Tuesday 26 March 2019

Michael Kelly: 'The scapegoating of gay priests for the Church's abuse scandals is dying thanks to saner voices'

Launch: French journalist Frédéric Martel poses in Rome with his book that investigates homosexuality in the Vatican. Photo: Getty Images
Launch: French journalist Frédéric Martel poses in Rome with his book that investigates homosexuality in the Vatican. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

If you want to launch a book about gay priests, the backdrop of the Pope meeting in an unprecedented gathering with the world's bishops to push accountability and transparency is an alluring prospect.

And so it was in Rome this week that Frédéric Martel launched 'In the Closet of the Vatican' to an eager press in town to cover the Papal meeting.

Subtitled 'Power, homosexuality, hypocrisy' it has the perfect mix of intrigue and innuendo, including an allegation that some 80pc of priests who work in the Vatican are gay.

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Set beside that, two conservative cardinals who are long-time critics of Pope Francis used the occasion to warn against what they described as "the plague of the homosexual agenda" within Catholicism.

They suspect Francis's more welcoming style as being a prelude to giving the shop away on a whole host of issues.

The spectre of homosexuality amongst the clergy looms large here in Rome. On the one hand, openly gay people like Mr Martel lament the fact that priests who are gay don't come out and own up to their sexuality.

On the other hand, Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller see homosexual priests as the tip of the iceberg in a corrupt Church and are determined to hunt them down and run them out.

It's been popular in conservative circles for decades now, particularly in the US, to blame the abuse crisis in Catholicism on "the gays".

The fact, the theory goes, that most reported cases of abuse by priests were allegations of sexual misconduct with boys shows this is first and foremost a problem with homosexual clergy.

Cheerleaders of the theory merrily ignore the inconvenient truth that most abuse involved boys because traditionally priests had more contact with boys whether it be altar servers, via single-sex schools or male-only organisations like scouting or boys' sodalities.

After all, it was only in 1992 that the Vatican lifted the ban and permitted girls to become altar servers for the first time - and some parishes ignored this for years. But, hey, don't let the truth get in the way of a good stitch-up.

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh - who is in Rome for this week's meeting - is dismissive of the simplistic thesis that would lay the blame at the feet of gay priests. Speaking of his experiences of meeting both male and female survivors of abuse, he told me this week: "With young women, or women who were abused as young girls, what do we tell them? Do we tell them it was heterosexuality?"

Whether the survivor was male or female, "it was the very same dynamics of deviance, of deceit, of cover-up, that happened", he insists.

He's not alone. Victims and survivors of abuse have given the theory equally short shrift.

"To make this link between homosexuality and paedophilia is absolutely immoral, it is unconscionable and has to stop," according to Peter Isely, a survivor and founding member of the survivor's group SNAP.

Phil Saviano, who runs an advocacy group called BishopAccountability, told reporters at the Vatican yesterday that he felt "there has been a lot of scapegoating of homosexual men as being child predators".

To lay the blame for the abuse of children on homosexuality "tells me that they really don't understand" the problem and have made a claim "that is not based on any source of reality".

What is a reality is that the issue of clerical sexual abuse is the latest front in a war that began when Pope Francis was elected almost six years ago.

Shortly after he took office, the Pope was asked about gay priests and answered simply, if a gay priest seeks the Lord sincerely "who am I to judge?"

Voices on the extreme right immediately rejected that open attitude and have been on a battle footing ever since, with gay priests as enemy No 1.

Ultras who for all intents and purposes ignored the issue of abuse for decades suddenly became the Church's most trenchant critics and were determined that something must be done about homosexuality in the ranks.

Forgive me if their concern for those who have been abused rings more than a little hollow.

Of course, it's long been known that a high proportion of priests are gay - certainly considerably higher than the prevalence of homosexuality in the wider community.

Why is this the case? Well, it's a complex question that I'm not qualified to answer, but the fact is some ultra-conservatives have long referenced this as the root of all evil in the Church.

But as any expert worth his or her salt will tell you, the abuse of children is a deviance that has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation.

Of course, that won't stop the crusaders trying to target gay priests in their witch hunt to find an easy answer to the abuse crisis within the Catholic Church and get back to business as usual.

Meanwhile, those priests who are gay continue to selflessly serve their parishes and communities all around the world in tandem with their straight colleagues with an energy often bordering on the heroic.

I know many priests who are gay in Irish parishes who live their priesthood in an exemplary way and they are as hurt as they are angry at the insinuation that being born gay means they present a risk to children.

Their reaction when they hear such claims by those in leadership within the Church? According to one I spoke to this week, "a strong stomach and a weak smile".

So long as the scapegoating of gay priests continues, it will prevent the Church facing the reality of the fact that child sexual abuse is like a cancer that consumes everything it touches.

Thankfully, if this week's meeting in Rome is anything to go by, it is increasingly a marginal view and saner voices will win the day.

Irish Independent

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