The uproar over clergy sex abuse in the Catholic church is no longer just about sex abuse. It now touches on Catholic teaching about sexuality in general and even on Pope Francis himself, his agenda, and the future of his papacy.
When a Pennsylvania grand jury last month reported that more than 300 priests had molested more than a thousand children across six dioceses under investigation, it became clear that the cases were not isolated incidents. The problem of abusive priests and the bishops who cover up for them is systemic across the whole church.
Pope Francis says the crisis is rooted in a culture of clericalism, with priests and bishops so elevated in the church that their word and authority dominate over the experience of the people they serve.
Some of the pope's adversaries in the church, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, have another explanation: Gay priests are to blame, they say. Most abuse incidents, Burke told an interviewer last month, consist of "homosexual acts committed with adolescent young men."
"It seems clear in light of these recent terrible scandals," Burke said, "that indeed there is a homosexual culture, not only among the clergy but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root."
That view has found wide resonance in conservative Catholic circles.
Conflating homosexuality and sexual abuse
Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, writing to Catholics in his diocese last month, noted that the recent incidents of clergy abuse involved "deviant sexual — almost exclusively homosexual — acts by clerics."
"It is time to admit," Morlino wrote, "that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord."
When interviewed later about his letter on the Catholic television network EWTN, Morlino was asked what he would say to those Catholics who read his comments as blaming homosexuality for the problems in the church.
"I would say that homosexuality is at the root of this," Morlino answered.
Researchers who have studied patterns of clergy sex abuse say they have found no evidence of a link with sexual orientation. But the argument continues, with some Catholic leaders and prominent theologians even saying the abuse crisis justifies a purge of gay men from the priesthood.
Such reactions highlight the deep divisions in the Catholic church over issues of sexuality. Pope Francis, having advocated a more tolerant church culture in general and towards LGBT people in particular, has encountered fierce resistance from Catholics who cling to more orthodox positions. The Catholic church officially holds that to have a "deep-seated" homosexual orientation is to be "objectively disordered."
The new conservative focus on homosexuality in the clergy as a root cause of the abuse crisis has brought the longstanding debate over Catholic teaching on sexuality into sharper focus.
Is Catholic teaching homophobic?
"Our church's very unhealthy attitudes about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular really need to be addressed," says Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT advocacy group. Duddy-Burke sees the abuse crisis in the context of what she considers Catholic church homophobia.
"Whenever the church is under stress, particularly around the issue of sexual abuse and minors and the cover up by the clergy, gay priests have been scapegoated," she says.
Even Catholics who view LGBT people sympathetically, however, acknowledge that the abuse incidents highlighted recently mostly involve male-on-male assaults.
"Clearly, the vast majority of [clergy abuse] cases are men preying on boys and adolescents. We have to be clear about that," says James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of America, a Jesuit magazine. "But that does not mean that every gay priest is an abuser."
Martin, who writes often about LGBT issues and Catholicism, notes that being gay and committing sexual assault are different.
"The reason we have that stereotype [of gay priests as abusers]," Martin says, "is because there are so few public counterexamples of the healthy celibate gay priest, of whom there are hundreds if not thousands."
"They are in religious orders and dioceses and parishes and schools and hospitals and soup kitchens," Martin says, "and they're doing great work. I know them personally."
Martin thinks as many as 30 or 40 percent of Catholic priests are gay, at least in their sexual orientation. But he says they are terrified to be identified as such in the current environment.
A larger divide
The crisis also has political ramifications. In an open letter released last month, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, singled out several top Catholic cardinals and bishops as being complicit in the abuse crisis because of their association with what he called a "homosexual current" in Catholic circles.
Among them were former Washington D.C. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, credibly accused of molesting a minor. Vigano also targeted McCarrick's successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, for helping to cover up for abusive priests, as well as Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago. All three have been allied with Pope Francis and supportive of his social justice agenda. Francis himself, Vigano said, should resign for having accommodated McCarrick even while knowing about the allegations against him.
Vigano, however, is among the longstanding critics of Francis in the church.
"I think what's happening, unfortunately, is that the suffering of children and the crimes of sex abuse are being used by people who have always been Pope Francis's critics as an excuse to dump on him basically," Martin says. "I see in a lot of the attacks on Pope Francis more a hatred of him than a hatred of sex abuse."
The attacks may be having an effect. A new CNN poll shows Pope Francis is now viewed favorably by just 48 percent of Americans, down from 73 percent who approved of him at the beginning of his papacy.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
New revelations about hundreds of priests molesting children, mostly boys, have plunged global Catholicism into a deep crisis. The scandal has also deepened longstanding divisions within the church around issues of sexuality. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The uproar over clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church is no longer just about sex abuse. Some church leaders are using the crisis to promote a campaign against gay priests. Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., in a letter last month to Catholics in his diocese said, quote, "we are talking about deviant sexual - almost exclusively homosexual - acts by clerics." He was asked about that comment later in an interview on the Eternal Word Television Network, EWTN. Raymond Arroyo was the anchor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RAYMOND ARROYO: Some will say, bishop, reading this letter that you are blaming homosexuality for the problems in the church and for the sex abuse crisis. You would say what?
ROBERT MORLINO: I would say that homosexuality is at the root of this.
GJELTEN: Researchers who have studied patterns of clergy sex abuse say they have found no evidence of a link with sexual orientation. But the notion that the problem of priests molesting boys and young men is related to the number of priests who are gay has been echoed by several conservative Catholic leaders. A few say the abuse crisis justifies a purge of gay men from the priesthood.
Those reactions reflect continuing arguments in the church over sexuality and even over Pope Francis himself. He has advocated a more tolerant church culture with LGBT people in particular, and some Catholics don't approve. Official church doctrine holds that a deep-seated homosexual orientation is a moral disorder. The debate is now front and center.
MARIANNE DUDDY-BURKE: Our church's very unhealthy attitudes about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular really need to be addressed.
GJELTEN: Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT advocacy group, sees some church homophobia in the reaction to the clergy abuse crisis.
DUDDY-BURKE: Whenever the church is under stress, particularly around the issue of sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up by the clergy, gay priests have been scapegoated.
GJELTEN: Another cleric who has connected clergy abuse to gay priests is Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. In an open letter released last month, Vigano blasted what he called a homosexual current in church circles. But Vigano also made a point that even critics like James Martin have to acknowledge clergy abuse mostly involves male-on-male assault.
JAMES MARTIN: Clearly the vast majority of cases are men preying on boys and adolescents. We have to be clear about that. But that does not mean that every gay priest is an abuser.
GJELTEN: Martin is a Jesuit priest who writes often about LGBT issues in Catholicism.
MARTIN: The reason we have that stereotype is because there are so few public counterexamples of the healthy celibate gay priests of whom there are hundreds if not thousands.
GJELTEN: Martin thinks as many as 30 or 40 percent of Catholic priests are gay. But he says they're terrified to be identified as such in the current environment. The crisis also has political ramifications. In his letter, Archbishop Vigano singled out several top Catholic cardinals and bishops as being complicit in the abuse crisis. Almost all have been allied with Pope Francis and supportive of his agenda. Francis himself, Vigano said, should resign for having accommodated those men. In fact, Vigano is among the longstanding critics of Francis in the church. Again, James Martin.
MARTIN: What's happening, unfortunately, is that the suffering of children and the crimes of sex abuse are being used by people who have always been Pope Francis' critics as an excuse to dump on him basically.
GJELTEN: And it's apparently having an effect. A new CNN poll shows Pope Francis is now viewed favorably by just 48 percent of Americans, down from the 73 percent who approved of him at the beginning of his papacy, one more sign of how this sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has taken on wider dimensions. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "LIGAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.