Monday morning. February 11. My alarm goes off at about o’dark hundred. I shut my alarm off, reach for my phone, and hit the “News and Weather” app. (Yes, I’m an up-and-at-’em kind of gal in the morning). And what pops up?
POPE BENEDICT XVI ANNOUNCES RESIGNATION
Can he do that? I think to myself. As I learned later, that wasn’t a totally ignorant thought, given that a papal resignation hadn’t happened in 600 years.
Immediately after the announcement, it seemed like a tidal wave of reactions started rolling in, ranging from appreciation and reverence from Benedict’s supporters, to “Hallelujah!” from his critics. On the “Hallelujah” side of the continuum, this is what Sister Eve Volution, speaking on behalf of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, had to say:
[Benedict] has turned out to be such a reactionary Pope on so many different levels and seemed intent on leading the Church backwards when it comes to LGBT issues and the role of women in the Church, among other issues. The recent institution of a such a conservative Archbishop to San Francisco, who was one of the architects for Yes on 8, shows just how out of touch the Vatican is to its laity. Coupled with his hand in the cover up of worldwide sex-abuse scandals when he was in charge of the Inquisition, now known as The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he seems to be ill suited in leading the Church.
What jumps out at me when I reflect on Sister Eve’s comments? Homosexuality and pedophilia. Whether Pope Benedict likes it or not, his papal reign has been marked significantly by those two things. It’s not just Benedict that conjures up these words – if you ask someone to free-associate to the phrase “Catholic Church,” chances are good that “closeted homosexuals” and “child molestation” will show up somewhere on the list. And the Catholic Church has been very effective at using one of these issues to explain the other.
Of course, the media has been guilty of conflating pedophilia and homosexuality (gay priests, to be more specific) for quite some time. A 2004 report titled, “Subtle Stereotyping: The Media, Homosexuality, and the Priest Sexual Abuse Scandal,” analyzed the content of 1,326 news articles reported in the Boston Globe during the first year of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. According to the report’s authors, Glenda Russell and Nancy Kelly, an average of two articles per week were published in the Globe linking homosexuality and child sexual abuse in the year after the sex abuse scandal first broke. More recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who is a candidate to succeed Pope Benedict XVI had this to say when asked about whether a sex abuse scandal could occur in Africa: “Not in the same proportion as we have seen in Europe. Probably because African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency. Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa, homosexuality, or for that matter, any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society. So, that cultural ‘taboo,’ that tradition has been there. It’s helped to keep this out.”
It’s helped to keep this out. When Turkson says “this,” does he mean child molestation, or homosexuality? Or both? (I think he probably meant both.) In the eyes of the Catholic Church, if homosexuality is present in the church, and pedophilia is present in the church, then homosexuality must cause pedophilia. (A little Research Methods 101: This is what researchers refer to as a spurious correlation – a false presumption that, if two variables coexist, one must certainly cause the other. You will undoubtedly fail Research Methods 101 if you do not understand this concept by the end of the course.) If you do even a cursory search of the research literature on pedophilia and sexual abuse, you’ll find that heterosexual men are by far the most likely perpetrators.
Obviously, the Catholic Church hasn’t been successful at keeping pedophilia out. And even though it’s not talked about very openly, they haven’t really kept homosexuality out either. A 2002 Los Angeles Times poll of 1,854 priests reported 15% who identified as homosexual. Other sources report higher rates, as high as 58%. Although this is a wide statistical range, even if we err on the side of conservatism and go with the 15% rate, we’re still talking about a significantly higher rate of homosexuality in the Catholic Church than in the general population. And yet, very few studies exist that focus on the experiences of gay priests – probably because of the potentially steep consequences associated with coming out. One study, conducted by Stephan Kappler of John F. Kennedy University, indicated that internalized homophobia among gay priests is associated with depression, poorer overall psychological health, and less integration of their sexual identity. Which, to me, isn’t one bit surprising, given how strongly homosexuality has been denounced – vilified, really – in the Catholic Church. In fact, what does surprise me is that, for the most part, the gay priests in this study tended to be pretty well-adjusted and psychologically healthy, and that it wasn’t necessarily the norm for the priests to have high levels of internalized homophobia. But regardless of their high levels of psychological health and low levels of internalized homophobia, these priests, understandably, are deeply closeted – for coming out would undoubtedly lead to their dismissal.
Homosexuality and pedophilia. They’ve been linked together in a presumed cause-and-effect way. They’ve both been the focus of scandals within the Catholic Church (the latest word on the street is that Benedict stepped down after hearing about a “gay priest scandal” within the ranks of the Vatican). But what I find striking is this: both homosexuality and pedophilia are treated like skeletons in the closets of the Catholic Church. And the mentality of the Vatican reeks of deep denial: If we don’t see them, then they must not exist. And if we do see them, we have to find a way to make them go away. Make sexual abuse “go away” by sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn’t happen. Make homosexuality “go away” by forcing priests to remain closeted, or dismissing them in humiliation if their sexuality is exposed.
Homosexuality isn’t going away – nor should it. And sadly, I don’t think pedophilia and child sexual abuse are going away anytime soon either. But my (perhaps utopian) wish is that the next pope is willing to lead the Church towards acceptance and accountability, rather than oppression and silencing.