A Closeted Subculture

A Closeted Subculture August 20, 2018

Many discussions of the sexual-abuse crisis within the Catholic Church have used the phrase, “a homosexual subculture.” That phrase obviously overlooks the abuse of women and girls; however, it does seem to describe some of what’s been going on, in some parts of the Church, and fully addressing our crisis will require, at some point, coming to terms with this subculture (or these subcultures) and the ways it has distorted priestly formation and Catholic witness. But what very few people have discussed (Chris Damian is one exception I’ve seen) is the specific nature of this subculture: that is, it’s entirely a closeted subculture.

As far as I know, none of the men who took part in it were openly gay, in the sense that their parish knew. Some friends might know, their superiors might know, but not the sheep. For the most part they kept their secrets on their own terms. I should say up-front that I know very little about the specifics of abuse crisis, or about priesthood, for that matter. I’ve seen the same statistics you’ve seen, in which the large majority of the (reported) sexual abuse of recent decades was committed against postpubescent boys, but I am not an investigator, and I haven’t worked on this subject even as a journalist. To the extent that I have any expertise to offer, it’s based on speaking with many people at different stages of the coming-out process. I’ve seen the anxieties, fears, and secrets the closet creates, and I think these aspects have something to do with the way abuse and cover-up played out in our Church.

Before I talk about the ways in which the closet may have contributed to a culture of cover-up and abuse, let me say that most talk of “root causes” is premature and comes across as using other people’s rape as a weapon in a culture war. Even if I’m right about the role of the closet, addressing it is not the most important task here. Those tasks are, in my judgment,

# admitting, punishing or gratefully accepting punishment for, and doing penance for abuse and cover-up;

# supporting and listening to those who have had the courage to speak out about their experiences of abuse and cover-up, typically at severe personal cost.

I have a reason for bringing up the closet now, which I’ll get to at the end of the post, but the two tasks above are the most urgent ones. There are probably other root-cause tasks which are more urgent than addressing the closet (although intrinsically linked to opening the closet door), like renewed emphasis on chastity in priestly formation: chastity understood not solely as refraining from certain actions, but as a practice of personal integrity, not ignoring one’s body but making one’s body an altar for the sacrificial worship of God and the service of His people.

A third caveat: The term “homosexual subculture” can mean a lot of things. Three obvious examples are the “situational homosexuality” of all-male environments like boarding schools or prisons, or seminaries; a network or friendship group in which men are open about their sexuality to one another even if they are completely closeted in their public life; or a deeply hidden, furtive “subculture,” more like being on the down low, in which men don’t even acknowledge to themselves the meaning of the fact that they consistently seek out sex with men or teenage boys. These subcultures can overlap, and it seems like all of them have played some role in the Church and all of them are marked by the characteristic features of the closet, so everything I say here should apply to all of these situations. People also sometimes use the term “homosexual” to describe the abuse of prepubescent boys, but that’s something I know so little about and which seems so different to me in its dynamics that I am not speaking about it here.

There are three basic roles I suspect the closet plays in parts of our Church. First, where people greatly fear being considered gay, it will be especially hard for boys or men to report sexual assault and coercion. Regardless of whether or not they’re gay themselves, they will fear that they’ll be told they were responsible for their abuse or welcomed it, and they will fear (for example) being made to leave the seminary or being outed to their family. Similarly, even if you weren’t assaulted yourself, if an abuser knows you’re gay then he has a secret to hold over your head, which you may fear that he’ll reveal if you report his abuse (or your suspicions of him).

Second, young people struggling with their sexuality are especially vulnerable where being gay is especially stigmatized. They may confide in an older man, perhaps someone who has cultivated their trust because he senses their vulnerability. He may even have shared his own secret homosexuality with them, precisely in order to win their trust; which he will then go on to abuse. His secret creates a powerful bond between them, even a sense that the victim has a responsibility to protect the abuser. Secrets can create a false intimacy, an environment in which manipulation is especially easy.

And third, the fear and secrecy of the closet distort people’s self-understandings, their ability to surrender their lives to Christ, and therefore their ability to regulate their behavior. What you can’t even admit to yourself, you can’t surrender to God: This may be part of what’s going on with men who rail against gay people, while they themselves were abusing men for sex–men like Father Tony Anatrella. But even if you do admit certain things to yourself, or to a few other people, you live with the sense that there is something about you which cannot be revealed; you know that you are presenting a false face to the world, and you either justify this hypocrisy or live in the kind of shame which severely distorts your ability to relate to other people. You may become more manipulative, more immature in your desires, much less self-controlled, or even more prone to coerce others sexually in order to feel some kind of control or (false) connection. (The therapist Alan Downs describes some of these effects in his book The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World.)

On a personal note, I experienced some of these dynamics when I was still drinking. There was a point at which I knew on some level that I was an alcoholic, but I would not admit it to myself, let alone others. There was a point at which I had admitted it to a confessor and a close friend, but nobody else. Now I am totally open about it. Each of these steps was a step toward honesty, surrender to God, better relationships with others, less acting-out even in seemingly unrelated areas like cruelty or lust–and greater ability to live in sobriety. “You’re only as sick as your secrets” is a cliche, but it’s also a dynamic I’ve seen in my own life.

(Here let me distinguish between privacy and secrecy. So much advice given even to gay laity conflates these two concepts. We’re told not to come out to anyone but our confessor because to come out would make our sex lives too public, it would tell people what they have no need to know and don’t want to know, etc etc. But plenty of unmarried people rarely discuss anything relating to their sexuality. They are private: They don’t talk about their sexuality unless it is directly relevant. If it is directly relevant, however, they will speak honestly and without shame. There’s an additional reason a gay celibate, including a gay priest, might want to come out more broadly or frequently, which is that gay people growing up in the Church have virtually no models for what their future might look like. But even if you only mention things which would make it clear that you are straight or gay or whatever when it’s directly relevant, you are not living in secrecy as long as you’re willing to be honest. Privacy can be good for people. Secrecy, especially to the point of dishonesty, damages your ability to be intimate with friends, confessors, and God.)

I’ve known lots of closeted people and as far as I know none of them ever raped or coerced anybody. But many of them did find that their shame distorted their ability to be honest with others and live chastely. People under even greater pressure, with far greater power and access to potential victims, and experiencing even greater dissonance between who they claimed to be and who they knew themselves to be, might act out in far more destructive ways.

So these are a few ways in which the fear of being known to be gay, or perceived as gay, may have contributed to abusive subcultures in the Church. Given my own uncertainty about the strength of these effects, why bring this issue up now? (Especially since every attempt to address “root causes” will create its own unintended consequences, and will be treated, by at least some people, merely as a surmountable obstacle to their own manipulation and harm of others.) I bring it up now because I see so many people calling for an end to the “homosexual subculture,” or more blatantly just saying we need to stop letting in gay priests, and without an awareness of the distortions the closet causes, all of these efforts will make the closet’s walls thicker.

There is no way to have a church without gay priests. What you can have is a church where the only gay priests are those unscrupulous enough to lie about their orientation and longings, plus those so frightened and ashamed that they couldn’t bring themselves to admit those longings even to themselves. You can have a church, in other words, with only the most damaged (and vulnerable) gay priests possible.

I suspect it is better to have a church where priests, seminarians, and ordinary laity are not afraid to be known as gay. That church might actually have fewer gay priests, in the end, or it might not–that’s a separate issue, really–but the gay priests it would have would be more likely to be honest and self-aware. They would have models of honesty and chastity. Some of them would still sin sexually, and some of them would still sin by abusing others. But the secrecy and fear which protects abusers would be lessened. This, at least, is what I think likely. I welcome corrections, counterexamples, etc.


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