The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I attended seminary in the 1960s. Priests of my generation need to look within.

Storm clouds pass over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh. A Pennsylvania grand jury report released last week depicts decades of systemic abuse in parishes across the state. (Jason Cohn/Reuters)

Lately, I’ve been thinking of Andy.

He had been one of my closest friends during my time in seminary at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He was a brilliant student, an irrepressible wit, and in every outward aspect a good person. Andy became a priest in the late 1960s, left the priesthood a few years later and married — a not uncommon trajectory for priests in those decades of change in both the church and the country as a whole.

Hoping to renew our friendship a few years ago, I sought out his contact information online. Instead I found an obituary and a news story. Andy had died of suicide. He bought a pistol from a gun store, went into his backyard and shot himself, not even removing the sales tag from the gun.

The story was that while a priest, Andy had allegedly subjected an altar boy to a sex game in exchange for small payments. Years later, as an adult, the victim reported what happened to the police. Did Andy feel shame and remorse that he had done great harm to an innocent person? I can only imagine what went through my friend’s mind before he rushed to put a bullet through his heart.

Catholic bishops and priests, I need to know how you’ll fix the church you broke

He’s come to mind because I’ve been trying to absorb the news from the grand jury in Pennsylvania. One thousand young boys and young girls were victims of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests. My outrage was for the enormity of the crimes; my anguish, because many, perhaps most of the abusive priests appear to be from my generation.

Columnist and Catholic Karen Tumulty says it's time to suspend the statute of limitations for priests accused of abusing children, and those who covered it up. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

I was never a priest: I left seminary and became a journalist. But I desperately want to pepper my friends and fellow seminarians who did become priests with questions. Andy was not an outlier; he was one of so many from our generation who committed similar sins. What are you thinking? What did you see during your decades of ministry? And most important: What is it about the institution of the priesthood that drives so many once holy men into perversion and criminal abuse?

Because of Andy, and also some of my own experiences in the seminary, I no longer can avert my gaze, rationalizing sexual abuses perpetrated by the clergy as an aberration to be blamed on a few sinful and weak priests. It is undeniable, I have concluded, that this perversion is systematic, part of the institution of the priesthood. We all must ask how the customs, practice and structure of this institution created a climate that encouraged depravity from so many priests.

To some extent, it may be a matter of willful blindness. At Loras College, which had a dormitory exclusively for seminarians, I was confronted with the reality of gay priests comprising a small but significant portion of the faculty. Yet in our seminarian counseling sessions there were warnings only about avoiding intimate relationships with women.

Two of these priests engaged with me in ways I only vaguely recognized as invitations to sexual activity. I trusted them. One was my philosophy teacher and intellectual mentor, a man I greatly admired. The other was the choir director, who lived on my floor in the dorm. In both cases I had to actively stave off their attentions to prevent the interactions from becoming sexual.

My experiences were relatively minor, but they point to a then-unaddressed climate in the priesthood that is now exploding in a more systematic crisis. It’s to that larger issue that we must direct our attention now. It’s easier to prosecute the manifestations of evil than it is to reckon with the culture that encouraged such deviant behavior in the first place.

As a freelance reporter in Chile during the 1970s I rediscovered the church’s power for good. I saw it stand up as an institution to the murders, torture and economic oppression of the military dictatorship. I saw the secret police thugs staking out the church building housing the Committee for Peace/Vicariate of Solidarity, the only haven in the country where victims could find help and a sympathetic ear to tell their stories. The human rights workers inside (not all of them Catholic) were afraid, and some were tortured, exiled or jailed, but they never abandoned their efforts.

How did the same church that fought for justice and truth come to harbor a culture of sexual perversion? I don’t have the answer.

From my personal experience, I would guess that obligatory celibacy plays an important role. To paraphrase Saint Paul, for some people the burning sexual energy cannot and should not be contained. The effort often infantilizes men, subverting normal sexual urges into strange pathways, blocking sexual maturity

For a few priests, celibacy appears to deepen devotion to God; many simply ignore it; for others it is a source of malaise and unhappiness. For far too many men, it has led to criminal depravity.

The Catholic hierarchy has primary responsibility to find the answer and to make the indispensable cultural and institutional changes in the priesthood. Prosecution of abuses has become more common, but it’s not enough. I don’t see evidence that the clergy — priests, bishops, the Vatican or even the much admired Pope Francis — are willing to address the elephant in the room: What is wrong with the institution of the priesthood and how can it be fixed?

Most of the priests of my generation are undoubtedly good men, unsullied in their personal life. I hope they will speak loudly from the heart about this crisis and how it must be solved. I think they know what must be done — assuming the Church has the collective will — to absolutely prevent sexual abuse in the church and to vow that never again will becoming a priest end in tragedy for men like my friend Andy.

Read more:

I got an early tip about a priest’s sexual abuse. And I sat on it.

What early Christians knew that modern Christians don’t: Women make great leaders

The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church