Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don't ask, Don't tell

[Originally posted January 6, 2008]


Blogger and friend Charles Gates (You have a friend) asked me how I felt about Jesuits having their sad histories as pedophiles show up in the news—and the courts.

Charles, my first response approaches profound embarrassment—that some men with whom I shared the ideals of Ignatius took advantage of their position as priests to prey on children; I can hardly believe that their pathology wasn't checked. Was a bishop or religious superior not being responsible? (The evidence seems to point in that direction.)

But the word “embarrassed” is not exactly right. “Profoundly disappointed” might be closer: I have experienced the power of the Spiritual Exercises, and felt the enthusiasm and vision of Ignatius who was a religious genius, again for want of a better word. I felt I shared that deep feeling with so many men I admired, Arrupe, Berrigan, Chardin, Colombiere, Dulles, Drinan, Faber, Nobili, Ricci, la Salle, to name just a few famous ones, but many others, ordinary men who lead prayerful, inspired lives for a few years or a lifetime, Charlie, Joe, Thom, Drew, Joep, Kaiser, TJC, Marshall, Morgan, Neal, Bob, Jan, Freddie, Ray and many more. These men were, and continue to be interested in dedicating their lives to help others. They are all my heroes.

My naiveté allowed me to think that I shared this spirit with every priest, every Jesuit, and I imagined that I had enough experience with human nature, as the old confessional examination goes, “with myself and others,” to recognize the shadowy demons that most every human has. So, Charles, my next reaction is unspeakable sorrow for those who placed their trust in a person they thought close to the teachings of Jesus, a conduit for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and were manipulated. This is not how the universe is supposed to work. This cannot be the world that Jesus has saved, or the Mystical Body that believers hold up as a beacon to the world.

There was still some piece of the puzzle missing.

I noticed that the institutional response in every diocese and religious order across the United States was always the same: stonewall all investigations and never admit guilt. There were of course plenty of apologies, especially from those whose behavior was the most egregious, Law and Mahony. As one commentator said, profound apologies are not an admission of wrongdoing. Airlines routinely issue profound apologies to families of those killed in a crash caused by mechanical failure or an "act of God," as the insurance companies’ liability claims quaintly phrase it. The game seemed to be protecting the assets and “good name” of the institution which precludes any admission of guilt—“Our lawyers will not allow us to comment any further. Thank you. Next question?”

Then I noticed that institutional response did not come close to addressing anyone’s real concerns. When asked why he did not tell parishioners the reason he removed a priest who was arrested having sex with teenage boys in the back of a car, one religious superior said: "Why should they [need to know]? This is an Internet cruising thing. This is anonymous sex. This doesn't involve people at the parish. It wasn't a priest thing. He wasn't dressed in a collar." (No, he actually was in drag with lipstick and blush.) Apparently the private life and professional conduct of a priest were now separate and distinct, something I had never learned in the 11 years that I trained to be a Jesuit. People under pressure say and do stupid things.

I never had any inappropriate contact with a minor, during the time I was a Jesuit or since. And I do not know any Jesuit, gay or straight, who did. It was simply unthinkable, even in a time when the freedoms felt after John XXIII’s aggornamento were leading to all kinds of experimentation. It was unthinkable and yet it happened. So my third response was to look again into the situation more deeply, and this time include an examination of my own responsibility as a gay man with a vow of celibacy, to see if I could find in myself something beyond embarrassment, disappointment, blame, or, yes, even relief.

I make no secret that my last years in the Jesuits were very difficult and painful for me. I wanted to be a Jesuit, but I found celibate life extremely difficult, and I intended to honor my solemn promises if I remained in the Society. I was in therapy dealing with my own self-sabotage, self-loathing, and unconscious homophobia—parts of myself that lagged behind my intellectual acceptance, but there was never any real doubt in my mind that being gay was totally OK, healthy and a perfectly acceptable way of living in the world.

It is an open secret that there are many, many gay men throughout the entire body of Roman Catholic clergy, members of religious orders, and even the hierarchy. It is also no secret that the official position of the magisterium is that homosexuality is “disordered.” (I doubt that this falls within the infallible teaching.) And the solution to this contradiction for most gay priests, even if they have never broken their vow of celibacy—Secrecy! You might talk about it with your partners, if you have any, perhaps your superiors, perhaps your confessor, but never go public. Or as I say in the header for this post: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That is the first commandment.

Never having been circumspect about my own opinions or process, I was very open within the Jesuits community when I was coming out. I broke the first commandment.

Perhaps John McNeill had the same experience. If he had not come out openly "as a Jesuit priest, as a moral theologian, as a psychotherapist, as a person who is himself gay, and as a human being," he might still have a comfortable psychotherapy practice on the Upper West Side. I cannot answer that question for John, and I do not know if he would agree. But this I do know, if I had not come out fully as a gay man, I would have missed out on being able to know and express some of the deepest emotions that a human being can feel. For me there never really was any choice, but that non-choice, for some very difficult reasons, was the hardest choice of my life.

There is a pact of complete silence that gay priests are forced to obey. I was shocked by what I discovered, and if it is true, which feels very likely to me, it shows that the cult of secrecy starts right at the top.