Broken Vows | Continued
reakfast in the rectory of my first parish assignment was my favorite meal of the day. I'd sit across the dining room table from the pastor, surrounded by English muffins slathered with melted butter and strawberry jam, hot coffee served in delicate china cups with saucers, and the thick scent of his pipe tobacco. We'd read the morning papers and chat about current events. This particular morning in 1985, there was a story in the paper about a priest, one of the pastor's contemporaries, who'd been arrested at a highway rest area for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer.
"I don't believe it," said the pastor.
"You think the cop is making it up?" I asked.
"No, no. I'm sure the cop is telling the truth. I just don't believe that Joe is a homo. When we were all in the seminary, he was very manly, always wore his cassock." He paused for a moment. "I think he must have had a hemorrhage or something."
"Hemorrhage?" I repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Well, he probably had some kind of seizure that made him want sex with a guy. That's the only explanation I can think of."
It is hard for anyone not immersed in the culture of the priesthood in Boston to fully appreciate the extent to which denial and secrecy prevailed, at least in the 1980s and early '90s, and particularly in sexual matters. Nothing was more important than creating and maintaining a bella figura (good impression).
That's why it has not surprised me in recent months to learn how systematically church leaders were covering up, ignoring, and failing to straightforwardly address the sexual misconduct that had been going on for years. One might assume that crimes against minors would have been enough to shock decision makers from their complacency. But in this culture, at least for high-powered members of the old guard, no imperative was greater than to prevent public scandal. Improbable explanations like "He must have had a hemorrhage" were more the norm than the exception in an institution with a long history of discomfort around things sexual.
I learned about that discomfort very early on in my time as a seminarian.
One day, the dean of the seminary college gathered us all in the auditorium to talk about "an urgent matter." Some nights earlier, following an otherwise harmless party of Halloween pizza and beer, an inebriated seminarian had flirted with a classmate who didn't welcome his advances. The unhappy student reported the incident to the authorities. Indignant and obviously ill at ease, the dean proclaimed, "There will be no sexuality of any kind, either homosexual or heterosexual, here at the seminary!"
Despite his best efforts, sexuality of course persisted, and some of us found refuge in a campy, secret subculture poor in genuine emotional intimacy but rich in the bitchy humor for which we gay men are Will & Grace infamous. We had women's names for one another, and for some of our teachers. We trashed each other's styles of dress and gossiped among ourselves about who was "going out" with whom. As long as it remained thoroughly hidden, what harm was there in it, eh Mary? But the moment any of it was discovered, we were sure all hell would break loose.
As I think about it now, it is something of a mystery to me why I remained in the seminary, let alone in active ministry, for as long as I did. Not only did I turn into a full-blown workaholic, sexually immature and closeted, but I just came to accept behavior that in almost any other context would be recognized as highly dysfunctional.
A case in point: One of my priest friends had done something or other to arouse the ire and homophobic suspicions of his alcoholic pastor. One day, when the young priest was out of the rectory, the pastor (with the help of an older female parishioner who was his almost constant companion) sorted through the priest's trash to ferret out the torn remains of a letter I'd written
If there is a hierarchy of offenses in the church, it is that heterosexual violations of celibacy between consenting adults stand several rungs apart from everything else. In fact, they seem almost to be a relief to superiors ("Well, at least we know he's not gay"). The Thornbirds notwithstanding, such transgressions are generally met with a gentle slap on the wrist, if not a pat on the back. For the rest of us, it's the Spanish Inquisition.
Filled with pathological shame and righteous indignation, I refused to answer any of Banks's questions about the letter's authorship or my sexual orientation. He threatened to call in a handwriting specialist to prove me the author. The church insisted I undergo psychological testing, and the storm eventually passed, but it was yet another cautionary event that I ignored to my own detriment and that of the church.
It's ironic. Banks and I might agree now: I should not have been assigned to the faculty of the seminary. But our reasons for this conclusion would be dramatically different.
Banks probably would point to the "objective disorder" of my homosexuality (that is the church's official position on it) and argue that future priests should be protected from my harmful deviance. This was the logic of his predecessor, Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, who said in a recent deposition that homosexuality and pedophilia are "in the same family." It is the same logic of officials in Rome who now want to bar all homosexual men from future admission to Catholic seminaries and the priesthood.
I, however, have simply come to see that it was untenable to think I could experience and express my own sexual nature in a healthy and functional way while at the same time acting as a public minister and spokesman for an institution that doctrinally and practically condemns the self-affirming homosexual to eternal damnation.
My justification for remaining at the time was that I could do more good for the church from within than from without, that there needed to be people who would work for change, prophetic voices inside the institution. In truth, however, I also treasured the comfort and security of my closeted life in ministry: housing and meals provided for us, housekeepers and generous days off, the admiration of others, and the title "Father" that ordination conferred on us. I might learn to manage my finances and wash my own clothes, but I desperately dreaded the loss of status and the possible rejection by others that coming out might entail.
As it turned out, of course, that's just what happened anyway.
I asked for and received the opportunity to address my teaching colleagues, to tell the story in my own words, and to apologize for the harm I'd caused Chuck, his family, and the seminary by my inappropriate and immature behavior.
But Tim Moran and Bill Fay urged me to go further. They proposed that Chuck and I make some kind of joint public statement to the seminary community, students included, revealing candidly what had taken place. It would be the secrecy and the ensuing coverup that would truly hurt the church, they reasoned. We had a singular opportunity to extract good from an otherwise tragic situation simply by being open.
I wish I could have seen how radical their proposal was; how (had it been allowed to go forward) it might have helped signal a sea change in the handling of sexual misconduct cases and encouraged others to accept responsibility for their conduct and grow in healthy self-acceptance.
But I was not ready to support their idea, nor was I ready to expose my family to the embarrassment that might come from a publicized story about their wayward gay priest son and brother. My resistance found support in John McCormack, secretary for ministerial personnel at the time. He, the cardinal, and the old guard on the seminary faculty concurred: Send Chris away . . . say nothing about what's happened . . . hope no one ever finds out.
If only I'd had the courage to follow Tim and Bill's advice. But all I could do at the time was apologize to Chuck, his family, and the faculty and head off to Canada, my secret still largely intact.