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Christopher Schiavone at his Boston-area home. (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner)
t was the end of my assessment week at Southdown. Directed by Brigitte, a fashionable and formidable woman who spoke with an indeterminate European accent that suggested she'd been personally trained by Freud, I'd looked at ink blots, told stories about pictures shown to me, and drawn pictures presumed to be rich in emotional meaning. I'd written a lengthy personal story for examination by the staff and submitted to a half-dozen interviews. I'd arrived at the conclusion that six months of "therapeutic renewal" could be a good thing, but not a necessary one, given that I'd already made up my mind to leave ministry anyway.

But Michael Sy, the therapist overseeing my assessment, challenged me to think more broadly. A large and funny man, wide-faced and well-dressed, only a year or two my senior and entirely nonthreatening, he made it easier for me to hear a message that ran contrary to my own assumptions about the situation.

"Maybe you do need to leave ministry," Sy said, "but wouldn't it be better to leave with the healing and tools you'd acquire here than to just head off on your own still in crisis mode?" Exhausted, ashamed, anxious, and depressed, I found his argument persuasive and agreed to half a year in Canada.

He was right.

Even before six months had passed, I was in a radically different space, emotionally and intellectually. I'd acquired enormous insight into the gravity of my own poor choices and a genuine appreciation of my own sexual orientation and identity. My preliminary decision to leave ministry was confirmed. It was time for me to continue the just-begun process of coming out and accepting myself as a gay man, and to find ways of living a life of integrity and service outside the church.

My primary therapist, Ruth Droege -- a Dominican nun of a certain age; tall, slender, and exuding a Zen-like wisdom and presence from every pore -- sat across from me in her cramped office and asked gently, "Are you ready?" This day, a month before my departure from Southdown, we were to speak by conference call with McCormack to report on my progress and agree on the next steps. (Most of the other residents at Southdown had their bishops or superiors present with them in person at such meetings, but for those of us from the Archdiocese of Boston, it was "out of sight, out of mind.")

I began the call by again expressing regret for my action. I explained what I had come to understand were the factors that led to my violation of professional boundaries, not the least of which were a lack of aptitude for celibacy and the secrecy and shame around my homosexuality. Ruth Droege supported my statements with her own clinical insight and that of the other staff.

I continued: "The fact is, John, it's become clear to me that it would be unhealthy for me as a gay man to remain in ministry as a priest. It's also clear to me that I haven't experienced a call to celibacy or the ability or desire to fulfill such a promise. So my plan is to leave ministry and continue my own healing and growth in another context."

McCormack did not hesitate and asked no questions; he launched into his own prepared speech, the gist of which was this: "I appreciate the spirit in which you entered the program at Southdown and the fact that you seem to have gotten something out of it. But you must know that you have brought disgrace to your family and to the church and ruined a very promising career for yourself. It's a terrible waste. There will never be any ministry for you in the Archdiocese of Boston or anywhere else. I need to be very clear about this."

It was the classic case of the employee who walks into the boss's office to resign, only to be told, "You can't quit! You're fired!" The only difference is that McCormack added a hearty helping of shame and opprobrium to the ecclesiastical pink slip.

In hindsight his reaction is understandable. We now know that, at the same time he was trying to make sense of my case, he was also navigating the perilous shoals of the Geoghan case, the Shanley case, the Birmingham case, and numerous others.

But that doesn't explain it completely, because, as the record has shown, John Geoghan was repeatedly reassigned; Paul Shanley was recommended for alternative ministries elsewhere; and Joseph Birmingham and others were moved about the diocese as "squirrels" -- clerical jargon for priests hidden away in rectories (as in attics) where they could still be treated as priests but not attract any notice.

McCormack's reaction came to seem even more puzzling to me when I later learned that one of my fellow alumni from the seminary was sent on a brief retreat and leave of absence after a sexual affair with a young female parishioner, only to be returned to full-time ministry and appointed to a diocesan panel on clergy sexual abuse. A fellow Southdown resident, a man who had allegedly abused minors, was reassigned to a special ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston, albeit one that afforded him no direct contact with youngsters.

For me, however, it was "no ministry of any kind ever, here in the Archdiocese of Boston or elsewhere." The formal letter from the cardinal left no ambiguity: "You may not use the title `Father' or `Reverend.' You no longer have the privilege of wearing the clerical collar. You may, however, celebrate the Eucharist in the privacy of your own residence." It has always puzzled me that a church which still teaches that masturbation is "a grave moral evil" encourages even its priests-gone-bad to indulge in the liturgical equivalent: saying Mass alone.

In time I realized that I had not really been singled out, that the handling of misconduct cases in the Archdiocese of Boston has been wildly uneven for years, with factors like personal relationships to people in authority, outward signs of piety, impassioned denials by the accused (despite all evidence to the contrary), and conformity to church doctrine playing as much of a role in the outcome as the ethical and psychological considerations that should have driven the decision-making. Above all, it was concern about legal liability, the all-important bella figura, and the need to keep the fragile structures of secrecy and denial intact that drove decision-making in these cases.




year or so after my departure, Law summoned me to his residence in Brighton for one last meeting. I sat diagonally from him at the corner of a conference table large enough to accommodate 20 people. We were surrounded by the formal portraits of his predecessors, each one decked out in silk robes no less elegant than the costumes of male performers doing drag at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown.

After a brief and cordial inquiry into my overall well-being and the state of my "prayer life," he asked if I would be willing to consider laicization, a formal process whereby a man is "reduced to the lay state" on the basis of evidence that he was impaired in some way at the time of his ordination. I asked him what laicization would give me that I didn't already have.

"Well, Chris, you never know whether -- in the mystery of God's plan -- you might find yourself seeking marriage in the church. Laicization would make it possible for you to do that."

I thought to myself, the power of denial is profound indeed.

I realize today -- as I chew on clergy depositions with my morning mug of coffee in the wise company of my dog, Oualie -- that the world these potentially criminal acts spring from is a place where the distinction between clergy and laity must be maintained at all costs; where being homosexual is still thought to be a phase one gets over; and where, notwithstanding clear evidence to the contrary, the church's leaders and teachings are thought to be infallible.

I see that world more clearly now. I appreciate the fine line between faith and folly. And I can finally see why, in this environment, a man accepting his sexual orientation, voluntarily leaving ministry, and rejecting elements of the church's moral teaching might be considered the most dangerous thing of all.

Christopher Schiavone, a former priest, is a business owner and freelance writer living in the Boston area. Janice Page, a former Los Angeles Times editor, is a freelance writer living in Brookline.

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This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 12/8/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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