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Sex cases put celibacy back in spotlight

By Kay Longcope, Globe Staff, 5/30/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
ecent reports about sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests have rekindled questions about the definition of celibacy, a centuries-old requirement for ordination.

Earlier this month, there were disclosures that Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway, Ireland, fathered a Connecticut woman's son, now 17.

The issue has surfaced before, most recently in 1990 when Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta and one of his diocesan priests were forced to resign when news media reported the sexual liaison each had with the same woman, Vicki Long, a former lay minister.

And a former Massachusetts priest, James R. Porter, 58, has been accused of rape or sexual abuse by 48 men and women in New England, who said they were molested as children in the 1960s, when Porter served parishes in North Attleborough, New Bedford and Fall River.

Some critics argue that celibacy is a needless stumbling block to recruiting for the Catholic priesthood, and some say that difficulty means seminaries get a disproportionate number of men prone to failure. Some church members have suggested that the church hierarchy should allow open discussion of optional celibacy.

Boston Archdiocese spokesman John Walsh says, "The pope and his predecessors view celibacy, a longstanding tradition, as a positive value for the church as a whole and as an effective witness pointing toward the coming of the Kingdom of God."

Walsh said the Catholic Encyclopedia defines celibacy as "the practice of perfect continence by priests and bishops . . . meant to foster a single- minded devotion to God and service in the ministry. . . . The rule of celibacy forbids marriage by priests and bishops and normally excludes married persons from ordination."

Celibacy, he said, "will continue to be the discipline in the Western Church."

In the Latin or Western church, compulsory celibacy has held sway for centuries, Rev. William Fay, dean of the college of liberal arts at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, said in an interview. He noted that the policy prompted the Eastern church, in which celibacy remains optional, to break with the Latin church.

For the Vatican to alter policy, said Father Fay, there would have to be a groundswell of support from bishops throughout the world. "I don't see that push at this time," he said.

In a 28-page pronouncement issued by the Vatican in 1989, Rome forbade Catholic scholars from criticizing official teachings of the church in public and instructed theologians to raise their doubts in private. If not satisfied, they were told, "suffer for the truth in silence and prayer" or face "serious measures."

Still, to those who freely choose it, celibacy can be a natural lifestyle, said Rev. J.A. Loftus, a Jesuit priest who directs Toronto's Southdown, a therapeutic center for priests and religious orders.

Just how many priests fudge the rule of celibacy is unknown, but A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, estimated in a 25- year study released two years ago that at least 50 percent of the clergy is noncelibate at any given time.

Rev. Loftus, who is a licensed psychologist in Massachusetts and formerly had a private practice in Brighton, agreed with that estimate.

"I personally feel that we certainly need to be able to discuss the whole issue," he said. "For some people, having celibacy as a condition of employment is all that it is. The church has not been open in discussion. Perhaps that will be one of the gifts that may come out of the notoriety of the last few years."

A former Boston priest who left to marry said in a recent interview that priests put different interpretations on celibacy.

"Among the priests I know, and I know 50 very well, the definition of celibacy is not to marry," said the 46-year-old former priest, who asked not to be named. "I know priests involved with women who I have confronted. They've said, 'Look, my promise is not to marry, and I have no intention of marrying her.' "

Historically, "celibacy has been tied to priesthood not by God but by man," said Ireland's David Rice, a former priest who wrote the best seller "Shattered Vows," published in 1990. In the United States last week to promote release of the book in paperback, Rice, 58, urged all priests involved with women "to step forward and declare themselves" on Pentecost Sunday, June 7.

"If the men won't do it, the women should," to show Rome how out of touch it is, Rice said. He asserts that if Rome gets the message, the pope would quickly end compulsory celibacy.

"Priests have not chosen celibacy; they have chosen the priesthood in spite of celibacy, not because of it," said Kathleen Sands, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church.

Sands, who hosted a 1983 meeting of women involved with priests and has remained in touch with at least 200, said that celibacy "doesn't stop them from being sexually active but from being sexually responsible.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/30/1992.
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