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The Bishop, His Hidden Relationship and His Teenage Children

When a priest fails to keep celibacy, that man-made rule that even the Roman Catholic Church admits is changeable, adaptable and dispensable, we should not be so easily scandalized.
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It's puzzling to see the harsh reactions to Bishop Gabino Zavala's resignation as Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles after his admission that he fathered two teenage children as a consequence of a hidden sexual relationship with their mother -- the Bishop's secret girlfriend. I was determined to pray for Bishop Zavala quietly and not say a word, but since the Associated Press and other media outfits decided to mention my name and include me in a list with a number of church leaders in their widely circulated article, I decided to speak out and share my thoughts.

What troubles me about the reactions of so many who claim to feel "betrayed" is that when we discover that priests have had hidden sexual relationships with adults, too many people have a tendency to quickly speak of a "life of duplicity" or a moral "failure," yet we never saw this same type of outrage when it was discovered -- and unfortunately continues to be discovered -- that the same institution developed a culture of secrecy and protected truly criminal behavior in the thousands of cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by priests and bishops. Where are the voices of "outrage" when minors and innocent children are involved?

When a priest fails to keep celibacy, that man-made rule that even the Roman Catholic Church admits is changeable, adaptable and dispensable, we should not be so easily scandalized. We live in the 21st century and sexuality should no longer be a taboo subject for most of us. The fact is that all human beings, including priests and bishops, are sexual beings and are capable of living up to their highest aspirations and ideals, while also capable of falling short of them. Sexuality among consenting, single adults cannot continue to be considered "a great scandal" in or out of church. On the other hand, covered up promiscuous and criminal sexual acts are truly scandalous and often brushed under the carpet.

When I wrote "Dilemma," published exactly one year ago, my intention was never to attack the church of my youth, instigate greater controversy nor did I want to justify my own failure to live a celibate life after falling in love with the woman who today I am happy to say is my lovely wife. I was motivated to write my memoir to give a voice to people like Bishop Zavala and thousands of others who are excellent priests and good men, yet they have not found their call to priestly service as always compatible with their acceptance of the celibate commitment made when they were much younger men at ordination.

Did Bishop Zavala act rightly or was he wrong by keeping his secret girlfriend and children hidden so long? I think only God knows that and only God can judge him. Yet, very few seem to be asking the deeper questions involved in this and so many other similar stories: What leads a good priest and dedicated bishop to live a life of secrecy? Who really understands the level of loneliness involved in the life of a decent and hardworking shepherd of souls? What is it about the institutional life and the clerical environment that has led so many to similar situations? In his heart Bishop Zavala knows and each one of us who has lived with that similar dilemma -- in and out of active ministry in the Roman Church -- also knows.

Ultra-conservatives and religious fanatics will say that, "The devil made him do it" I prefer to follow the opinion of a wise and experienced seminary professor and author on the present and future of the priesthood, Father Daniel Cozzens, who said: "I see this, rather, as a tragic situation ... It's another sad example of fundamentally good priests and bishops who struggle with the burden of celibacy if it is not their gift."

Leaving your familiar ministerial environment, daily life and work to follow your heart takes time and courage. Church reform also takes time. Hopefully, one day soon, all good men and women will be able to serve God in peace and freedom, without unnecessary non-biblical burdens. But in the meantime, wouldn't it be great if devout people would learn the value of greater compassion and forgiveness, especially to those who absolved them of their sins so many times? In situations like these, the words of Jesus are more relevant than ever: "Whoever has no sin, cast the first stone" (John 8:7).

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