clergy abuse crisis sexuality

Heterosexual clergy who touch other men

It all depends on how you define "celibate" and "homosexual" (and perhaps also "man").

Content warning: discusses clergy abuse.

One of the least talked about clergy scandals involves one priest who sought to remove “gay” men from seminaries. Father Tony Anatrella was a Vatican “expert” on homosexuality for many years and one of the advisors behind the 2005 directive against admitting seminarians with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies.” Anatrella has helped to promote an anthropology which links homosexuality with narcissism and has influenced a number of works by prominent Catholics, including the recent Living the Truth in Love. All the while, the priest and psychotherapist has committed sexual abuse of men during therapy sessions and has since been removed from ministry.

You might be surprised to discover that a man who taught that “homosexuals are narcissists who are incapable of forming long-term relationships” and who advised seminarians, “You’re not gay, you just think that you are,” would have had sexual relationships with other men. The Church sent him all over France to “cure” individuals of their homosexuality.

And perhaps he did–if you define “cure” and “homosexuality” as Anatrella probably did. It all depends on perspective. Surely Anatrella’s anthropology, psychology, and understanding of Catholicism accommodated his sexual practices. So theologians, sociologists, philosophers, and psychologists should carefully consider the ways in which his anthropology and pastoral advice may have been formed by (as well as formed) the structures he and many other clergy created to facilitate, at one and the same time, their sexual encounters and self-righteousness.

Views like those held by Anatrella can easily facilitate and excuse sexual activities with other men. And they provide context for claims made by other clergymen that seem inconsistent with their histories. For example, Archbishop Nienstedt’s claim that he has always been a “celibate heterosexual man” may not at all be inconsistent with the claims that he went “cruising,” initiated a sexual liaison with at least one seminarian, and inappropriately touched others. It all depends on how you define “celibate” and “homosexual” (and perhaps also “man”). It also depends on your ability to accurately view your past.

History, Protection, and Self-Understanding

I don’t want to get into all the specifics of my former archbishop. All I have is a collection of stories. None of the allegations against him concern his time as an archbishop in Minnesota. They go back to his time as a priest in Detroit. One man says that Nienstedt sought out a sexual liaison with him but then that Nienstedt changed his mind when he discovered he was a seminarian. Others claim they saw Nienstedt at a gay bar in Canada near Detroit. Nienstedt denied any misconduct and opened an independent investigation into his past, which the papal nuncio eventually called off, ordering the destruction of evidence that was never released.

In this situation, one could present three scenarios: 1) Nienstedt was lying and the destroyed evidence proved this, 2) or the accusers were lying to discredit a conservative bishop, or 3) both Nienstedt and his accusers were telling the truth. The third scenario, though most strange to some, strikes me as quite possible. It is entirely possible that a priest or bishop might be so disassociated from his sexuality that he did indeed seek out sexual encounters with other men, but that he has since rewritten or reframed those encounters in his memory to preserve his self-image as a “celibate heterosexual man.” It may be that he so fears reality that he can’t actually see it. He may have habituated himself to view his history in a way so as to protect his image of himself.

This protected self-image and the walls of self-knowledge constructed to accommodate it, may be the sources of the issues which prevented Nienstedt from appropriately responding to the abuse crisis in his own diocese. The walls constructed to prevent an accurate vision of ourselves also obstruct our view of the world around us. Our gaps in our self-understanding create gaps in our understanding generally. A form of blindness could explain the remarkable negligence Nienstedt demonstrated in responding to the sexual indiscretions of those under him.

Linguistic Obfuscations

Carefully crafted language can also play a role in these situations. Even Cardinal McCarrick could make a claim that he didn’t violate his vow of celibacy, if you believe that such a vow only concerns sex, and that sex means penetrative intercourse. This may be why he engaged in a variety of sexual activities but not such intercourse. Perhaps he thought this was how he could maintain his priestly vows, by not crossing a line he had created in order to both indulge his sexual appetites and to maintain his status as a respectable clergyman. It’s all a matter of carefully crafted language.

For similar reasons, I often wonder whether arguments against the use of the words “gay” or “homosexual” (as opposed to “same sex attracted”) act as obfuscations and distractions, both by giving an excuse for certain behavior and by distracting one from the actual (difficult) task at hand, chastity. [1] By focusing on language and “identity,” we can set aside honesty and integrity in our thoughts and actions.

Such language arguments are a sleight of hand so confused that often even the magicians don’t realize they’re doing it. But some of us see the trick. And we’re not amused. [2]

A thought: I’m not sure anything can really be done to change the perspectives of those committed to the distorted dispositions above. So the task at hand for us is to consider how we may be doing these things in our lives, and to address them with increasing honesty. We cannot force anyone else to change, but we can choose to grow ourselves in these times. Something must be done. And that something must begin with you and me.

[1] Of course, these arguments about language may be necessary for the many Catholics who implicitly believe chastity is not possible for gay persons. I believe that most Catholics committed to “orthodoxy” hold and encourage such a despairing view.

[2] I’m open to fact-checking any of the above. If you come across evidence that any of the above is incorrect, please share. I’m happy to make corrections.

7 comments on “Heterosexual clergy who touch other men

  1. I’m not at all surprised to hear these things. The human mind, mine, along with the help of our enemy spirit, is very capable of distortions and obfuscations, as you said.

    I like your thought: ” So the task at hand for us is to consider how we may be doing these things in our lives, and to address them with increasing honesty. We cannot force anyone else to change, but we can choose to grow ourselves in these times. Something must be done. And that something must begin with you and me.”


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