Father Paul F. Morrissey, a Philadelphia-area Augustinian priest who ministers as a prison chaplain and pastoral counselor, has published a novel called The Black Wall of Silence. The plot focuses on the struggle between loyalty and honesty in the Catholic Church, especially in the mishandling of the clerical sex abuse crisis. The powerful and poignant understory is that of a gay priest’s faith journey as he is caught up in this struggle.
Bondings 2.0 recently asked Fr. Morrisey some questions about the book and the issues it covers.
What prompted you to write The Black Wall of Silence, and what do you hope it will accomplish?
I want to offer people a story rather than a newspaper headline to understand the sexual abuse crisis and cover-up in the Catholic Church. If we can enter into these dynamics and discuss them honestly, our Church will heal from this and become stronger. If not, the wound will fester and the mistrust people have in bishops and priests will grow worse.
Why did you write the book as a novel?
To allow readers to identify with the various characters, with their inner feelings and motivations, and to give them a little buffer space from presuming it is simply my story. I believe that in the way it shows the adult conscience dilemma of “honesty versus loyalty,” it is our story.
Are any of the characters or incidents based on real-life people or situations that you have encountered?
As a prison chaplain, I have experience with many of the incidents portrayed in the prison. As a spiritual director, I have worked with both victims and offenders of sexual abuse, as well as gay priests, nuns, divorced women, lesbians and other characters in the book. As a novelist, I made up all of these characters. They are in my consciousness in some way. As I wrote, they even took on lives of their own and said things at times that I would not say myself, but I let them be free.
What does the title and cover image show?
The cover image shows a priest with his Roman collar gagging his mouth. This portrays the dynamic of silencing voices in the Church, especially silencing priests in regard to speaking on sexual issues. Gay priests, such as the lead character, Fr. Zach, unfortunately feel they must stay in the closet if they want to remain in good standing. This dynamic of silencing, even self-silencing, fosters an environment in which the cover-up of sexual abuse is a natural outcome. This silencing of conscience happens in all systems. It even happens inside each one of us when the false self we show the world becomes our identity. This is what I call the Black Wall of Silence.
My favorite response is from a resigned priest, now married, who feels that all priests and religious should discuss the intimacy issues the book raises. He believes that the Church will be crippled as long as its leaders do not wrestle with their own intimacy needs and allow this human need to be incorporated into its sexual teachings. Other key responses are from grateful gay people, nuns, older people and youth who have left the Church because they feel they have no voice in shaping its life.
My least favorite responses are from some who feel that I am only attacking the Church. One called me a “pervert in a collar.” I love the Church and I keep my vows. I pray for these people and ask them to pray for me.
What do you think the church needs to do in regard to the presence of gay men in the priesthood and religious life?
First of all, as Pope Francis has done, bishops need to openly acknowledge the historical presence and faithful service of gay men in the priesthood. Second, stop encouraging seminarians to lie and hide their sexual orientation; rather help them–as with all seminarians–to accept and integrate their sexual orientation as a gift of God, striving to be celibate of course because of their priestly vow. Finally, through retreats and other gatherings, seek ways to encourage gay priests who are comfortable in doing so to make their orientation known. By doing so, our varied sexuality can gradually be seen as a gift to the Church and not a curse. This modeling of giftedness will not only help priests but laymen and women as well.
What is your evaluation of how the church hierarchy has dealt with the sexual abuse crisis?
Belatedly, especially in America and a few other countries, the hierarchy has enacted a good, firm policy and protocol for handling sexual abuse accusations in order to show the public that protecting children and minors is our first priority. This has been an enormous challenge and I believe most of our U.S. bishops have acted with courage and deep pastoral care. Now all priests/religious are required to be trained and updated often in what constitutes inappropriate behavior, and what to do if we become aware of a situation that requires intervention. However, this very policy—“Zero Tolerance”–remains quite devastating in two ways: A) if a priest/religious is accused, he or she is removed from ministry until the credibility of charges is clarified. In other words, you are “guilty until proven innocent.” And even if cleared of the charges, your good name is forever tarnished with the original accusation. This is terrible and needs to be addressed. B) Even if the charge is proven and involves a single inappropriate action from thirty or forty years ago, the person is judged unfit for ministry and unable to ever repent and be reinstated. In other words, there is no forgiveness for sexual abuse by a minister in the Church.
Is it too late for forgiveness–not without the victims’/survivors’ involvement of course–for some Truth and Reconciliation process to be conducted? This could happen for the bishops first because they have only begun to be investigated. It could even yet be applied to priests and religious.
Since the book is about the sex abuse crisis and includes gay priests as characters, is it meant to indicate that gay priests are responsible for the crisis?
There are two levels of the crisis: 1) the sexual abuse itself ; and 2) the mismanagement/cover-up of it. In regard to the first level, gay priests, (and gay people for that matter) are no more responsible for the sexual abuse crisis than heterosexual priests/people. Psychologists tell us that pedophilia (the sexual abuse of children) in particular, is a psychological diagnosis (illness) that has nothing to do with sexual orientation as such. For instance, most sexual abuse happens in families–and not by gay people in these families.
The Black Wall of Silence deals more specifically with the second level, the cover-up of the sexual abuse. This is where the silencing comes in. If a gay priest is self-accepting, perhaps even known as gay by some friends, family members and fellow priests, this knowledge may cause prejudice in some of these people, possibly with some presuming the priest must be sexually active or untrustworthy. If a gay priest is sexually active, perhaps in a relationship as some heterosexual priests are, this leaves him particularly vulnerable to the need to be silent, even when it comes to blowing a whistle on someone who may be abusing a minor. If a gay priest is not self-accepting, he may fear his parishioners, fellow priests or superiors might be suspicious, gossip about him, or hinder his job advancement, even if his orientation is never mentioned. In other words, all of these situations create a climate where honesty is stifled, including the honesty to bring to light others’ actual sexual violations, even when minors and vulnerable adults are at risk.
Where do you see good things happening in the church regarding LGBT people?
If we open our eyes, LGBT people can now be seen in the Church as flesh and blood people. Along with the rest of society, the Church can no longer speak of LGBT people as concepts and caricatures that are used to scare people. Now, a gay/lesbian person may be offering you the Blood of Christ in the communion line, proclaiming the Word of God from the lectern, leading the liturgy in singing “Amazing Grace,” teaching your children in Religious Education courses that God’s love embraces all people, serving alongside you in a soup kitchen that your parish runs. This “We Are All The Church” experience means all the difference in the world. It is what Pope Francis is trying to show us as the core meaning of the Gospel of Jesus.
What still sadly remains in many parts of the Church, is the firing of some devoted LGBT people because it is assumed that they are not following all of the Church teachings. As the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Encourager continues to move in us, and we follow Pope Francis’ call for inclusiveness of the marginalized, we can hope that this will change in time. There is hope, and LGBT people are symbols of this.