Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Clerical Leadership Unresponsive to Voices of Reason

Just how dysfunctional can that celibate, all-male clerical caste system known as the Roman Catholic priesthood be? Well, if Dr. Leslie Lothstein’s professional experience is anything to go by, it can be extremely dysfunctional.

Lothstein (pictured at right) is a Hartford, CT-based psychologist who has treated approximately 300 Roman Catholic priests for sexual problems, alcoholism, depression and/or other mental illnesses. And as blogger Michael-In-Norfolk notes, Lothstein’s witnessing of advice from mental health experts being routinely ignored by Church officials, "bursts the balloon of the Church’s claims that decisions [regarding the handling of abusing priests] were made on expert advice."

The fact is that the Roman Catholic clerical leadership - right on up to the pope and his circle - has yet to genuinely acknowledge, let alone begin to integrate, the findings of science and human experience into its understanding of sexuality. This is incredible, given that Catholicism has a venerable tradition of valuing reason in shaping theological discourse. Yet now we’re increasingly being confronted with statements like those of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone: “I have recently been told, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia.” Yeah, well, Tarcisco, you’ve been grossly misinformed and, accordingly, sound like a total ignoramus. I suggest you start informing yourself of the facts by reading

I appreciate SNAP’s Peter Isely’s response to Cardinal Bertone’s statement:

Presumably, these same unnamed and mysterious psychiatrists and psychologists who [Bertone] is today claiming are telling him there is . . . a link [between homosexuality and pedophilia] must be the same ones church leaders are trying to blame for telling them to reassign and conceal known sex offenders into parishes and churches. Maybe it’s time the Vatican hire some new experts. But first, how about checking their licenses and university credentials.

Honestly, I’m increasingly finding myself agreeing with Michael-In-Norfolk when he states: “What is so amazing/disturbing is that with everything that is coming out, why anyone continues to give any deference whatsoever to the bleating of the bishops, cardinals and/or Pope.” Especially, I’d add, when it comes to issues of sexuality.

Anyway, following are excerpts from a recent New York Times article in which Dr. Lothstein shares his insights on what he has observed of the priesthood and Roman Catholicism’s clergy sex abuse crisis. It’s difficult but essential reading.


Leslie Lothstein has seen them all: priests sexually active with adult men, others with adult women, others with adolescents, others with children. By his own count, Dr. Lothstein, a psychologist at the Institute of Living, in Hartford, has treated about 300 Roman Catholic priests, not only those with sexual problems, but also those with alcoholism, depression and other mental illnesses.

And, when interviewed in his office last month, he was not at all surprised by the continuing revelations about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. “I had predicted 15 years ago that this would go up to the pope,” Dr. Lothstein said.

He unwittingly found himself in the news almost 10 years ago, when it was reported that the Catholic Church had sent priests to the Institute of Living for treatment without always telling the doctors the full details of the priests’ transgressions. (One of those priests was the super-predator John Geoghan, whom Dr. Lothstein treated.) What’s more, the Catholic hierarchy often ignored the institute’s recommendations about the priests’ fitness for service. “I found that they rarely followed our recommendations,” Dr. Lothstein told The Hartford Courant in 2002. “They would put them back into work where they still had access to vulnerable populations.”

. . . [G]iven his vast experience, as well as his independence from the church, his insights are disturbing, but also helpful. “It was a surprise for me to see how many psychopaths I met in the priesthood,” Dr. Lothstein said. “Glib, callous, could say anything to you and be charming.”

And as the therapists continue to discover, no therapeutic technique can heal a church of all its pathology. “And I treated half a dozen priests who fathered children,” Dr. Lothstein said. “I treated priests who had two children. I treated priests who got women pregnant and got them abortions. “I said to one of them, ‘Why didn’t you just use a condom?’ And he said, ‘Because birth control is against the law of the church.’

To read Mark Oppenheimer’s article on Dr. Lothstein in its entirety, click here.


So what's to be done?

In reflecting on this question I always find myself recalling the words of Dr. Simon Rosser, whom I interviewed in 2004 for the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities.

I think Church teaching is at its most progressive when it engages in genuine dialog, especially with experts and those most affected, to advance its theology. In turn, theology is like life – it’s liberating when it is healthy, challenging, and based in reality.

The last 50 years have been ones of enormous increase in scientific understanding of sexual orientation and identity. Science also made some major mistakes along the way that the Church can learn from and hopefully avoid repeating. So I think the Church has everything to gain and nothing to lose by engaging in genuine dialog with scientists on this issue.

. . . In my opinion, several of the Church’s recent statements on sexuality read as if they were written by a 12-year-old, or someone attracted to 12-year-olds. . . . [We have] a sexual theology that experts predict will perpetuate another generation of abuse. . . . I think the first step is for the scientists and the bishops to sit down at the same table and talk. I spent over ten years treating pedophiles and incest families. Watching the Church is like watching a giant incest family play out its dynamics. It’s deeply dysfunctional, it’s really sad, but it’s also fascinating. And it probably has to fall apart some more before real reform can be initiated.

Signs of real reform, as opposed to cosmetic cover-up, include reform of the Vatican level – holding the Congregation of the Faith responsible for overseeing both the sexual abuse by clergy and the promotion of pedophilic theology, “mainstreaming” of Catholicism from ultra-conservative positions to more moderate ones, and the establishment of genuine dialog between scientists and bishops on this issue.

Who among our current clerical leadership will initiate this "genuine dialog between scientists and bishops" and thus the process of establishing a healthy sexual theology and a healthy church?

The conversation is certainly taking place at the grassroots. Is that where the “healthy” theology and church can be found, and from where it will emerge to transform the institutional component of the tradition? Will the clerical leadership be responsive to such emergence and transformation? True, the current signs are not positive. But I live in valiant hope.

The words and actions of many of my fellow Catholics nurture and inspire this hope. I think, for instance, of bloggers such as Colleen Kochivar-Baker, William Lindsey, Terence Weldon, Jayden Cameron, Joseph O'Leary, Geoff Farrow, John McNeill, Thom Curnutte, Phillip Clark, Karen Doherty, Marty Kurylowski, Frank Cocozzelli, Crystal, TheraP and Prickliest Pear. I think, too, of the many local Catholics here in the Twin Cities involved in planning September’s Synod of the Baptized. And I again recall the words of Simon Rosser - words with which I'll conclude this post.

I have a lot of hope because I think the situation is so bad that American Catholics will be forced to think for themselves. And that’s a good thing. Whether it’s homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex, divorce, masturbation, or HIV prevention, the official Church position is now so extreme, so negative, so ultra-conservative, and ill-informed, that I’m confident that less than 5 percent of Catholics actually believe or follow Catholic sexual teaching.

In this situation either the church reforms or it dies. Given the ability of the Catholic Church to survive, I’m confident it will reform. But we have to do our part. American Catholics need to think for ourselves, to distinguish pedophilic propaganda from Catholic teaching, to demand [of bishops that they] reform or close down the Congregation of the Faith, and commit to prioritizing a healthy adult-focused sexual theology. It has to happen. So, it’s a great time to be Catholic and, hopefully, to be part of the change that must come.

Vatican Distances Itself from Prelate's Gay Remarks - Associated Press (April 14, 2010).
More Reactions to Bertone's Equating of Homosexuality with Pedophilia - William Lindsey (Bilgrimage, April 15, 2010).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“It’s a Great Time to Be Catholic and Hopefully Part of the Change That Must Come”: A Conversation with Dr. Simon Rosser
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
What Scientists in the UK Are Saying About Homosexuality

Recommended Off-site Link:
Sanity is in Short Supply in the Upper Echelons of Catholicism, But There are Other Voices Lower Down, Closer to Reality - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, April 12, 2010).


Terence Weldon said...

Once again, Michael, I must thank you for the kind words. I am flattered that you should list me among those that "inspire you" - but remind you again that you, in turn have inspired us. Personally, I certainly used The Wild Reed as a clear inspiration when I started out.
May I ask though, that you please update my link to my new URL for "Queering the Church", at

I also suggest that you add to the list the grandaddy of all gay Catholic writers (although only recently started in the blogging medium ) - John McNeill, at Spiritual Transformations? (

crystal said...

Thanks for the mention :)

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Terence,

Yes, how could I forget John McNeill!? Rest assured I've added his name and URL to this post.

Thanks too for your new URL. I'm not sure how missed that changeover. Oh, well. I've made the appropriate correction here and over on the sidebar, in my list of "Recommended Blogsites."



Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Crystal! You're welcome! And thank you - as I always appreciate and enjoy visiting your blog.