Hear that silence? It sounds like a news story

clerical collar2It is impossible for the nation's Catholic bishops to gather in Washington, D.C., without making some kind of news. Most of the soundbites this week were dedicated -- surprise -- to the lingering effects of the clergy sex-abuse scandals and the campaign 2004 media storm about Sen. John Kerry and Holy Communion.

But one of the most provocative stories this time around centered on -- silence.

I am referring to the lengthy report by Godbeat veteran Julia Duin in The Washington Times on the bitter, behind-the-scenes dispute caused by the silencing of a priest named Father James Haley in the Diocese of Arlington. So far, no one has spoken out to trash this story and, at the same time, the only media outlet chasing it is Focus on the Family.

For the bishops, noted Duin, the top fall 2004 talking point on clergy sex is that the crisis is now under control. The problem is, a nearby priest continues to insist that his diocese, and the American church in general, is "honeycombed" with sexually active gay priests. Duin reports:

(Attempts) by the Rev. James Haley, 48, to persuade his bishop of the problem have backfired. After hearing from the priest about numerous instances of homosexual activity among diocesan clergy, Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde ordered the priest silenced Oct. 23, 2001. This "precept of silence" -- usually only employed during church trial proceedings -- is rarely used to silence a whistleblower.

Thus . . . Father Haley's case, which also involves accusations of sexual misconduct against him, has become a cause celebre among many Catholics in the Diocese of Arlington. It's also attracted the attention of the Vatican, which summoned him to appear before an ecclesiastical court in March. Church officials held two more hearings on the matter this summer and last week scheduled a fourth hearing in conjunction with the bishops' meeting. Less than 24 hours later, after the priest, now living several states away, had bought nonrefundable plane tickets to Washington, the meeting was canceled suddenly.

Haley claims that 60 percent of the priests in his diocese are gay and he insists that he has collected a massive stash of audiotapes, videos, photographs, e-mail messages and 1,200 pages of documents to back up his opinions. If the church won't listen, he is planning a book. Duin notes that, on paper, the Arlington Diocese is one of a few that refuses to sponsor gay seminarians.

Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde has leveled charges against the priest, ranging from "sexual misconduct to talking with the press." The whole affair has been turned over to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It will not surprise religion-beat veterans that complications abound and that some of the details are, well, unique. The priest says that the roots of the sexual misconduct charges date back to a conversation with a female friend who, "while describing the effects of her breast cancer, placed the priest's hand" in the location of the surgery. Her attorney is not talking, and Haley says bluntly: "I've never had sex in my entire life."

What makes this a story is the direct involvement of the Vatican in the investigation, a fact that no one seems to deny.

As one would expect, the usual 80 or so lively Catholic comments on this case are stacking up in Amy Welborn's always essential Open Book weblog. It does appear that this elephant is not going to leave the ecclesiastical living room in the immediate future. Especially note with Duin stacking up clearly attributed statements such as these:

The Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of the 2000 book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," estimates 50 percent of all Catholic priests are homosexual.

Psychotherapist Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who has written and spoken widely on the priesthood, says 15 percent of homosexual priests are sexually active.If all homosexual clergy were to leave the U.S. Catholic Church now, the church would lose one-third of its bishops as well, added Mr. Sipe. . . .

Father Haley says homosexuality is at the root of the huge priestly sex-abuse crisis in which 81 percent of the cases involved victims who were males younger than 18, according to a USCCB investigation.

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