As in American politics, where every campaign season sees a revival of Republican race baiting, every twist and turn of the long-running Catholic sex abuse scandal brings another round of gay baiting. High churchmen and their supporters note that most victims are male, like the offending priests, and hastily conclude that the problem is homosexuality. Of course this claim ignores the fact that gay men are no more likely to abuse that heterosexual men, and avoids the fact that abuse is not about sexual relations but about criminal behavior enabled by the church itself.
The gay baiting technique was deployed most recently by Peter Turkson, a cardinal from Ghana, who has been much-mentioned as a successor to Benedict XVI. In an interview with CNN, Turkson blamed gays for the abuse scandal and said that Africa has not been affected by the crisis because an anti-homosexual cultural tradition "has served to keep it out."
There is so much wrong with Turkson's claims that it's difficult to know where to start. First, despite his denial, sexual abuse by priests is a problem in Africa, as cases in Kenya and Tanzania show. And as anyone who has studied the abuse crisis knows reporting abuse is far more difficult in the developing world, where access to the legal system can be difficult and so costly it is foreclosed to many victims. Finally, if some African societies do harshly stigmatize gay men and women, this is hardly to their credit. Anti-gay legislation and hate speech seen in countries such as Ghana and Uganda reflect the worst of these societies, not the best. (Turkson, The Huffington Post has reported, gave his support to legislation that would make gay relationships in Ghana a crime punishable, in soem cases, by death.)
In addition to Cardinal Turkson, other anonymous church leaders have played the "anti-gay card" by telling Italian reporters that a secret group of blackmailers had threatened Pope Benedict XVI with a gay sex scandal. Reported widely in the media, the suggestion that the pope was forced to resign under such a threat betrays a prejudicial and hidebound view of sexuality that predominates in the church. According to this view, homosexuality is so shameful that rumors of gay relationships inside the Vatican would be ruinous. Of course, this perspective is rejected by vast numbers of people, including Catholics, around the world. For them, the scandal lies in the very notion that a gay or lesbian sexual identity is worthy of opprobrium. In fact, the sin of spreading rumors that seek to defame with bigotry, is what really shames the church.
The type of sexual blackmail mentioned in the Italian press and recycled worldwide, recalls the system of shared confessions and secret-keeping that enabled child abuse by priests in the first place. Under this terrible dynamic, priests who broke their vows of chastity confessed to brother clergymen who then held their secrets over their heads. Since few priests were able to maintain their vows, the clerical culture became a web of intrigue and mutual blackmail. Superiors feared disciplining criminal priests, lest their own secrets be revealed. Thus, complaints by children and parents were quietly resolved with assurances and payoffs and "father" was transferred to another parish. So it went, until the 1980s when victims began retaining lawyers and the era of scandal began.
Three decades after the first claims were made by children who were abused by a priest in Louisiana, the Catholic Church remains mired, not in sexual sin, but in the secrecy, narrow-mindedness and fear that have prevented the hierarchy from ending the scandal. The return to gay baiting shows that neither Cardinal Turkson nor certain anonymous talkers in the Curia will lead the hierarchy back to relevance. Catholics the world over pray the cardinals who select the next pope find someone with the moral maturity and courage to do the job.