Lip Service: John Cardinal Wright Gives Himself a Celibacy Dispensation

Posted by Censor Librorum on Nov 21, 2018 | Categories: Accountability, Bishops, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals

“Relations between (Cardinal) Cushing and (Bishop) Wright were not always smooth. When Cushing was told Wright had his eye on the episcopal throne Cushing growled, “He may have his eye on it, but I’ve got my ass on it..” And Wright suffered from another major liability; among insiders he was believed to be a homosexual, a trait tolerated in cosmopolitan Rome, but a severe handicap in puritanical Boston.” Anthony Lukas, Common Ground.

“Here it is worth revisiting the career of Cardinal John J. Wright (1909-1979) who, like (Cardinal Theodore) McCarrick, was the subject of numerous stories about his own sexuality.  Again, these came mostly from former seminarians and priests of the Pittsburgh (PA) diocese, which had a reputation during Wright’s decade there as a haven for actively gay clerics. That was especially true of the Pittsburgh Oratory, which Wright founded in 1961 as a religious center ministering to Catholic students attending the city’s secular universities.” Kenneth L. Woodward, “Double Lives-The Peril of Clerical Hypocrisy” Commonweal

The life and career of John Cardinal Wright is a perfect example of how a sexually active homosexual priest or bishop can rise to the top and stay there:  an entrenched protective brotherhood (much like police departments) and a tacit understanding that whistle-blowing is a career killer.

This protective ethic applies to heterosexual bishops/cardinals, too:  the Chicago Sun-Times detailed financial and other scandals associated with John Patrick Cardinal Cody of Chicago (1965-1982).  A contemporary of Cardinal Wright, Cody was alleged to have a mistress, a step-cousin he grew up with, Mrs. Helen Dolan Wilson. Over a million dollars went missing from the Chicago Archdiocese from accounts Cardinal Cody controlled; and four million in a single year when he was  treasurer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  A chunk of money is believed to have been diverted to Helen Dolan Wilson for furs, a house in Boca Raton, Florida, a luxury car, expensive clothes, holiday cash presents and loans to her children.  When Cody died the investigations were dropped.

John Cardinal Wright was a controversial figure because of his strong espousal of social justice causes such as the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam war; and his steely resistance to other causes, including married priests, the ordination of women, and birth control.  He felt being a “social liberal” was entirely compatible with being a “theological conservative.”  

As a child, he became a Francophile after hearing World War I soldiers talk about France, and he began a collection of books about Joan of Arc that eventually ran to 6,000 volumes.  He memorized French folk songs and poetry and became enamored of Debussy’s music.  Because of his intellectual background, Cardinal Wright always felt himself to be apart from the American tradition.  “I joined the body of bishops but went my own way,” he once said.  “For instance, I never went to funerals or played golf.  I’m still a little bit of a maverick.”

In 1950, at the age of 43, Wright became the first bishop of a new diocese in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Prior to his appointment he had been an Auxiliary Bishop of Boston.  His clerical career climb had started, and so did the sillage from his episcopal sex life.

On March 30, 2005, a lawsuit was filed against the Dioceses of Springfield and Worcester, MA by William E. Burnett, 64, accusing five priests and two bishops, all deceased, of sexual abuse.  The abuse took place from 1950-1959.  According to Burnett, his abuse by Bishop Wright occurred mainly between 1952-1955, when he was 11 or 12 to his early teens.  The sexual encounters took place at a private lakeside retreat owned by Burnett’s uncle, Monsignor Raymond Page, who served as a priest under Bishop Wright in Worcester.  In her 1,318-page tome, The Rite of Sodomy – Homosexuality and the Roman Catholic Church, Randy Engels details the sexual threesomes in the chapter, “The Secret Life of Bishop John Wright.”

“Burnett stated that the abuse ritual began with drinks, a coke for him and coke and alcohol for Page and Wright. Wright would then undress him, fall on his knees before the standing boy and cover him with kisses–feet, penis, nipples and lips.  He and Page would then undress and while the later stimulated Wright from behind, Bill would fellate the bishop.  When Wright neared ejaculation, he would turn Bill around and sodomize him.  Then Page took his turn raping his nephew.  On another occasion, Burnett said, Bishop Wright and Page engaged in simultaneous oral copulation.  While Bill looked on, he was told to begin masturbating.  Then Wright turned to Bill and said he wanted to “drink me in.” Wright then fellated him to orgasm.  Bill said he never forgot those words.  Burnett said Bishop Wright encouraged him to study for the priesthood for the Diocese of Worcester when he graduated from high school.”

Bill Burnett was described as a “schoolteacher turned bank robber” in a July 16, 1991 article in the Houston Chronicle. He was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Kenneth Gardner, a retired businessman, in a Houston motel on September 23, 1989. Burnett was 48 at the time of the murder and living in Texas.  He had already served time in federal prisons for seven bank robberies.  During some of those robberies he pistol-whipped or sexually molested women tellers.

Burnett passed two polygraph tests on his allegations.  The Diocese of Worcester said it had been made aware of Burnett’s claims “several years ago and had investigated the claims with members of his family and by a thorough investigation of diocesan records.”  Family members cast doubt on Burnett’s story, and the Diocese could not find anything to deem it credible.  The Springfield Diocese said nothing in its records corroborated the allegations.

Bishop Wright arrived as the new bishop of Pittsburgh in 1959.  He was closely involved with cutting-edge social and religious issues of the day.  He encouraged his priests to be active in promoting civil rights for African-Americans.  He advised President John F. Kennedy on ecumenical issues and relationships.  During the Second Vatican Council Bishop Wright strongly supported the statement on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, which was seen by many as a departure from Church tradition.  He also urged the Church to take a clear stand against racism and for ecumenical dialogue.  

In 1962 Bishop Wright released a joint statement with Episcopalian Bishop Austin Pardue condemning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale to eliminate prayer in public schools.  “A powerful, aggressive spirit of secularism is abroad in our land,” they wrote.  “It filters through all levels of society for the purpose of eliminating God from our national life.”  The specter of secularism would be raised again decades later by conservative bishops in Catholic culture wars in the United States and Europe.

Many observers of the U.S. episcopal scene expected Bishop Wright to succeed Richard Cardinal Cushing as Archbishop of Boston, who was due to retire on his 75th birthday.  Instead, in May 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed Wright as prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and named him a cardinal.  Kenneth L. Woodward, the former religious editor for Newsweek (1964-2002), reflected on the appointment in his October 26, 2018 article in Commonweal, “Double Lives – The Peril of Clerical Hypocrisy.”

“In 1969, at the age of 60, Pope Paul VI chose Wright to head the Congregation for Clergy in Rome and elevated him to cardinal. It was there, in the frenzied initial years of the post-council era, that I first heard stories of his leading a double life rather openly with a younger lover.  What interests me now is not the private details of this double life, but whether it influenced how he ran the congregation overseeing the selection, training, and formation of the clergy.”  

Wright enjoyed the trappings of his post in the Vatican.  He shared his fifth-floor apartment with his secretary, the Rev. Donald Wuerl, who he brought with him from Pittsburgh.  The apartment was said to be crammed with stereo equipment and many books.  Cardinal Wright enjoyed long conversations over a large dinner of pasta and said he “confessed to Romanitis.”

One of the first things he did at the Vatican was to suggest that all priests renew their vows of celibacy and ecclesiastical obedience each year.  On February 9, 1970, the Congregation for the Clergy issued a circular letter on priestly renewal that said: “It is desirable that every priest should make an act of renewal on Holy Thursday morning.” This act of renewal, it stated, “should be a reaffirmation of the act by which he consecrated himself to Christ and has undertaken to fulfill the obligations of his priesthood, particularly celibacy and of obedience to his Bishop or religious superior.”  Few priests or bishops responded to his request.  The Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was attended by only 35 of about 1,200 priests who had been invited.  The meager response was regarded as an embarrassment to the Vatican.  Numerous other dioceses in the U.S. and Europe ignored the request, not wanting to stir up controversy in the face of mounting criticism of mandatory celibacy. The Rev. Charles Curran, a theologian at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., was quoted as saying, “Why is it that when they want to test us, it’s always about celibacy and obedience – never on anything basic like faith, hope and charity.”

The Fr. Ginder sex scandal broke at the end of Bishop Wright’s watch in Pittsburgh.  A native of Pittsburgh, Fr. Charles R. Ginder had been a priest of the diocese since his ordination in 1940. According to his semi-autobiographical novel, Binding with Briars – Sex and Sin in the Catholic Churchhis homosexual activities began in 1949.  From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, Fr. Ginder was a popular syndicated columnist and writer.  He contributed a weekly column, “Right or Wrong” to Our Sunday Visitor, a weekly Catholic publication with over a million subscribers. He also served for several years as the dioceses’s Censor Librorum.  

In 1969 police officers raided Fr. Ginder’s apartment in the Squirrel Hill district of Pittsburgh, and found photographs of teenage boys performing sex acts with each other, Fr. Ginder, and other men, possibly other priests from the diocese. They also took Fr. Ginder’s diaries, which chronicled his sexual encounters.  Diocesan attorneys interceded for Fr. Ginder and he was released from jail and put on ten-years probation.

Fr. Ginder’s name pops up on BishopAccountability.org, a website that logs clerical sex abuse charges and convictions; and in the August 14, 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on clerical sexual abuse and cover up in all the state’s dioceses.  Of the 301 credibly accused priests in the report, the highest number, 99, were from the Diocese of Pittsburgh.  The resulting public firestorm was to bring down Cardinal Donald Wuerl–Cardinal Wright’s secretary, protege and a former bishop of Pittsburgh–two months after the report’s release.

After a long illness, John Cardinal Wright died on August 10, 1979.  He was 70 years old.  At the time of his death, he was the highest ranking American prelate in the Vatican.  His funeral Mass, at Holy Name Church in the West Roxbury section of Boston, was attended by 11 cardinals, countless bishops, priests, dignitaries, government leaders and friends. Archbishop Jean Jadot, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, was one of several concelebrants.  The principal celebrant was Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, the Archbishop of Boston, who returned from a trip to Ireland for the funeral.  John A. Volpe, former Governor of Massachusetts and Ambassador to Italy, read one of the epistles at the service.

Bishop Vincent M. Leonard of Pittsburgh, eulogist at the funeral, emphasized Cardinal Wright’s scholarship and love of teaching.  “Every opportunity to teach he accepted,” Bishop Leonard said. “And when his legs could no longer carry him to the podium, pulpit or altar, we has satisfied to use a pen and rely on the mails and printed word.” He went on to describe Cardinal Wright as a “great priest in the biblical sense of the word, a devoted shepherd of the flock committed to him in Worcester and Pittsburgh and a loyal and obedient son of Holy Mother Church.  His death is a great loss to church and community.”  Pope John Paul II sent a message praising Wright for “loyal service to the church and fidelity to the See of Peter.”  The pope said, “He will long be remembered with admiration and gratitude.”

Cardinal Wright has been buried almost 40 years, but his lifestyle as a closeted, sexually active prelate still exists and causes problems today.  Here’s why:

Blackmail – Pederast priests, or priests who seduce, pressure or have sex with teenagers, students, young adults and others take their cue from the example set at the top.  If a priest had sex with the bishop, or knows about priests, seminarians, youngsters or rent boys the bishop has used for sex, he can be confident the bishop won’t crack down on him when gossip about his sex life makes the rounds.  In addition, illicit sex opens the cleric up to blackmail by criminals, tricks, past lovers and others.

Hypocrisy – How can a cardinal or bishop preach celibacy and chastity but also engage in sexual activity? Obviously, they have worked it out in their own minds that it’s OK for them to have sex.  However, the laity–especially gay and lesbian Catholics– must stay within the boundaries of Catholic conventional morality.  This hypocrisy destroys their credibility, the credibility of their teaching and office, and negatively impacts the authority and perception of bishops as a group.

Stupidity – Rather than complain about the large numbers of homosexuals in the priesthood, why not change it and permit women deacons and ordain married men? In his position in the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Wright knew how many priests left to marry–hundreds of thousands of them.  Enforced celibacy is the reason many men do not pursue a vocation.  Continuing with a limited pool of candidates for the priesthood will draw what they fear most: immature, fearful homosexuals who secretly pursue their desires.

Delusional – In this age of cellphone cameras and text message trails, digital news and opinion, aggressive public prosecutors, angry and skeptical coreligionists, and editors and publishers who won’t be cowed—nobody is getting away with anything.  To think a secret life is safe is delusional.

Modern day Cardinal Wrights should not be giving themselves special dispensations to indulge in homosexual sex that they heartily condemn in others.  Liberal or conservative, we need to drag them out in the open.  The trouble is..will there be enough left to run things?

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Lip Service: John Cardinal Wright Gives Himself a Celibacy Dispensation”

  1. Póló Says:

    Thanks for a most interesting post.

    I have no words.

    I get so angry when I see this stuff. The only positive is that it is coming out. But none of these guys are being held to account. Spirited away to the Vatican on the eve of exposure/arrest, or just plain dead.

    Pell may prove to be an exception. We’ll see.

  2. Censor Librorum Says:

    Polo, what we need–as a starter–is for all sexually active bishops–gay and straight–to be outed. The church will either get rid of all of them; or be shocked enough that an honest conversation can begin. This will never happen, because bishops won’t rat each other out; conservative Catholic social media and political figures need their conservative bishops to pressure the laity on sex so that they can feel righteous on their main Catholic markers–homosexual sex, abortion and “religious freedom;” and liberals/progressives are not going to out the few liberals or moderate we have. In balance, with both groups, although much, much more with conservative bishops and Catholic laity who want the status quo maintained, the victims of sexual abuse are the ones who have really suffered, and continue to suffer. As for what bishops, cardinals and curia think….they live in their own little cocoon, with other yes men, so they feel empowered to do whatever they feel like so long as they abide by two cardinal rules–keep it secret, and go along publicly with church teaching.

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