Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The 'third rail' of the priestly abuse scandal: the role of homosexuality

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 15, 2015

Last week in this space, I argued that by setting up a tribunal to judge bishops accused of neglect in sex-abuse cases, the Vatican has finally addressed the second of three related scandals. Now let’s address the third scandal.

The first scandal, as you may recall, was the sexual abuse of young people by clerics. That scandal was addressed by the Dallas Charter, which established a “zero tolerance” policy for abusive priests. But the implementation of that policy has been marred by the second scandal: the negligence of many bishops. A “zero tolerance” policy has little value if the Church leaders ultimately responsible for enforcing that policy are not reliable. Thus the need to hold bishops accountable, as the Vatican tribunal will do. But the third scandal has not yet been addressed.

The third scandal, as I explain in The Faithful Departed, is the widespread homosexual activity within the clergy.

For more than a decade now, we have been incessantly reminded that homosexuality and pedophilia are not related. That’s true if you’re talking about true pedophilia: the disorder characterized by an attraction to young children. But the scandal that has ripped through the Catholic Church has not been, primarily, a matter of pedophilia. True, there have been some priest-pedophiles, and their cases understandably drew the greatest publicity. But the vast majority of the cases that emerged from diocesan archives involved priests who preyed on adolescent boys.

Most of the victims of clerical abuse were male teenagers. Now who is more likely to go on the prowl for male teenagers: a heterosexual man or a homosexual man? To ask the question is to recognize the answer. Despite the intellectual gymnastics of the John Jay report, the problem is evident to anyone who looks at it objectively.

”A scientific examination of the crisis makes it abundantly clear that priests with homosexual conflicts present a risk to Catholic youth,” writes Rick Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist who has worked with many troubled priests. He continues:

Dr. Paul McHugh, the former chairperson of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and a member of the first National Review Board, identified the homosexual predation of American adolescent males as the primary issue that needed to be discussed and analyzed. To be clear: pedophilia was not the central issue; homosexuality was.

The US bishops once recognized the role of homosexuality in the sex-abuse crisis. In 2002, when St. John Paul II summoned the leadership of the US bishops’ conference to Rome to discuss the emerging scandal with Vatican officials, the final statement that emerged from that meeting made a subtle allusion to the issue. The statement called for examination of the American seminaries, “with particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church’s teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria for suitability of candidates for the priesthood.” At the time, that statement was generally understood as a reference to complaints about homosexual influence in seminaries.

Over the years, however, concern about homosexuality in the priesthood has dropped off the American bishops’ agenda. A Vatican directive issued in 2005, that homosexual men should not be admitted to seminaries, is now routinely ignored. A priest who is guilty of homosexual activity may continue in active ministry, as long as his misconduct involves only adult partners.

Thus in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, we have the case of Curtis Wehmeyer, who is now serving a 5-year prison sentence for sexual assault and child pornography. The evidence of Wehmeyer’s homosexual inclinations was abundant, dating back even to the time before he was accepted into the seminary. But archdiocesan officials did not suspend him from ministry, because he did not violate the letter of the Dallas Charter; he was accused of soliciting young men, but none were below the age of 18.

In the criminal complaint filed against the St. Paul archdiocese earlier this month, the prosecutor’s charge cites the early complaints against Wehmeyer as evidence that the troubled priest was clearly a danger to young people. One troubled parent made the observation that the men approached by Wehmeyer in a bookstore looked as if they were under the age of 18, and his next targets might well be minors. But the archdiocese did not take action—at least not the stern action required by the Dallas Charter—because Wehmeyer had not yet crossed the line.

The current interpretation of the Dallas policy, combined with the bishops’ unwillingness to address the problem of homosexuality, requires acceptance of the polite fiction that a priest with a history of homosexual misconduct is no more likely than others to turn his attention to teenage boys—that a man who is attracted to young men is not apt to be attracted to younger men. As long as that fiction holds sway in the handling of clerical disciplinary problems, the problem of sexual abuse will not be fully resolved.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dapsr - Jul. 07, 2015 3:23 PM ET USA

    We first must deal with a problem with the word homosexual. Its meaning is now ambiguous. It can mean a male with a same sex attraction all the way to one living a regular lifestyle involving the sin of fornication with a member of the same sex. We must clarify our thinking and then deal with each person while being intolerant of unrepentant sinners, lay or clergy. Sin is our real problem. Re. rjbennett1294 comment, "welcoming homosexual persons" is not in the Synod's Instrumentum Laboris.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Jun. 18, 2015 10:45 PM ET USA

    Phil, that took courage. Thank you.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Jun. 17, 2015 2:02 PM ET USA

    How do we teach our children that homosexuality is a sin when the priest celebrating Sunday Mass is a known, out of the closet, practicing homosexual and the Bishop refuses to do anything about it? This situation is reminiscent of post VII when priests in the Confessional were telling us that artificial birth control was OK. Our Holy Church is being destroyed from within and our Bishops are part of the problem - if not actually directing it in some cases.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Jun. 17, 2015 6:06 AM ET USA

    Many of us shudder to think what will happen at the synod in October. “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer..," according to one passage in the "relatio post disceptationem" of the first session of the synod last year. So with the Church stressing in the "relatio" that it is now “welcoming homosexual persons," how likely is it that the problem of sexual abuse among the clergy - and the problem of people stampeding out of the Church - will be resolved? The spirit of the Council lives on.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 17, 2015 4:18 AM ET USA

    From a June 2004 USCCB report: 67.6% of alleged victims of Catholic priests were male (p 52). An approximate calculation of from Fig. 3.5.1 graphical data indicates that 76.7% of alleged victims of Catholic clergy were male (p 53). Table 4.3.1 shows that 80.9% of alleged victims of pedophile priests and deacons were male (p 69). An exact calculation from Table 4.4.1 indicates that 78.4% of alleged victims of Catholic priests were male (p 73); 80% of abusive acts by clerics were on boys (p 162).

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Jun. 16, 2015 7:42 PM ET USA

    Thank you Phil. How can the obvious continue to escape these "learned and clever" men? Why can they not see the connection? How many more little ones need to be hurt? I bet that the number of homosexuals in the Priesthood have also contributed to the vocations crisis and the lack of orthodox preaching . . .

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jun. 16, 2015 1:46 PM ET USA

    Daniel McCormack has *not* cost the Archdiocese of Chicago over $100 million. The $100 million is the alleged total that the Archdiocese of Chicago has paid out in the scandals.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 16, 2015 8:12 AM ET USA

    Chicago's notorious "pedophile" Daniel McCormack, who already cost the Archdiocese over $100 million, was reported to engage in homosexual acts while still a seminarian in Mundelein. The rector of the seminary personally protected him and recommended for priestly ordination in 1994. The former rector is now the Bishop of Tucson, AZ.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jun. 16, 2015 5:35 AM ET USA

    The USCCB (i.e., the Catholic laity) gave several million dollars to the John Jay College researchers to tell us that gay priests had nothing to do with the abuse crisis. Fr Stephen Rossetti told us that gay priests had nothing to do with the abuse crisis. Dr Fred Berlin told us…. Now, children, let's say it all together "Gay priests had nothing to do with the abuse crisis." Phil, you're obviously singing way off key here.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jun. 16, 2015 3:54 AM ET USA

    Pedophilia is a sin and a criminal act whether it be hetero or homosexual. The Church cannot afford to shield its clergy, religious, and employees when they commit these acts. The rape statutes include all sexual relationships between adults and minors. The Church fails to report these at its great peril. Any of the religious preying on any their flock whether adult in years is also sinful. The Church will fall if it allows even this to continue without penalty.