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The sin of falling in love

More often than not, when priests break their vows of celibacy it's with adult women, not young boys. But it's still complicated, and sometimes devastating.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

Carol Ann Strobel in 1967.
[Photos courtesy of the Breyer family]
The Rev. Lee Breyer in 1965.

On a hot, muggy day near the end of that torturous summer, the Rev. Lee Breyer sat in his dorm room, trying to decide what to do.

He had spent half his life in seminaries and religious schools. He had been a Roman Catholic priest for five years. He was 31, about to finish a doctoral degree at Notre Dame. His path had seemed so clear. His promises, so easy to keep.

Then he met Carol Ann.

A nun.

She was a 34-year-old Sister of Mercy, a fellow graduate student who was as passionate about her studies and the Lord as he was. They drank sodas and shared scriptures and went to Mass together. When they sneaked off campus to go to the movies, she had to change out of her habit; Breyer had to pocket his priestly collar.

"We had both taken vows of celibacy and had been in our orders for several years," says Breyer, who is now 63 and lives in Bradenton. "We were already married to God, so to speak. So everything was very, very difficult."

In those days, if Breyer had been caught fondling boys or carrying on with a married member of the choir, he could have kept his collar, perhaps after a transfer and a reprimand from the bishop. But this was different.

If he got married, he would never be allowed to administer the sacraments in a Roman Catholic church again. He would have to give up his career, his calling.

Breyer's sin was falling in love.

It happens all the time. Despite their close connection with God, priests are men. They crave intimacy. Most often, the relationships are with adult women.

"All kinds of priests have girlfriends or are living with girlfriends. I know some people in town who have been in relationships for 20 years," says Breyer, who left the priesthood and married Carol Ann 33 years ago. "If people knew about all the types of heterosexual relationships that went on with priests, they'd be blown away."

* * *
[Photo courtesy of the Breyer family]
Lee Breyer, left, during his ordination ceremony in Chicago in March of 1965.

As the Roman Catholic church struggles to cope with reports of priests abusing boys -- and sometimes girls -- there is another aspect of priestly sexuality that has long been known, but seldom discussed: sex between priests and adult women.

At least half of heterosexual priests have had some sort of sexual relationship with an adult woman, experts estimate.

Sometimes, as in Breyer's case, the priest falls in love with a nun. Sometimes, the love interest is a parishioner who has come to the priest for counseling or consolation. Sometimes it's a church worker, a Sunday School teacher, or the woman who bakes bread for the rectory. Sometimes, a priest uses his power to woo a woman and convince her she would be doing God's will.

"About four times as many priests get involved with adult women as with minors," says Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has written three books about sexuality in the priesthood. Heterosexual priests are just as likely to break their celibacy vows as homosexual priests, he says.

"There are a number of priests who have long-term relationships with women, and they're consensual," Sipe says. "Then there are abusive relationships where the women really suffer.

"The public often knows about priests' relationships with women. But people seem more likely to give a wink to these sorts of relations than to priests who are involved in homosexual relationships."

Promises and power

Priests are in a unique position: They're obliged to love everyone in a platonic way. But they aren't allowed to love anyone, or be loved by anyone, in the physical sense.

Some say that's not natural. Others believe it's a gift from God.

Breyer, who entered the seminary at 14, said he never thought much about what it would mean to be celibate.

"I mean, I was never allowed to go to amusement parks or even watch James Bond movies," he says. "It's only when you come out into the real world, when you start practicing as a priest and interacting with others, that maybe some of these questions and concerns come to light."

To the church, celibacy means complete sexual abstinence. Such things as watching adult movies, masturbating or even thinking "impure" thoughts are prohibited.

In the United States, having a sexual relationship with an adult woman is "the most common violation of celibacy after masturbation," says Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis who specializes in sexual abuse committed by therapists, doctors and the clergy. Schoener says he has counseled more than 2,000 women who have been abused by clergy. He also has seen more than 200 priests and ministers, most whom were referred by their dioceses.

Schoener says there is no evidence that Catholic priests are more likely to have illicit relationships than other clergy. But sometimes celibacy does stunt a priest's personal growth, he says. Years ago, when Breyer, the former priest living in Bradenton, was in seminary, boys went into the priesthood when they were still teenagers. They weren't allowed to have any ordinary relationships with girls their age. So by the time they took over a parish, often as the only priest, they were emotionally only about 15 or 16.

How do I love thee?

In the past 20 years, about 20,000 Roman Catholic priests have dropped out to get married -- one in every three in America. They give up their vocations to have families outside the church.

Hundreds join organizations like Rent-a-Priest. The group consists of former Roman Catholic priests, now married, who want to remain active in their faith but aren't permitted to lead services in churches. So they make themselves available for weddings, baptisms and other sacraments in people's homes. Florida has 16 active Rent-a-Priests. The St. Petersburg diocese doesn't have any -- at least not that its leaders acknowledge. Many more just don't make themselves known.

"I don't think celibacy is the cause of pedophilia, or of adultery. But I think the Catholic Church should lift that prohibition," says Breyer, who is a Rent-a-Priest. "It certainly would solve a lot of other problems."

Some priests, like the Rev. Patrick J. Clarke of Safety Harbor, try to have it both ways. In 1981, while serving as a parish priest, Clarke married a divorced mother of two in a civil ceremony. Later, he had a daughter with her. For 15 years, he kept the marriage secret from everyone at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church. Then someone sent a copy of his marriage certificate to Bishop Robert N. Lynch. The bishop told him to choose. Ultimately, the priest stayed with his wife and family. He now sells real estate north of Clearwater.

"Priests often enter relationships for what they think are the right reasons," Schoener says. "But the abuse comes in because of the power relationship. It's like a doctor or counselor: You can't really expect the patient to be responsible. And when you're brought up to believe priests are akin to angels, as so many Catholics are, then the priest's power is immense. The man is your confessor, your spiritual and emotional counselor. He is the one who can doom you to hell."

In God we trust

Most relationships between priests and adult women don't end in marriage. Some continue in secrecy for years, for as long as the woman is content to be hidden away. Most of these women feel they're making sacrifices for the Lord. Or they believe that, if they asked the priest to leave his calling, the church would lose a great leader.

"Many women blame themselves for causing the priest's perceived sin," Schoener says. "They feel like, somehow, they have been the seductresses. And that dissuades them from bringing their cases to court." Those who do generally receive smaller settlements from the church than males who are abused, he says.

Florida is one of 20 states that makes it a felony for psychotherapists to have sex with their clients; it is one of three of those states that doesn't recognize clergy as a kind of psychotherapist. "The other 17 states see even adult relationships with priests as a type of statutory rape," says Schoener. "The victim can't possibly consent because the power relationship so clouds the issue."

The most common psychological profile of an abusive priest is someone who is neurotic and needy, Schoener says.

"There are large numbers of these in the church," says the therapist. "They need to be taken care of and they milk that with the women. Here's this guy, making all these personal sacrifices for the church. Women want to help take care of him. They feel it's their duty or obligation or that it is a form of serving God."

The mourning after

Sometimes, adult women don't realize they're being abused. Or they don't see it that way. At least not until after the relationship ends.

Kay Goodnow was a 15-year-old Catholic school girl in Kansas City when she went to her priest to be baptized. He ended up having sex with her. Then he heard her confession.

"I felt I was an adult, making my own decisions, and I really thought I was in love with him," says Goodnow, who is now a 65-year-old grandmother with a condo in Orlando. "But I was sure what I had done was this really horrible, awful thing. I could never confess to anyone else because he told me not to. He told me it might destroy him. It almost did destroy me."

Goodnow kept her secret for more than 40 years. Then, in 1995, she heard about a survivors' network called SNAP. She told her sister about what had happened and, for the first time, saw herself as a victim.

"I know now he knew what he was doing. And I don't believe he had any guilt at all," she says. "He told me God had sent me to him. I was his chosen girl. But God had to come first. He stole my right to a normal life."

Since then, Goodnow has never had any interest in sex. She doesn't go to church. She has tried to forgive the priest, whom she still insists was her first love. And she knows the statute of limitations for prosecuting him has long since run out. She's not sure she would want to press charges against him, even if she could.

"I would like to confront him," she says. "He must be in his early 80s by now. I'd like to walk right up to him and say, 'Listen, you jerk! You did this and you did it on purpose. I was a fool for letting you do it.

" 'But you were the priest -- and you should have been better.' "

All about Eve

Twenty years ago, Cait Finnegan set up one of the first support groups for women who had been in relationships with priests. She was studying to become a nun when she met a priest at a Fordham University prayer group. They got married, and she started this group to find friends in similar situations.

"We were trying to build somewhere that priests or women in our situation could come to get spiritual counseling, to find help making such an important decision with integrity," she says. "We found out, much to our surprise, that a good number of priests weren't looking for integrity. They were just looking to play around. And not get caught.

"Traditionally, the church throws all the blame at women. Look at Eve! They say she caused the fall of Man. Priests are trained to deal with harlots: Counsel them and cast them aside. That's what they were doing to these women who loved them."

Sometimes, when a relationship is over, the woman isn't the only one left hurting. Sometimes, priests father children. Sometimes they try to convince the mother to abort the baby, or put it up for adoption, or take it away and never tell anyone.

That's where Holy Innocents comes in. Within a year after trying to find other priests' spouses, Finnegan had been contacted by dozens of mothers who had had priests' babies and were raising them alone. Her support group evolved into a nonprofit organization that supports priests' children.

Many of the victims Finnegan works with are suicidal. "Most of them are middle-aged women, in their late 30s to early 60s, who have gone to their priests for help with marital difficulties or who volunteer to help at the church," she says. "The perceived goodness of the priest is what most of these women are attracted to."

Some priests try to support their children but end up harming them anyway, Finnegan says. She knows priests who work second jobs on the weekdays or volunteer for extra mission assignments to support their kids. She knows others who live on the same block and teach the children in Sunday school. But most of them won't acknowledge their offspring publicly.

Says Finnegan, "A lot of these women will say, 'Oh, he's such a good man! He's such a good priest.' But he's not. How could he be? He's living a double life, and he's getting paid for it."

Father knows best

The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg doesn't have specific policies or procedures for reporting a priest's relationship with an adult woman.

The Rev. Len Plazewski, the diocese's director of vocations, says if someone in the congregation is having a sexual relationship with the priest, or knows about such a relationship, he or she should confront the priest and give him the opportunity to defend himself, to explain or apologize.

"I'm not aware of any parish priests out there running around. Although the possibility certainly exists," he says. "If a relationship like that came to light, if the bishop did find out, he would have to stop that relationship. But we are a church of forgiveness. Most bishops would be compassionate.

"They would say, 'What can we do to help you out here? Where has your prayer life failed you?' They might suggest the priest go to confession," says Plazewski.

"The ultimate goal is the spiritual salvation of the individual."

Monsignor Frank Mouch, the diocese's secretary for pastoral programs, says a priest involved in a public scandal "obviously would be removed from the parish.

"But I don't know any priest who, even if he has done something bad, has not done more good with his priesthood. If you can save a man, save his priesthood and his parish, then certainly that would be the best scenario."

Seminaries are getting better at educating would-be priests about celibacy, many authorities say. They're bringing in psychologists. Some are even starting sex-ed classes. And, since most men don't enter seminary until after age 18 now, many more have relationships before they immerse themselves in the priesthood. Virginity is not a prerequisite.

Priests, too, are getting more help with issues of celibacy -- and with rehabilitation if they break their vows. Besides Schoener's center, a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist has set up the Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality in Connecticut. Its mission: "To help future members of the clergy become mature adults by understanding their sexuality and developing their ability to have deep but nonsexual relationships with other people."

The father and the sister

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd ]
Carol Ann Breyer, a former Sister of Mercy, met her husband, Lee Breyer, then a priest, when both were attending graduate school at Notre Dame. The couple, now married for 33 years, live in Bradenton.

The Rev. Breyer and Sister Carol Ann first had sex in 1969, while both were still in the ministry. They weren't married. They didn't consider it a sin.

They prayed a lot, beforehand, and asked God for guidance.

"We had already committed ourselves to each other. And we knew exactly what we were doing," Breyer says.

He thought about trying to forget her, or just writing her long letters. He knew of nuns and priests who had kept celibate friendships for 40 years, who had worked together and loved one another but never consummated that love. He couldn't do that.

"The way I finally decided was: Would I rather be a priest and work her into my life? Or have her primary in my life and work in the ministry?" Breyer says.

The priest and the nun got married in Washington, D.C. In a friend's apartment. By a Catholic priest with whom Breyer had gone to seminary. They weren't allowed to get married in the Roman Catholic Church.

He was never again allowed to administer sacraments inside the church. He had to find a new career. He taught management training for the Department of Agriculture and at Florida State University's Executive Management Institute.

Then he retired and moved to Bradenton. He and Carol Ann are building a new home. They still go to church, sit in the pews, share scriptures and maybe a soda after Mass.

No one knows he once led the services and she once married God.

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