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Reform School

[whitespace] Scandals move church activists to push for radical changes in clergy

By Janet Wells

IN RECENT YEARS, headlines more appropriate to sleazy tabloids have trumpeted what seems like a never-ending parade of Catholic bishops, priests, and lay clergy entangled in shocking sexual misconduct cases with men, women, and children.

The problems are so widespread that the news media have branded the inner sanctum "a culture of collusion."

Why can't a 2,000-year-old institution with 976 million faithful--17 percent of the world's population--figure out how to clean up its act?

Here's an idea: Get rid of the celibacy mandate. Or ordain women as priests. Or talk openly about sex.

Radical reforms may not eradicate pedophilia, of course. But it's the eve of the third millennium--at least by the Christian calendar--and the world's most powerful adherent to that timeline seems firmly rooted in the Dark Ages.

"It's one of the most incredible dysfunctional family units you could possibly see," says Tom Economus, president of Linkup, a national support group for victims of clergy abuse.

"I lived in a monastery with 38 men," says Economus, a priest who says he was sexually abused himself as a teenager at a Catholic school in South Dakota. "We knew who was having sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual, who had eating disorders, who had problems with alcohol. You just turned your head [and ignored the problem].

"Many of the good clergy knew of

priests offending, but never turned them in because they were involved in relationships themselves," Economus adds. "It was who-had-dirt-on-who contributing to a code of silence. It is a systemic problem."

Many church experts, as well as Catholic faithful, disagree, saying that the problems are magnified out of proportion.

Scandal, says San Francisco Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy, "tends to obscure the day-to-day ministries that are ongoing."

"The first time I went to the Diocese of Santa Rosa they were having a respite meeting, giving caregivers of Alzheimer's patients a break. That was in the midst of the announcement of Bishop Ziemann's resignation," he says.

"I think people, over time, they see Mother Teresas, Father Damiens, and they realize there's a great deal more holiness than misconduct."

But for those who are dismayed beyond belief at the Church's oft-troubled inner sanctum, ignoring the bad in light of the good is no longer enough.

Here are some of their thoughts:


  • "It is time for the Holy Roman Catholic Church to examine a policy that came into existence . . . to keep land and wealth in the hands of the clergy and not the widows and children of the priests," says Kory White, in an August editorial in We the People, a publication of the local gay community."

  • "I believe that Jesus never intended the priests to be celibate," says Sister Jane Kelly of the Ukiah parish. "[St.] Peter was married."

  • "This vow of celibacy thing is a joke," says Don Hoard Jr., who, as a boy, was molested by Father Gary Timmons, a Santa Rosa priest now serving an eight-year sentence for molestation. "It just fosters a mentality that any accusation of impropriety--that these things can't happen because we're celibate. That's a neat fairy tale."

Women in the Priesthood

  • "When you have a church that excludes women from all the decision-making, you have a problem," says Linda Piecynski, president of the Catholic reform group Call to Action. "[Pope] John Paul is very conservative . . . and he's surrounded by people who are obviously trying to protect their position of power. Everybody admires the pope and reveres him, but nobody listens to him.

  • "The vast majority practice birth control despite what the Vatican says. A majority of Catholics believe that women should be priests. We've had altar girls for a while.

  • "What's the big deal?"

Sexual Dialogue

  • "When I went through seminary, they didn't talk about sex," says Linkup's Tom Economus. "It was an underlying rule that you handled your sexuality before you entered the priesthood. I went to my spiritual director and wanted to approach the subject of sex. He went over to a shelf and gave me a book on celibacy and the priesthood, about 125 pages. 'Here,' he said, 'This will answer all of your questions.'

  • "There's no support system that talks about sex, and it is the single biggest issue [for priests]. . . . You're told not to have an erection, erections are bad. The only women you're to love are the Blessed Virgin and your mother. Sex is bad. . . . It demasculinizes the person, and there is no question in my mind that, as a result, these aberrant behaviors have been a manifestation of that.

  • "To think sex is something they can continue to ignore is ridiculous."

Punish Priests

  • "Can you give me one case where the Roman Catholic Church has taken a priest who has been accused of molestation, ever taken one of these priests down to a police station and said, 'Take care of it'? No," says Don Hoard Sr., still fuming years after his son's victorious case against Timmons.

  • "It infuriates me that [Gary] Timmons, even though he said he resigned, he can't do it. He's still a priest. He may never act as a priest again. He has the powers until the pope says he is laicized."


  • "When a person throws 10 or 20 dollars into the basket on Sunday, it's not earmarked for anything," Economus says. "People, when they die, they leave everything to the church. . . . Nobody knows where that money goes. Ultimately all of that money people are paying gets paid out for sex abuse settlements. How could it not?

  • "The only way the Church is going to clean itself up is to have an outside entity, like a federal investigation. Janet Reno's office has to get into this."

Staff reporter Yosha Bourgea contributed to this report.

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From the September 9-15, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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