Tens of thousands of men quit the priesthood because they decided not to remain celibate. In Sacramento, many of these ex-clerics wonder if the Church would be stronger today if it didn’t require mandatory celibacy for its priests.
John Riley answers the front door accompanied by a yapping dog and an inquisitive toddler, his 18-month-old daughter, Ana. Youthful and wholesome looking, with a boy’s grin and a shock of white hair uncharacteristic for someone his age, the former parish priest looks at once intelligent, caring and upbeat—just the way a man of the cloth is supposed to look.
Despite the presence of Ana, it’s easy to imagine the former Father Riley dressed in priestly garb, celebrating Mass, doling out Communion wafers, preaching from the pulpit about Jesus’ advice to love thy neighbor as thyself.
But Riley is not preaching today or any day for that matter. A stay-at-home dad, performing the rites of parental passage known as childcare here in his home on a tree-lined street near Sacramento City College, the ex-priest lives in a universe that now favors diaper pails and children’s toys, not vestments and holy wafers.
When asked why he quit the priesthood, Riley answers simply, without apology: “I just got really lonely. I craved intimacy and a wife and a family. I’d do weddings and look at the couples so happy. And I’d think, God, I’d like to do that.”
Like tens of thousands of other former Roman Catholic priests in America, Riley—who remains a deeply religious man—opposes the mandatory celibacy the Church requires of its priests. “I think it’s a horrible thing,” he says, pointing out that there is no mention of celibacy in the Bible’s New Testament, no historical link between celibacy and the priesthood. St. Peter and the apostles almost all had wives and families.
For the first 1,200 years of the Church’s existence, bishops, priests and popes were mostly married too. But, from the 4th century on, Christians evolved from a persecuted group to a powerful force within the Roman Empire. The new Roman priests shifted the Church’s emphasis away from its family-based origins and toward the preferences of Roman politicians. This is when celibacy—along with its assumption of purity and holiness for men—took on a status of special spirituality. By the 12th century, after many eras of increased emphasis on celibacy—in part because Church leaders worried that clerics’ children would inherit Church property—the pope legislated that priests must not marry women.
Today, Riley and other ex-priests have an unusual vantage point on the seeming implosion of the Church to which they once dedicated their hearts and minds. Like the rest of the world community, they have been bombarded by media coverage about priestly pedophilia, abuse victims and hierarchy coverups. Like most people, they want to know how a church that calls its members to high moral standards can have become so out of touch, so corrupt.
But these men also have the personal background to recognize that the problems with the Church extend far deeper, stretch far wider.
In Sacramento, the Catholic Diocese is grappling with the crisis as best it can, with priests all over the region using their pulpits to give homilies that touch on the subject of sexual abuse. The local diocese has organized town hall meetings to address concerns about the scandals. During a press conference a few months ago, Sacramento’s Bishop William K. Weigand disclosed the names of 14 priests from the local diocese who have been accused, over the years, of sexual misconduct. The fact that Weigand made such a disclosure is unprecedented and a sign, at the local level, of just how dire the Church’s overall predicament has become.
In truth, the sex scandals are not really so new, having been reported since the mid-’80s. But the revelation of the coverups seems to have laid the groundwork for a new awareness of the gap between the Church hierarchy and its lay members, especially when it comes to matters of gender and human sexuality. This gap can be seen in the Church’s intolerance of divorce and refusal to remarry divorced Catholics. It can be seen in the pope’s 1968 condemnation of all use of all forms of birth control. It can be seen in the all-male clergy and the hierarchy’s refusal to consider the ordination of women. It can be seen in the institution’s rebuke of homosexuality despite scholarly research indicating that 30 to 50 percent of current priests are gay.
Meanwhile, the Church has been increasingly hard-pressed to recruit and retain priests—the total number of them in America has declined at a dramatic rate of 12 percent a year. Meanwhile, the number of men joining the priesthood has halved in America, from 1,000 in 1965 to 500 today. And perhaps most important for the institution, less people than ever attend Sunday Mass. In 1972, 49 percent of Catholics reported attending church weekly; in 2000, 26 percent did so.
Many believe the Church’s mandatory celibacy rule is at the heart of this growing divide between lay people and the hierarchy. Jason Berry, author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation, a book that traces the priest sex-abuse story from its earliest stages, suggests that if the American bishops had biological mothers and fathers among their ranks the scandal would never have reached such heights. According to Berry, the Church can only rise above this divide if it puts an end to mandatory celibacy, which causes “young men to reach adulthood without sexual maturity, having failed to integrate their sexuality in any healthy manner into their lives.” No one argues that celibacy causes pedophilia, but Berry is one of many who believe it has fostered a secretive culture in which sexual behavior in any form must be hidden.
Church reform organizations like Call to Action and CORPUS (Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service) use Web sites and national conventions to link up Catholics who want their church to reform, among other things, by supporting optional celibacy for its priests (see story on page 21).
Indeed, there are more than a dozen former priests living in Sacramento today, many of whom, like the three whose stories are told below, resigned from the priesthood because of the celibacy requirement. Despite their departure from their vows, it’s no surprise to find some of these men holding a predictably priest-like optimism about the current crisis.
“I think they should do more towards the victims,” says ex-priest Riley of the recent Church response to the scandal, adding that he thinks Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of pedophilia coverups, should resign.
“But even with all the horrible stuff that’s going on, I still see it as a blessing. I’m praying for change. I’m hoping things will change.”
A fun-loving, beer-drinking, self described “party-goer,” John Riley was as surprised as anyone to find himself being drawn—during his junior college years in Phoenix, Arizona—to scripture, religion and the notion that he was born to serve his fellow man. Pretty soon, he began to believe, literally, that God was “calling him” to join the priesthood. Riley entered the seminary in San Diego in 1978 and proceeded with the rigorous education expected of priests. He attended college and afterward studied theology for four years in Rome. He then earned a doctorate degree in Canon Law and was finally ordained in 1985.
It was during his three years of ministering in the Diocese of Stockton that Riley began to experience loneliness, to crave the emotional closeness of a wife and family. He started to question the Church’s celibacy requirement and its contradictory message that priests who were supposed to be one with the people were also made to feel a step above them in spiritual standing. Riley talked these feelings over with his bishop and was sent on a five-day retreat to think things over. One night during the retreat, says Riley, God spoke to him and said, “trust” and “leave.”
Instead of exiting immediately, Riley took a six-month leave of absence in Sacramento. He could still celebrate the Mass and did so on one occasion. After giving a rousing homily at St. Francis Church in Midtown one Sunday morning, Riley went out to breakfast with a group of parishioners that included Yolanda Portal, a regular churchgoer he described as a “feisty, independent Spanish redhead.”
“We talked the whole breakfast,” says Riley, laughing like one does when recalling first-discovered love. “We just clicked. I told her, ‘It’s the best of both worlds. I’m on a leave of absence as a priest but I can date!’ ”
After a few months of seeing each other, Riley told the bishop in Stockton that he was in love, that he wanted to marry, that his decision to leave the priesthood was final. The very next day, Riley surprised Yolanda by planting an engagement ring for her to discover in the outstretched hands of the statue of St. Francis located in the Church of the same name where they had first met.
Around this time, during the spring of 1994, Riley came across Sacramento diocesan Bishop Weigand. Riley said Weigand tried to dissuade the marriage by reminding him of the vow he took before God. Riley proceeded to set the bishop straight: “Let me tell you, I have learned more about love from Yolanda than I ever learned from the Church.”
Soon the couple set out to start their lives together. Riley, who describes himself as having a “love of the poor”—as motivated by the teachings of Jesus—was working full-time at Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit service organization in downtown Sacramento. He spent his days washing the clothing of the poor, keeping peace on the streets outside where the homeless gathered, helping the poor visit family members in jail. His new wife, meanwhile, served as a court interpreter. Soon the couple realized they needed to think about their future and Riley, who had a law degree but couldn’t bear the idea of practicing law for a living, returned to school for a master’s degree in psychology. He will soon have his license as a marriage and family counselor.
The couple’s daughter Ana was born on December 23, 2000—a millennium baby. Riley gets tears in his eyes describing the birth and the experience of being there with Yolanda as his daughter began life. “Words can’t describe the depth of that experience, the depth of love you feel,” he says. “How sad it is that as a priest, you’ll never ever taste this moment of intimacy and presence of the divine. How sad that priests will never know what it’s like to have a wife or a daughter or a son.”
Bernie Del Valle can tell you the exact moment he decided to leave the priesthood. His choice was made by the scent of a woman.
Like Riley, Del Valle grew up without a clue that he’d ever be drawn to the priesthood, being far more interested in basketball and literature than Mass and the liturgy. But somehow, the young man began to get the feeling that God was calling him to do “something special,” something spectacularly difficult. He figured that the toughest thing he could do—and therefore the most worthy—was to undertake the years of training, sacrifice and hard work it would take to become a Jesuit missionary.
After years of rigorous priestly education—including the mastery of Latin and Greek—Del Valle traveled to Taiwan as a missionary in 1966. There he began a program of study at Fujen University in yet another language, Mandarin Chinese. Eventually he became a fully ordained Jesuit and took on the role of teacher at Fujen. In the 1970s, he offered classes in English literature and modern drama, often involving his favorite authors, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Father Del Valle also helped the students put on plays such as The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof—all in Mandarin Chinese.
At that time, Fujen University operated under the control, basically, of what Del Valle described as a surprisingly totalitarian regime, which outlawed the teaching of politics or social movements. Showing his propensity for rebellion, Del Valle taught a class called “philosophy of life,” which he secretly transformed into what he considered a much-needed class on human sexuality. The course became a huge hit with young people, quickly attracting students from all over the region. “The kids didn’t know anything about sex,” he said. “And I didn’t either. But I knew it’d be good, given that society and its gender inequities, to get the boys and girls talking.”
It was while teaching this class to science students that he met Merce, a young female scientist who ran Fujen’s Department of Food Sciences. The Jesuit and the chemist became quickly attached and soon began “relations” that involved “a lot of heavy kissing” but no sex. “You were looking at a virgin,” he laughs.
Del Valle felt he needed to be honest with his Jesuit superiors about what was happening, so he trusted them with the truth that he was becoming close with a woman. He felt betrayed soon after when they decided without discussion to transfer him abruptly to another school in the south part of Taiwan, far away from Merce, the object of his desire. Around the same time, the university authorities learned of the content of his “philosophy of life” class and voiced stern disapproval.
It was all too much for Del Valle. He fled home to Los Angeles to think his situation over and, after living there for six months, realized what he was ultimately meant to do. He would remain a priest. He would return to Taiwan, ask forgiveness for his transgressions; basically let the whole thing blow over.
But Merce met him at the airplane, and the encounter changed his life forever.
“That was it,” he says, joyfully recalling the moment. “I got a big hug from her and I smelled the smell of her. And it was all over. I can’t describe it, but it’s like sunny, that nice clothes-lined-dried freshness smell. It’s a whole package. And when you take that package in your arms, that’s it. That’s great. That’s beautiful. Suddenly, I knew exactly what I was gonna do.
“And I never looked back.”
Del Valle left the Jesuits and the pair married in the Philippines in 1976. Soon, their son B.J. was born. The couple, who just celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary, now reside in a suburban home in a quiet Carmichael neighborhood. Merce recently retired after working 17 years for the California state Department of Food and Agriculture. Del Valle, who taught briefly after returning to the United States, spent most of his years in Sacramento working at local charities and running a gardening business that employed refugees from Central America.
Today, Del Valle believes the Church’s celibacy requirement set up what he calls an “unreal life” for priests, an existence that, by its nature, implies that women are sinful, that sexual intercourse is impure. “You set up a guy who supposedly has this superpower,” he says, “but he’s climbed up there by putting somebody else down.
“I think marriage is a higher state than celibacy,” he adds. “I think marriage requires more love than celibacy. At the bottom of the priesthood there’s a lot of selfishness. But in marriage you have to listen, you have to love, you have to take care.”
“My mother was a terribly pious Catholic,” says the once Father Dan Delany, who—like Riley and Del Valle—attended all-Catholic high schools. “Everything in my family was Catholic, Catholic. All my parents’ friends were Catholic. Everything they belonged to was Catholic. We were ultra-Catholic. And I believed in all that stuff.”
So when it came time, after serving a stint in the Army, to decide what to devote his life to, Delany chose the priesthood. He describes his seminary years during the late ’50s and early ’60s as a time when priests straddled two worlds—the old and the new. While his priestly training featured strictly old-style Catholic values, the society outside was beginning to experience a surge of change, one that included the sexual revolution. In 1962, the Church itself entered into the early stages of sweeping reforms—like celebrating Mass in the United States in English instead of Latin—that came to be known as Vatican II.
Ordained as a diocesan priest in 1964, Delany began his life of service at a middle-income parish in Southern California. Besides celebrating Mass and hearing confessions, Delany provided marriage and family counseling to parishioners. Sometimes he was booked up as much as five days a week to give people advice about marriage, family and sex. “Do you know how many hours we had of preparation to give people counseling?” Delany asks, then answers his own question by forming a zero with his thumb and forefinger. “What a joke!” he said. “To think we knew anything about marriages and families.”
Delany, who withdrew from the priesthood in 1967, answers in similar fashion to Riley and Del Valle when asked why he left.
“I met my wife!” he says.
Chris Delany, then a nun of the Immaculate Heart Order and an elementary school principal in Los Angeles, entered Delany’s life and that pretty much changed everything for both of them. They fell in love and decided to leave their respective vocations and marry. Delany describes his transition out of the priesthood in his early 30s as hard on his mother and “terrible, terrible.” Delany recalls the shame he felt one day while strolling through an L.A. department store with Chris; he was petrified to see a woman approaching who attended his church. “I just walked right on past her,” Delany said, remembering how he instinctively wanted to avoid contact. “I was embarrassed.”
But, like Del Valle, Delany says he’s never looked back after his decision was made.
After working for a while in Los Angeles as a social worker in what was referred to then as “skid row,” Delany and his wife moved to Sacramento in 1976. The pair, who eventually had a son and a daughter, decided to set up a Catholic Worker community, a religious organization whose stated goal was devotion to Jesus’ teachings of service and resistance.
“Basically, we wanted to practice the gospel,” says Delany.
For the next 26 years, Dan and Chris Delany proceeded to do so. In fact, they made history in the chronicles of charitable giving in Sacramento by founding a soup kitchen called Loaves & Fishes, that utilized volunteers to provide the poor and hungry of Sacramento with a daily meal. Over the decades, Loaves & Fishes grew to become a nationally renowned, and occasionally controversial, umbrella organization for a wide array of local service and recovery programs such as Hope House (the first AIDS residential treatment facility in town), Maryhouse (a service for homeless women), Mustard Seed (a school for homeless kids), Mercy Clinic (which provides health care for the poor) and Friendship Park. Chris Delany has served as chair of the board of directors of the organization these past 10 years; husband Dan served as chair during its first 10 years.
Dan Delany and his wife made another kind of history in Sacramento too, bringing the Catholic Worker’s long history of non-violent civil disobedience and war resistance to the region. All told, Delany has been arrested about 50 times in the name of peace, justice and resistance to war. The pair have been arrested at the post office, the old Federal Building, Mather Air Force Base, Aerojet, Lockheed, the Nevada test site … the list goes on and on.
“Basically, we try to raise hell,” laughs Delany. “We try to remind people that the government doesn’t have all the answers, that violence begets violence.”
Gregarious and unreserved, the 67-year-old man still carries the potent and humane look of, well … a priest. Like Riley and Del Valle, he remains a deeply spiritual man, attends Mass at St. Francis and belongs to a private worship group. Also, he attends meetings with a group of local ex-priests who gather quarterly—sometimes more often—for lunch and comradeship.
Delany, who says he’s always been “kind of a left-wing radical” most of his life, takes a historic view when asked about the current crisis and the celibacy rule. “The Church was a monarchy for centuries,” he says. “That’s one of the things that’s suddenly being dragged out into the sunlight because of all this attention. The Catholic Church is one of the most grossly authoritarian institutions that exists today!”
On the subject of gays in the priesthood, Delany thinks about half of the men who join the priesthood now are gay. “This sort of splits the seminary,” he says. Meanwhile, Delany adds he’s personally known several priests who’ve had affairs with women and kept them more or less secret. “In my experience, probably 50 percent of priests, off and on, have had sex with people whether they’re gay or not.
“The whole mystique of single, committed men who are totally trustworthy—it’s being revealed that there’s nothing behind that. It’s just collapsing. It’s a different world now.”
The American Heritage Dictionary informs that a crisis is “a crucial turning point or situation in the course of anything.” John Riley, Bernie Del Valle and Dan Delany all hit that kind of turning point while serving as priests. Having committed themselves to a life of religious devotion, service to the poor and celibacy, they were each surprised to discover they could only keep two out of the three promises.
Today, the Church faces a serious turning point as well.
Perhaps it will hold fast to the attitudes that seem to have placed its hierarchy at fundamental odds with its lay people on issues related to gender and sexuality. Or perhaps the Church will change, among other things, by revoking the mandatory celibacy rule for priests. This could only occur if the pope or his eventual replacement issued a decree to strike the celibacy law from the books. The likelihood of such a thing happening seems pretty far-fetched for many Roman Catholics. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people—like the thousands who are set to gather in Boston at a Voice of the Faithful convention—who believe such a change is more than possible. To them it is inevitable.
When the three local ex-priests are asked whether they might consider rejoining the priesthood if mandatory celibacy were no longer required, Del Valle and Delany both say “no” and “probably not.” They believe they’ve come too far to go back. But Riley, the youngest of the trio, says he might agree to become a priest again if celibacy was not required.
“If I could dictate the circumstances under which I could work, I probably would do it,” he says, sitting now at home, fully aware of the gift of his family. “Yolanda and Ana are a dream come true for me. … But sometimes I do miss the sacraments, like being with the dying and anointing the sick and doing the weddings.
“I do miss being with the people.”