The Rev. Mychal Judge was a Catholic priest who served as the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. On Sept. 11, 2001, as word spread throughout the city about the terrorist attacks, Judge rushed to the North Tower of the World Trade Center and began to pray over the bodies, and administer last rites to those who were dying. At 9:59 am, the South Tower collapsed and sent objects flying into the neighboring building. A large piece of debris hit Judge in the head, killing him. Later that day, first responders found Judge’s body in the rubble, and the picture of them carrying him out of the building is one of the most profoundly moving images of that horrific day.
Judge exhibits everything that is great about the men who serve in the Roman Catholic Church. He is a saint, in all but the strictest terms, his halo made of the dust and glass shards that filled the air on 9/11.
I tell you his story mostly because I want you to remember him, this man who ran into the maelstrom to give comfort during what were his own final hours. I tell you about him because I want you to remember that this is the template of the priests of my faith, the ones who sacrificed their own lives so that those in the faith circle could be brought closer to God.
But I tell you his story for another reason. Mychal Judge was a priest, a hero, and a man. He was also gay.
According to reports, Judge did not hide his sexual orientation because he believed that it would help others who were marginalized in society to see his struggle, and to realize that there was a place for them in the church. He was a friend to immigrants, to the homeless, and to those suffering from AIDS who felt abandoned by the institution that he himself loved. His journals reflected dark nights of the soul, and yet his faith was strong, as was his dedication to the vow of celibacy. Difficult though it was, and fully cognizant that he was attracted to men, Judge maintained that vow.
Mychal Judge, who was by every metric a Christ-like character, dealt with a very human dilemma. His example is the answer to the question “is there a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia?” That answer is a resounding “no.”
However, the questions don’t stop there. While sexual orientation and sexual abuse are statistically unrelated, there is a link between the large population of gay priests, many of them non-celibate, and the sex abuse scandal that exploded in the last two decades.
It has to do with institutional secrecy. In the years when being gay was tantamount to exile from society, the church provided a place where being unmarried was an actual virtue. Unfortunately, many of the men who chose the church for that reason refused to honor their vows of celibacy, and the hierarchy felt it necessary to hide this rampant sub-culture to protect its reputation. This tendency to cover-up extended to the perversions of those who abused children.
Secrecy and lack of chastity is the problem, not orientation. Mychal Judge is a saint. Using the church to live a life of lies is the problem.
You will say that there are heterosexual priests who broke their vows, and that is true. But for every Father Ralph from the Thorn Birds, there were hundreds of gay priests who made a mockery of the church. The fact that pedophilia and homosexuality are statistically unrelated does not mean we should ignore the role that predatory gay priests like ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick played in the perpetuation of abusive secrecy.
This past week, a bombshell exploded in the halls of the Vatican. Archbishop Carlo Vigano, a former papal diplomat to the United States, published a letter accusing Pope Francis of deliberately ignoring the crimes of McCarrick and his sexual harassment of seminarians. The Pope has refused to comment, saying only: “I will not say one word on this. … I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”
What the Pope knew and when he knew it are issues for another day, and another column. But the possibility of a cover-up involving McCarrick is uncomfortably related to the hierarchical cover-ups of pedophiles.
Some in the church have failed us, but many others have not. In honor of Mychal Judge, and of the anonymous priests who replicate his sacrifice in cities, villages and war zones, we need an honest reckoning.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at [email protected].