— and being shunned as a result
The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.
Parisi, dean of his class of seminarians in the Buffalo Diocese, and another classmate had gone to seminary officials about a recent party in a parish rectory. At the party in April, the men said, priests were directing obscene comments to the seminarians, discussing graphic photos and joking about professors allegedly swapping A’s for sex.
“I just wanted to be sure that you guys are protected and are watching your backs,” the seminarian’s text said. Authorities are “fishing to figure out who the nark [sic] is.”
Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who was academic chairman of the class, have made explosive news nationally recently after alleging that they were bullied by superiors, grilled by their academic dean under police-like interrogation and then shunned by many of their fellow seminarians after going public with sexual harassment complaints about those up the chain of command. The Vatican on Thursday announced it is investigating broad allegations church leaders have mishandled clergy abuse cases.
As striking as the charges is the fact that the men are speaking out at all. Parisi and Bojanowski — who both left seminary in August — are among a small but growing number of Catholic priests and seminarians who in the past year have gone to investigators, journalists and lawyers with complaints about their superiors. While still rare, such dissent has until now been nearly unheard of in a profession that requires vows of obedience to one’s bishop and offers no right to recourse, no independent human resources department.
Prompting the pushback, the men and experts on the U.S. church say, is what many Catholics view as the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to respond frankly and transparently to recently revealed cases of sexual mistreatment of seminarians and priests. That, and the #MeToo moment, in which Americans have shown new willingness to speak out against adult sexual abuse and harassment.
“My conscience bothered me. If it meant being thrown out, so be it,” said Parisi, now 45, who joined the seminary in 2018 after 25 years as a member of a Catholic religious order, caring for the sick and dying. He thought he knew the church well when he entered seminary. Now living with his parents and unemployed, he has received hate mail, and says priests in his hometown won’t acknowledge him. His faith in the institution has been “shattered,” he said. “That’s what you get for exposing the truth.”
In his Aug. 15 resignation letter, Parisi urged other seminarians, if they have issues, to go to state officials or journalists.
In addition to Buffalo, young men wrestling with scandals in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, among other places, have also weighed expectations of obedience against their desire for more accountability — and chosen the latter.
More than half a dozen priests and former seminarians were the key whistleblowers in the recent fall of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a well-connected fundraiser and donator in the U.S. church. Two recently exited West Virginia seminarians have gone public with allegations that Bransfield sexually mistreated them and have sued. One, who has not been named, said he was assaulted. The other, Vincent DeGeorge, 30, said Bransfield kissed and groped him, and pressured him to sleep over and watch porn.
“Because of the sex abuse crisis, I told myself going in [that] I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t going to let myself be complicit in a corrupt institution,” said DeGeorge, who left seminary last year after he says he was sexually harassed by his then-bishop, wrote an op-ed criticizing regional church leaders and quickly became a pariah.
“To scrutinize a bishop is to attack the church, is to be a bad Catholic,” DeGeorge said.
Several current and former clergy members spoke out beginning last summer about their treatment by defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, some by name and others anonymously. The Washington Post has received more calls from Catholic seminarians and clergy members with tips and concerns in the past year than in the previous decade.
“I’ve never had conversations in all the previous years like the ones I’ve had in the past year. People feel they can finally talk about things” among themselves, said a seminarian in the D.C. region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears dismissal.
Some said the expanding of a more aggressive Catholic media in the past couple of years has emboldened Catholics, including seminarians, to challenge the hierarchy.
A power imbalance
But even as the scandals have spurred some to speak out, church culture and theology dissuade more from raising their voices.
In the Catholic Church, bishops are kings of their dioceses, and priests swear an oath of loyalty to them. Seminarians’ pursuit of the priesthood rests completely with their superiors — the bishop in particular. There is no appeal or required explanation if one is deemed not to be priest material.
Some seminarians described having their spiritual fitness scrutinized if they raised too many questions. They fear that criticizing a bishop or higher-up could get them removed from seminary.
An internal church report investigating allegations against Bransfield quotes one priest-secretary who was allegedly harassed as saying he was in seminary when the bishop first asked him to remove his shirt.
“He stated that he did so out of fear. ‘Your life is at the will and pleasure of the bishop when you’re in seminary,’ ” the man told the lay investigators last year, according to the report, which The Post obtained.
In an email on May 7, 2018, a diocesan official in West Virginia told DeGeorge that he must stay over with Bransfield for a week — even though the then-seminarian did not want to.
“The request … was not actually a request. It was basically an expectation. You need to be there with the bishop during those dates,” the email reads.
The guide for seminarians by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops encourages submissiveness.
“Seminaries should articulate that priestly obedience begins with humble and willing cooperation in seminary life, docility to direction and wholehearted compliance with the seminary’s policies,” it says.
Priests, seminarians and former seminarians described in interviews a climate of self-censure, with men often tattling on one another and gossiping rather than speaking openly. And when they do speak up, they said church authorities often do nothing.
They “say the right things, how we encourage honesty and openness, but deep down it’s clear they want to move on from [issues] as fast as possible,” said Mike Kelsey, who was a seminarian in the D.C. Archdiocese from last summer until January when students were openly upset that more hadn’t been done to learn what the past two archbishops — McCarrick and Donald Wuerl — did and knew regarding sexual misconduct.
Kelsey and other seminarians and priests interviewed for this article agreed that the problem lies in how the vows are interpreted and lived out within the church.
“I don’t think obedience is bad,” Kelsey said, noting that corporations also suffer from similar transparency problems. “But it’s also not something I’m signing up for if the hierarchy behaves in this way. If leadership and so many are not willing to get to basic levels of truth and justice, I’m not willing to sit there and obey them. I think the church is deeply corrupt and broken.”
Questions about how sexual misconduct in seminary is handled are considered so pressing that the University of Notre Dame last month released a first-of-its-kind study of 1500 seminarians on the topic. About 3,500 U.S. post-college men — who make up the vast majority of seminarians — were enrolled in programs in 2018-2019, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Seventeen percent said sexual abuse or misconduct is a problem at their schools, the survey found. Asked whether their administrators take the issue seriously, 84 percent said “very,” while 11 percent said somewhat or not at all. Of the 10 percent who said they have experienced, or may have experienced, sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, 51 percent said they had not reported it. Of those who did, 42 percent said their reports were either “completely” taken seriously and acted upon or acted upon “for the most part.”
To get the seminarians to talk, researchers offered anonymity.
“They are afraid they’ll be judged as temporarily unfit, too assertive,” John Cavadini, director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, which crafted the new research, said about seminarians. “That’s one aspect of seminary education you wouldn’t have a close parallel of outside seminary. The bishop is a peculiar concentration of power in one person.”
The Rev. Carter Griffin, rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary in the D.C. Archdiocese, said that, if taught correctly, obedience to church authority can be a beautiful act, “to follow the Lord through the word of another.”
But younger men who grew up in the shadow of earlier abuse scandals know that automatically going “into protection mode” isn’t wise for the church, Griffin said. Regardless of what higher-ups do, he said, seminarians must do what’s right.
“ It might mean that people will misunderstand you, there may be consequences for your actions and you have to shoulder those,” he said.
Shunning as punishment
Speaking out, especially for those who do not leave seminary or the priesthood, can be risky. Some seminarians report a lack of support from their classmates — even social shunning.
An unnamed seminarian who filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia diocese earlier this year alleging that Bransfield sexually assaulted him declined to comment for this article. But his mother told The Post that many priests “whom he called friends and brothers” and many of his former fellow seminarians for the most part have kept their distance from him.
“They feel they have to choose the church,” she said. The Post isn’t naming her to protect the anonymity of her son. The Post doesn’t identify sexual assault victims without their permission.
The man and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese reached an unspecified settlement over the summer.
DeGeorge’s allegation of sexual mistreatment by Bransfield became widely known recently when The Post reported it in a profile of William Lori, the Baltimore archbishop who led the investigation of Bransfield. He had already made waves for a seminarian — he was on leave — in December when he wrote a Baltimore Sun essay critical of Lori. Many priests and his former classmates still avoid him — or speak of him as a troublemaker, he said.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in Ohio County, DeGeorge alleges that Bransfield, the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not rein in someone known as a harasser, leaving seminarians vulnerable.
In Buffalo, the priests whom Parisi and Bojanowski blew the whistle on were suspended for a few weeks and returned to ministry in June. Bishop Richard Malone issued a statement that seminarians who spoke out “are to be lauded for coming forward.” Malone is accused of mishandling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases.
After more than 20 years serving Catholic organizations, Parisi says he’s looking for work outside the church.
“There needs to be major reform … But in my view, that won’t happen. The system is a very well-oiled machine,” he said. The church hierarchy believes “it doesn’t need fixing in their view because it’s running exactly the way they want it to.”
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By Chico Harlan
In the sprawling Amazon region, the Catholic Church is severely short on priests. Clerics trek from one town to the next, sometimes requiring military transport to get to their remote destinations. Communities can go months without a visit. The church, as a result, is struggling to hold its influence.
One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests.
South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.
A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy.
“I see a destruction of the priesthood,” Swiss Bishop Marian Eleganti said in a phone interview, claiming that liberal bishops and cardinals under Francis’s “shadow and protection” were working to enact the changes. “This is the beginning of the end for celibacy.”
The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.
But conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.
“It is the elevation of a model,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome.
The discussion has gained steam ahead of a Vatican meeting, scheduled for October, focused on the church in the Amazon. Although the meeting has many broad aims — helping the environment, aiding indigenous communities — one paragraph in the event’s working document mentions the possibility of ordaining older men “even if they have an existing and stable family” as a way to make up for the Amazon’s severe priest shortage. The text affirms the standard church teaching that celibacy is a “gift for the Church” and says the proposed exception is a “way to sustain the Christian life.”
With Francis more willing than his predecessors to consider how the faith might adjust in the modern age, and with a conservative pope emeritus still living in Vatican City, the church has been riven by cultural battles over everything from homosexuality to Communion for divorcés. But the idea of altering a tenet of the priesthood has caused an unusually public conservative backlash, even by the standards of Francis’s papacy.
Traditionalist groups have scheduled counterprogramming in Rome for the days leading up to the summit. Conservative religious media groups have given detailed coverage to objections about the event, while publishing treatises written by like-minded prelates.
In a representative missive, Kazakh Bishop Athanasius Schneider argued that “everybody knows” introducing married clergy in the Amazon would produce a “domino effect” across the Western church. He warned that were Francis to support such a move, the pontiff would “violate his duty” and “cause an intermittent spiritual eclipse in the Church.” Though Schneider predicted that Christ would send “holy, courageous, and faithful popes” in future.
A German cardinal, Walter Brandmüller, warned about “the abolition of priestly celibacy and the introduction of a female priesthood,” and took issue with other theological aspects of the summit document, which he called “heretical.”
The working document mentions, vaguely, the possibility of looking at expanded ministry positions for women. But Francis has shown little interest in ordaining women as deacons — ministers below the rank of priests who can perform some sacraments.
A final document would be voted on at the conclusion of the summit.
In an interview last week with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Francis said that ordaining married men will “absolutely not” be one of the Amazon meeting’s main themes.
Francis has stated clearly that he has no desire to significantly overhaul celibacy or make the practice optional. But during a news conference in January, he referenced what he described as an “interesting” book by retired bishop Fritz Lobinger, an advocate for married priests. Francis said he would consider ordaining “viri probati” — men of proven virtue — in “very far places . . . when there is a pastoral necessity.”
“I’m not saying that it should be done, because I have not reflected,” Francis said. “I have not prayed sufficiently about it.”
Lobinger, a German who spent his career in South Africa, said in a phone interview that, based on his assessment of the needs of dioceses across Asia, Africa and South America, the “possibility to ordain viri probati exists in all countries across the Southern Hemisphere.”
Progressive Catholics note that celibacy was not uniformly practiced during the church’s first millennium — and they say church teaching on the matter can be changed. Some early popes fathered children. Others were alleged to be sexually active during their pontificates. Celibacy was made law only during the Middle Ages, in part as a way to keep priestly wealth inside the church, rather than being divvied up among heirs.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI published a lengthy defense of the celibacy, calling it a “golden law” that should uphold every priest in dedication “to the public worship of God.” Four years later, bishops discussed a similar allowance for married men. A slight majority rejected the idea.
Today, some theologians and pundits, in a viewpoint with little support inside the Vatican, say celibacy has fueled the clerical sexual abuse crisis, fostering a culture in which even a consensual adult relationship becomes something to hide.
Some clerics make a different point: that legions of good would-be priests have stayed away, choosing instead to start families, to the detriment of the church.
“I think that we need married priests because we need more priests,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst at Religion News Service. “It’s as simple as that.”
According to Catholic tradition, priests are the only people who can perform all the sacraments of the church, including the Eucharist — the center of the Mass that Catholics are supposed to attend at least weekly. So the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to appoint lay people to fully substitute for clergy, as other denominations might.
German church historian Hubert Wolf, a celibacy critic who was invited by a summit organizer to Vatican City this summer, said in a phone interview that the Catholic Church “will be at its end” if it doesn’t incorporate married priests.
“This is the reason why the conservative part of the church is so aggressive,” Wolf said. “They are well aware that now is the time to talk about it.”
But traditionalists, instead, say they are on guard because they are suspicious that Francis, from Argentina, has chosen to hold a bishops’ meeting in Rome not on a universal theological issue, but on a particular region — a fairly small part of the Catholic empire.
Organizers have said the meeting is globally relevant for an obvious reason: because the church needs to evangelize in hard-to-reach places, and because the Amazon’s health is vital to the planet.
But Juan Miguel Montes, the Rome representative of the Plinio Correa di Oliveira Institute, a conservative Brazil-based Catholic group, said the meeting instead was a “laboratory experiment.”
With celibacy, he said, “they are trying to send a universal message.”
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Ireland’s Catholic bishops have been too slow to address the problems of a clericalised Church and a laity that often feels disconnected or is absent altogether.
“WE have a lot of priests in Ireland who are in their seventies, who are working right now. Some are in their eighties… We’re at the edge of an actuarial cliff here, and we’re going to start into a free fall.”
So said the Pope’s representative in Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, in March 2017. Back then it was still possible to believe that Irish bishops could reappraise a clericalised Church system that has scandalised most Irish people – and left many unanswered questions for those who still go to Church.
By the summer of 2019, however, it seems that not even a majority of Irish bishops has absorbed the most important lessons of the scandals that began in Ireland in 1992.
Though Pope Francis is allowing Brazil’s bishops to consider the ordination of mature married men, most Irish bishops still apparently believe that Irish Catholic families must somehow be persuaded to encourage their young people to head for seminaries and convents and celibate lives.
It tells us that young people cannot do without the ordained celibate priest to “reassure them that life does make sense, that there is a God who loves them, and that in the end, all will be well”.
Given that this is basic Christian wisdom – and that ordained priests can also suffer from depression, addiction and loss of faith – what does this assert about the Christian competence, gifts and potential of Irish Catholic lay people, parents especially?
In all but one instance the word “priest” is used in this document to denote solely the ordained priest.
Only once are we reminded that by baptism all Christians – including all teenagers – already also have a priestly calling; but here again, according to the pastoral letter, only the seminary-trained priest can explain this to us.
Otherwise we would never know how to exercise “faithfully and fully the common priesthood… received in baptism”.
Nowhere in this document is the role of this “common priesthood” – the priesthood of all of the faithful – explained.
This does not surprise me. In over seven decades of Massgoing I have never heard an Irish diocesan priest express the slightest interest in it.
The word ‘priest’ derives from the Latin ‘pontus’ – a bridge – so a ‘priest’ in the religious sense is one whose calling is to bridge for others the distance between themselves and God.
The priesthood of Jesus was unique in the ancient world. He not only initiated the sacred Christian sacrificial ritual – the Eucharist – but he was also himself the sacrificial gift, in his surrender to judgement and crucifixion.
According to the Gospels, Jesus had provoked his own crucifixion by challenging an abusive religious system that privileged the well-to-do and therefore distanced the poorest from God.
It follows that all of us Catholics are called not only to attend Mass but to offer ourselves in that same cause – the closing of the distance between the poorest and God, a distance obviously growing in Ireland.
Members of the St Vincent de Paul and of other Catholic charities are therefore faithfully exercising their priestly calling, as are all who answer the call to social justice and to service of the needy.
And so were those Catholic parents who blew the whistle on the most devastating spiritual abuse ever perpetrated against Irish Catholic children – sexual abuse by professedly celibate Catholic ordained clergy.
In exercising the most elemental duty of a Christian parent – the protection of the child’s right to believe in their own sacred dignity – those parents were protesting against the abuse of that right by ordained men, a possibility they had never been warned about by their bishops.
In many cases those parents then suffered what Jesus suffered – isolation within their own communities.
Have the bishops taken time to consider what ‘help’ those parents had ever received from ordained clergy in understanding and exercising their Christian duty – their priesthood – in that way?
Do they remember that Irish bishops first gave priority to the cause of protecting Catholic children from clerical abuse only in 1994 – at precisely the moment that the whole island first learned, from those injured parents – and that Irish bishops had until that very moment given a higher priority to the sheltering of abusive priests?
Other obvious questions follow:
- If criminally abusive breaches of priestly celibacy did not bar ordained men from celebration of the Eucharist in Ireland until those breaches were publicly known, why is Christian marriage still a barrier to that ordained Eucharistic role in Ireland?
- Why should a religious life deliberately sundered from any parental role continue to have higher status in the Church than the witness of married lives of integrity – especially those of mothers whose self-sacrificing love, as Pope Francis has observed, is indeed often the best witness a child will ever have of the Father’s unconditional love?
- If the ordained priest is indeed best placed to help lay people to understand their common priesthood, why has Catholic social teaching always been a closed book for most diocesan clergy in Ireland?
- From Confirmation on, why can young people expect to be bored rigid at Mass, instead of reminded of their own priesthood and challenged to pray to the Holy Spirit for the courage, wisdom and whatever other spiritual gifts are needed to meet together the dangers of their young lives – everything from schoolyard bullying, substance abuse, internet trolling and climatic collapse to media celebrity culture, institutional corruption, sexual harassment and white supremacist ideology?
- Why have Irish bishops not yet initiated and published reliable research into the reasons for the widescale abandonment of religious practice here, especially among the young, by the Irish majority that still identifies as Catholic?
- Why are there still no regular opportunities to raise such questions openly in Irish Catholic parishes and dioceses, when they could be asked by any alert teenager contemplating a life calling?
- If seminaries are truly the best places to train men to be ‘in persona Christi’, why was no Catholic bishop anywhere in the world a whistleblower against clerical child abuse before parents and victims had to act?
To Follow Jesus Closely suggests that some Irish bishops believe that Catholic parents and grandparents have no access to reliable news media, no powers of observation or reflection, no memory, no access to the many gifts of the Holy Spirit and – after all that has happened in their own lifetimes – no such questions.
And it might also suggest that Irish teenagers who can qualify for university are naïve when it comes to recent Irish history. Are we all thought to be living in a 1944 bubble, preserved by nightly amazement at Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way?
How can Irish Catholic parents ever forget that it was other parents – never their bishops – who alerted them to the deadly danger of believing that seminaries and ordination would make men incapable of harming children?
It is from whistleblowers against institutional abuse and other men and women of integrity that we Catholic laypeople best learn the meaning of the common Christian priesthood of all of the faithful – people such as Marie Collins, Mary Raftery, Peter McVerry, Gordon Wilson, Michael McGoldrick, Martin Ridge, Catherine Corless, Maurice McCabe, Tom Doyle, Veronica Guerin, Ian Elliott, the founding CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, and Sister Consilio of Cuan Mhuire.
That understanding, guided by the Holy Spirit, will in time reshape the ordained Catholic ministry and renew the Irish Church, when all Irish bishops have fully accepted what is plainly visible to all.
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By Max Bearak
He was a priest just out of seminary. She was a nurse. They were both from the slopes of Mount Kenya, but their paths improbably crossed in Rome
He became unshakable in his desire to marry her, even though he had taken the Catholic Church’s mandatory vow of celibacy for priests
When he returned to preach in Kenya, Peter Njogu was shocked when fellow priests told him that many of them had broken that vow, marrying and having children. In hushed tones, they spoke of their “secret families,” kept hidden in distant homes. The thought of doing so pained him
As the Catholic Church goes through a global crisis brought on in part by the revelation of widespread sexual misconduct by its clergy, self-proclaimed Bishop Njogu believes he has figured out how to save Christianity’s largest church from its own sins: Let priests marry and raise families.
Njogu’s breakaway faction, the Renewed Universal Catholic Church, is Catholic in every way except in having optional celibacy for its priests. Its growth in Kenya is rooted in opposition to the practice of keeping secret families but reflects a growing worry among some Catholics that the celibacy requirement — to many an nonnegotiable tenet of the priesthood — creates a harmful culture of sexual secrecy.
The Vatican has shown no interest in reexamining the issue for all priests, and Pope Francis has called celibacy a “gift to the church.” But the pontiff has also signaled that he is open to ordaining married men in remote parts of the world with a severe shortage of priests. More radical voices in the church have called for the church to rescind the requirement altogether.
“Most of our members are ex-Catholics,” said Njogu. “They are tired of the hypocrisy. Some of our people call us the ‘Church of the Future.’ ”
Nearly 20 priests and more than 2,000 parishioners have joined Njogu since 2011, he claims, mostly in the towns and villages that dot the fertile slopes of Mount Kenya, the 17,000-foot-high extinct volcano right in the center of this country.
“Now that I’ve come out, these other priests tell me, ‘The problem with you is you went public,’ ” he said on a recent Sunday after celebrating Mass. “And I say, ‘I am not the problem; I am the solution. Join me.’ ”
To his flock, he said: “This is where you find your freedom from all that hypocrisy.”
The church in the hilltop village of Gachatha where Njogu preaches his reformation is a far cry from a cathedral. The pews, pulpit and church itself are all made of wooden planks nailed together. The floor is sawdust atop dirt. On a clear day, the ice-capped peak of Mount Kenya glimmers through a glassless window.
While Catholicism has declined in numbers in some former bastions in the West, such as Ireland, it is growing more rapidly in Africa than anywhere else. Africans make up nearly a fifth of the world’s Catholics. Njogu’s sermons hark back to Catholicism’s pre-celibacy era while appealing to the faith’s future in Africa, where he believes it will have to reconcile with local customs as it grows.
“No one in the Vatican understands the African soul. They do not understand that for the African man, priest or not, the worst sin is to leave this world without siring a child,” said Njogu. “Mandatory celibacy is thus the root of priestly sin, but they pretend all is well while their house is burning to the ground.”
The Catholic Church excommunicated Njogu after he defected for alleged “unbecoming behavior,” including purchasing land and speaking openly about his intention to marry Berith Kariri, who remains his wife.
“These priests are not sincere, they are pursuing personal interests,” said Father Daniel Kimutai Rono, general secretary for the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There is nothing about ‘African-ness’ or ‘European-ness.’” The vow of celibacy, he said, “is about the vocation, about the call to serve God and the sacrifice which entails in serving God.”
Dozens of Njogu’s followers said in interviews that they left the mainstream church because they doubted their former priests’ devotion to the vocation.
“As a parent, I had to fear that a priest would impregnate my daughter if I took them to my old churches,” said Margaret Kimondo, who was one of Njogu’s first converts. “In front of the altar they may look one way, but at night, you don’t even want to hear those stories.”
Philip Muiga, 78, had been a Catholic priest for decades before joining the Renewed Universal church last year.
“One day I met a priest in the street who I have known for a long time, and he was drunk,” he said. “When I went home and looked at myself in the mirror, I just saw darkness. I could not justify continuing to call these men my colleagues.”
Rono, who represents the Kenyan Catholic Church, denied any sort of systemic abuse or existence of “secret families” but acknowledged a global churchwide “trend of infidelity to the priestly vocation” and said priests should avoid any kind of “coverup.” The Vatican deferred to its Kenyan representatives for comment.
Celibacy has been expected of Catholic priests since its origins in the first century after Jesus Christ’s death, but the 12th-century imposition of a celibacy vow was necessitated primarily by a priesthood that had begun using the church as a family business, said Chris Bellitto, a professor and church historian at Kean University in New Jersey.
“Priests were handing their parishes along to their illegitimate sons as if they were training them as cobblers, who inherited your shop and tools when you died. This complicated the integrity of the sacraments — what if the son didn’t have a vocation or disposition as a spiritual leader? — and the independence of the church, since the bishop was supposed to be naming parish priests,” said Bellitto.
But the vow always seemed at odds with certain parts of the Bible’s teachings, leading many within the church to question its purpose. Njogu’s faction is certainly not the first to try charting a new course without the celibacy vow, said Kim Haines-Eitzen, a historian of early Christianity at Cornell University.
“In Catholicism, there’s always been a pronounced preference for asceticism to prove devotion. But how do you square that with, say, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ from Genesis? Are priests expected to be separate from all other humans?” she said.
That enforced detachment from the lives of their flock is what drives priests in Kenya to adopt “secret families,” said Father Matthew Theuri, 73, who was a catechist for nearly four decades before joining Njogu’s church as a priest. But it also presents a quandary in being a good priest, he said.
“Our churchgoers come to us with questions about wayward children, trouble paying school fees, marital issues — how can we help them if we know nothing of that life?” he said, while sitting at home with his wife, Jane, and two of his grandchildren.
After Njogu’s Mass on a recent Sunday in Gachatha, Joseph Macharia, a coffee farmer, said he thanked God every day for the new church.
“This is a more open way of being,” he said. “The others, the ones who keep secret families, they come to the pulpit to lie. Maybe they think we are stupid.”
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