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Come out, father

The Advocate,  Sept 3, 2002  by Gabriel Rotello


 Gay men are nasty, filthy child molesters, right? Well, actually, way, way wrong. But that's the conclusion a lot of people are drawing from the ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. And sadly, among those contributing to the revival of that tired old myth are decent, honorable gay Catholic priests themselves, who don't molest anybody but who, by their frightened silence and refusal to stand up for themselves, are inadvertently allowing the smear to go unchallenged.

 The idea that gay men molest boys was one of the big lies of homophobia for decades. It was in relation to gay men what the old blood libel was in relation to Jews: a dirty, dishonest fiction, but one with undeniable power to rile up fear and loathing.

 Gay liberationists spent years exposing and defeating that lie, and by the late 1990s we had pretty much succeeded. Witness the fact that when the Boy Scouts of America went to court to defend its policy of excluding gays, it trotted out every conceivable argument and excuse--except the argument that gay scouts might molest boys. That argument was so dead, even the BSA didn't dare dredge it up.

 Then along came the Catholic Church and its sexual abuse scandal, in which most of the abuse appears to involve male priests molesting young male parishioners. Suddenly, the age-old libel seemed to have a new lease on life. And what did the Catholic Church do? Did it respond by admitting that it had gravely sinned by allowing abuse of every kind--heterosexual, homosexual, and pedophilic--to run rampant for decades while shifting the abusers to new posts where they could abuse again?

 It did not: Senior church spokesmen here and in Rome proclaimed that gay priests were the problem and that the solution was to sweep them out of the priesthood. The clear implication being that--you guessed it--gay men are nasty, filthy child abusers, and the way to get rid of abuse is to get rid of gays.

 So just when we thought we had finally buried perhaps the worst libel ever to be flung our way, it has come roaring back to life, resurrected by the spinmeisters of Rome. True, we have fought back by pointing to long-established studies demolishing the idea that gays molest more than straights, and maybe we've made some progress. But the most eloquent set of voices we need in this debate are the ones we're not hearing--the voices of gay priests themselves. Estimated at 15% to 50% of the American priesthood, these are the guys who minister to the sick and poor, say the midnight masses, toil in the parishes nobody else wants, and have never molested anybody.

 Gay priests are as horrified by the scandal as any element of society. More horrified, probably. Yet, so far, anyway, they are silent--terrified that if they speak out and say, "Yes, I'm a gay priest," and "No, I don't molest children," and "Yes, I'm disgusted by the scandal and want the abuse to end," they'll be drummed out of the church and lose their life's vocation. And they might be right.

 The problem is that by saying nothing, by refusing to take the risk of coming out and bearing witness to the reality of their lives, they are adding to the impression that they are all somehow shameful and guilty, denying us the witnesses we need and powerfully undermining both their own cause and the cause of gay liberation.

 For decades gay men and lesbians have taken enormous risks at enormous personal cost in order to right the ancient wrongs of homophobia. From the teenager who comes out and risks homelessness to the marine who comes out and risks court-martial, gay people have bravely borne witness, have suffered great losses, and in so doing have changed the world. For priests, whose calling is one of sacrifice, self-negation, and bearing witness, to refuse to do the same is a blot on their mission.

 Jesus said, "Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to God." In the present climate that's not a platitude. It's a necessity.


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