Why did a Jesuit priest have $1,600 available for porn?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 29, 2013

What’s wrong with this picture? Federal agents raid a Catholic university in the state of Washington, and find a trove of child pornography, purchased with the credit card of a professor—who happens to be a Jesuit priest.

Father Gary Uhlenkott is now on leave, as the federal investigation continues. We don’t know all the details, but federal officials say that more than $1,600 of porn was ordered with his credit-card account and shipped to his physical and/or internet address.

Horrifying? Certainly. A scandal? No doubt. But let me take a different perspective on this wretched affair. Leave aside, for now, the question of Father Uhlenkott’s guilt or innocence. Here’s what I want to know: How could he (or someone using his identity) spend $1,600 on videos of any description, without attracting someone’s attention?

Can you, dear reader, spend $1,600 on your own entertainment—even assuming it’s healthy, licit entertainment—without prompting questions from your spouse, your boss, your parents, your colleagues, or your accountant? I certainly can’t. And unlike Father Uhlenkott, I haven’t taken a vow of poverty.

(By the way, these credit-card charges were racked up on the Uhlenkott account between 2008 and 2011. Roughly halfway through that period, in 2009, the Oregon province of the Jesuit order filed for bankruptcy. You might think the bankruptcy process would tighten internal controls on spending. Considering the proximate cause of that bankruptcy, you might think that controls would be especially tight on this sort of spending. But no.)

Upon entering religious life, one accepts poverty as a discipline, recognizing that it will restrain one’s options and that such a restraint can be a blessing. It isn’t easy to live a life of virtue, and constant checks—some self-imposed, others imposed by one’s superiors—can help to restrain the impulses toward self-indulgence. The vow of obedience helps because submitting to the direction of a religious superior involves taming one’s pride, putting one’s own personal preferences in second place. The vow of poverty helps because if material resources are limited, there are fewer opportunities for mischief; vices tend to be expensive. And the vow of celibacy helps because…

Ah, yes, the vow of celibacy. Now we’re getting to the core of the problem, aren’t we?

Living a chaste life is a difficult challenge for anyone, but especially for religious, who have voluntarily chosen a life of sexual abstinence. Living in a society that is obsessed with sex, they are bombarded daily with tempting images and invitations. There is no escape; they have no licit outlet. They are surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned. If they are not constantly on the alert, zealously guarding their defenses, they are doomed to fail.

Put it another way: The prevailing current is running against chastity, and that current is strong. Anyone who “goes with the flow” will soon accept the perverted popular understanding of human sexuality as a plaything. Anyone who tries to stand still will be swept off his feet. Just to hold one’s place, one must swim vigorously against the tide. Chastity involves an everyday struggle. And again, this is especially true for celibate religious.

For someone who is accustomed to a life of ascetical discipline, this everyday struggle is nothing out of the ordinary. Just as a trained athlete can jog a few miles without difficulty, a monk who has developed the habit of firm self-restraint will be prepared to control sexual temptations. By the same logic, just as a flabby middle-aged man won’t make it once around the track, so a celibate religious who lost the habit of self-restraint will be easy prey for temptations.

In the past, the members of any Catholic religious order—but particularly the Jesuits—had a lively sense that they were involved in spiritual combat. Preparing for that combat required rigorous training; involvement in that combat required unwavering vigilance. The disciplines of religious life—voluntarily accepted with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—furnished the means of maintaining fitness for that combat.

An ordinary man, living independently, with his own bank account, might easily spend $1,600 over a period of months on his own amusements. As long as he chose harmless pleasures, and did not ignore his more important financial responsibilities, we would not judge him harshly. But a religious does not—or rather, should not—have the same freedom to pursue his own pleasures. Living in poverty, he should not have the luxury of discretionary spending. Living under obedience, he should submit his plans to the judgment of a superior. Even under a relaxed form of discipline, at the barest minimum he should submit his credit-card statements to a superior for clearance.

Obviously no sane religious superior would ever approve the purchase of pornography, and even the most lackadaisical supervisor would sound the alarm if such purchases showed up on a credit-card bill. So we can safely conclude that Father Uhlenkott (or, again, someone using his identity) was free to spend $1,600 entirely at his own discretion.

Now suppose that sum had been spent on something harmless: ice cream, say, or movie tickets. We would not condemn the purchases, but we could still observe that this particular Jesuit was not practicing the rigorous discipline needed to prepare him for spiritual combat. Moreover, we could note that his superiors were not enforcing that discipline. That in itself would be cause for alarm. A celibate male who humors himself in small things will be vulnerable when he confronts a tougher test; superiors who allow little breaches of discipline will be likely to overlook more serious misconduct.

Since the start of this 21st century, the Catholic Church has been receiving a painful education on the dangers of losing ascetical discipline. In a perceptive 2006 book, After Ascetism, authors sponsored by the Linacre Institute made the very persuasive argument that the decline of ascetical practice was the main reason for the sex-abuse scandal. Priests and religious did not suddenly become subject to sexual temptations in the mid-20th century. The temptations were always there. But traditional practices—prayer, fasting, and sacrifice—had fostered habits of self-denial that helped celibates to face those temptations.

Was it a coincidence that when the traditional habits of ascetism were de-emphasized, sexual misconduct among priest and religious soared? I don’t think so. Especially today, a celibate priest or religious who is not thoroughly trained in ascetical practices, and steadily encouraged in habits of self-restraint, is being sent into battle unarmed.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jun. 01, 2013 2:13 PM ET USA

    Dealing with the surface issue of this column, it is not unusual that a member of a religous order would have a credit card that he controlled. For members of a religious order "in the world" their "salary" is typically turned over to the order, and they in return receive a "stipend" which is their own to manage through a checking account/credit card. It is only different in the most contemplative of men's religious orders.

  • Posted by: demark8616 - Jun. 01, 2013 3:00 AM ET USA

    Excellent commentary! You have provided the answer "...dangers of losing ascetical discipline" - time overdue for the Church to act! Fortunately Pope Francis is not timid in talking about the reality of the devil & change is on it's way. This fallen priest is a good example of neglect, in that he is "bound hand & foot" (to quote St Teresa of Avila)in a militant order that has failed to protect him or themselves. Without the grace of God, anyone is capable of any sin...we can only pray.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - May. 31, 2013 10:57 PM ET USA

    Mario, this "poor fellow"? Children were raped for this guy's gratification. This "priest" should be in our prayers, but please, let's reserve our sympathy for people who don't destroy the lives of others to indulge in their perversion.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - May. 31, 2013 10:35 PM ET USA

    Looking at child porn can result from a lack of ascetic discipline? Or being targeted and bested in spiritual combat? Why would we be ok with a man in the priesthood who is even TEMPTED by child porn, even if he never gave into the temptation to look? Seems to me that predators and perverts use the church for cover. I find it implausible that any child porn seeking "priest" ever had any intention of living chastely and even if he were able to, he is still not priesthood material.

  • Posted by: mario.f.leblanc5598 - May. 30, 2013 9:44 PM ET USA

    As a faithful catholic, I feel compelled to believe that any priest (diocesan or religious) that plunges into pornography like this poor fellow is indeed a bizarre one-off.

  • Posted by: scunoology - May. 30, 2013 5:56 PM ET USA

    Bring back asceticism, and link it intimately with providing for the poor, sick, suffering and disadvantaged. 1,600$ would have been appreciated by a soup kitchen, or a missionary parish.

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - May. 30, 2013 7:13 AM ET USA

    Yet another good reason to suppress the Society of Jesus, for the second time in the order's history. You don't seriously think that Uhlenkott is a bizarre one-off, do you?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 29, 2013 7:50 PM ET USA

    I commend your restraint in not discussing the content of this Jesuit's twisted predilections. I followed the link you gave and it took about 50 seconds to confirm my suspicion: Not only does the pornography concern children, bad enough, but it seems to be exclusively homosexual in nature. Completely diseased personality, diseased behavior. Nothing new there.

  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - May. 29, 2013 10:47 AM ET USA

    Great article, and I would second the recommendation for the book mentioned, After Asceitism, vital reading to help understand the sexual abuse scandal.