Skeletons in the closet

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?


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.


Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, religion, same-sex marriage, stereotypes, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Skeletons in the closet

  1. Gary Hollander

    Oh, Gayle, at LAST this can of worms! Thanks for the post. I really love to get hour thinking on issues of the day.

    Unfortunately Cardinal Turkson appears to lack insight into LGBT issues within his own current sphere of influence. The Cardinal appears to confuse colonization with culture. My African friends — mostly all heterosexual — have pointed out that their home towns and villages, did not have LGBT people in them. However, they also have pointed out that there are many same sex encounters and even longer term relationships in these places. To me that reasonably suggests that in smaller communities there may be situations where behavior, orientation and identity do not align in quite the same way as they do in much of the US or Europe.

    But, similar situations exist in the US. In the rural midwest, it is not completely uncommon for men to be seen as eccentric instead of gay — occasionally still identifying themselves as artistic instead of gay. Even in larger cities, there are some men of color in enclaves where their homosexual experiences are understood differently than for what we view as typically gay identity.

    Of concern to me is the lack of humility on the part of Cardinal Turkson. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but he is pretty sure about it anyway. A potentially dangerous trait in any of us, but particularly in a candidate for the Papacy — a job that claims moral authority even when it is lacking.

    Organizations awaiting prosecution for crimes against humanity would do well to adopt a perspective of humility as they seek to defend and preserve their control at the expense of human beings. Of course there are higher than expected rates of internalized homophobia among gay and bisexual Catholic clergy and some laity; they have to be somewhat self-hating to hang on to their false hopes. But the systems of anti-gay oppression likely also weigh heaviest on them. They hear the campaigns of disinformation more frequently than most of us. They experience the forced marginalization. They know that they are made to feel invisible. And they daily recognize that the Catholics all around them cannot see them or their significant contributions.

    Cross-generational sexual misconduct (aka pedophilia) is commonplace in the US and elsewhere across the globe. It is only somewhat less problematic when it is socially sanctioned (18 year old girls with 28 year old guys or 30 year old women with 55 year old men). When we joke about cougars, for example, we are failing to recognize and halt the power differential that is at the core of pedophilia — the inability to provide consent. The Catholic clergy and hierarchy are not responsible for this situation in society. But they are contributors, through their actions, inactions, and failure to own the issue and provide light in the world. That would be moral authority. They lack it.

    • Thanks for your comments, Gary! Always very thoughtful.
      It’s interesting that it’s only been within the last century or so that being “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual” (or “homosexual”) have been considered identities, rather than behaviors. I imagine that this might account for some of the observations you’ve made, where people engage in same-sex encounters (and relationships), but don’t necessarily consider themselves to be gay.
      I also really appreciate your last comment: “The Catholic clergy and hierarchy are not responsible for this situation in society. But they are contributors, through their actions, inactions, and failure to own the issue and provide light in the world. That would be moral authority. They lack it.” You’re absolutely right. Sexual abuse happens within the Catholic church and outside of it, and it’s not the Church’s fault that it happens – but if the Church turns a blind eye, then they incur responsibility. I’d love to see that pattern turn around.

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