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Making our own churches safe havens for kids, teens, and adults
> Let's also never forget, these things have happened and could well
> happen again in our own churches. Let us not be paranoid but Let us work
> to make sure our own churches are safe havens for kids, teens and
For my first six or seven years in New Jersey, I led a bible study class
for men at Avenel, NJ's prison for sex offenders. Avanel was created as
an experiment to see whether good psychological therapy could help reduce
the huge recidivism rate for sex offenders, and the prison emphasized
reform more than punishment. It accepts only those whose crimes have
involved no weapon and no physical force.
I went the first time as a favor to a friend, to do something nice for the
men there. I went back thereafter as a favor to myself, to be with Jesus.
Jesus always hangs out with the people with the greatest needs.
These men were in a great mess. They told me of conduct that disturbed me
and now disturbed them. Some in the group had abused their own children.
Several had abused more than 100 children before going to prison.
The men were from all social classes, races, educational levels. The one
thing that separated them from the rest of the Avenel population was their
desire to participate in bible study with a gay teacher.
All of them had self-identified as gay or bisexual, but most had not done
so until after they entered prison. The pedophiles had chosen their
victims without much regard to gender.
At any one time there were about 10 regulars, plus another 20 who came
occasionally, but rarely at the same time. At one time three of the
regulars were ministers; their combined service to their churches was
over 50 years. And they were beloved, 'successful.' One had been the
chief pastor of a Presbyterian church with more than 3,000 members.
I did prison ministry while in college in the 1950s. I always asked
prisoners what they were in for, and then later would ask the warden what
they were in for. In most cases the prisoners made their offenses more
minor than the offense as recorded on the books. Not so the men at
Avenel. The men at Avenel were not trying to tell a young college student
how good they were: they were asking an old man for his help in their
efforts to get in touch with God's forgiveness and God's power to heal
them of destructive, evil addictions. I learned a lot about prayer. Our
prayer time took up at least half an hour of our two hours together.
Often we prayed for their victims by name.
The story of one young man there has haunted me as I have read accounts of
the Roman priests brought to light over the past few months. This young
man was brilliant and came from a well-to-do, prominent family in New
Orleans. Before he went to prison, he worked in one of the most advanced
units of Bell Labs. His pattern was to seduce boys on his softball team.
When he would get caught, as he did on many occasions, his lawyers worked
to get him off without time and he agreed to move to another community.
In time, the trail caught up with him, and no money or influence or
high-priced lawyer could block the inevitable. Nevertheless, his family
bought him six months between his conviction and his first day at Avenel.
'I developed my sexual patterns when I was 12 or 13,' he told me. 'Then,
like many boys, I hung out with other boys my own age, and late into the
night we might get it on. When we grew a year older, these boys started
turning to girls. I was not interested in girls so I turned to boys a
year younger, who were not yet into girls. Each year, I turned to boys
just 12 or 13, as I grew into a young man, and finally into a grown man.
I did not think of what I was doing as homosexual; nor did I then see it
as evil. It was just a progression in my own emotional life. It would
have been unthinkable of me to think of myself as queer then. I never
wanted to do the evil things I heard queers do. I was just a friend who
liked boys 12 and 13. I never wanted to hurt them, and I was quite
genuinely kind to them....
'In the months between my arrest and before I began time, I did lots of
thinking. Maybe I am gay, I thought. At least I ought to see. So I went
to a gay club. After a few times there, I connected with someone my own
age. We liked each other a lot. In time, we made love and I made the
most amazing discovery: sex with someone my own age was dramatically
different than sex with a boy. After sex with a boy, he wanted to go to a
drive-in and get a hamburger or a milk-shake. The sex has no other
connection for him or for me. The greatest pleasure from sex with a guy
my own age is not the sex, but cuddling the rest of the night with another
adult I know, a guy who knows and values me as another adult, not just a
big brother or a coach.'
This man went to jail at age 29. During his term there, he was quite
sanguine about the constraints of the place, about the therapy. 'In many
ways I worked out most of my therapy in those six months before I got
here,' he said, 'but it is good for me to spend this time getting to know
myself better and getting to know the others here very well.' He had the
reputation of being one of the most helpful persons to others in the
I assume that at least some of the Catholic priests had experiences
similar to my friend's, whereby they kept moving back a year as they grew
a year older, staying with familiar and largely impersonal patterns of
passion and release. How many of those priests at age 45, 50.... are
still emotionally just another 13-year-old, never imagining more adult
ways, more responsible ways of living out their sexuality?
The Catholic Church surely does not hold out any models of responsible,
adult sexuality for priests, nor models of responsible, adult
homosexuality for anyone. Even in the Episcopal Church, a gay person can
be "respected" if you stay quiet; it's only when you announce your identity
in the context of a committed relationship that the Church, indeed the
whole Anglican Communion, goes into fury.
My friends in prison warned me not to romanticize the evil they did, nor
do I. It was very real and real damage occurred. Pray for their victims.
Pray for them.
Identity for adolescents is fraught with myriads of obstacles. It is
especially so if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. The
chances are great that you will be brought up by people who don't
understand you, don't approve, and may not even love you. There's a big
chance that you won't approve or love yourself. It will be difficult
indeed to understand how to love and respect someone else.
God did not turn out the lights when God made our parts. God made us for
responsible, healthy adult pleasure, not as definitive of who we are, but
as integral to who we are. The Old English word HAL yields three words in
modern English: HALE (i.e., healthy), WHOLE, and HOLY. These three are
still one and the same. Let not the heart, the mind, or the spirit say to
the sexual parts, I have no need of thee. Let not the sexual parts say to
the heart, the mind, or the spirit, I have no need of thee.
I believe that health and wholeness in adulthood for anyone, straight or
gay, requires far more holy candor than the Church usually shows itself
able to handle. We must change that if we want to be healthy, whole, or
Almighty God, who has called us by your prophets to bring justice to the
peoples, & has chosen us for friendship in your son Jesus Christ, give us
grace to witness to your love with Integrity of spirit, & power to sing a
new song to you in Dignity of life, through the same Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and
ever. Amen. -- The Rev. Grant Gallup's collect for the first Integrity
Convention, St. James' Cathedral, Chicago, 1975