Clerical Sexuality

A former priest looks back in sorrow

As a former Catholic priest and a currently practicing Catholic, I find myself answering questions from people of all religions about the daily seamy headlines. They want my take on the situation. They want to know if I have seen, firsthand, evidence of rampant decadence in the once-revered Catholic priesthood.

My answers come from my heart as well as from my head. I am devastated by the lives ruined by priestly predators. My heart also goes out to the vast majority of priests, good men who are being tarnished by the tawdry details of each story of betrayal. But the picture that has emerged of clerical sexuality out of control does not surprise me.

The Catholic Church has failed to help its priests become fully integrated sexual people. Sexuality has been a taboo topic. While requiring a celibate clergy, the church leaves priests largely on their own to work out their deeply human need for intimacy. Sexual issues, too painful or sensitive to address consciously, rear up from the unconscious and wreak havoc. Because they can’t deal with it openly, many priests are unable to develop a healthy adult sexuality. Whatever the incidence of child abuse, sexual dysfunction and frustration among the Catholic clergy are rampant.

I recall my own experience as a young man studying theology. When I got to the major seminary, I wanted to grow spiritually and challenge myself. I turned to a gifted young priest on the faculty for spiritual direction. He was a dynamic preacher and brilliant theologian-what better guide into the depths of my soul? Full of hope, I went to my director’s room for our first session. He welcomed me, closed the door and locked it, then gave me what seemed an inordinately long hug. He poured me a drink, we spoke about banalities for about twenty minutes, and when it was time to leave, I got another hug. It lasted twenty minutes. I timed it. Well, I thought, he’s affectionate; I should be more open. Still...

At the next session, about a week later, my guru explained that "the hug" was part of his technique-to help me become more aware of my own body and the physical presence of another. I should try to adjust my breathing to his and "feel with him." Strange...but what did I know about the mysteries of the spirit? He was the expert. Again I got "the hug" on the way into the session, and a longer one on the way out. Only now I was trying to keep up with his breathing-like the Little Engine That Could. Looking back, I don’t know how I could have been so naive, or maybe it was innocent. When my spiritual director hugged me during the next session, he added a little pelvic motion. I was incredibly uncomfortable, but I still gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not until our fourth meeting, as my spiritual guide tried to undo my zipper, did I finally know enough to get out of the situation-fast.

The betrayal was compounded when I turned to my religious superior for help. I was feeling frightened and violated-horrified as much by my own gullibility as by what had passed as spiritual guidance. The superior told me that I must have misunderstood-better just drop it. It took me years before I could bring myself to seek out and trust another spiritual director. While this incident was certainly not the same as a young child being abused, it was a violation of trust that was crushing to the spirit.

John Dourely, a Canadian priest and Jungian analyst, claims that mandatory clerical celibacy has caused the homosexualization of the Catholic priesthood. I don’t know if this is a result of celibacy or a byproduct of it. Over my years as a priest I became increasingly aware of the gay culture around me; many of my clerical colleagues were quite open about it. Some presumed that because I understood gay issues, I must be gay myself. The reality of the priesthood’s hidden gay culture was brought home when a fellow priest and close friend made insistent, aggressive sexual advances toward me over the course of an entire year. Because I rejected my friend’s overtures, I was pushed to the fringes of the only community available to me.

As I look back on these experiences that occurred almost twenty-five years ago, I realize that the real trauma was not that a spiritual director violated trust or that a friend broke faith with a friendship. These men were themselves victims of a system that simultaneously condemned homosexuality and tacitly condoned clandestine homosexual sex. Living in a society that was also intolerant of homosexual behavior, they were forced to work out their intimacy needs in unhealthy ways. Sometimes people got hurt in the process.

While estimates vary about the percentage of gay priests, I would venture to guess that among the clergy under the age of sixty it is well in excess of 50 percent. The church condemns the homosexual lifestyle; at the same time it turns a blind eye on rampant clerical homosexuality as long as the relationships don’t become embarrassing. Gay priests find it much easier to develop intimate relationships-often with other gay priests. They ease their loneliness, travel with their "friends," and resolve their sexual issues in a way that seems to work for their own conscience and for the people they serve. Many gay priests are good ministers precisely because they find it easier to live a humanely intimate personal life. No eyebrows are raised when Father goes off on a vacation with another man, at least not in the days before the recent scandals. The ministerial success of many talented gay priests suggests the importance of integrating sexuality into the lives of priests, and of finding ways to reconcile the deepest human needs of priests with the pastoral needs of the church. But the church cannot afford to have an exclusively or even predominantly homosexualized clergy-it is too narrow, divisive, and inbred.

I loved being a priest, but I couldn’t live with the loneliness and remain spiritually and humanly alive. In the long run, the lack of intimacy would have embittered and destroyed me. Once I came to this realization, it still took me years to find the courage to leave. In the way stood the church, which stigmatizes resigned priests, and an Irish Catholic mother who was crushed by the thought that her son would be a "defector." The church lost an effective minister and I lost the dream I had been pursuing for the best years of my life. While following that dream, I passed up the opportunity to develop a loving relationship with a special woman while still a young man, and missed the chance to have my own children and watch them grow up. What I received in return was a deep understanding and love of the gospel that the church serves, and for this I remain profoundly grateful.

American Catholics deserve real reform. Ending the clubby, secretive, clerical culture would be a good first step. The church should begin to let the laity lead-and listen to the grassroots wisdom of the faithful in the most diverse organization in the world. A less clerical church would be an institution that speaks openly about its problems, embraces the many valid paths to genuine spiritual life, and expects priests and bishops to be spiritual leaders who are accountable to the faithful they serve.

Published in the 2002-06-14 issue: 

Richard Nugent Hasselbach is executive assistant and counsel to the president at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City.

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