The Invisibles

I once sat in on a meeting of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, one of the many 12-step programs that flowed out of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1990’s, an era when baby-boomers, like myself, had reached their middle years and were taking stock. The room was full of about 30 men — it was a Men’s Only Meeting, a popular format in the sex programs, which nevertheless had large numbers of women, as well — and most of these men were rock-solid AA recovery stories. Having gotten sober, they were now confronting the underlying issues that they had used alcohol and drugs to medicate.

There was a famous face in the room, a network newsman who was a bona fide stud-muffin and I spent a lot of that meeting checking him out — how did he laugh, how did he listen (intently and hunched forward, in his beautiful suit and tie, as I had seen him do many times during on-air interviews). But it was not this encounter with fame that left the most vivid impression. It was the presence of two priests at the meeting — in itself, an anomaly — both dressed in street clothes, who in their various ways (one overtly, one in a darker more covert way) shared the struggles they were having with high-octane libidos.

Knowing what I did of devout, head-in-the-clouds Catholicism, it was a jolt that two Catholic priests of my generation would ever put a spotlight on their sexuality. As it turned out, they were both ordered by their bishops to get help after certain affairs at their parishes spun out of control. I think of them today [September, 2005] in the wake of a new Inquisition — a purge of gay priests by the Vatican — that is whipping into high gear, as reported in the New York Times :

Investigators appointed by the Vatican have been instructed to review each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States for “evidence of homosexuality” and for faculty members who dissent from church teaching, according to a document prepared to guide the process.

…[T]he American archbishop who is supervising the seminary review said last week that “anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity or has strong homosexual inclinations,” should not be admitted to a seminary … [and] that the restriction should apply even to those who have not been sexually active for a decade or more.

American seminaries are under Vatican review as a result of the sexual abuse scandal that swept the priesthood in 2002 … The issue of gay seminarians and priests has been in the spotlight because a study commissioned by the church found last year that about 80 percent of the young people victimized by priests were boys.

Of the two priests who spoke at that SCA meeting, the first one was having trouble … with women. I was surprised. Like the archbishops who are now requiring seminarians to take heterosexual loyalty oaths, I assumed most priests were gay. A product of Catholic grammar and high schools, I came to the same conclusion commonly held by my classmates — though I had never been touched, or so much as propositioned by a priest.

My surmise was based on simple observation — my teenage gaydar being quite accurate, however embarrassed and closeted I was about it at the time. I saw clearly how the priesthood called some of my more idealistic, less sexually connected classmates. In certain large Irish families, in fact, it was almost a tradition that at least one son would be “sacrificed” to the church.

The way it usually worked, a boy susceptible to the church’s anti-masturbation, anti-sex message went directly from Catholic high school to Catholic seminary. If the boy happened to be gay, he embraced the seminary as drowning men embrace lifesavers, with the conviction that between being homosexual or sexless, sexless was better.