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Rector's book on clergy, sex is bestseller -- among priests

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/3/2000

 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
slender volume of somber reflections on the priesthood by the rector of a Catholic seminary has become an unexpected hit among priests, raising eyebrows with its unsparing discussion of celibacy, homosexuality, and sexual abuse among the clergy.

In the book, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens suggests that the priesthood is, or is becoming, a gay profession.

He obliquely criticizes the church hierarchy for its refusal to allow discussion of the issue of celibacy. And he warns that "the scandal of clergy misconduct with minors has cast a long shadow on the credibility and authority of priests and bishops -- a shadow that will last well into" the 21st century.

"There is little doubt in the minds of priests that the church stands at a precarious point at the turn of the millennium," Cozzens writes. "The honesty and courage required of the church, especially of its . . . leaders, is considerable."

The thoughts expressed in the book are remarkable less because of their content than because of their author. Cozzens, who heads Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland, is a respected priest who previously authored a well-received book on priestly spirituality.

"Priests are talking about it," said the Rev. Frank J. McNulty of Newark, who represented US priests in a 1986 meeting with the pope. "Some critics are saying, `Why is he jumping on this stuff?' But I think it's good for priests to read a book that's honest."

Cozzens said he has received letters from about 100 priests since the book's release in February.

"It's not that he's making some great revelation that nobody knows about, but he's saying what some people don't want to have said," said Sandra M. Schneiders of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

Schneiders called the book "the best thing that's been written on the current state of the Catholic priesthood in recent times." That sentiment was echoed by Dean Hoge, a sociologist and specialist on the priesthood at Catholic University of America, who said "it's the most important book on Catholic priests that we've seen for years."

"If another person did this, they would be dismissed as a sorehead, but he's a totally credible reporter because he's the rector of a seminary in good standing and nobody claims he's some kind of radical," Hoge said. "These topics are being talked about openly by the laity and the [academic] research community, but they are not being talked about openly by the Catholic leadership, and that's a tragic situation because these are real problems and should be discussed rationally."

In the book, Cozzens asserts that priests have "lost their once unquestioned authority" as a result of an emphasis on the importance of the laity over the last 35 years, and that priests increasingly are isolated from one another as a shortage of clergy has caused greater geographic dispersion.

"Priests today stand awash in a floodlight of suspicion in the eyes of contemporary American culture," he writes.

"Neither macho playboy nor successful careerist, they go about their work without wife and children, without a home of their own, without the cultural symbols that define achievement. In the eyes of many, their manliness drifts about in a sea of ambiguity, and recent clerical scandals of sexual misconduct with young boys have severely tarnished their collective reputation. They have lost their innocence."

Cozzens addresses a wide variety of concerns plaguing the priesthood, including "the relentless demands of pastoral ministry" and oversight by bishops, some of whom "encourage and reward an unthinking docility." But it is his comments on sexuality that are garnering the most attention.

Cozzens did not conduct his own social science research, but he cites published studies and articles, as well as his own firsthand impressions, in declaring that: "At issue at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the growing perception -- one seldom contested by those who know the priesthood well -- that the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession."

Cozzens does not address the question of whether gay or heterosexual priests are honoring their vows of celibacy, but he does say that the number of gay seminarians is high enough to make some heterosexual seminarians uncomfortable.

"Not infrequently . . . the sexual contacts and romantic unions among gay seminarians create intense and complicated webs of intrigue and jealousy leading to considerable inner conflict," he writes. " . . . The straight seminarian, meanwhile, feels out of place and may interpret his inner destabilization as a sign that he does not have a vocation to the priesthood."

In one of his most provocative sections, Cozzens takes on the issue of sexual abuse among clergy and asserts that most priests who are abusers target teenage boys as victims, unlike most other child abusers, who, he said, tend to target girls.

"To insist that there is simply no correlation between mandatory celibacy and the present crisis over clergy misconduct with minors looks like bureaucratic bullying as long as the Vatican remains opposed to even discussion concerning the systems undergirding the priestly lifestyle," he writes.

Few priests are ready to speak publicly about the book. In Boston, Bishop Richard J. Malone said he was just given the book by a friend and intends to read it; the Rev. Robert M. Blaney, who helps recruit new priests to Boston, said he, too, was given the book but has not yet read it.

The Rev. Dennis J. Sheehan, pastor of St. Paul's in Cambridge, said he heard the book being discussed at a gathering and ordered it from Amazon.com; at a Catholic-Muslim function in Wayland recently, as the Rev. John E. MacInnis was telling a reporter he intended to read the book, the Rev. David C. Michael broke in to say that he, too, had just picked up a copy.

"It's far and away the best-selling small book we've done in the last five years," said Peter Dwyer, marketing manager for Liturgical Press, which published it. Dwyer said the company, based in Collegeville, Minn., has sold most of the 20,000 copies in print.

The book has received positive reviews in Catholic periodicals.

Writing in The Pilot, the official archdiocesan newspaper in Boston, the Rev. William Murphy, spiritual director at St. John Seminary, complained that the book is overly negative, but said that "nothing of what he said is untrue" and that "it is a strong book and should be read by all who love the priesthood."

"Many readers whose experience of priests is limited to weekends and occasional pastoral visits, or less, will find this book disturbing, if not scandalous," Murphy wrote. "The reaction of priests and other persons familiar with the troubles and tensions in priestly life will be recognition, for better or for worse."

Reviewer Paul Wilkes, writing in the Jesuit magazine America, said "When the history of this difficult time for the American clergy is written, this book will surely mark one of its signal moments."

Cardinal Bernard F. Law had no comment on the book, but Cozzens said he has heard from a handful of bishops and cardinals who are reading the book and talking about it. And one bishop, Robert Morneau of Green Bay, Wisc., is quoted on the back of Cozzens' book praising the author for "great courage."

"This book is going to cause controversy and argument and discussion, but I think he raises some very important issues," Morneau said in an interview. "We need to look at what's going on, because we're having a major shortage of priest personnel."

In Cleveland, the reaction has been more mixed. Cozzens said that some of his colleagues have been critical of the book, and that "a few" Cleveland priests have suggested that he shouldn't be rector of the seminary anymore.

"Some will think that this book is disloyal to the Church and the priesthood, but I hope that it is an act of loyalty and care and regard," Cozzens said in a telephone interview. "I think that we as Christians don't have to be afraid of the truth. But I love being a priest, and I love the Church."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 6/3/2000.
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