The Magazine

The Elephant in the Sacristy

Beneath the scandals now consuming the Catholic church is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore.

Jun 17, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 39 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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"The abuse of the young is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the church but society as a whole."

--Pope John Paul II, speech to American Cardinals, April 2002

AS THE AMERICAN BISHOPS gather in Dallas next week to address the continuing devastation and humiliation of the Catholic church, they could do worse than begin by meditating on a defrocked priest from that city named Rudolph Kos. One of the most notorious child abusers in recent history, Kos was, in every sense, the stuff of which today's ecclesiastical nightmares are made. Now serving a life sentence for assaults on boys of all ages whose total is presumed to number in the hundreds, he was also responsible, in 1998, for the largest settlement yet made in such a case: $119.6 million, later reduced to $31 million.

The reason why the bishops ought to bear Kos particularly in mind is that he is typical of many of the other offender-priests who populate the headlines these days. By his own account, Kos was himself abused as a child. As a teenager, he either molested or attempted to molest other, younger boys. With the help of some priest-mentors who were aware of his personal history and apparently indifferent to it, Kos then gravitated to the priesthood--specifically, to a seminary in Texas where homosexuality was apparently out of the closet. One of his teachers would go on to become a celebrated gay writer. Paul Shanley--the most notorious child abuser among the Boston area clergy--was a guest lecturer on homosexuality there. As a priest, in addition to abusing boys from teenagers down to 9 years of age, Kos was also (as he later described himself) a "gay man." Indeed, court documents show that a fellow priest once complained in a letter of the "boys and young men who stay overnight with you [Kos]."

What even this brief recitation makes clear is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore, though many labor mightily to avert their eyes. Call it the elephant in the sacristy. One fact is that the offender was himself molested as a child or adolescent. Another is that some seminaries seem to have had more future molesters among their students than others. A third fact is that this crisis involving minors--this ongoing institutionalized horror--is almost entirely about man-boy sex. There is no outbreak of heterosexual child molestation in the American church. In the words of the late Rev. Michael Peterson, who co-founded the well-known clergy-treating St. Luke Institute, "We don't see heterosexual pedophiles at all." Put differently, it would be profoundly misleading to tell the tale of Rudolph Kos--what he was and what he did--without reference to the words "homosexual" and "gay."

Of course, as the bishops and many other savvy observers of the debate will also know, just such distortion has become commonplace--indeed, is the literary norm--in the daily renditions of what the tragedies in the Church are actually "about." The dominant view in the press right now--what might be called the "anything-but-the-elephant" theory--reads like this. Whatever the scandals may appear to be about--as it happens, man-boy sex--they are actually about something else. "It should be clear by now," as the New York Times put it in a classic formulation, "that this scandal is only incidentally about forcing sex on minors." Similarly, the New Republic: "We all know that the sexual abuse of minors is horrific; but somehow the bishops did not react with horror. That is what truly shocks." And the New Yorker: "The big shocker has been not so much the abuse itself--awful and heartbreaking though it is--as the coldly bureaucratic 'handling' of it by hierarchs like [Boston's Bernard] Law and the current archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan." And, for good measure, the New York Review of Books: "The current scandal is not a sex scandal."

Some writers do draw attention to the elephant--but only in order to dismiss it. Here is A.W. Richard Sipe, for example, a psychiatrist and former Benedictine monk who is as widely quoted as any other authority on the scandals: "It's not a gay problem; it's a problem of irresponsible sexual behavior and the violation of boundaries" (emphasis added here and below). Here is a Jesuit writing in the English Catholic magazine the Tablet: "The problem is not the abusing priests' homosexuality, but rather their immaturity and their abuse of power." Thereby has developed what might be called the cultural imperative of the scandal commentary--the proposition, as the president of the gay Catholic organization Dignity put it, that "Homosexuality has nothing to do with it."