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A “credible and substantiated” allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, new details of his emotional and sexual exploitation of Catholic seminarians, and an allegation of a years-long abusive relationship with another young man have led many to ask how sexual abuse committed by a high-ranking cleric could go undetected for so many years. 

Many answers can be offered, but one fact that has been overlooked for too long is the connection between priests who abuse minors and priests who are sexually active with adults. Toleration of the latter sin has made it harder to detect, criticize, and root out the former. As Richard Sipe, a psychiatrist and former Benedictine monk who has treated dozens of sexually abusive priests and written extensively on the problem of sexually active clergy, observes:

[A] community that publicly proclaims the sexual safety of its members, and at the same time tolerates sexual activity by them, restricts the ability of bishops, vicars, pastors and priests to properly supervise, discipline, and explore the criminal activities of priests who abuse children. Exposure of one part of the system—abusive priests—necessarily threatens to expose a whole system that supports a lack of wide-scale celibate conformity within the priesthood.

We can’t prevent the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults by clergy while habitual and widespread failures in celibacy are left unchecked. Most experts who have studied the phenomenon of sexual activity by clerics agree that the offenders do not constitute a large percentage of priests—though the incidence is difficult to measure with any accuracy, given the success with which sexually active clerics, especially those who pursue a gay lifestyle, are able to cover their tracks. Nevertheless, most priests I know would estimate, as I do, that in dioceses in the United States, at least 5 percent of the clergy in a given diocese are or have been sexually active with consenting adults since their ordination. Most of us would venture that the majority of sexually active clergy participate in networks of gay priests, networks that maintain a code of silence out of mutual fear of being discovered.

I don’t believe most bishops are content to tolerate the sexual activity of clerics in their dioceses. Instead, they often feel confounded as to how to address and stop it. According to the Code of Canon Law, c. 392 § 2, bishops are “to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesial discipline, especially regarding the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the saints, and the administration of goods.” If bishops are serious about being vigilant on behalf of ecclesiastical discipline, they will take a serious look at how they handle allegations of sexual relations of priests with adults. Here are five things faithful bishops can do.

1. Be unambiguous in your embrace of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality—and teach it.

A bishop should have a track record of clearly and unambiguously embracing the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, including the issue of same-sex sexual activity. If there is little or no evidence that a bishop has publicly taught or defended the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, he should be publicly challenged to give an accounting. Bishops must not tacitly tolerate clerics in their dioceses who openly support gay culture and its message of “Pride.” Where there is any indication that Catholic priests in his jurisdiction, or putative Catholic apostolates, are publicly endorsing the gay lifestyle or transmitting ambiguous or confusing messages to the faithful, faithful bishops must intervene. Such apostolates must not be allowed to operate in the diocese.

Such clarity is not at odds with a genuine pastoral outreach and accompaniment of Catholics who experience same-sex attraction (SSA). But such accompaniment must go hand-in-hand with true teaching about human sexuality. Bishops should be particularly solicitous of and present to those Catholics who live with SSA and strive to embrace the Church’s teaching on same-sex sexual behavior. Bishops would do well to be visibly and publicly supportive of Courage and Encourage apostolates, welcoming their collaboration.

2. Create a culture in which laity and clergy can come to you personally with concerns—without fear of reprisal.

Sadly, when Catholic lay persons muster the courage to raise a concern about a possibly offending cleric, bishops are often reluctant to meet face-to-face. The habit of hiding behind lawyers and legalities cripples many bishops in what should be a natural expression of their pastoral solicitude. Often, once issues have been raised, lay persons are left to wait and wonder: Will the bishop do anything?

For priests, who depend for their livelihood on the Church, the fear of retribution can be paralyzing: What will the consequences be if I report this to my bishop? Will there be a price to pay? It is awful to think that such reprisals can happen, but they have happened in the past and can happen in the future.

Networks of sexually active clerics, especially gay priests, are often entwined with diocesan power structures of control and governance. They often have deep influence over matters such as assignments, promotion, and finance. Faithful priests who dare to confront these realities will find themselves in a David-and-Goliath mismatch. Bishops need to assure whistleblowers that they will not be subject to punitive actions or retributions for going on the record with a concern or allegation. Face-to-face meetings between the bishop and concerned parties can go a long way to create a culture of trust. Parameters can be agreed upon beforehand to ensure that these encounters unfold with professionalism and respect. A bishop’s responsiveness must also include follow-up communication with interested parties, laying out how he intends to respond. The valid concerns of clergy and laity cannot fall on his deaf ears.

3. Foster priestly fraternity.

A caring connection between bishop and priests can go a long way toward heading off the kind of disillusionment and isolation that may lead a priest to fail in chastity. Bishops can take any number of initiatives in this direction, by sponsoring periodic priest retreats, priest support groups, and other types of worthwhile encounters. Priests must seek and receive regular and solid spiritual direction, and newly ordained priests must be given close attention through effective programs of priest-to-priest mentoring.

Priests, for their part, need to be ready to do their part in cultivating priestly fraternity. Sustaining personal friendships is an art form, and it requires hard work. Where there is genuine priestly fraternity, there can thrive as well the rare flower of priestly fraternal correction. Priests must find the moral courage to confront a brother priest in fraternal charity, to ask frank and probing questions about observed behavior that raises concerns, especially when it involves boundary violations, spending habits, alcohol, questionable diversions, or simply ambiguous or secretive behavior.

4. Be transparent, vulnerable, and accountable.

A bishop once assured me that bishops hold each other accountable far more than Catholics in the pews or the mainstream media realize. He insisted that bishops engage and challenge each other frequently and at times forcefully—just that it’s done privately. Most Catholics, especially those who work closely with bishops, would find such an optimistic picture highly questionable, not to say laughable. The American hierarchy, with few exceptions, still bristles at the mere suggestion of bishop accountability.

Here, faithful bishops must rise to the occasion to change episcopal culture, beginning in their own dioceses. Faithful bishops will make clear to all observers that they are not part of an episcopal caste that protects its own and follows a code of public silence in the face of a brother bishop’s wrongdoing.

Public silence from bishops on matters of episcopal malfeasance has long been a scandal. That silence inspires confusion, anger, sadness, and distrust among the laity, and it can devastate priestly morale. How often does a misguided and false prudence lead bishops—with too few exceptions—to sustain their public silence in the face of the very public failures of their brothers? Faithful and courageous bishops simply have no choice in our day but to challenge and fraternally correct one another, even and especially in public. That means incurring the wrath of bishops who continue to operate as an old boys’ club that sees itself as above scrutiny, much less public criticism.

5. Establish an independent watchdog to monitor the public and private behavior of clergy.

This idea comes from a former prosecutor and seasoned diocesan lawyer who says he has been suggesting it for years, but to no avail. The bishop would establish a confidential advisor, authorized to act as an independent watchdog to monitor priests and permanent deacons, as well as those serving in positions of leadership in the diocesan curia. This person—a non-cleric with background in law and ideally law enforcement—would have full access and independence to receive and investigate anonymous concerns about any member of the clergy, including by retaining private investigators as the case may warrant.

And though the confidential advisor would report directly to the bishop, in order to assure a higher standard of transparency and accountability, the purview of existing diocesan review boards could be expanded beyond the current role of advising bishops in the assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors, to include allegations of clerical sexual involvement with adults. The confidential advisor could be assisted by the review board in the investigation of allegations and in detailing a final report and recommendations to the bishop. The confidential advisor could also share that report with regional bishops as a further safeguard against possible mishandling of the case.


The Church looks to its bishops to identify wayward priests, to challenge them to repentance, and to assist them in reintegrating their broken lives. More often than not, and certainly in the case of habitual offenders, this will mean—for the good of all involved—their return to the lay state.

A greater focus from the nation’s bishops on the problem of sexually active clerics could encourage those victims of clerical sexual abuse and exploitation who have so far remained silent to come forward and be heard. It would contribute to recovering the moral stature of the office of bishop, which has been so disastrously eroded in the decade and a half since the crisis of clergy sexual abuse came to light. It would help to restore the Church’s credibility. And it would manifest the enduring presence of Christ in his Church, who never ceases “to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5: 26-27).

Fr. Thomas Berg is professor of moral theology, vice rector, and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). He is author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics.

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