As many as half of all priests break their celibacy vows, leading spiritually compromised lives. Inside the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the Catholic church.

Image: Tom Wolff

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They stood amid the snowcapped peaks of the French Alps last summer and exchanged gold bands, a private ceremony that marked a secret relationship two decades old. Before leaving, they knelt down and prayed that God would bless their relationship and also their chosen careers. He is a Roman Catholic priest, and she is a nun.

“Spiritually, I feel like I’m married,” explains Father Michael, in his early 50s, a priest for 27 years and the pastor of a parish in a Midwestern city. “It’s too bad I can’t pronounce it to the world.”

The pair’s hidden life resembles that of a modern professional couple. He has instructed his church staff that he always takes phone calls from her, even if he’s in a meeting. They spend their vacations together, traveling recently to Europe with his parents, who don’t ask any questions (“They consider her a daughter,” he says). On Catholic holy days, she makes the two-hour trip from her religious community to his parish to attend Mass. And, when possible, they enjoy a healthy sex life.

“I wrestle with it,” says Father Michael, who wears his gold band every day, though few have ever asked about its significance. “For me it’s always been a consistent theme. I’m always on the edge of leaving. I stay for the people.”

It may seem like Father Michael has the best of both worlds, but he says he struggles heavily with the hypocrisy of violating a major rule of the priesthood while acting as the spiritual leader to 1,000 parish households. “I really don’t deal with the guilt very well,” he says. “I feel we are caught, we are handcuffed by the church.” Even when he seeks counseling from a fellow priest, it proves problematic: “My confessor is trying to not engage in sex, too. He is trying to cut back on his relationship,” he says.

They are not the only ones. Richard Sipe, a retired Johns Hopkins University instructor and noted researcher on Catholic clergy and celibacy, spent 37 years studying the sex lives of the clergy. Based on his research, Sipe estimates that only half of all priests remain celibate. And this struggle — between normal physical needs and religious devotion — is the root of the Catholic Church’s biggest crisis.

More than 100,000 men worldwide have left the priesthood since the 1960s. In America, the number of priests has fallen to 48,097, a 17.3 percent decline since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic research center at Georgetown University. More than 2,161 parishes in the United States, about 11 percent, now get by without a resident priest. And by the year 2000, according to estimates from Catholic reform groups, there will be more married former priests than active priests.

The priests who stay must often endure a culture of fear and deceit. Many grow to believe that they could never make it on the outside. Not without good reason: A career spent serving God, sadly, doesn’t necessarily look great on a résumé. Many have watched colleagues leave in order to pursue a relationship openly, only to wind up behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant, or on welfare.

That anxiety becomes more acute the longer a priest stays within the church, because most Catholic dioceses refuse to offer any type of pension to a priest who resigns. Thousands of former priests have found themselves essentially penniless after decades of service. This encourages a kind of ecclesiastical “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: Priests keep quiet about their secret lives to protect their livelihoods, while the church maintains its control by making them financially dependent. If he were to leave now, Father Michael would risk losing everything. “I think the church imposes celibacy because they’re afraid of losing control,” he says.

Ironically, priests who commit criminal acts — including the estimated 150 to 200 U.S. priests who have been convicted of molesting children — appear to be able to keep their pensions if they remain in the priesthood. (Some psychologists speculate that these crimes actually spring from the priests’ struggles with celibacy.)

Over the past year, dozens of priests and nuns and more than 100 former priests were consulted for this story. Several priests, some interviewed along with their lovers, spoke about wrestling with whether to leave the priesthood. And the decision proved far more complicated than simply choosing between staying with their divine calling or submitting to human desire.

Cait Finnegan says that since 1982, her group, Good Tidings, has counseled more than 1,500 women and priests who are romantically involved. Good Tidings has a mailing list of more than 600 and offers women and priests a confidential Internet newsgroup and chat room, and an occasional newsletter. One thing Finnegan doesn’t provide is optimism. “The vast majority don’t get married,” she says. “I would say that no more than 20 percent of the priests whose girlfriends I deal with leave the church.”

She knows a little about dating a member of the clergy. She’s been married for 17 years to a former priest, whom she met after she herself left a convent. They were friends for five years, but didn’t consummate their relationship until after their marriage, she says. Many of the women Finnegan counsels, however, are deeply involved — physically and emotionally — with men who will never leave the priesthood. And these women often behave passively, daunted by the prospect of confronting a priest. “The woman feels she doesn’t have a choice. She’ll go along with the hiding for years and years because she doesn’t want to ruffle his feathers,” she says.

Among the women Finnegan has counseled is Sharon Roy, of Phoenix, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter whose father is Roy’s former priest. After years of hiding the identity of her child’s father, Roy went public in 1995 and sued the Rev. Patrick Colleary for child support.

Her struggle began more than 20 years ago, when Roy says she sought guidance from Colleary after the death of her sister. “Over a period of months, he began talking about himself,” she says. “He was unhappy in the priesthood, [but] he said he never wanted to go back to the farm in Ireland.”

Roy says Colleary began insisting they meet in her home instead of at the church. And she says the friendship quickly turned into a romantic, physical relationship. She pulls out an eight-page handwritten letter, dated January 5, 1978, that she claims is from Colleary. It reads: “Bit by bit I fell in love with you and you became the person, the only one who knew me better than myself.”

Roy says she learned she was pregnant just a few months into the relationship. From that point on, however, she began to feel alone. “I was in the hospital for two weeks after my daughter was born. He came by on the fourth or fifth day. He stayed for five minutes and didn’t touch the baby.”

When the baby was three weeks old, Roy says she asked Colleary to baptize their daughter. He did. Years passed; Colleary moved to another parish and, Roy says, offered little support for his daughter. In early 1994, Roy asked the diocese for support. “They said, ‘It was consenting sex. It’s not our business,'” says Roy. “I didn’t meet this man in a bar. I went to him for help, and I ended up with his child.”

Roy began a letter-writing campaign to several church officials in Phoenix, including Bishop Thomas O’Brien and the diocese’s committee on sexual misconduct. Last year, feeling her complaints were getting nowhere, Roy filed for child support with the Department of Economic Security’s Child Support Enforcement Administration in Phoenix. Receiving financial support became less important for Roy than making Colleary face up to his responsibilities. She says she kept telling herself, “He’s not going to get away with this.”

Colleary did not contest her claim. According to court documents, he agreed to pay Roy $400 a month. The Catholic Church garnishes Colleary’s wages and sends them to the state child support office, which then issues a check to Roy.

Recently, it appeared that the church would intervene to help Colleary. Roy’s attorney received a letter from the Rev. David Myers, Colleary’s attorney, stating that the church (referred to in the letter as Colleary’s “employer”) would pay off Roy right away, if she agreed to take $26,000 — 20 percent less than the $32,420 Colleary still owed.

The letter reads: “[Colleary’s] employer is willing to advance Patrick enough to satisfy his entire obligation to your client if your client would be willing to accept a lesser amount for the benefit of immediate cash payment in full.”

But when reached for this story, the Phoenix archdiocese claimed the letter was a mistake. “There’s no basis in any talk in making any kind of loan to Father Colleary,” says the Rev. Michael Diskin, the archdiocese’s assistant chancellor. Diskin acknowledged that the church garnishes Colleary’s paycheck, saying, “That’s all we are doing.” Myers later withdrew the offer, saying he had a misunderstanding with the diocese.

Written questions were submitted to Colleary at St. Luke’s Institute, a well-known Catholic psychotherapy center in Maryland, where he is on a sabbatical from his Phoenix parish. St. Luke’s is known for treating priests for a variety of problems, including alcoholism, pedophilia, and lack of sexual control.

“We were sexually involved,” Colleary responds, when asked about his relationship with Roy.

“In October 1995, I told my bishop,” he says in the written reply. “Why? Because in the months prior, Sharon had told her story to him, but had not named me. So there was pressure to tell him.” Colleary maintains that he was not told he was the father of Roy’s daughter until she was 12 years old, and that he has contributed financially since then, though he would not specify how much.

His lawyer says that a recent blood test did confirm that Colleary is the father. But Myers also suggests that Roy would be better off appreciating the settlement and not speaking to reporters.

“Doesn’t she realize she’s killing her golden goose?” says Myers. “If she gets him kicked out of the priesthood, she’ll lose her support. The way it is right now, they won’t kick him out. A few people know, but not a lot. It could cause enough scandal that the diocese would have to fire him.”

Before Brett Schott, 33, made the decision to leave the priesthood, he was anxiety-ridden. “Why must I choose?” Schott said in November 1996, while still an active priest. “I would love to continue being a minister in the Catholic faith and be married.”

Now development director for a St. Louis nonprofit that cares for HIV-positive homeless and mentally ill people, Schott has set out to build a new life with a former member of his congregation, Kathy Young. Attending a new parish, the two are engaged and plan to share parental duties for Young’s five sons from a previous marriage.

It took Schott several years of struggling with his celibacy vow before he ultimately decided to leave. “I found myself entering relationships and then running from them because I wanted to be a priest,” he says. One relationship lasted nearly nine months, Schott says, until he ended it because he knew it was purely a physical attraction. “In seminary they talked about celibacy. But it was always that Jesus would be everything for you,” he says. “I didn’t understand what I was going to give up.”

Once he became a priest, the sacrifice seemed enormous, especially when he counseled young couples for marriage: “I was envious. They had what I wanted. After the wedding, I’d stay until the end of the reception. I was avoiding going home.”

Not long after Schott met Young, the two found themselves speaking every night on the phone until they fell asleep, the receivers still by their ears. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I prayed to God. I asked him to help me decide whether or not this should stop.”

Ultimately, the church prompted Schott’s resignation by offering him his own parish. Schott, who ran the St. Louis diocese’s 500,000-member Catholic Youth Council, was an up- and-comer, a priest on the fast track. But he says he felt it would have been unfair to accept the position, and then make the parishioners suffer the loss of their priest if he eventually resigned from the church.

He arranged a meeting with church officials and told them he couldn’t accept the pastorship and wished to leave the church. Immediately, Schott says, they expected the worst. “They asked, ‘Is there an inappropriate relationship?'” he recalls. “I said, ‘No,’ because there wasn’t as far as I was concerned.” He also remembers that the officials worried about the possibility of scandal or blackmail.

Another diocese leader later questioned Schott about his sexual orientation. “When I told him it was heterosexual, I think he was surprised,” says Schott, who claims that of the other former priests he counts among his friends, several are gay.

But Schott didn’t tell church officials everything. He didn’t say, for instance, that he was having a relationship with a woman in his church. “Otherwise, if they knew, they would [have said], ‘Get out now!'”

On the weekend of January 12, the sixth anniversary of his ordination, Schott told his parish that he was leaving the priesthood. An older woman in the congregation had brought him a rose and a card for his ordination anniversary. “She gave me a hug and said, ‘Who is she?'”

When Schott made his announcement, Young, a church organizer, scaled down her activities in the parish. Eleven years older than Schott, she had divorced her first husband and had not sought an annulment, which would have given the divorce a Catholic seal of approval. Initially, her five sons were less than supportive. Her 15-year-old protested: “Mom, how could you do this? I like him as a priest, but I don’t think I like him as a stepdad.” When Schott came over to discuss the possibility of joining their family, two of her sons wouldn’t speak to him.

One parishioner who didn’t know of Young’s relationship with Schott called her as the news of his leaving spread throughout the diocese. “I just wish they would change the rule,” the woman told Young. “They need to let them get married. It’s killing our church.”

Last fall, more than 20 progressive Catholic groups in the United States banded together and announced a national referendum on several issues, including celibacy. The organization, We Are Church Coalition, is trying to persuade 1 million American Catholics to sign a petition asking the church to allow priests to marry, a practice common in the church’s first millennium but reversed by canon law in 1139. The campaign began in 1995 in Europe, where 2.3 million Austrians and Germans signed the petition.

Surveys have long suggested that American Catholics favor a married clergy — 61 percent in 1995, compared to 65 percent in 1967, according to public opinion polls.

Rome does not agree. Pope John Paul II sternly refuses to consider the issue, even when faced with embarrassing stories. Last summer, in Britain, the bishop of Argyll and the Isles left to marry a divorced woman with three children. A few weeks later, a St. Petersburg, Florida, congregation learned its priest had been secretly married for 15 years. When the church gave the popular priest an ultimatum, he chose his wife, and now he sells real estate.

But in 1980, the Catholic Church created a peculiar loophole to the celibacy rule by allowing about 100 married U.S. Episcopalian and Anglican priests to convert to Catholicism and practice as priests while enjoying their sexual relationships. Church officials concede the policy has caused dissension.

“It has caused a lot of tension with a lot of our celibate priests who want to get married and stay in the church,” says Robert Morneau, the auxiliary bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a church spokesman on priest life. “Some of those men feel there are two standards.” Admitting that celibacy is an edict from church leaders, he adds, “Celibacy is a discipline. It is not absolutely tied to the priesthood, and the church can make exceptions and can bypass that discipline.”

Morneau also blames other reasons for the exodus of priests, including, he says, “the situation of sexual abuse.” But the vow of celibacy could be the root of both troubles. Many psychologists believe its emotional strain plays a direct role in the pedophilia convictions that have rocked the image of priests and the Catholic Church. John Allan Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, has worked to complete one of the largest studies on sexual behavior of the clergy, looking at 1,322 priests who passed through a Catholic treatment facility. Loftus speculates that priests abuse teenagers primarily as a way to deal with underdeveloped sexual impulses.

“If the church loosened its celibacy requirement, you’d see less of it,” says St. Paul, Minnesota, attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who won a landmark U.S. case holding the Catholic Church responsible for a priest’s pedophilia. “The requirement suppresses healthy expressions of sexuality. These priests are lonely and living in isolated places. Often they have sex and it is opportunistic and with whom they have access to, and often that is youth.”

In July, a Dallas jury ordered a Roman Catholic diocese to pay $119.6 million, the largest award ever in a molestation case involving a priest. The verdict punished the diocese for covering up for the Rev. Rudolph Kos, 52, who was accused of molesting altar boys. The plaintiffs, now adults, brought suit against Kos and the Dallas diocese; they included 10 men and the family of another man, who committed suicide. After the trial, several jury members said that the diocese had acted with gross negligence and had concealed information in its handling of the sexual abuse complaints lodged against Kos over the years.

The Catholic Church maintains several treatment centers around the country to help priests in trouble, from those struggling with celibacy or battling drug or alcohol problems, to those charged with pedophilia. But former priests say the centers are known less for help than for punishment.

John Prenger, 49, of Columbia, Missouri, remembers his experience at one such center. In 1994, Prenger asked church officials for help. Still a virgin, Prenger had been having a nonsexual relationship with a woman for several years and questioned whether he could remain a priest. The diocese sent him to a treatment center where, he says, he was berated every time he had contact with the woman. The center treated him as if it were unnatural and abnormal for him to want a relationship.

“I look back on it now, and it was more emotionally abusive than anything I’ve ever gone through,” Prenger says. “I was deeply violated having to submit to this. I was made to feel as though love is cruel.”

Prenger, who calls himself “a priest in private practice,” is now married and active in his local parish, where he gives spiritual direction on an informal basis. Without full-time work, Prenger struggles to get by.

Paul Trainer, 52, of Portland, Maine, also left the priesthood after a traumatic experience at a treatment center. “In 1990, I asked for a six-month leave and went into a treatment center for alcoholism,” explains Trainer. “It was my understanding that what I said was to be kept private. After I made my own disclosures — which we were all encouraged to do — I was informed that the bishop wanted to see me and wanted me to repeat everything that I had said in counseling.”

Trainer admitted to church officials that he was gay and that he had not been celibate. Afterwards, feeling outed by the counseling program, Trainer says he felt alienated from church officials. By 1995, he asked for early retirement, but was told he didn’t qualify. So he left, and despite his 24 years as a priest, he had no retirement fund. He began looking for work. After great difficulty, he eventually found a job working at a supermarket deli in Portland.

Last year Gordon Simonds, a tax attorney, began negotiating with the church on Trainer’s behalf, asking the diocese for $20,000. He didn’t hear back for months.

Then, out of the blue, Simonds received a letter from the church in June of this year, offering a lump sum payout of $45,000. “I don’t understand it,” Simonds said. “But we’ll take it.”

Few have been as lucky as Trainer. James McLellan, 58, had also been a priest for 24 years, before leaving in 1989 to marry a divorced colleague at the small Catholic college where he taught. He lost his pension, and the only job he could get was stocking shelves at a Kmart. McLellan had studied in universities all over the United States and Europe, but after he married, he was hauling heavy cases of antifreeze and paint solvent and making minimum wage. “It was very degrading,” he says.

John Wilcox served as a priest for 29 years. In 1985, he left the priesthood to marry. He began working for a health care company, but stopped two years later, after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. He hasn’t been able to work since. He receives a check for $384 a month from Social Security, accrued from his days as a merchant marine. After he became a priest, he says he didn’t have the money to make the monthly payments to Social Security, as required by the agency. “I figured I’d be taken care of by the diocese.”

Wilcox is among 60 former priests in Boston who are taking on the church. Known as the Committee of 60, they believe they have a right to collect their pensions, particularly since many of them say they paid their own money into a church plan.

Because the church is a religious organization and its beliefs are tied to its employment practices, the government has virtually no oversight of its pension programs. Churches are not even required to submit pension plans to the Internal Revenue Service.

“How do you monitor church plans if you don’t get the plans?” asks Mark O’Donnell, IRS branch chief of field compliance. “It’s a problem. A number of church plans don’t file 5500s [the IRS form for pension plans]. If we get too aggressive, it looks like we’re interfering with their religious operation.”

The Committee of 60’s members see it as a bitter irony that the church denies them benefits, while still paying to feed, house, and defend priests accused of pedophilia, such as the Rev. John J. Geoghan, a retired priest who allegedly molested at least 28 children, and the Rev. John R. Hanlon, who is serving three life sentences for molesting children. Hanlon is listed on the church’s most recent rolls as a senior priest in good standing and qualifies for a retirement package.

“The archdiocese does take care of me,” Hanlon writes from his prison cell in Massachusetts. “I am not suspended; I have not left; I am officially recognized as retired. On the advice of my counsel and the archdiocesan authorities, I am not free to discuss financial matters. But I can honestly say that I have not been forgotten or neglected.”

But attorney Paul McGreevy, a member of the Committee of 60, hasn’t given up. He is trying to establish a network of attorneys across the country to pursue a national case to obtain pensions for former priests. Recently, the Boston diocese agreed to review individual cases upon request and award money on the basis of need.

“This isn’t as earthshaking as priest pedophilia. But as far as the church’s dirty little secret, the same dynamics are here,” says McGreevy. “The church says, ‘We’re not going to observe the moral standards, though we hold everyone else to those standards.'”

Many priests, even the youngest, defend the tradition of celibacy, despite the attrition it has caused among the clergy.

“Celibacy is not some great weight,” says Ted Ku, a 32-year-old seminarian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., who seems even more youthful than his years. The lanky, 6-foot-1-inch Ku sinks into a couch in one of the front offices at the seminary. His white monastic robe is cinched at the side by a long strand of rosary beads that, as he sits, hang down to his ankles where they rap a pair of black Nikes.

Only two weeks earlier, Ku took the solemn vows of his Dominican order, which include the promise to remain celibate for the rest of his life. In keeping with Dominican tradition, Ku changed his first name, choosing John Baptist.

“The priesthood is a sheer gift,” he says. “I don’t think the church is being unfair to men by saying celibacy is a part of the priesthood. That’s the church’s decision.”

The only son of a Chinese immigrant father, a Buddhist, and an American mother, who is a devout Catholic, Ku often fought with his father about his decision to go to seminary. “He was very much against it,” explains Ku, who has five sisters. “Not because of religion, but because I’m an only son. [My father’s] brother has no sons, so I’m the concurrent heir of two households of Chinese families. He was very unhappy.”

While Ku says he has never had a yearning to have children, the decision to remain celibate for the rest of his life became much tougher after his father died. “It was harder to do than I thought,” he says. “I always fancied myself as a willing martyr.”

Ku says he has struggled with his desire to have a relationship with a woman (“I am definitely heterosexual,” he says pointedly), but feels content knowing that celibacy will bring him closer to God. Although a theology student, he borrows frequently from philosophers to explain his views of the priesthood. Initially, he says, he was influenced by Immanuel Kant’s theory that virtue can only be gained through sacrifice. He thought that becoming a strong person meant resisting passion. But, as he began preparing for the priesthood, he abandoned this philosophy, feeling that his desire to control his emotions might merely mask fear. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t running away from women.” A virgin, Ku says he learned to find “intimacy” with women friends by “drawing upon [their] femininity and my masculinity in an intellectual and emotional way, not a physical way.”

Now, Ku says, he takes his lead from Aristotle, specifically Aristotle’s archetypal virtuous person. He quotes a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “For the virtuous person judges each sort of thing correctly, and in each case what is true appears to him…. Perhaps what distinguishes the virtuous person is that he sees the truth in each case, being himself as it were the standard and measure of the noble and pleasant.”

What would happen if Ku ever really did face such temptation? “I assert reason. I cling to the truth,” he answers. “It’s not like I’m biting my lip, trying to possess and control myself. By living chastely, I can become the virtuous person.” Before long, Ku will put his philosophy into practice. By the spring of 1999, he will have finished his courses and should be ordained a Dominican priest.

Cheryl L. Reed is a writer living in Minneapolis. She spent a year researching and reporting on celibacy in the Catholic priesthood with the help of a Kiplinger Fellowship at Ohio State University.


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