Where’s the faith content in these sex scandals?

On one level, that New York Times feature story on the fall of Msgr. Kevn Wallin of Connecticut has everything one would want in a religion scandal. I mean, it’s got sex, crystal meth, Broadway show tunes and a hazy link to a future cardinal.

Consider this summary material:

At a time when priests from California to Delaware have been accused of loathsome deeds, the allegations against Monsignor Wallin, the former pastor of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, are of a notably different dimension: that he was a drug dealer and addict who was buying an adult novelty shop to launder ill-gotten proceeds, a priest who was cross-dressing and having sex with men.

The enigmatic double lives of Monsignor Wallin burst into public view last month after federal prosecutors announced they had arrested him on charges of possessing and conspiring to sell drugs that could send him to prison for life. Now 61, he languishes in jail, having pleaded not guilty to behavior that many who know him find both twisted and ungraspable.

Or how about this?

After his departure, church officials found a bag stowed in the rectory containing adult pornographic videos, sexual toys and leather masks, according to church workers.

Alarmed at the possibility of child pornography or child abuse, the diocese hired an outside lawyer. The diocese said Monsignor Wallin was questioned and denied interest in children. An expert searched his computer, but found nothing related to children.

The diocese decided it had a priest who had committed a sin but not a crime.

Anyway, I think that we will skip the part about the “lace panties and other articles of women’s clothing” in his laundry.

The journalistic question, for me, is this: What about the actual content of this talented clergyman’s faith and ministry? I mean, was he one of those priests who was silent on the church’s teachings? Was he a progressive who gently undercut the doctrines of the church? Was he a traditionalist to preached one thing, while secretly living a life that completely contradicted the doctrines he had vowed to defend? Was he high church or low church?

Readers don’t get much on that side of the equation, which is strange since many unnamed Catholic leaders — we are told — believed that this man was on his way to being a bishop.

I mean, we are told that he was “erudite” and that the faithful “felt buoyed by his homilies.” He apparently loved to talk about church history and to take people on pilgrimages of some kind or another (other than to the opera and Broadway shows). Then there was this interesting paragraph that combined both sides of his life in a mysterious and unexplained manner:

Monsignor Wallin’s fall seems precipitous. But colleagues said that his faith had been weakening for years under the imperatives of running a financially crippled church, and that he had long been sexually active with men. His drug use, they suspect, may have been more recent, and the final tinder that exploded his life.

And then there is this glimpse of spiritual issues:

“His lifestyle was go-go-go-go, doing 50 things at once,” said a businessman who knew him. “He loved to mix with the big shots.”

But there was evidence he was wrestling with his faith. A church worker who has known him for decades described a session with other priests years ago during which they spoke of things like the mercy of God, and Monsignor Wallin said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“He had become disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the church,” this worker said. “You’re always doing the ceremony. You’re always dealing with the paperwork. You’re not shepherding souls.”

But the fact everyone agrees on was that, before the drugs, before his mental breakdown, there was always his double life in which he was violating his oath of celibacy. So whatever his approach to the Catholic faith, it was one in which his public, celebrated priesthood was mixed with his life as a sexually active homosexual and church officials close to him seemed to have known about that, according to the Times.

So there is a crucial question here, once again.

Other than matters of oratorical style, what was the content of this man’s faith and his ministry?

Did anyone ask about that? If and when did he actually lose his Christian, Catholic faith? To me that seems like a rather crucial question, yet it is never really addressed in this story.

Now, while it may seem like a bit of a leap, this Connecticut story connects rather easily to that alleged Vatican scandal that is lighting up the news in Italy.

The Daily Beast has offered an update, with the low-key, modest headline, “Priests in Panties.” While this story contains little new material, it does have some URLs to coverage of earlier, similar, scandals that certainly suggest that there is fire under this dingy smoke from inside the Vatican.

However, there was one reference in this piece that caught my attention, in this discussion of a lavender network of priests, repeat PRIESTS, inside the Vatican walls:

The priests, it seems, are allegedly being blackmailed by a network of male prostitutes who worked at a sauna in Rome’s Quarto Miglio district, a health spa in the city center, and a private residence once entrusted to a prominent archbishop. The evidence reportedly includes compromising photos and videos of the prelates — sometimes caught on film in drag, and, in some cases, caught “in the act.”

Revelations about the alleged network are the basis of a 300-page report supposedly delivered to Benedict on December 17 by cardinals Julian Herranz, Joseph Tomko, and Salvatore De Giorgi. According to the press reports, it was on that day that Benedict XVI decided once and for all to retire, after toying with the idea for months. He reportedly closed the dossier and locked it away in the pontifical apartment safe to be handed to his successor to deal with. According to reports originally printed by La Repubblica newspaper and the newsweekly Panorama (and followed up across the gamut of the Italian media), the crimes the cardinals uncovered involved breaking the commandments “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the latter of which has been used in Vatican-speak to also refer to homosexual relations. …

Wait a minute. There were videos of “prelates”?

That would kick this particular scandal up to a completely different level, if this Vatican report offered details on a network of “prelates” rather than mere “priests.”

Meanwhile, I think it is crucial to note that Catholic writers on left and right are questioning whether this alleged report was in fact the last straw for an exhausted Pope Benedict XVI. This post by Phil Lawler over at the conservative CatholicCulture.org notes:

Is there a network of homosexual clerics working within the Vatican? Undoubtedly, Yes. Was the discovery of that network a major factor motivating Pope Benedict to resign? Undoubtedly, No. … In many more cases there have been rumors, unconfirmed reports, or circumstantial evidence pointing toward the existence of a gay faction.

Pope Benedict, who has lived in Rome and worked with the Roman Curia for more than 30 years, has surely heard the reports and the rumors. He cannot possibly have been shocked by the news that some Vatican officials are homosexual. “He is probably the last person who would be surprised by such a so-called revelation,” remarked Jean-Marie Guenois, another veteran Vatican journalist and editor of Le Figaro.”

In other words, it is hardly news that there are discussions of homosexuality and the Catholic priesthood. However, Catholic leaders on left and right stress that there are gay priests as well as straight who faithfully live out their vows and manage to wrestle with the implications of the church’s doctrines — all of them — while defending her ancient teachings and traditions.

Whether in Connecticut or even in Vatican City, at some point journalists have to ask questions about what clergy, high and low, believe and how they live out those beliefs. The real scandals are linked to the failure to believe the faith, to teach it and to live it out. So dig deeper, folks.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the latter of which has been used in Vatican-speak to also refer to homosexual relations.

    Just picking one plum out of the rich pudding, but that line is driving me up the wall. This is one of those instances where you do need the background, even if you don’t put it into the story.

    Here’s how it works, gentlemen and ladies of the press: the Catholic interpretation of the Sixth and Ninth (yes, Catholic numbering) commandments is that these are the ones referring to sexual morality – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”. Yes, they have been extended past the literal words. If, by “Vatican-speak” you mean “the teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals”, no, it doesn’t only apply to “homosexual relations”: you don’t get away with saying “I’m not married, my sexual partner isn’t married, so we’re not committing adultery, so we’re not breaking the commandments, so we’re not committing any sin!”

    These commandments apply to straight people as well as gay, single people as well as married. I don’t think the story means to imply that if the priests in the alleged report had been soliciting the services of female prostitutes, that wouldn’t have been breaking the Sixth Commandment, but that’s what it sounds like (also sounds like “the Vatican is tougher on gays than on straight priests who break their vows”, but that’s another matter).

    And speaking of sex scandals and prelates, tmatt, I don’t know if you are aware of what has just blown up in the past couple of days; the Scottish cardinal, Cardinal O’Brien, who two days ago was in the papers saying that he thought priests should be able to marry is in the papers again today for a different reason.

    It is going to be a fascinating conclave.

  • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

    A very interest challenge, Terry. Couldn’t the enquiry could be extended beyond Roman Catholicism, and beyond sex scandals? Sexual abuse exists across denominations. Church Mutual Insurance, Christian Ministry Resources, and others have shown this. And journalists write practically every day about stories of non sex-oriented unethical and illegal behavior by clergy — financial impropriety, domestic violence, cooperation in political corruption, and so forth. The history of Europe, in particular, is filled with stories of clergy exerting abusing their authority at the highest levels. Quite a few commentators have suggested that the Roman Catholic scandals seem worse because it’s the largest and relatively centralized denomination. But does “lack of faith”, leading to bad deeeds, exist across all of Christianity? How many Protestant pastors lose their original religious vision?

    One tack involved in answering this is asking this question: what is the range of reasons people go into church leadership in the first place? Being in parish ministry, in particular, can give a person access to a lot of power; ordination, ritual, and other rites of leadership come with a lot of ceremony and glory; having “Reverend” (from “revere”, right?) before your name causes many people to look up to you; and in some branches of some denominations, clergy can live an upper-middle class lifestyle — the Episcopal Bishop of New York has a total compensation package of $300,000 a year, and some megapastors make millions. Even Catholic priests, given a pittance for a salary, are at least guaranteed housing, food, and health care, which is better than you can say for a large percentage of the world’s population.

    A lot of clergy like to paint a public picture of themselves as long-suffering, hard-working, denying a personal quest for worldly wealth and power, and being driven solely by the Holy Spirit and a committed only to live out Christian ideals. But in fact, the quest for love, glory, or security, whether they admit it or not, could underlie the motivation of many pastors. Parsing out more specifically the psychology of the cleric might provide insights into why, frequently, they don’t practice what they preach. Academics have probably already done research on this. Journalists may wish to turn to such studies, in order to make these sex abuse cases, and all clergy misbehavior, more understandable to the general public.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    For many years those in the media- and others- lamented that the Church was too obssessed with sin. That there were too many popular prayers that emphasized sin. The Latin Catholic “Hail Mary” used repeatedly in the rosary ends “Pray for us sinners.” And probably the most popular prayer used by Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians is the “Jesus Prayer” which ends …..” Son of the Living God have mercy upon me a sinner.”
    But nowadays you rarely find Catholics , including clergy and religious sisters, silently fingering their beads( or prayer ropes) in prayer. Maybe the churches have become too much like social work factories and too little like schools of prayer.—-And without intense, regular prayer which emphasizes how easy it is to fall into sin one is left almost defenseless to the lure of sin when immersed in busyness and go, go, go go.
    It is spiritual-religious issues like this that should be a major part of media probing of evil that infiltrates religion.
    So I totally agree with tmatt that the media should ask questions about the faith and ministry of those clergy who betray their vows and ordination. If such serious spiritually probing questions aren’t asked so that churches can purify themselves then all you have is sleazy yellow journalism benefitting noone except anti-religious bigots and those who enjoy being titillated.

  • Julia

    ” he was violating his oath of celibacy.”
    Catholic priests don’t take vows of celibacy; they promise of celibacy – not to marry.
    Improper sexual relations are sins for priests just as they are for lay Catholics.

    ” three vows of religion, namely, poverty, chastity and obedience.
    Any man or woman who makes the three vows is called a religious—a religious priest, sister or brother. This essentially is what makes a “religious” different from a “secular”. The secular priests never take the three vows of religion. They do make a promise to their bishop at ordination to obey him as their spiritual leader for a particular diocese, and they also make a promise to remain celibate—not to marry. It bears repeating, to say that diocesan priests do not take the three vows of religion—poverty, chastity and obedience. The promise of celibacy is not the same as the vow of chastity.”
    This was a secular priest – he didn’t take any vows.
    One thing most people don’t understand is that the major effect of laicization (popularly known as “de-frocking”) is release from the promise of celibacy. He is now free to marry.
    That is supposedly why John Paul II was so adamant against handing out laicizations – loads of priests wanted to quit to marry after Vatican II. Laicization is usually not a punishment – it is usually requested by a priest who wants to be able to marry.

  • Julia

    Joy, Intrigue as the Pope gives his final Sunday blessing.

    http://www.today.com/video/today/50927611/#50927611

    While we’re at it. This Pope, and Popes before him, appears on Sundays at noon to say the Angelus with the people, followed by a talk – either on Scripture or church history or whatever he thinks is appropriate. Why are all the media calling this a “Blessing” – as in this video about lots of people showing up for the Pope’s blessing. Read the church’s own descriptions of the noon Angelus . Why are they using terms that don’t exist in Catholic parlance? The Pope and bishops and priests bless people all the time – there are no special Papal events called “Blessings’” A real puzzlement. The Angelus is a very ancient prayer of the church and is a common term.

    http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/gallery/artists/angelus

  • Julia

    For anybody who doesn’t know what the Angelus is – an ancient prayer concerning the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelus

    Here’s a modern sung version of the Angelus, sung by Chanticleer, you may recognize:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVyCJlPiHFg
    The Angelus has 3 chants concerning the Annunciation interspersed with Ave Marias.
    The translation is at the wiki article above.

  • dalea

    What strikes me as odd in this is use of ‘allegedly’ and ‘it seems’ about a ‘network of male prostitutes’. Couldn’t one journalist find out if there actually is such a thing? How difficult is it to locate male prostitutes in Rome? And to find one that will spill the beans? Until someone actually investigates the prostitutes, all we have is confused rumors of rumors. Which do not belong in a news story.

    What makes me suspicious about this is the statement that the mysterious prostitutes work out of a sauna, or do they work in the sauna? From previous scandals we have learned that male prostitution, at least, has moved from fixed locations to the internet. So, if there are actual prostitutes involved, and they work out of a sauna, this is an old story. From before the internet. Anyway, that little point is what made me suspicious of the story as a whole. Elementary investigation is not being done.

  • Dave

    “a bag stowed in the rectory containing adult pornographic videos, sexual toys and leather masks”

    I recall the innocent days when “adult pornography” would be redundant…

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Never mind the faith content, tmatt; the Times’ just swipes the Catholic Church at any chance it gets. Bill Donohue (yes, I know he’s shrill, but he does get some things right) contrasted the Times’ treatment of Wallin with a couple of New York rabbis who were accused of child sexual abuse and found an amazing contrast between the stories: http://www.catholicleague.org/accused-priests-and-rabbis/. But then again, maybe it wasn’t so amazing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “…difference in scope ” has a lot to do with perception caused by the media’s zeroing in on any accusation made against a Catholic priest no matter how far removed from the local scene even to half a planet away .
    On the other hand there have been scandals involving Protestant churches and their clergy that never made it beyond our local area to the nationally influential Boston Globe-NY Times only 5 miles away.

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  • FW Ken

    The sheer numbers of Catholic clergy who behaved inappropriately suggest a difference in scope.

    Well, no.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/04/07/mean-men.html

    About 5%, at the most, of Catholic priests offended over 50 years. That’s about half to one-fourth the rate of men in general (10% -20%). The journalism issue here is the percentage of stories about priests as opposed to the percentage of offenders.

    The sins become those of the institution.

    I assume this cliche means by “the institution” the bishops. Of course, “the institution” actually includes all Catholics, including me. But the relevance of that cliche to this situation is questionable, since children are not involved, nor is there evidence that the priest in question committed a crime, except solicitation of prostitution, and I doubt that could be prosecuted. Moreover, this single case involves a priest who lost his faith; the broader scandal involved men across the theological spectrum. The journalism issue is that media outlets too often use this sort of cliched approach to talking about the Church, which is a community of persons. Personally, I think the media are simply reflecting a broad anti-authoritarianism inherent in American culture. It sells.

  • Patrick

    So a bunch of gay prostitutes blackmailed a bunch of priests – what were they asking for in return for silence? Do we know?

    Why all the focus on the priests – isn’t blackmail illegal? And aren’t the prostitutes telling the more interesting story in the first place?


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