Description: FIVE YEARS AGO, after 25 years of ministry as a priest in five parishes in the Diocese of Oakland, I met with my bishop, Allen
FIVE YEARS AGO, after 25 years of ministry as a priest in five parishes in the Diocese of Oakland, I met with my bishop, Allen Vigneron, and informed him I was choosing voluntary exile from active priesthood until he was willing to initiate a public dialogue about the crisis in the Catholic Church. Because I was refusing an assignment, I stopped receiving a salary, health insurance and retirement accrual.
People ask me if I am still a priest. I respond with a qualified "yes." Many suggest that I should return to active priesthood because I could do so much good and because there is such a need for priests.
I tell them I know too much to go back right now. Here is some of what I know.
Despite Catholic bishops' propensity to pontificate against divorce, abortion, contraception, homosexual activity and gay marriage, there has been no accountability for the 66 percent of U.S. bishops who moved abuser priests to new assignments where they victimized more children.
This includes the former bishop of Oakland who ordained me in 1979 and Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. Tom Roberts wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in November 2009, "No bishop has yet given a detailed report of his complicity in the scandal. No bishop has detailed, without being forced by public pressure or civil authorities, his personal culpability in the scandal."
Despite all the apologies, "there's been no full voluntary
accounting for what the hierarchy did in the church's name to hide predators, buy silence, and re-victimize victims in sometimes vicious 'legal proceedings.' "
These bishops will defend their decisions by explaining that they did not know until much later that abuser priests could not be rehabilitated and returned to ministry, and that they were following the advice of expert therapists.
But in an April 3, 2009, article in The New York Times, Laurie Goodstein wrote that "the Rev. Gerald M.C. Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests, had written as early as 1952 to several U.S. bishops that pedophile priests should not be reassigned. Fr. Fitzgerald delivered the same advice in person to Vatican officials in Rome in 1962 and to Pope Paul VI a year later."
The reason I speak out on behalf of abuse survivors and against erring bishops is because silence is complicity with leaders who are secretive, unaccountable and incapable of hearing the cries of anguish coming from people for whom getting out of bed in the morning is a moral victory.
Joelle Casteix, a survivor turned advocate and mentor, says, "Standing up and pointing a finger at the leadership of the church is not disrespectful to God. It is respectful to children."
When I was still an active priest, I used to get very frustrated with my fellow priests for their acceptance of business-as-usual and their passivity in the face of shockingly poor leadership.
Most priests tend to place obedience to their bishop ahead of speaking truth to power. Most priests fear alienating parishioners and risking lower collections. Also, most priests struggle mightily with celibacy.
I struggled mightily to remain celibate as a priest for years, but all I heard from spiritual directors was that God is merciful and that I just need to pray more and have more healthy friendships.
Now I know that the rule of mandatory celibacy is based on a myth that sets up priests for loneliness, struggle and failure.
Priests should be free to marry, if they choose, and that goes for gay priests, too.
Richard Sipe, a former priest, psychologist and author, has studied the practice of celibacy among priests and writes, "At any one time 50 percent of American clergy are sexually active. Many of the bishops, rectors of seminaries, and spiritual directors who are entrusted with the responsibility of training priests are themselves sexually active and at times with the men they purport to mentor. Sexual distortion â€” expressing itself in at least 6 percent of priests who abuse minors â€” is endemic to the clerical culture because its members are not sufficiently educated to know about sex and how to handle their sexuality."
Mandatory celibacy is a crushing burden to most priests. Priests who give up trying to be celibate and take a lover lead double lives and their witness and integrity suffers accordingly.
Priests who manage to practice celibacy often become neurotic and eccentric.
What to do?
I endorse the suggestion of Fr. Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest who has done more than any other ordained church leader to advocate on behalf of abuse survivors, when he writes: "we must challenge the continuing validity of continued monetary support of an institution that has squandered the donations of believers to hide and then defend its criminal actions."
In other words, stop putting money in the collection basket at Sunday Mass! I remind myself each Sunday that the Catholic Church has paid out over $2.6 billion in the U.S. alone to settle suits and pay for lawyers so far.
More importantly, I remember the children and youth whose lives have been irreparably damaged, and those abuse victims who committed suicide.
A second means of advocating structural change in the Catholic Church is to keep this effort in the public eye. To this end, I will be showing up every Sunday morning, beginning today at the Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light with a sign in hand to walk the sidewalk in front of the church from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
You are all invited to join me any Sunday and to bring a sign too. I will be walking outside the church as a public call for structural change and as a show of public solidarity with those not fully welcome inside the church: abuse survivors, gay persons and women.
The church I was ordained to serve in 1979 has become a fossilized relic that mouths the Gospel and names Jesus as its Lord even while it aids and abets child abuse, denies women full equality and teaches that it's gay members are disordered at the very heart of their relational life.
Now is the time for structural change leading to leadership that is accountable for its decisions and open to the Holy Spirit's guidance in all things.
Tim Stier is a resident of Oakland.