Book on Life, Sex In the Priesthood Is in the Works

Roman Catholic clergyman set to tell it all

By Ron Howell, STAFF WRITER, Newsday.com from Web October 31, 2002

The Catholic priest who officiated at the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. is writing a tell-all book about his life in the priesthood - and it's not likely to please the church hierarchy.

In his book, tentatively titled "Going My Way," Charles O'Byrne said he will write, among other things, about sexually active priests he encountered as a seminarian and later as a priest.

"There was a lot of sexual activity around," said O'Byrne, who also officiated at the 1999 funeral of the Kennedy scion.

Sexual hypocrisy underlies the priest sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in America since January, he said, and it was that hypocrisy that finally drove him from the Jesuit priesthood.

O'Byrne specifically cited the issue of gay priests, saying the American Catholic Church may not be able to stay within the Vatican fold if Rome continues to maintain certain blatant contradictions. He cited the church's insistence that homosexuality is an "intrinsic evil" while at the same time the church has a significant number of priests who are gay. Asked to estimate the percentage of American priests who are homosexual, O'Byrne, 43, said, "In my peer group, I can easily say 70 percent, comfortably, no question about it."

Catholic scholar A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest who authored "Sex, Priests and Power" and other books about the priesthood, said in an interview last week from California that credible estimates of gay priests in America range between 30 and 50 percent.

For O'Byrne, conflict over sexual orientation will continue to roil the institution and its believers. "The tensions created by the number of priests who happen to be gay . . . is going to lead, I predict, to an even greater" crisis within the church, he said.

A Columbia Law School graduate who decided to become a priest while at the prestigious Manhattan-based Rosenman & Colin firm, O'Byrne is close to the Kennedy clan. But he would not entertain any questions about the late John F. Kennedy Jr. or other members of America's most prominent Catholic family.

O'Byrne, who lives in Manhattan and is known for his outspokenness, put the last straw on the camel's back during the summer, when he was finishing an article for Playboy magazine. As word spread that he was writing it, he said, he received a letter from the local head of the Jesuit order telling him he was free to go his own way.

In the Playboy piece, which appeared in the September issue, O'Byrne wrote that while a Jesuit "there was sex all around me," and that fellow priests fell in love and shared details of their sex lives. Some of the priests, he wrote, were "boyologists" who were "too much into" the seminarians they were living with.

O'Byrne is now on a leave of absence. Technically, he is still a priest but he cannot administer sacraments or say Mass.

In an interview with Newsday last week, O'Byrne said he had several romantic relationships before deciding to become a priest, and he believed he was ready to live up to the Catholic requirement that priests remain chaste and never marry. One condition of the interview was that O'Byrne's sexuality not be discussed in any further detail.

"I wasn't going in as a virgin ... so I knew very well what I was giving up," he said.

"I pulled it off pretty well, but it wasn't easy. And I never really felt it was healthy."

Leaving the Jesuits was bittersweet. O'Byrne said he still admires many members of the religious order that is an elite brotherhood. For centuries, Jesuits have enjoyed a reputation as scholars, educators and ethicists of the church. O'Byrne had been a chaplain at Columbia and Harvard universities.

"A Jesuit is sort of like being an enlightened waiter at a segregated counter," he said, "A lot of Jesuits think women should be ordained. But they won't preach it. They'll talk about openness and inclusiveness and equality. And they'll do double talk ... "

O'Byrne saved some of his harshest words for Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York. He called Egan anti-Hispanic for his recent decision to merge Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Manhattan with a neighboring parish.

"That his first major consolidation in Manhattan happens to be one of the poorest, most vulnerable parishes, which exclusively serves one of the poorest sectors of the immigrant community, to me that says it all," he said.

Joseph Zwilling, Egan's spokesman, reacted angrily.

"Except for the fact that he was close to the Kennedys, nobody would care" what O'Byrne says, Zwilling said.

"I can't understand why Newsday would find this kind of thing newsworthy. When people wonder why the media is considered anti-Catholic, we'll have another example," Zwilling said.

Over the next year or so, O'Byrne said, he will spend most of his time writing his book, whose title recalls the 1944 Bing Crosby movie about a priest. O'Byrne works as a lawyer for various organizations serving the disabled.

Little by little, he believes, Catholics are leaving the church because of the ongoing scandal.

"Priests have been sexually active from time immemorial," he said. "The difference is that now it's been exposed, and it's been exposed in a very unsavory way."

 

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