Clericalism and the Summer of Shame
Clericalism is said to be the main sin that has given rise to the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today. The official statements blaming clericalism rather than the “dirty little secret” of a gay network have often been met with cynicism. A recent joke making the internet rounds goes: “Another priest has been dismissed from the clerical state for practicing clericalism with an adolescent boy.”
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The Oxford dictionary defines “clericalism” as “the misuse or overextension of the clergy’s authority.” The Gospels already record the itch for privilege among the apostles. When James and John jockey for privileged positions at the side of Jesus in his kingdom, Jesus rebukes them. He says, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk 9:35) So priests and bishops, to avoid the stigma of clericalism, must be true servants—above all servants to the truth. Even popes sign off on their official documents to the clergy as “Servant of the servants.” Clerical rank is secondary to the obligation to serve the truth.
Before the 2018 Summer of Shame and even the 2002 abuse revelations about clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, many of us had wrung our hands, desperately trying to obtain the attention of clerics in authority to do something about dissent from the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and the sexual abuse that derived from that dissent.
On June 2, 1998, Bishop J. Keith Symons of Palm Beach, Florida, resigned after admitting that he had sexually abused five teens when he was a priest. The Vatican appointed Bishop Robert N. Lynch, Bishop of Saint Petersburg, Florida, as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Palm Beach until a new bishop could be named.
Within a week of his appointment, after reading various news accounts of the scandal, I wrote a letter to Bishop Lynch hoping to prompt a serious inquiry into the gay clerical network. I failed. Instead, I prompted an ugly response of episcopal clericalism.
Here is my letter to Bishop Lynch dated June 9, 1998:
Dear Bishop Lynch:
In an article in NACDLGM News, August 1997, p. 4., it was reported that Bishop J. Keith Symons promoted a retreat for parents of gay/lesbian sons/daughters, hosted by Father Robert Nugent, SDS, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND.
In response to concerns raised by the laity in the Diocese, Bishop Symons said: “...I have consulted fellow Bishops of dioceses where they have spoken. I am assured that Father Nugent and Sister Gramick present the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church with compassionate ministry outreach in conformity with Sacred Scripture, the November 11, 1976 Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life by the Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled ‘To Live in Christ Jesus,’ and the ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral care of Homosexual Persons’ prepared by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope John Paul II of October 1, 1986.”
After defending his decision to go on with the retreat, Bishop Symons added that he has “decided not to cancel this retreat despite protests by a few well intentioned but ill informed persons.”
In recent news articles following Bishop Symons’ resignation for pedophilia, it has been reported that you have been involved with the overall policies and procedures in dealing with sexual abuse by the clergy. Since Bishop Symons has consulted “fellow Bishops of dioceses where [Nugent and Gramick] have spoken,” do you think it would be prudent to identify these bishops and assess their influence on the American hierarchy? Your interest in preventing the ordination of potential sexual predators is praiseworthy. Might that interest be expanded to other aspects of the hierarchy?
With hindsight, Excellency, who do you think was more ill-informed, those who were suspicious of the New Ways retreat or those who were not? Would you be open, in NCCB proceedings, to entering into a dialog with those who have repeatedly expressed concerns over such documents as Always Our Children and other deeply flawed USCC publications dealing with human sexuality?
Be assured of my prayers, etc.
(Nugent and Gramick’s dissent from Church teaching had been obvious to observers for decades. In 1999, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote: “The ambiguities and errors of the approach of Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church. For these reasons, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes.” Nugent served as a consultant for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the 1997 pastoral document on homosexuality, Always Our Children)
It didn’t take long for Bishop Lynch to respond, calling into question my credentials. In a letter dated June 11, 1998, the bishop wrote:
Dear Father Pokorsky,
May I politely inquire who appointed you to conduct an inquiry into the matters raised in your letter? If you share with me your appropriate credentials to be seeking such information, I might be inclined to take your letter more seriously.
I trust that you will not mind my sharing your letter and this response with appropriate Church authorities whom I suspect that at a time like this realize I need all the help I can get and not the hostility contained in your letter.
In an obvious attempt at intimidation, Bishop Lynch copied Archbishop Cacciavillan, the Vatican’s nuncio to the United States; Cardinal Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington; Cardinal Keeler, the Archbishop of Baltimore; and the administrator of my diocese.
On June 23, 1998, I responded to Bishop Lynch’s letter. I wrote man-to-man so there was no need to copy anyone else.
Dear Bishop Lynch:
You inquired as to my credentials in posing bold questions in my letter of June 9th. May I politely remind you that, in the interview you gave to the Tampa Tribune, you took it upon yourself to pronounce on the Church’s treatment of sexuality generally? In the name of the Church you said, “We almost have a hang up with sex,” and, “We expect people to live up to such a high ideal of sexual conduct and we don’t allow any failure”.
When the media loses interest, priests in the front lines will be left holding the bag by the authors of Always Our Children and the defenders of New Ways Ministry. Layfolk who are puzzled and angered by such maneuvers are not reassured when one of their episcopal promoters resigns his office on account of pederasty. Many of these layfolk will feel that such a man abused, not a “high ideal of sexual conduct”, but the lowest imaginable standard.
My earlier letter was written as a priest to a brother priest. You considered this to be an insufficient credential to provide an answer. Then allow me to ask you man to man. What prevents you from taking any opportunity to clear up possible confusions caused by a bishop who informs the media “we almost have a hang up with sex?”
Bishop Symons was eventually replaced by Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell. In 2002, Bishop O’Connell admitted he had molested at least two students of St. Thomas Aquinas Preparatory Seminary during his 25-year career there. O’Connell offered his resignation as Bishop of Palm Beach on March 8, 2002.
As for Bishop Lynch, the Tampa Bay Times reported, at the time of his retirement in 2016:
“In 2001, Bill Urbanski accused Lynch of forcing him to share a room when they traveled, grabbing his thigh and showering him with expensive gifts. At one point when they were in a Santa Fe, N.M., hotel room, Urbanski said Lynch asked to take pictures of him without a shirt so he could superimpose his head on Urbanski’s muscular body for Christmas cards. The married father of two said he did as he was told, then vomited in the lobby. The diocese gave Urbanski $100,000, a sum characterized as severance.”
Twenty years later, investigating the gay network in the clerical ranks-—including the clerical ranks at the Holy See—remains unfinished business.
Perhaps it is true that the only obstacle that remains to reforming the Church is the arrogance of clericalism.
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