The elephant in the sacristy, revisited

elephant in the sacristy

Sixteen years ago, at the height of the 2002 clergy sex scandals in the Catholic church and on the eve of a meeting of bishops in Dallas, The Weekly Standard published an essay of mine called “The Elephant in the Sacristy.”

It included an in-depth look at some of the most notorious clergy abuse cases of the time.

Back then, like today, the plain facts of the scandals were submerged in what we now call whataboutism.

According to these evasive maneuvers, the wrongdoing was supposedly explained by reference to clericalism, celibacy, sexual immaturity, and other attributes invoked to avoid the obvious.

I examined and dismissed those analyses, offered up an alternative, and made several recommendations for cleaning up the Catholic church of the future. The scandals, I wrote, were:

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.

Like most people, I could hardly bear to read what needed to be read about the cases.

As well, anyone back then who described the facts in unadorned English was guaranteed vituperation, and got it.

But I wrote it anyway because of the conviction that “the most important mission facing the bishops and, indeed, all other Catholics . . . is the responsibility of doing everything in one’s power to prevent this current history, meaning the rape and abuse of innocents by Catholic priests, from ever being repeated.”

That was then, here we are now

Seen one way, this moment looks like a catastrophically familiar place, with more clergy sex scandals revealed not only in the United States but around the world.

Viewed more widely, though, we are in a far better place than we were 16 years ago.

Same sex marriage removed a chief obstacle to scandal truth telling.

First, same-sex marriage has triumphed, and ironic though this outcome may be for the Catholic faithful, that victory has removed one of the chief obstacles to truth-telling about the scandals.

Yesterday’s secular advocates for same-sex marriage shouted down anyone who suggested that homosexuality had something to do with the abuse, because they feared the connection would harm their political cause.

Having prevailed, their attentiveness to the church is now much diminished.

Accordingly, and very much unlike yesterday, today the fact that the scandals revolve for the most part around homosexual coercion by older men of younger men and boys is widely acknowledged, even in the secular press.

Second, the Catholic laity, at least in the United States, is in a dramatically different frame of mind following the revelations about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In 2002 laity reacted with handwringing and protestations of shock. In 2018 action is being demanded of religious leaders.

In 2002, the laity’s main reaction to the scandals was handwringing and protestations of shock.

Within the sadder but wiser laity of 2018, action is being demanded of religious leaders, from individual parishes to St. Peter’s Square.

The pewsitters of yesterday asked the clergy to fight for them by cleaning up the church.

Today, they are fighting for a holier church themselves.

Third, the same information tsunami swamping the world with pornography and cat videos is also working an unexpected miracle for the church: It has made the scandals inescapable and undeniable.

The Internet has empowered the laity to connect factual dots and share information.

It’s been suggested by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago that for the sake of the church’s broader mission, Catholics should not go down the “rabbit hole” of accusations.

To the contrary.

Every rabbit hole needs inspection in order to see what’s hiding in it.

We need tools, workers, and light.

Language forms reality

The first area of improvement concerns the language we use in speaking about the scandals.

If we’re going to clean up the church, we must first sharpen the vocabulary that we use to chip away the dirt.

What’s more obvious now than 16 years ago, for example, is that anyone who cares about accuracy should use the word gay with the greatest caution, if at all.

There may be instances when gay is unavoidable as an adjective, a necessary shorthand.

But as a noun, it is a word that Christians qua Christians should avoid.


The label is spiritually vague and antagonizes people unnecessarily.

The phrase “gays in the priesthood,” for example, fails to distinguish between those who remain celibate and those who do not.

It also inadvertently gives rise to the incorrect accusation, “You’re saying all gays are pedophiles!” which no one is claiming.

In the interest of removing unnecessary red flags wherever possible, we shouldn’t use it.

The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason.

They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way.

Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual.

However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.

It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way.

Scientific distinctions between pedophile and ephebophile are empirically problematic.

When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse.

I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year.

In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy.

This friend felt compelled to tell him, “Fr. Arne, I’m gay.”

To which the priest replied, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.”

Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.

Another word that continues to cloud rather than illuminate is homophobe, and its related variants, homophobia and homophobic.

Inside parts of the church, and ubiquitously outside it, homophobe has become an automatic smear deployed for partisan purposes.

We see this clearly by observing that related teachings of the church are not similarly made into epithets. Do people speak of contracept-ophobes, to criticize church teaching against contraception?

Do they decry klepto-phobes or forni-phobes?

The fact that those other words aren’t in circulation shows that homophobe is meant to shame, intimidate, and sideline apologists for the magisterium.

Homophobe, like gay, has become a political term, not a spiritual one.

It’s an epithet, not an argument.

Words matter

Words are never a matter of indifference.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, we aren’t obliged to participate or even to acquiesce in false accounts of reality.

If we can’t speak clearly and plainly, we can’t think clearly and plainly.

And if we can’t think clearly and plainly, we will never be able to reduce the damage being done in the house of God by the pachyderm trying to wreck it from within.

Some critics might object that people should call themselves whatever they like; what’s the harm in using this noun or that one?

But as Daniel Mattson argued in Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, identities and proclivities are different, and efforts to prove that sexuality belongs in the former category are problematic.

Taken to its logical conclusion, labeling ourselves whatever we like can be subversive of reality itself.

We have to start calling things by their proper names, beginning with refusing to participate in the dominant ideology of secularism, which celebrates what the catechism calls sin and reduces the human person to evanescent erotic desires in defiance of Christian teaching.

A further aspect of the scandals both past and present also concerns language.

Just as unthinking use of phrases imported from secular postmodernism has obfuscated rather than clarified reality within the church, so has the resort to the language of therapy.

Today’s throwback invocations of the supposedly scientific distinctions between pedophile and ephebophile are empirically problematic. Continue reading

  • Image: Crisis Magazine


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