years, church leaders have driven gay congregants away in shame and insisted that “homosexual tendencies” are “disordered.” And yet, thousands of the church’s priests are gay.
The stories of gay priests are unspoken, veiled from the outside world, known only to one another, if they are known at all.
Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men likely make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest is gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight, and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”
Two dozen gay priests and seminarians from 13 states shared intimate details of their lives in the Catholic closet with The New York Times over the past two months. They were interviewed in their churches before Mass, from art museums on the weekend, in their apartments decorated with rainbow neon lights, and between classes at seminary. Some agreed to be photographed if their identities were concealed.
Almost all of them required strict confidentiality to speak without fear of retribution from their bishops or superiors. A few had been expressly forbidden to come out or even to speak about homosexuality. Most are in active ministry, and could lose more than their jobs if they are outed. The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.
The environment for gay priests has grown only more dangerous. The fall of Theodore McCarrick, the once-powerful cardinal who was defrocked last week for sexual abuse of boys and young men, has inflamed accusations that homosexuality is to blame for the church’s resurgent abuse crisis.
Studies repeatedly find there to be no connection between being gay and abusing children. And yet prominent bishops have singled out gay priests as the root of the problem, and right-wing media organizations attack what they have called the church’s “homosexual subculture,” “lavender mafia,” or “gay cabal.”
Even Pope Francis has grown more critical in recent months. He has called homosexuality “fashionable,” recommended that men with “this deep-seated tendency” not be accepted for ministry, and admonished gay priests to be “perfectly responsible, trying to never create scandal.”
This week, Pope Francis will host a much-anticipated summit on sex abuse with bishops from around the world. The debate promises to be not only about holding bishops accountable but also about homosexuality itself.
“This is my life,” a parish priest in the Northeast said. “You feel like everyone is on a witch hunt now for things you have never done.”
Just a few years ago, this shift was almost unimaginable. When Pope Francis uttered his revolutionary question, “Who am I to judge?” in 2013, he tempted the closet door to swing open. A cautious few priests stepped through.
But if the closet door cracked, the sex abuse crisis now threatens to slam it shut. Widespread scapegoating has driven many priests deeper into the closet.
“The vast majority of gay priests are not safe,” said Father Bob Bussen, a priest in Park City, Utah, who was outed about 12 years ago after he held mass for the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
“Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,” he said. “It is not a closet. It is a cage.”
“You can be taught to act straight in order to survive.”
Even before a priest may know he is gay, he knows the closet. The code is taught early, often in seminary. Numquam duo, semper tres, the warning goes. Never two, always three. Move in trios, never as a couple. No going on walks alone together alone, no going to the movies in a pair. The higher-ups warned for years: Any male friendship is too dangerous, could slide into something sexual, and turn into what they called a “particular friendship.”
“You couldn’t have a particular friendship with a man, because you might end up being homosexual,” explained a priest, who once nicknamed his friends “the P.F.s.” “And you couldn’t have a friendship with a woman, because you might end up falling in love, and they were both against celibacy. With whom do you have a relationship that would be a healthy human relationship?”
Today, training for the priesthood in the United States usually starts in or after college. But until about 1980, the church often recruited boys to start in ninth grade — teenagers still in the throes of puberty. For many of today’s priests and bishops over 50, this environment limited healthy sexual development. Priests cannot marry, so sexuality from the start was about abstinence, and obedience.
The sexual revolution happening outside seminary walls might as well have happened on the moon, and national milestones in the fight for gay rights like the Stonewall riots, on Mars.
One priest in a rural diocese said the rules reminded him of how his elementary school forced left-handed students to write with their right hand. “You can be taught to act straight in order to survive,” he said.
“I can still remember seeing a seminarian come out of another’s room at 5 a.m. and thinking, isn’t it nice, they talked all night,” the same priest said. “I was so naïve.”
Priests in America tend to come out to themselves at a much later age than the national average for gay men, 15. Many gay priests spoke of being pulled between denial and confusion, finally coming out to themselves in their 30s or 40s.
Father Greiten was 24 when he realized he was gay and considered jumping from his dorm window. He did not jump, but confided his despair in a classmate. His friend came out himself. It was a revelation: There were other people studying to be priests who were gay. It was just that no one talked about it.
He reached out to a former seminary professor who he thought might also be a gay man.
“There will be a time in your life when you will look back on this and you’re going to just love yourself for being gay,” Father Greiten remembered this man telling him. “I thought, ‘This man must be totally insane.’”
But he had discovered the strange irony of the Catholic closet — it isn’t secret at all.
“It’s kind of like an open closet,” Father Greiten said. “It’s the making of it public, and speaking about it, where it becomes an issue.”
One priest, whose parish has no idea he is gay, remembered a backyard cocktail party a few years ago where fellow priests were saying “vile” things about a gay bishop. He intervened, and came out to them. He lost three friends that night. “I broke the code by announcing to them that I was gay,” he said. “It was a conspiracy of silence.”
That is a reason many of the men are out to only a few close friends. The grapevine has taught them which priests in their diocese are gay, whom to trust, and whom to fear.
All priests must wrestle with their vows of celibacy, and the few priests who are publicly out make clear they are chaste.
Still, many priests said they have had sex with other men to explore their sexual identity. Some have watched pornography to see what it was like for two men to have sex. They ultimately found more anguish than pleasure.
One priest had sex for the first time at 62, no strings attached, with a man he met online. The relationship was discovered and reported to his bishop, and he has not had sex since. Another priest, when asked if he had ever considered himself as having a partner, wondered what that even meant. He paused, before mentioning one very special friend. “I fell in love several times with men,” he said. “I knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to last.”
Though open, the closet means that many priests have held the most painful stories among themselves for decades: The seminarian who died by suicide, and the matches from a gay bar found afterward in his room. The priest friends who died of AIDS. The feeling of coming home to an empty rectory every night.
So they find ways to encourage one other. They share books like Father James Martin’s groundbreaking “Building a Bridge,” on the relationship between the Catholic and L.G.B.T. communities. Some have signed petitions against church-sponsored conversion therapy programs, or have met on private retreats, after figuring out how to conceal them on their church calendars. Occasionally, a priest may even take off his collar and offer to unofficially bless a gay couple’s marriage.
Some may call this rebellion. But “it is not a cabal,” one priest said. “It is a support group.”
Just over a year ago, after meeting with a group of gay priests, Father Greiten decided it was time to end his silence. At Sunday Mass, during Advent, he told his suburban parish he was gay, and celibate. They leapt to their feet in applause.
His story went viral. A 90-year-old priest called him to say he had lived his entire life in the closet and longed for the future to be different. A woman wrote from Mississippi, asking him to move south to be her priest.
To some church leaders, that outpouring of support may have been even more threatening than his sexuality. Father Greiten had committed the cardinal sin: He opened the door to debate. His archbishop, Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, issued a statement saying that he wished Father Greiten had not gone public. Letters poured in calling him “satanic,” “gay filth,” and a “monster” who sodomized children.
“We have to get it right when it comes to sexuality.”
The idea that gay priests are responsible for child sexual abuse remains a persistent belief, especially in many conservative Catholic circles. For years, church leaders have been deeply confused about the relationship between gay men and sexual abuse. With every new abuse revelation, the tangled threads of the church’s sexual culture become even more impossible to sort out.
Study after study shows that homosexuality is not a predictor of child molestation. This is also true for priests, according to a famous studyby John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the wake of revelations in 2002 about child sex abuse in the church. The John Jay research, which church leaders commissioned, found that same-sex experience did not make priests more likely to abuse minors, and that four out of five people who said they were victims were male. Researchers found no single cause for this abuse, but identified that abusive priests’ extensive access to boys had been critical to their choice of victims.
The notion that a certain sexual identity leads to abusive behavior has demoralized gay priests for decades. Days after one man retired, he still could not shake what his archbishop in the 1970s told all the new priests headed to their first parish assignments. “He said, ‘I don’t ever want you to call me to report about your pastor, unless he is a homo or an alchie,’” he said, referring to an alcoholic. “He didn’t even know what he meant when he said homo, because we were all homos. He meant a predator, like serial predator.”
This perception persists today at prominent Catholic seminaries. At the largest in the United States, Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, few ever talk about sexual identity, said one gay student, who is afraid to ever come out. Since last summer, when Mr. McCarrick was exposed for abusing young men, students have been drilled in rules about celibacy and the evils of masturbation and pornography.
“Classmates will say, ‘Don’t admit gays,’” said the student. “Their attitude is that it is gay priests who inflict abuse on younger guys.”
Priests across the country are wondering if their sacrifice is worth the personal cost. “Am I going to leave the priesthood because I’m sick of that accusation?” asked Father Michael Shanahan, a Chicago priest who came out publicly three years ago. “Become more distant from parishioners? Am I going to hide? Become hardened, and old?”
Blaming sexual abuse on gay men is almost sure to be a major topic this week at the Vatican, at a much-anticipated four-day summit on sexual abuse. Pope Francis has called the world’s most powerful bishops to Rome to educate them on the problems of abuse, after high-profile abuses cases in the United States, Australia, Chile and elsewhere.
The event has worried gay priests. A few years after the 2002 scandal, the Vatican banned gay men from seminaries and ordination. When the abuse crisis broke out again last summer, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused “homosexual networks” of American cardinals of secretly working to protect abusers. And this week, a sensational book titled “Sodoma” in Europe (“In the Closet of the Vatican” in the United States) is being released that claims to expose a vast gay subculture at the Vatican.
A group of gay priests in the Netherlands recently took the unusually bold step of writing to Pope Francis, urging him to allow gay, celibate men to be ordained.
“Instead of seeing increased accountability on the parts of the bishops, it could become once again a condemnation of lesbian, gay, transsexual people within the church,” said John Coe, 63, a permanent deacon in Kentucky, who came out last year.
Sitting in his parish’s small counseling room, Father Greiten reflected on it all. He wished he could talk to Pope Francis himself. “Listen to my story of how the church traumatized me for being a gay man,” he asked, into the air.
“It’s not just about the sexual abuse crisis,” he said, his voice growing urgent. “They are sexually traumatizing and wounding yet another generation. We have to stand up and say no more sexual abuse, no more sexual traumatizing, no more sexual wounding. We have to get it right when it comes to sexuality.”
For now, Father Greiten was getting ready for his 15th trip to Honduras with doctors and medical supplies. A shadow box hung on the wall behind him. It displayed a scrap of purple knitting, needle still stuck in the top. He calls it “The Unfinished Gift.”
“What if every priest was truly allowed to live their life freely, openly, honestly?” he asked. “That’s my dream.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
Pope Francis started the new year criticizing some Catholic bishops for their role in the church’s sexual abuse crisis. In a letter to bishops gathered at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a spiritual retreat, the pope said that the “disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim” had greatly undermined the Catholic Church. This followed the pope’s earlier remarks asking clergy guilty of sexual assault to turn themselves over to law enforcement.
Stories of clergy sex abuse have continued to increase. Among the more recent revelations, a Catholic diocese recently released the names of Jesuit priests who face “credible or established” accusations of abuse of minors. Church members learned that many priests accused of sexual abuse on Indian reservations were retired on the Gonzaga University campus in Spokane. And another external investigation has revealed that the Catholic Church failed to disclose abuse accusations against 500 priests and clergy.
Church attendance has been on the decline for some time, with the steepest fall of an average 45 percent, between 2005 to 2008. And with these latest scandals, as a theologian recently wrote, the Catholic Church is in the midst of its “biggest crisis since the Reformation.”
But what many do not realize is that staying in the church does not mean agreeing with its policies. In the past, Catholics have challenged the church through multiple forms of resistance – at times discreet and at other times quite dramatic.
I had already begun my training as a scholar of religion and society when I learned that the priest from whom I took my first communion was a known predator in the Boston Archdiocese. I have since then researched and written about the Catholic clergy abuse cover-up.
Back in the 1960s, some radical American Catholics were at the forefront of challenging U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. Perhaps the most famous among them were the Berrigan brothers. Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the older brother, was an American Jesuit priest, who, along with with other religious leaders, expressed public concern over the war.
In New York, Daniel Berrigan joined hands with a group called the Catholic Workers, in order to build a “decent non-violent society” – what they called “a society of conscience.” Among their protests was a public burning of draft cards in Union Square in 1965.
Months earlier, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation that made mutilation of draft registration a felony. A powerful commentary by the editors of the Catholic “Commonweal” magazine described the event as a “liturgical ceremony” backed by a willingness to risk five years of freedom.
But some in the Catholic leadership were concerned that Daniel Berrigan’s peace activism was going too far. Soon after another Catholic protester set himself on fire in front of the United Nations in an act of protest, Berrigan disappeared from New York. He’d been sent to Latin America on an “assignment” by his superiors.
The word among Catholics was that Cardinal Francis Spellman had Berrigan expelled from the U.S. The accuracy of the decision is selectively disputed. However, the narrative had great power. The public outcry among Catholics was immense. University students took to the streets.
The New York Times carried a vehement objection that was signed by more than a thousand Catholic practitioners and theological leaders. The repression of free speech, they said, was “intolerable in the Roman Catholic Church.”
Catholic symbols of protest
In May 1967, Berrigan returned to the United States, only to renew his protest against the draft. Joined by his brother Philip, they broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured vials of their own blood on paper records.
In pouring vials of their own blood on draft records, they were extending the use of Christ’s blood of sacrifice, to promote peace, as part of Catholic teachings.
The next year they joined by seven other Catholic protesters in a protest action in Catonsville, Maryland. The group used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of a draft board. Daniel Berrigan was put on the FBI’s most wanted list. Both brothers later served time in federal prisons.
After the Vietnam war, their protests continued under a group called Plowshares. The name came from the commandment in the book of Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares.” The Berrigan brothers put their energy into anti-nuclear protests around the country. At a nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, they hammered on nuclear warheads and once again poured their own blood upon them, bridging Catholic symbols with religious protest.
Church leadership, they said, was too cozy with a heavily militarized America.
Protests inside the church
Around the same time, another group of Roman Catholics was challenging the leadership of the church using different tactics. In 1969, a group of Chicano Catholic student activists that called itself Católicos Por La Raza, objected to the money that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was spending on building a new cathedral called St. Basil’s. They believed that money could be better spent on improving the social and economic conditions of Catholic Mexican-Americans.
Católicos Por La Raza posed a list of demands for the Catholic Church that included the use of church facilities for community work, providing housing and educational assistance, and developing health care programs.
On Christmas Eve, 300 people marched to protest at St. Basil’s. Outside, they chanted “Que viva la raza” and “Catholics for the people.” Some members also planned to bring the protest across the threshold of the cathedral and into the Christmas Eve Mass.
The church locked its front doors. The marchers were met at side doors by undercover county sheriffs.
Later, the protesters publicly burned their baptismal certificates. Catholic teaching maintains that, once baptized, Catholic identity cannot be divested. By burning these symbols of Roman Catholic belonging, members of Católicos Por La Raza were making a powerful statement of their renunciation of the religion that they perceived could not be reformed.
Back in New York, a generation later, Catholics also organized confrontations with Church leadership. At the height of the AIDS crisis, in 1989, the American Catholic Bishops drafted an explicit condemnation of the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus. “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles,” said Cardinal John O’Connor. “These are lies … good morality is good medicine.”
In response, AIDS activists organized an action called “Stop the Church” to protest against the “murderous AIDS policy” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Thousands of people gathered to protest. Outside, activists distributed condoms and safer-sex information to passers-by. Inside, some protesters staged a die-in.
And this does not even get into waves of protests over women’s ordination since 1976.
In all these protests, Roman Catholics were demanding that powerful members of the hierarchy acknowledge their demands for the ethics of the church.
Bringing change in the church
Similar resistance continued in 2002, when the Boston Globe Spotlight investigation team exposed the systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, under Cardinal Bernard Law.
On Sundays Catholics came out to protest in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where the cardinal said Mass. They shouted and held up signs calling for his resignation. Other Catholics were creating pressure to have the cardinal removed by cutting off lay financial support for the Archdiocese.
They encouraged continuing giving to the poor or to the local parish. But until the cardinal was held accountable, those in the pews were encouraged to abstain from institutional giving. Before the next New Year, enough financial and legal pressure forced Cardinal Law to be removed from the Archdiocese.
February 2019 will bring a crucial meeting between the pope and the cardinals. Catholics today could well ask what is their way of showing resistance. After all, there is a rich Catholic heritage that shows that members of the church who put their bodies on the line can make a difference.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
On August 25 Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published an eleven-page letter in which he accused Pope Francis of ignoring and covering up evidence of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and called for his resignation. It was a declaration of civil war by the church’s conservative wing. Viganò is a former apostolic nuncio to the US, a prominent member of the Roman Curia—the central governing body of the Holy See—and one of the most skilled practitioners of brass-knuckle Vatican power politics. He was the central figure in the 2012 scandal that involved documents leaked by Pope Benedict XVI’s personal butler, including letters Viganò wrote about corruption in Vatican finances, and that contributed to Benedict’s startling decision to abdicate the following year. Angry at not having been made a cardinal and alarmed by Francis’s supposedly liberal tendencies, Viganò seems determined to take out the pope.
As a result of Viganò’s latest accusations and the release eleven days earlier of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that outlines in excruciating detail decades of sexual abuse of children by priests, as well as further revelations of sexual misconduct by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Francis’s papacy is now in a deep, possibly fatal crisis. After two weeks of silence, Francis announced in mid-September that he would convene a large-scale gathering of the church’s bishops in February to discuss the protection of minors against sexual abuse by priests.
The case of Cardinal McCarrick, which figures heavily in Viganò’s letter, is emblematic of the church’s failure to act on the problem of sexual abuse—and of the tendentiousness of the letter itself. In the 1980s stories began to circulate that McCarrick had invited young seminarians to his beach house and asked them to share his bed. Despite explicit allegations that were relayed to Rome, in 2000 Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Washington, D.C., and made him a cardinal. Viganò speculates that the pope was too ill to know about the allegations, but does not mention that the appointment came five years before John Paul’s death. He also praises Benedict XVI for finally taking action against McCarrick by sentencing him to a life of retirement and penance, and then accuses Francis of revoking the punishment and relying on McCarrick for advice on important church appointments. If Benedict did in fact punish McCarrick, it was a very well kept secret, because he continued to appear at major church events and celebrate mass; he was even photographed with Viganò at a church celebration.
Viganò’s partial account of the way the church handled the allegations about McCarrick is meant to absolve Pope Francis’s predecessors, whose conservative ideology he shares. Viganò lays the principal blame for failing to punish McCarrick on Francis, who does appear to have mishandled the situation—one he largely inherited. He may have decided to ignore the allegations because, while deplorable, they dated back thirty years and involved seminarians, who were adults, not minors. Last June, however, a church commission found credible evidence that McCarrick had behaved inappropriately with a sixteen-year-old altar boy in the early 1970s, and removed him from public ministry; a month later Francis ordered him to observe “a life of prayer and penance in seclusion,” and he resigned from the College of Cardinals. On October 7, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, issued a public letter offering a vigorous defense of Francis and a direct public rebuke of his accuser:
Francis had nothing to do with McCarrick’s promotions to New York, Metuchen, Newark and Washington. He stripped him of his Cardinal’s dignity as soon as there was a credible accusation of abuse of a minor….
Dear Viganò, in response to your unjust and unjustified attack, I can only conclude that the accusation is a political plot that lacks any real basis that could incriminate the Pope and that profoundly harms the communion of the Church.
The greatest responsibility for the problem of sexual abuse in the church clearly lies with Pope John Paul II, who turned a blind eye to it for more than twenty years. From the mid-1980s to 2004, the church spent $2.6 billion settling lawsuits in the US, mostly paying victims to remain silent. Cases in Ireland, Australia, England, Canada, and Mexico followed the same depressing pattern: victims were ignored or bullied, even as offending priests were quietly transferred to new parishes, where they often abused again. “John Paul knew the score: he protected the guilty priests and he protected the bishops who covered for them, he protected the institution from scandal,” I was told in a telephone interview by Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who was tasked by the papal nuncio to the US with investigating abuse by priests while working at the Vatican embassy in Washington in the mid-1980s, when the first lawsuits began to be filed.
Benedict was somewhat more energetic in dealing with the problem, but his papacy began after a cascade of reporting had appeared on priestly abuse, beginning with an investigation published by the Boston Globe in 2002 (the basis for Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film of 2015). The church was faced with mass defections and the collapse of donations from angry parishioners, which forced Benedict to confront the issue directly.
Francis’s election inspired great hopes for reform. But those who expected him to make a clean break with this history of equivocation and half-measures have been disappointed. He hesitated, for example, to meet with victims of sexual abuse during his visit to Chile in January 2018 and then insulted them by insisting that their claims that the local bishop had covered up the crimes of a notorious abuser were “calumny.” In early October, he expelled from the priesthood two retired Chilean bishops who had been accused of abuse. But when he accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl—who according to the Pennsylvania grand jury report repeatedly mishandled accusations of abuse when he was bishop of Pittsburgh—he praised Wuerl for his “nobility.” Francis seems to take one step forward and then one step backward.
Viganò is correct in writing that one of Francis’s closest advisers, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, disregarded a grave case of abuse occurring right under his nose in Honduras. One of Maradiaga’s associates, Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle of Tegucigalpa, was accused of abusing students at the seminary he helped to run. Last June, forty-eight of the 180 seminarians signed a letter denouncing the situation there. “We are living and experiencing a time of tension in our house because of gravely immoral situations, above all of an active homosexuality inside the seminary that has been a taboo all this time,” the seminarians wrote. Maradiaga initially denounced the writers as “gossipers,” but Pineda was forced to resign a month later.
“I feel badly for Francis because he doesn’t know whom to trust,” Father Doyle said. Almost everyone in a senior position in the Catholic Church bears some guilt for covering up abuse, looking the other way, or resisting transparency. The John Jay Report (2004) on sexual abuse of minors by priests, commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated that the number of cases increased during the 1950s and 1960s, was highest in the 1970s, peaking in 1980, and has gradually diminished since then. Francis may have hoped that the problem would go away and feared that a true housecleaning would leave him with no allies in the Curia.
Much of the press coverage of the scandal has been of the Watergate variety: what the pope knows, when he found out, and so forth. This ignores a much bigger issue that no one in the church wants to talk about: the sexuality of priests and the failure of priestly celibacy.
Viganò blames the moral crisis of the papacy on the growing “homosexual current” within the church. There is indeed a substantial minority of gay priests. The Reverend Donald B. Cozzens, a Catholic priest and longtime rector of a seminary in Ohio, wrote in his book The Changing Face of the Priesthood (2000) that “the priesthood is, or is becoming, a gay profession.” There have been no large surveys, using scientific methods of random sampling, of the sexual life of Catholic priests. Many people—a priest in South Africa, a journalist in Spain, and others—have done partial studies that would not pass scientific muster. The late Dr. Richard Sipe, a former priest turned psychologist, interviewed 1,500 priests for an ethnographic study.
There is some self-selection by priests who agree to answer questions or fill out questionnaires or seek treatment, which is why the estimates on, say, gay priests vary so widely. But the studies are consistent in showing high percentages of sexually active priests and of gay priests. As Thomas Doyle wrote in 2004, “Knowledgeable observers, including authorities within the Church, estimate that 40–50 percent of all Catholic priests have a homosexual orientation, and that half of these are sexually active.” Sipe came to the conclusion that “50 percent of American clergy were sexually active…and between 20 and 30 percent have a homosexual orientation and yet maintained their celibacy in an equal proportion with heterosexually oriented clergy.”
In his letter Viganò repeats the finding in the John Jay Report that 81 percent of the sexual abuse cases involve men abusing boys. But he ignores its finding that those who actually identify as homosexual are unlikely to engage in abuse and are more likely to seek out adult partners. Priests who abuse boys are often confused about their sexuality; they frequently have a negative view of homosexuality, yet are troubled by their own homoerotic urges.
Viganò approvingly cites Sipe’s work four times. But he ignores Sipe’s larger argument, made on his website in 2005, that “the practice of celibacy is the basic problem for bishops and priests.” Sipe also wrote, “The Vatican focus on homosexual orientation is a smoke screen to cover the pervasive and greater danger of exposing the sexual behavior of clerics generally. Gay priests and bishops practice celibacy (or fail at it) in the same proportions as straight priests and bishops do.” He denounced McCarrick’s misconduct on numerous occasions.
While the number of priests abusing children—boys or girls under the age of sixteen—is comparatively small, many priests have secret sex lives (both homosexual and heterosexual), which does not leave them in the strongest position to discipline those who abuse younger victims. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, for example, the beloved liberal archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, belittled victims who complained of sexual abuse by priests and then quietly transferred predatory priests to other parishes, where they continued their abusive behavior. It was revealed in 2002 that the Milwaukee archdiocese had paid $450,000 in hush money to an adult man with whom Weakland had had a longtime secret sexual relationship, which might have made him more reluctant to act against priests who abused children. But this could be true of heterosexual as well as homosexual priests who are sexually active.
Viganò believes that the church’s moral crisis derives uniquely from its abandonment of clear, unequivocal, strict teaching on moral matters, and from overly permissive attitudes toward homosexuality in particular. He does not want to consider the ways in which its traditional teaching on sexuality—emphasized incessantly by recent popes—has contributed to the present crisis. The modern church has boxed itself into a terrible predicament. Until about half a century ago, it was able to maintain an attitude of wise hypocrisy, accepting that priests were often sexually active but pretending that they weren’t. The randy priests and monks (and nuns) in Chaucer and Boccaccio were not simply literary tropes; they reflected a simple reality: priests often found it impossible to live the celibate life. Many priests had a female “housekeeper” who relieved their loneliness and doubled as life companions. Priests frequently had affairs with their female parishioners and fathered illegitimate children. The power and prestige of the church helped to keep this sort of thing a matter of local gossip rather than international scandal.
When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, bishops from many parts of the world hoped that the church would finally change its doctrine and allow priests to marry. But John XXIII died before the council finished its work, which was then overseen by his successor, Paul VI (one of the popes most strongly rumored to have been gay). Paul apparently felt that the sweeping reforms of Vatican II risked going too far, so he rejected the pleas for priestly marriage and issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception, overriding a commission he had convened that concluded that family planning and contraception were not inconsistent with Catholic doctrine.
Opposing priestly marriage and contraception placed the church on the conservative side of the sexual revolution and made adherence to strict sexual norms a litmus test for being a good Catholic, at a time when customs were moving rapidly in the other direction. Only sex between a man and a woman meant for procreation and within the institution of holy matrimony was allowed. That a man and a woman might have sex merely for pleasure was seen as selfish and sinful. Some 125,000 priests, according to Richard Sipe, left the priesthood after Paul VI closed the door on the possibility of priestly marriage. Many, like Sipe, were straight men who left to marry. Priestly vocations plummeted.
Conversely, the proportion of gay priests increased, since it was far easier to hide one’s sex life in an all-male community with a strong culture of secrecy and aversion to scandal. Many devout young Catholic men also entered the priesthood in order to try to escape their unconfessable urges, hoping that a vow of celibacy would help them suppress their homosexual leanings. But they often found themselves in seminaries full of sexual activity. Father Doyle estimates that approximately 10 percent of Catholic seminarians were abused (that is, drawn into nonconsensual sexual relationships) by priests, administrators, or other seminarians.
This problem is nothing new. Homosocial environments—prisons, single-sex schools, armies and navies, convents and monasteries—have always been places of homosexual activity. “Man is a loving animal,” in Sipe’s words. The Benedictines, one of the first monastic orders, created elaborate rules to minimize homosexual activity, insisting that monks sharing a room sleep fully clothed and with the lights on.
The modern Catholic Church has failed to grasp what its founders understood quite well. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” Saint Paul wrote when his followers asked him whether “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.” Priestly celibacy was not firmly established until the twelfth century, after which many priests had secret wives or lived in what the church termed “concubinage.”
The obsession with enforcing unenforceable standards of sexual continence that run contrary to human nature (according to one study, 95 percent of priests report that they masturbate) has led to an extremely unhealthy atmosphere within the modern church that contributed greatly to the sexual abuse crisis. A 1971 Loyola Study, which was also commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, concluded that a large majority of American priests were psychologically immature, underdeveloped, or maldeveloped. It also found that a solid majority of priests—including those ordained in the 1940s, well before the sexual revolution—described themselves as very or somewhat sexually active.
Sipe, during his decades of work treating priests as a psychotherapist, also concluded that the lack of education about sexuality and the nature of celibate life tended to make priests immature, often more comfortable around teenagers than around other adults. All this, along with a homosocial environment and the church’s culture of secrecy, has made seminaries a breeding ground for sexual abuse.
There are possible ways out of this dilemma for Francis. He could allow priests to marry, declare homosexuality to be not sinful, or even move to reform the patriarchal nature of the church—and to address the collapse in the number of nuns, which has decreased by 30 percent since the 1960s even though the number of the world’s Catholics has nearly doubled in that time—by allowing the ordination of women. But any of those actions would spark a revolt by conservatives in the church who already regard Francis with deep suspicion, if not downright aversion. John Paul II did his best to tie the hands of his successors by declaring the prohibition of female priests to be an “infallible” papal doctrine, and Francis has acknowledged that debate on the issue was “closed.” Even Francis’s rather gentle efforts to raise the possibility of allowing divorced Catholics who have remarried to receive the host at Mass was met with such strong criticism that he dropped the subject.
The sociology of religion offers some valuable insights into the church’s problems. One of the landmark texts in this field is the 1994 essay “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” by the economist Laurence Iannaccone, who used rational choice theory to show that people tend to value religious denominations that make severe demands on them. The Mormon Church, for example, requires believers to give it a tenth of their income and a substantial amount of their time, abstain from the use of tobacco and alcohol, and practice other austerities. These costly demands create a powerful sense of solidarity. The commitment of time and money means that the church can undertake ambitious projects and take care of those in need, while the distinctive way of life serves to bind members to one another and set them apart from the rest of the world. The price of entry to a strict church is high, but the barrier to exit is even higher: ostracism and the loss of community.
Since the French Revolution and the spread of liberal democracy in the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church has been torn between the urge to adapt to a changing world and the impulse to resist it at all cost. Pope Pius IX, at whose urging the First Vatican Council in 1870 adopted the doctrine of papal infallibility, published in 1864 his “Syllabus of Errors,” which roundly condemned modernity, freedom of the press, and the separation of church and state. Significantly, its final sentence denounced the mistaken belief that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Since then the church has been in the difficult position of maintaining this intransigent position—that it stands for a set of unchanging, eternal beliefs—while still in some ways adapting to the times.
John XXIII, who became pope in 1958, saw a profound need for what he called aggiornamento—updating—precisely the kind of reconciling of the church to a changing world that Pius IX considered anathema. John XXIII was one of the high-ranking church leaders who regarded the Nazi genocide of the Jews as a moral crossroads in history. An important part of his reforms at Vatican II was to remove all references to the Jews as a “deicide” people and to adopt an ecumenical spirit that deems other faiths worthy of respect. After Vatican II, the church made optional much of the traditional window-dressing of Catholicism—the Latin Mass, the elaborate habits of nuns, the traditional prohibition against meat on Friday—but John died before the council took up more controversial issues of doctrine. With Vatican II, Iannaccone argued,
the Catholic church may have managed to arrive at a remarkable, “worst of both worlds” position—discarding cherished distinctiveness in the areas of liturgy, theology, and lifestyle, while at the same time maintaining the very demands that its members and clergy are least willing to accept.
Church conservatives are not wrong to worry that eliminating distinctive Catholic teachings may weaken the church’s appeal and authority. Moderate mainstream Protestant denominations have been steadily losing adherents for decades. At the same time, some forms of strictness can be too costly. The prohibitions against priestly marriage and the ordination of women are clearly factors in the decline of priestly vocations, and the even more dramatic decline in the number of nuns.
Both radical change and the failure to change are fraught with danger, making Francis’s path an almost impossible one. He is under great pressure from victims who are demanding that the church conduct an exhaustive investigation into the responsibility of monsignors, bishops, and cardinals who knew of abusing priests but did nothing—something he is likely to resist. Such an accounting might force many of the church’s leaders into retirement and paralyze it for years to come—but his failure to act could paralyze it as well. As for the larger challenges facing the church, Francis’s best option might be to make changes within the narrow limits constraining him, such as expanding the participation of the laity in church deliberations and allowing women to become deacons. But that may be too little, too late.
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With the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reaching a critical mass, Pope Francis has issued an unprecedented call to the world’s top bishops to meet with him in Rome, next February, to discuss “the protection of minors.” But the pressing question for leaders of the Catholic Church no longer concerns abusive priests or complicit bishops, because the Church has forfeited the credibility necessary for such investigations, and has been replaced by civil authorities, such as the state attorneys general—six, as of last week—who are following Pennsylvania’s lead into this morass.
The question for the Church now, given the astounding scale of the dysfunction, arching from the Americas to Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and Australia, is: What in Catholic culture caused this debauchery? The proximate cause concerns essential mistakes of moral theology, including the stigmatizing of normal erotic longing and the sanctifying of prejudice against women and homosexuals. Those errors have roots in the ancient Church, when fundamental options in favor of male power and against sex for pleasure and love were made.
But the immediate cause of the crisis is more recent. The Second Vatican Council, which met in the course of three years, beginning in October of 1962, began as an attempt to redress the old problems. The Council fathers seriously undertook to empower the laity, replace the negative attitudes toward sex that underwrote a deep-seated Catholic neurosis, reform the doom-laden moral theology, democratize the form of the Mass, and transform the self-protecting clerical culture. The pushback began even before the Council adjourned, especially once Pope John XXIII died, in 1963. It is likely that Church disciplines on contraception and priestly celibacy would have begun to change were it not for the panicked intervention of the new Pope, Paul VI, in the Council’s procedures.
After the Council ended, in December of 1965, a full rollback of the reforming impulse was quickly launched. The laity were never meaningfully empowered. The clerical culture was protected. The natural pluralism of theological inquiry was stifled. Women were kept in their place. Perhaps most symbolically, in 1968, Pope Paul condemned the use of birth control among Catholics. The centralized authority of the papacy became stronger than ever. The avatars of this conservative reaction were John Paul II and his enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, but the agents of backlash, shaping Catholic attitudes for the past generation, have been the very bishops whom Pope Francis has now summoned to Rome. Even the so-called liberals in the hierarchy would not have been promoted if they had not readily accommodated Ratzinger’s squelching of reform.
One wishes that, in this critical hour, the Church could turn to a cohort of independent-minded Catholic lay people, women and men alike, who have experience in Church administration at the senior-most levels, but there is no such cohort. A devoted legion of volunteers serve the Church, but they exercise no meaningful authority. If the promise of the Vatican Council had been even minimally fulfilled, this would not be the case. Abusive priests would not have been blithely set loose, and the enabling bishops would not have been able to absolve them—or themselves.
It is deeply ironic that the dilemma facing Pope Francis, while caused in part by his own clerical myopia, is made exponentially more pressing by his conservative opponents’ weaponizing of Church confusion about homosexuality. They are doing this precisely to eliminate, once and for all, what little remains of the reform impulse that began at Vatican II. The alarm signal of danger that Francis posed for conservatives was his early refusal to condemn homosexuals. That a bishop like Theodore McCarrick is credibly alleged to be a homosexual harasser—he is accused of, among other things, using his power to prey upon vulnerable seminarians, a charge that he has denied—has given the Pope’s critics the opening that they need. This is in addition to the fact that leading figures among the disgraced have been supportive of Francis, including McCarrick and Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, who will be tried for “historical sexual assault offenses,” to which he has pleaded not guilty; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., who last week announced that he will ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation following accusations that, when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, he was involved in the coverup of the abuse in Pennsylvania. With this lethal brew being stirred by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has called on Francis himself to resign, the charges are flying, and homosexuals as a group are being scapegoated. Among conservatives, to have tolerated gay priests is now being equated with having tolerated sexual harassment and, in some cases, the rape of children. But even this murkiness is a mark of an incoherent Catholic morality about all kinds of sexual expression.
It once seemed certain that Pope Francis, grounded in the spirit of Vatican II and possessing an ample trove of common sense, was equipped to lead the Catholic Church in its recovery from this disaster. Two things have dimmed that prospect. The first is Francis himself. He is woefully in the grip of male-dominated, celibate clericalism, even though he criticizes it. He still puts his trust in gestures of good will and in bromides of shame, as he did last month, on his trip to Ireland, instead of launching the massive institutional reform that the crisis demands. He seems to think that a meeting of bishops is a solution when, as a class, they are themselves the problem. And, apparently, he regards next February as a timely response to a bankruptcy that has already been declared.
The second factor is the recent accumulation of new evidence showing that the depth of Church corruption wildly surpasses any previous estimate. Every week brings a new bolt of accusation. Last week, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, of West Virginia, amid allegations that he had sexually harassed adults (he has denied allegations against him), and the news that a report to be issued by the Church this week will reveal that more than three thousand minors were abused by more than a thousand priests in Germany. On Saturday, a Dutch newspaper investigation found that, between 1945 and 2010, more than half of the bishops and cardinals of the Netherlands had protected priest abusers instead of victims.
This cascade of accusation, revelation, and indictment will keep flowing. That Pope Francis responds with a business-as-usual meeting of bishops next winter shows how far he is from grasping the stakes of this crisis. His enemies exploit it, while Catholics and non-Catholics alike recognize the utter collapse of Church morality.
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By Idan Dershowitz
No text has had a greater influence on attitudes toward gay people than the biblical book of Leviticus, which prohibits sex between men. Before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex — whether between men or women — were practically unheard-of in the ancient world.
Chapter 18 of Leviticus contains a list of forbidden incestuous acts, followed by prohibitions against sex with a menstruating woman, bestiality and various other sexual acts. In Verse 22, we find its most famous injunction: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 20:13 repeats this law, along with a punishment for those who violate it: “They shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”)
Like many ancient texts, Leviticus was created gradually over a long period and includes the words of more than one writer. Many scholars believe that the section in which Leviticus 18 appears was added by a comparatively late editor, perhaps one who worked more than a century after the oldest material in the book was composed. An earlier edition of Leviticus, then, may have been silent on the matter of sex between men.
But I think a stronger claim is warranted. As I argue in an articlepublished in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.
The chapter’s original character, however, can be uncovered with a little detective work.
The core of Leviticus 18 is the list of incest laws, each of which includes the memorable phrase “uncover nakedness.” This is typically understood as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, so “you shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister” would mean something like “do not have sex with your father’s sister.”
Most of the incest laws are presented in a straightforward manner, but two are not. The first exception is: “The nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness” (emphasis mine). At first, this verse appears to outlaw sex between a man and either of his parents. However, the italicized explanation, or gloss, suggests that the law actually addresses only one parent: the mother. It is difficult to reconcile the two parts of this sentence.
The same thing happens again a few verses later: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother.” Simple enough, right? The following gloss, however, may give you whiplash: “you shall not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” By the time we’ve finished reading the gloss, a prohibition against intercourse between a man and his paternal uncle has transformed into a law about sex between a man and that uncle’s wife.
Each verse in Leviticus 18’s series of incest laws contains a similar gloss, but the others are merely emphatic, driving home the point. (For example, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness.”) Only in these two cases — the father and mother, and the father’s brother — do the glosses alter our understanding of what is prohibited. A law prohibiting sex with one’s father fades away, and a law against sex with one’s uncle is reinterpreted as a ban on sex with one’s aunt.
What we have here is strong evidence of editorial intervention.
It is worth noting that these new glosses render the idiom “uncover nakedness” incoherent. The phrase can no longer denote sex if uncovering the nakedness of one’s father is an act that also involves one’s mother — as the gloss implies.
But more strikingly, the two exceptional verses are the only ones that address incest between men — all the others involve women. Once the new glosses were added to the text, the prohibitions in Leviticus against incest no longer outlawed any same-sex couplings; only heterosexual pairs were forbidden.
If a later editor of Leviticus opposed homosexual intercourse, you might wonder, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him (and it was probably a him) to leave the original bans on homosexual incest intact?
No. The key to understanding this editorial decision is the concept of “the exception proves the rule.” According to this principle, the presence of an exception indicates the existence of a broader rule. For example, a sign declaring an office to be closed on Sundays suggests that the office is open on all other days of the week.
Now, apply this principle to Leviticus 18: A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.
A lawmaker is unlikely to specify that murdering one’s father is against the law if there is already a blanket injunction against murder. By the same token, it’s not necessary to stipulate that sex between two specific men is forbidden if a categorical prohibition against sex between men is already on the books.
It seems that with the later introduction in Leviticus of a law banning all male homosexual intercourse, it became expedient to bring the earlier material up-to-date by doing away with two now-superfluous injunctions against homosexual incest — injunctions that made sense when sex between men was otherwise allowed.
This editor’s decision to neutralize old laws by writing new glosses, instead of deleting the laws altogether, is serendipitous: He left behind just enough clues for his handiwork to be perceptible.
One can only imagine how different the history of civilization might have been had the earlier version of Leviticus 18’s laws entered the biblical canon.
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Writer Phillip McMahon and director Rachel O’Riordan on making a play inspired by a hidden community of gay priests
Almost 20 years ago, the writer and director Phillip McMahon took a year out to travel, to discover and to party. For a young gay man of 20, it was a liberating, heedless and, by the sounds of it, curiously blessed time.
“I really wasn’t sure if I would tell this story,” he says, sitting under the shade of a tree with director Rachel O’Riordan, in the grounds of a Methodist church where his new play is being rehearsed. “But it’s a fascinating and important story.”
Such is the sensitivity of the story, he would prefer not to name the city where it took place, and where a friend of a friend owned a beautiful, unoccupied apartment on the waterfront. Would McMahon like to live in it, he was asked, rent free, for six months? He decided that he would. There was one stipulation, though. Every Monday, two middle-aged friends of the apartment’s owner would stay overnight, keeping to themselves in the spare bedroom. It seemed like a small price to pay.
In the end, though, the visitors treated McMahon like their guest. “I was 20,” he remembers. “I had just left Ireland. I was discovering all sorts of things. But mainly I was living my best life and wasting away from the epic party I was on.” To sustain him, each Monday the men shared a good meal and red wine with him at the table. Eventually McMahon asked what they did. “Oh, we’re Catholic priests,” they told him. They were also a committed couple. Monday nights were their nights together. McMahon was stunned.
“For a yet-to-start-recovering Catholic, that was very confronting,” he says. At the time, he was still a believer and they talked about the seemingly irreconcilable forces of faith and sexuality.
“They really felt that they could change the Catholic Church from the inside,” he says. “That their belief was so strong. They also said the education was not to be underestimated and the job itself was fabulous. And they were part of a much wider circle, a community of gay priests.”
Over the years, McMahon discovered just how wide and far-flung that community is: the drag act Fanny and Pearl, whom he once directed, got their names while training to become priests. “Everyone had girls’ names in the seminary,” they told him.
When stories about gay priests emerge in the media, they tend to erupt with voltage of either religious hypocrisy, farcical comedy or quiet tragedy. Take the Vatican male prostitution scandal of 2010, or the Grindr scandal at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 2016. (“I hadn’t heard that,” says McMahon of a more recent story, “and I’ve got ‘Gay Seminarians’ on my Google alerts.”)
They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it
In interviews, McMahon learned that the truth was usually less salacious. “They came to my small town, where I thought there was no way out,” he was told of religious recruitments. “There was a Marian parade through town, and it was the only glamour I’ve ever seen here. They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it.”
At seminaries, no less than any given college, people quietly discovered their sexuality in private, often with each other. “Then, when it became too much – and what was too much could be decided on a whim – they were often asked to leave.”
Trove of stories
Here, McMahon considered, was a trove of stories about faith, repression, identity and sexuality – in short, about Ireland. “So, I was like, do I write the drama first, or the musical first?”
If you know McMahon’s work, as a playwright, director and one half of the uproarious Thisispopbaby, this is not an unimportant question.
His most recent works, such as Tara Flynn’s affecting Not a Funny Word, Thisispopbaby’s world-conquering cabaret Riot, the delicate lament of Town is Dead, and the stage production of Emmet Kirwan’s Dublin Oldschool all addressed matter with music.
“When we did Alice in Funderland,” he says, of the 2012 Abbey Theatre musical, its first in more than 20 years, “the reason music was so important was to allow Irish people to sing out, it felt, for the first time in a long time”.
When he came to write Come On Home, though, inspired by the secret world behind holy orders, the form couldn’t have been more traditional. It is a two-act play, set in the family home of three grieving brothers in rural Ireland, reunited for the funeral of their mother. Here, bitter arguments, long-held shames and painful secrets flare over Aristotelian unities of time and space, against the sturdy details of stage realism. “It came out as a living room drama,” McMahon nods. “I was as surprised as anybody.”
The idea that something was being outed interested me
When Rachel O’Riordan first read the play, in Wales where she now leads the acclaimed Sherman Theatre, she did so in a single sitting and agreed to direct it the next morning. “I like making work that has bite,” she tells me. “Which looks at the tough corners of our social interactions, things spoken and unspoken. The idea that something was being outed interested me.”
Both collaborators can relate personally to other concerns of the play: exile, homecoming and the death of a parent. McMahon’s protagonist is Michael, a one-time seminarian who lived most of his adulthood in London, leaving behind a punishing father, a resentful brother, a besotted woman who married his feckless younger brother, and, poignantly, his former lover, Aidan, who remained in the priesthood.
The complexity of home has long occupied McMahon, who was born in London to Irish parents and moved back when he was 10. O’Riordan’s upbringing was even more peripatetic: born in Cork and educated in England, she established herself professionally in Belfast, with the celebrated new writing company Ransom, before leaving to run the Perth Theatre in Scotland and now the Sherman in Wales. Remarkably, Come on Home counts as her Abbey theatre debut.
“We talked about how Irish we feel or not,” O’Riordan says, “and how difficult that can be sometimes.” She admits to “a strange sense of loss even when I’m here. Because the Republic isn’t where I’ve made my career. I think there’s an instinct in Irish people to go away.”
Coming back carries its own tensions. McMahon recalls of his childhood, “There was this sense that we were too Irish for England and not Irish enough for Ireland. There’s a sense of never being at home. Then, of course, when you discover in your early teens that you’re a queer, you’re suddenly not at home again. You watch how easily other boys walk through life, and wonder, how are you doing that?”
Come On Home was commissioned some years ago, under director Fiach MacConghail, and comes to the stage under his successors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. That makes it a rare inherited commission, but also a play emerging into an Ireland that no one could have imagined 20, 10 even five years ago; one in which the church has vastly diminished influence, and progressive sexual and gender rights have been enshrined by landslide public vote.
The characters in Come On Home seem to straddle the fault line of such a tectonic shift, caught between staying and going, in a new nation where many struggle to catch up. “I look around and I see the kids,” says the young priest, Aidan. “The boys – holding hands. And it tortures me. The freedom.”
Madness of grief
If this is a time of celebration, it is still riven with grief, in which long-buried traumas await their reckoning. “We talked a lot about how grief makes you feel,” says O’Riordan. “Bereavement and the madness that descends, and the damage to the whole family. That heartbreak,” says O’Riordan.
“But there’s also licence to say so much in that space,” adds McMahon. “Emotions are high. Drink is taken. In reality, a lot of shit goes down.” That recalls similar situations in the plays of Tom Murphy, riven with grief, exile, mourning and alcohol, and O’Riordan isn’t slow to claim a dramatic kinship. “But it’s also ‘queered’,” says McMahon, “and I hope that there’s something of today, or of my Ireland in there.”
That’s especially true of a family, however fractious, automatically performing funeral rituals together, where authority figures are tellingly absent. At one point, for instance, someone downloads the rosary.
Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” McMahon tells me. “Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other. That leaves you a little bit at sea about how we can plug into a communal spirituality. I feel the absence of that: a connection.”
Some people find that connection in other ways, whether blissed out on a dancefloor or moved in a theatre, or in the overwhelming results of historic referendums. McMahon may worry still about making drama from private stories. “You can’t treat gay priests as a joke. When you shine a light in these corners, you have to do so sensitively.” But the play is neither an exposé, nor a confession. In bringing people together, whatever the circumstances, it comes closer to a communion.
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