What Kind of Mission?: Gay Times at Maryknoll

I am not sure if it is wise for me to write this article. I am a priest member of the Maryknoll order, three years away from retirement. Not only am I concerned about my own future, but I also worry about generating negative publicity about the Church and Christ’s priesthood. I do not wish to harm good priests of Maryknoll who are loyal to Church teaching, nor do I wish to discourage the faithful whose contributions have long supported God’s mission. My intention is to promote honesty, fidelity to Catholic principles, and needed reform in a mission society which seems to have lost its way.

Every few weeks, it appears, the newspapers give another lengthy and painful account of a Catholic priest accused or indicted for pederasty or child molestation. Recently a Canadian bishop retired from office after admitting that he failed to deal effectively with repeated cases of sexual abuse of children by priests and religious in his diocese. Bishops in the United States have paid out tens of millions of dollars of funds collected in the pew to victims of priest molestation. Although their methodology has been subjected to criticism, recent studies maintain that the problem of active homosexuality in the Church is serious — scholarship that many parishioners greet with sad nods of recognition.

I speak from my own experience as a mission priest who is hardly an expert on this subject, but who has accumulated several decades of experience in several countries in the world. Thus I know something about what is specific to one culture as opposed to what obtains across various cultures, and I also try to distinguish what constitutes essential Catholic teaching from what is merely cultural dressing. My life has been spent with Maryknoll, but perhaps my experiences are shared by others in the Church.

In July 1990, Maryknoll headquarters circulated to its worldwide membership a revised policy statement which removed homosexuality as a disqualification for membership. The new policy said that “All prospects, whether bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual in their orientation, will be treated equally in the admission process.” Some Maryknoll priests reacted to this revised policy by commenting that it simply put on paper something that Maryknoll has practiced for several years now.


Maryknoll’s new policy is not, in and of itself, a violation of Catholic teaching, because it emphasizes orientation, not practice. As such, it is defensible simply on non-discrimination grounds: priests are not supposed to be sexually active, period, and Maryknoll seeks to apply this across the board to homosexual as well as heterosexual intercourse. But, of course, Maryknoll is also suggesting that it makes no difference whether individuals have engaged in heterosexual or homosexual conduct, that both are essentially on the same moral plane, good in general but undesirable for a priest with a vow of celibacy.

In 1986 the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued its “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” It reiterated the Church’s longstanding distinction between sexual orientation and sexual practice and said an orientation itself is not a sin. But the document also said that the orientation produces an inclination toward moral evil, and “thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” It concluded, “With this in mind, this congregation wishes to ask bishops to be especially cautious of any programs which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so.”

Maryknoll’s new policy exercised just such subtle pressure. In an explanatory section accompanying the policy, Maryknoll officials stated their intention that “all prospects should demonstrate the ability to be understanding and accepting of people with different sexual orientations.” This statement suggests not that Maryknoll priests are being urged to separate the sin from the sinner. Rather, it suggests that Maryknoll wants its priests to be indifferent to the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

A Gay Mission Society?

I believe that one of the reasons for Maryknoll’s new approach is that a significant minority of members of the organization is homosexual. This phenomenon has been caused by two factors: the influx of gay applicants during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the sizeable number of priests who left the society to marry in the uncertain aftermath of Vatican II. I emphasize that there are still many heterosexual priests left at Maryknoll, of whom I am one. But Maryknoll now seems to provide a cozy haven for homosexuals, and as they assume positions of influence in the society, they are likely to facilitate an increase of their numbers. Thus, through attrition and through recruitment, Maryknoll is likely to get the reputation of being a gay mission society.

I am not interested in exposing or embarrassing homosexual priests. They have gone through the process of formation and been ordained to Christ’s office, and we should respect their position even if we do not approve of their sexual preference. But I wish my experience to suggest how prevalent the problem seems to have become. Perhaps it can be solved, or perhaps the Church has no option but to turn the society over to homosexuals and bisexuals, in which case I feel Maryknoll will have become something other than it was founded to be, and I don’t want my gravestone among those in the Maryknoll cemetery.

The Maryknoll authorities are very secretive, understandably I suppose, about cases of homosexuality or pederasty. The problem came to light for us recently when one Maryknoll priest committed suicide after a controversy involving his homosexual conduct, and another was sued in court for homosexual molestation. Far from treating disclosures which, if multiplied, will both cause embarrassment and enormous costs to the society, Maryknoll officials seem to respond with greater tolerance, if not acceptance, of homosexuality. The assumption seems to be that regrettable incidents occur not because of the homosexual disorder, but because of the disorder of heterosexuals who insist on regarding homosexuality with moral or social qualms.

I was raised in a Catholic working-class home in a steel town. Despite the cultural eccentricities of the Germans, Irish, Italians, and Poles there, I was taught from an early age to reject hateful prejudice, whether against blacks or any other group. Despite my reservations about homosexuals, I can look myself in the mirror and honestly say that I am sympathetic to them and view compassionately anyone who has a burden to bear, whether financial, religious, sexual, psychological, or other.

While I was growing up, homosexuality was not unknown, but it was kept out of public view. The effeminacy of some homosexuals led to murmurs and sometimes jokes, but when one is 16 everything is subject to barbs and put-downs. I don’t expect there would have been much tolerance of homosexual necking or kissing, but I never saw any. In college I was too busy dating young ladies, and came close to getting married to one in particular. I know she would have made a fine wife and mother; indeed, she apparently has, with someone else. Long feeling the attraction of the priesthood and a sense of vocation, I finally said a sad goodbye to the young woman and enrolled in Maryknoll seminary in New York.

During my time there, I experienced one questionable incident. A rugged young man from the Midwest, who played a good game of touch football, befriended me. He was a cheerful fellow, and we got along well. One weekend he suggested I drop by his room for a Coke and a cigarette after “lights out.” I knew that smoking was forbidden, and so was being in another man’s single room with the door closed, either during the day or at night. But being relatively new to seminary life at the time, I went along, figuring that an upperclassman would know what was what. This man was actually designated a theologian by Maryknoll.

As we smoked in his room, in the old wing of the building overlooking the Hudson River, I sat on the window sill, he on the bed. The conversation proceeded, and he began to stretch out. Finally, he said he would like me to come and lie down next to him. I said I had better be going, doused my cigarette under the faucet in his sink, and left. The incident effectively ended our friendship, although not our acquaintance. Eventually, the man told me that he had confessed his “problem” to the novice master, but the novice master encouraged him to stay in the seminary. What ultimately happened to this candidate for the priesthood, I do not know, although later I heard rumors that he dropped out.

Sharing a Double Bed

After New York, I was sent to the Maryknoll novitiate in Massachusetts. I spent a quiet year in prayer and reflection, at the end of which we got a two-week vacation. One of my fellow novices offered me a ride home, which for me sounded better than hitch-hiking. He also said he would put me up overnight at his place, which also struck a chord since I was very short of money.

When we arrived at his place for the night, however, I was less pleased to find that my host and I would share a big double bed. Disappointed though I was, I didn’t want to appear ungrateful or make my host feel bad that he did not have a spare accommodation. I thought of myself as a soldier in a tight situation: it did not seem like a time to quarrel or make excuses.

It turned out that I had to fight the guy off all night. Despite our year-long training, supposedly in prayer and self-denial, the man kept rolling on top of me and trying to become affectionate. I protested and got out of bed, and he cooled down and realized that I was simply not interested. After a miserable night of broken sleep, I left angrily in the morning on my own.

The man is still a priest in Maryknoll. I see his name in Society announcements from time to time, assigned to this or that post. I wonder whether superiors have faced problems with him attacking boy parishioners. I speculate whether he has undergone rehabilitation. Somehow I have the feeling that Maryknoll officials are more interested in preventing “discrimination” against him than in addressing his aggressive homosexual impulse.

This is by no means a unique experience for me. Over the past few decades I have spent a great deal of time as a Maryknoll missionary in Asia. Sometimes priests in an environment far away from home feel that they can act out their fantasies because the usual rules do not apply. Certainly a more casual attitude is evident: one night, for example, walking through a steamy Asian capital, I encountered a Maryknoll priest, decked out in a sporty shirt and shorts; his shirt bore in big letters the word “CRUISING.” I didn’t want to make too much of this. A local superior reacted grumpily but refused to admonish the priest. The cruiser is still with us.

Recently I found lodging at the parish of a Maryknoll priest in another Asian city. After taking care of business in town, I returned to the rectory after dinner and decided to go to sleep early, as I wanted to get a quick start in the morning. A handsome teenage boy was helping the priest with paperwork of some sort in the upstairs lounge. I exchanged pleasantries, said goodnight, and went to my room. Somewhat later I wanted to ask my host priest a question. Without the slightest thought of prying or disturbing anything, I first knocked on his door and then opened it. Both he and the young man were together and they were dressed only in their briefs. The priest, whom I had worked with for several years, knew my suspicion but said nothing. He is still in Maryknoll, although our contacts are now less frequent than previously.

During my years at Maryknoll I have attended numerous retreats. I take a tent with me to annual retreats if we are not assured single rooms. I also keep a flashlight at hand in case I have uninvited visitors at night with whatever intent. What puzzles me about these moves is that I am not handsome, well-built, or particularly friendly.

When I attempt to discuss my experiences with other Maryknoll priests, they too often downplay the extent of the problem. What particularly disturbs me is example after example of a suspect Maryknoll superior showing preferential treatment to young homosexuals in job assignments, budget allotments, access to information on Society matters, and so on. I have even witnessed Maryknoll superiors campaigning actively for homosexual candidates in elections to Society posts.

Mission Impossible

I do not mean to dismiss how hard it is for priests to live up to their vows of chastity, even those who have had extensive periods of preparation. As a confessor I have never been unduly harsh toward sexual transgressions, and if anything I lean toward leniency, conscious of my own temptations.

But at the same time, I believe Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a disorder and homosexual conduct sinful. Maryknoll priests who have taken vows of chastity and fidelity to the Church are bound to uphold that teaching, both in word and deed. I understand priests who marry because they find it impossible to live under their earlier vows, but I do not understand homosexuals who make similar vows and stay. Apparently they feel either that their lifestyle is congruent with that of the society or that even if it isn’t, no one really cares.

I am concerned with the problem of scandal in the Church resulting from the increasingly common practice of Maryknoll priests sharing living quarters with a local “boy,” student, addict, or migrant. I know that this has been a traditional practice in Asia, but houseboys in China, for example, were a lesser source of suspicion than were female housekeepers. These days, however, the houseboy can serve as a focus for the loneliness of a priest in a strange country, and thus become a victim of sexual harassment.

Maryknoll in particular, and the Church in general, must get serious about the danger of homosexual molestation lawsuits. In one specific case I know about, a Maryknoll priest in Asia conducted a long-time affair with several young boys. When their parents protested to the bishop, the priest was sent back to the United States for rehabilitation. Apparently Maryknoll superiors were aware of his immoral activities but delayed or refused corrective measures before the incident went public. Some months later the priest took his own life, leaving suicide notes that blamed his homosexuality.

As more cases like this become known, priests everywhere become targets of suspicion on the parts of mothers and parishioners. A great number of quiet, “effeminate” priests are not homosexual, but are constantly under watch because people assume that they are. These suspicions are deadly when the priests in question are mission priests, because missionaries depend for success on building an atmosphere of trust with those they seek to serve in Christ’s name. I worry that Maryknoll will attract gay prospects because young men may get the idea that they can escape potentially embarrassing situations at home by signing up for missions in a distant land.

From my conversations with Maryknolls, both priests and those in authority, who take a light view of the problem, I believe that one reason for their neglect and acquiescence is Maryknoll’s philosophy of liberation theology or so-called social justice ministry. Maryknoll has actively promoted the idea that social justice is more important than personal morality — that sin lies in “oppressive structures,” that emancipation comes not so much through repentance as through the awakening of the proletariat. I believe in social justice myself, but not to the point where it takes away responsibility for individual behavior.

This is a sad situation. I find it very hard to repair the damage when I encounter non-Christians in foreign countries who say they cannot respect the motivation of celibate Catholic clergy who are conspicuously girlish or recognizably attracted to boys. Many times I have complained about this but received no hearing, nor has an adequate attempt been made even to find out how extensive the problem is.

I’m not asking Maryknoll to believe me. I simply think it is time to conduct a serious study of the problem. Maryknoll should also consider getting rid of its policy which equates heterosexual and homosexual conduct. Supporters of Maryknoll should demand greater accountability from a society which presents itself as faithful to Church teaching, indeed active in spreading such teaching to those unfamiliar with it. Perhaps with the support and involvement of a wide range of people, the problem can finally receive the corrective attention it deserves.


At the time this article was published, James P. Colligan was a Maryknoll priest who had been based in Tokyo since 1955.