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Ming Zhen Shakya

Sexism and Pedophile Priests

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Sri Ramakrishna, the great saint of Vedanta, once noted that the cause of sin in the world could be summed up in two words: Lucre and Lust. He was a man and he looked at the world from a man's perspective. Had he been a woman he would have added a third word: Sexism.

We like to think that menstrual taboos and other assorted anti-female drivels are curious remnants of a barbaric past. But then we learn of the Roman Catholic Church's expensive agonies caused by priests who violated children in their charge, and we, mindful of those Buddhist orders that seem to regard sodomy as a vital part of an acolyte's curriculum, are left to wonder just what else besides the subjugation and denigration of women can possibly be the root cause of this wretched abuse.

Any religion that restricts the priesthood to celibate males and also accepts pre-pubescent males for eventual ordination by removing them from their families and placing them in elite all-male 'boarding schools' located in or near the temple complex, tends automatically to establish the perfect setting for infantile, abusive sexual behavior. The boys attain puberty while being indoctrinated with the evils of female sexuality - those Jezebel contacts that will infect and destroy both body and soul. These graphic warnings do not lessen the desire for sexual experience, they simply misdirect it. And if this is not what the designers of these institutions precisely intended, it is, certainly, what they have wrought.

The steps leading to priestly pedophilia are not difficult to follow - and they are apparently identical in all such religious paths that funnel male children into clerical life.

Because priestly service is an honorific occupation - one of the few occupations in which the aristocracy may engage - children are encouraged to seek clerical office. In poor classes, admittance into student rank brings long-term prestige to the family and immediate reward to the student. He is fed, clothed and educated. Feted for his assumed piety and intelligence, the boy's ego inflates in tandem with his family's swelling pride in his achievement. Regardless of his economic background, he enters the monastic grammar school not knowing what studying to become a priest entails, what trials he may be required to endure. He is a child who has been led to believe that he is privileged and superior; and in his callow innocence assumes he can cope with all routine tribulations. Coercion of sexual acts is then relatively simple to effect. What choice does the boy have? To refuse is to be rejected and forced to return home to personal and familial disgrace. The priests will say that he failed not because he refused to commit immoral acts, but because he did commit them, that he was incorrigibly lewd in his actions and expressions. This pre-emptive strike is necessary for the priest's survival - to hell with the child's. And who will believe the boy if he reveals the truth? Absolutely no one.

Afraid, confused, compromised, sworn to secrecy, and assured by the mentor he respects and trusts that these acts are holy acts, the boy cannot share his doubts and fears with others. He does not know if he has been singled out for such treatment or whether every boy he sees has been so "privileged."

Of course, not all boys will be subjected to such abuse; but for those who are, the trauma has no uniform prognosis. Some boys will survive the ordeal. Some won't. And some will be stultified in their sexuality to such a degree that they - like many ordinary children who have been physically abused - will go on to become abusers themselves.

The priests in these orders who were not sexually molested or who entered the priesthood without having attended these boys' academies, are likely those who, having reached responsible sexual maturity, struggle only with normal sexual urges, i.e., those that are not directed at children. The irony is that these innocent priests will bear the stigma of misconduct. The criminals fade or are led away. The innocent are left to bear the lingering looks of suspicion.

In Buddhism's various Mahayana orders, we know of none that confers religious status upon children. We have fully ordained female priests, and we further find that women head many monasteries and sanghas. Children are occasionally brought to our Centers by their parents where, in a "Sunday school" environment, they may be introduced to Buddhist ethics by being taught the old Jataka fables by a member of the temple's staff. But the children go home with their parents. Monastic training is reserved for persons who have already received at least a high school level of education and who have determined their sexual orientation without clerical compass. We are not shy about reporting sexual misconduct in our ranks; but we say with profound relief and gratitude that child-molestation is not known to be among our many errors.

It is in some other non-Mahayana Buddhist orders - those that limit the priesthood to males and which provide preparatory boarding schools for young male acolytes, that we find the most abject of menstrual taboos and occurrences of sodomy which, incredibly, are not regarded as violating the Precept against sexual misconduct. With surgical semantics, these Buddhist priests are able to scribe a fine line between what constitutes sexual relations and what doesn't. To them, a man, evidently, can have sexual relations only with a woman; and, so, by avoiding sexual relations with women, they are able to remain free of sin, completely pure celibates. (Anyone who doubts the monastic practice of sodomy should consult the AIDS statistics of any country in which these Orders predominate.)

In all cases where women are not admitted to the priesthood, their religious duties are confined to menial labor, office or kitchen, or to teaching congregants and their children. Women who ascend in rank exercise that authority only over other women. In these orders there is usually a firm belief in that form of reincarnation that specifies that the zenith of reincarnated reward is birth as a male human being. On this basis, women understand that they cannot aspire to any office in which males are inferior in status to them, "not in this lifetime." In order to qualify for such lofty rebirth, nuns strive to attain perfection as servants of male priests who, as it happens, may not so much as touch the flesh of a female. Females are unclean by virtue of menstruation but, curiously, a pregnant female (who obviously does not menstruate) is particularly filthy. I have read translations of old Buddhist medical texts that sternly warn any man who prepares a potion or poultice never to prepare a medication in any place in which "a dog, a pig, or a pregnant woman" might look upon the proceedings and thereby contaminate the medicine with her glance. The herbalist would have to begin his preparation anew. And if human breast milk was to be mixed into a potion, milk furnished only to a nursing male child qualified for use. Milk used to feed female babies would automatically be tainted and could serve no curative purpose. This idiocy is not confined to Buddhist primitives. We recall with some amusement (if amusement may be found anywhere in the September Eleventh disaster) that Mohamed Atta (who piloted one of the airliners into the World Trade Center) specified that no pregnant woman should be permitted to attend his funeral service.

Any religious order that prohibits women from entering the priesthood is, by definition, observing menstrual taboos and as such regards women as unclean and unworthy. No matter how much maudlin praise of women is sung by choirs or intoned by sermonizing priests, no matter how much the authority for such sexism is allegedly established by scripture or sanctioned by custom, the fact is that women are degraded. There is no palatable way to dish out this prejudice.

The Mahayana Buddhist orders pay great reverence to the goddess Guan Yin. ("Goddess" is specified since many representations of this androgynous "holy spirit" member of the Trinity are clearly male.) As such, a special and genuine devotion is accorded our Bodhisattva of Compassion. Such loving regard tends to eradicate the superstitions of female inferiority. Women are not deemed unworthy to approach an altar in order to perform sacred rituals and are not automatically relegated to positions of servitude.

Zen Buddhist monasteries in the United States have been blessed with many effective abbesses, women who have not only attained high office but who have earned universal respect for their spiritual authority. Historically, we think also of the incomparable Abbess Mo Shan and of Layman Pang's exquisitely enlightened daughter. Yet, it must be conceded that the ancient vows made at ordination reveal sexist sentiments. Women are given a few hundred more vows than men because, it is explained, women are weaker than men and need to be more tightly bound to the Dharma. This news is always guaranteed a good laugh. (Chinese women in positions of authority are imperious. It is astonishing to see how they order around male masters and abbots. But to my knowledge none wears the master's "gold and red" robe of high office. I have seen women wear these robes in Taiwan, but not in Mainland China.)

The Mahayana Zen Orders, essentially the first Buddhist orders to be introduced to the United States, arrived after World War II and immediately became 'American' in outlook. But other "male-priests-only" Buddhist Orders arrived as ethnic churches, serving various Asian immigrant communities. Most of these priests did not speak (or even needed to speak) English. They interacted only with congregants who were used to not asking questions about the private lives of priests. As second-generation, native-born members started to bring friends to services and as the priests grew more accustomed to English and became accessible to curious American onlookers, this situation changed. People began to talk openly about conduct that baffled them. The priests, for example, would not sit at the same dining table with laymen or nuns. They could dine with only other male priests. If for some business reason, a woman was admitted to usually "off-limits" places - priests' private quarters or meeting rooms - a layman would immediately place a mat on any chair she went to sit on so that the seat's surface would not be contaminated. A woman's hand extended in greeting to a priest would provoke a stare more appropriate to the proffering of a coiled mamba. Inevitably there came a rising awareness, a suspicion that something more pernicious might be responsible for this phobic response to females.

Since these orders do not exactly welcome Americans into the priesthood, all of the priests are Asian-born, as are their replacements. To my knowledge they have not yet developed any monastic preparatory programs for boys in the United States; but if such training is ever offered here, it will not do to insist that "spiritual instruction" is an internal matter and that other Buddhist groups or outsiders should not presume to judge or involve themselves in any way with the practices. If any minors are being sexually abused a felony is being committed. Children have every right to look to the state and all its citizens for protection.

Clearly, an illegal act committed in the name of religion can no longer be tolerated, regardless of whether it is polygamy; the withholding of medical treatment in order to provide for divine intervention; clitoral circumcision; sexual child abuse; or any other form of victimizing the helpless. We need not wait for scandal to overtake us before we start giving our religious positions some serious thought.

Sexism - in nearly all these cases, and certainly in the case of clerical pedophilia - sexism, pure and simple, is the driving force; and sexual equality is the only counter-force that can nullify it. But as the discussions and debates continue, we will hear mostly from those who would perpetuate iniquity by touting other 'solutions' to the problem.

Let's roundup and then release the usual suspects. These are:

(1) Blaming pedophilia on the vow of celibacy and supposing that by permitting priests to marry, the problem will be solved. This is ludicrous and insulting to women. When an older man rapes a boy it is not because the older man has no wife. We know that in the general population girls are too often raped by their fathers or stepfathers - men who have not taken vows of celibacy and who presumably have wives. What is actually being suggested here? That if we feed a woman to a beast, he will lose his appetite for young male flesh? Is this the kind of man any religion wants in its priesthood?

(2) Blaming child rape upon adult homosexuality. The reasoning here is that since the pedophilia is male-on-male, it is homosexual and that by removing homosexuals from the priesthood, the pedophilia will be eliminated. Child rape involves considerably more than a reasoned choice between homosexual and heterosexual lifestyles. It is psychopathic. This homophobic 'solution' equates homosexuality with criminality and moves from sexism to gay-bashing.

(3) Blaming inadequate medical review and treatment - which regards crime as emotional disease. Every crime on earth, by these standards, evidences emotional disease. (Hitler was seriously ill.) A serial child-rapist in the secular world is not considered to be a fellow whom society failed when it did not provide him with "adequate medical review and treatment." He's a criminal, and he is sent to jail. Perhaps he will receive therapy there.

(4) Blaming pedophilia upon insufficient internal policing. The solution proposed here is to have the hierarchy pay closer attention to its own crimes or to enlist laymen to investigate and review priestly misconduct. But that is what public prosecutors are: laymen who investigate and review crimes. We are not dealing with a stranger in a public toilet asking a boy for sex. We are dealing with the secret exploitation of a subordinate juvenile by a man of recognized authority. It is the men in high office - who know of these crimes and allow the criminals to continue to pose as holy men - who need policing. Lay overseers would need to be privy to the priests' bedrooms to ensure any degree of compliance with child-protective measures. This is a 'citizen's review board' approach, a paper tiger solution. Next we'll hear about surveillance cameras…

We ought never to license all-male monastic preparatory schools. We ought never to defer to foreign customs and traditions that permit 'ritualized' sexual abuse of any kind. We ought definitely to pressure these troublesome religious orders to open their priesthood to mature persons of integrity, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.

Where the priesthood is reserved for mature persons, marriage does not interfere with priestly service. Among responsible adults, domestic support is usually more of an asset to a ministry than a liability. All that is required is that priest and spouse live honorable lives.

The work needed to reform the priesthood and rid religion of sexism is no doubt Herculean, but it must be done.

We are reminded of John F. Kennedy's great line: "Never send a boy to do a man's job. Send a woman." 


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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