Twin dilemmas faced by the church

It was 1988, and the Rev. Michael Emery was sitting in the rectory of St. Matthew"s parish in Champaign, Ill., listening as one of his parishioners pleaded for the right to be married in the church. The man"s first wife had left him and remarried. After a painful recovery period, the man, now in his 60s, had rebounded and was ready to make a new start. "Now, Father, I have found the love of my life and I want to marry her in the church," he said. "Don"t jerk me around."

Michael and Leanne Emery

Emery sat silently for a moment, contemplating both the man"s situation and church law prohibiting his remarriage. "I knew that in about 30 seconds I was indeed going to jerk him around," he says.

A month later, Emery left the church. "This part of the Roman Catholic format - the exclusion of women, the condemnation of gays and lesbians, the casting out of divorced and remarried folks - none of those things are in line with Jesus" teachings of mercy," he says now.

He had other reasons for leaving. A survivor of sexual abuse by two different priests, who also victimized his sister, brother and cousin, Emery feels that the requirements of priestly celibacy contributed to his family"s pain and the pain of the many clergy abuse victims now being revealed throughout the country. "I don"t believe that married clergy would have stood for the cover-ups," he says. "My perpetrator was a known perpetrator, he was in my home town area because it was near his psychiatrist. I"m not sure if celibacy helped precipitate the problem, but it sure helped cover it up."

After Emery left the active priesthood, he moved to Indianapolis and married his wife Leanne the next year. He and Leanne, who is ordained through a non-denominational church, perform weddings, pastoral counseling, funerals and baptisms. Michael Emery, who notes that church law says that ordination is permanent, calls himself a married Catholic priest. (A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis says canon law considers Emery a suspended priest and "irregular for the exercise of sacred orders.")

Emery"s experiences make him something of an unintentional expert on the twin dilemmas faced by the Roman Catholic Church: the widespread revelations of clergy sexual abuse and a dwindling number of priests to serve the nation"s 63 million Catholics. In 1965, the Indianapolis Archdiocese had 286 diocesan priests available to serve their local parishes. Now there are only 157 of those priests, many of whom are approaching retirement age.

Both Emerys belong to a group called Celibacy Is the Issue. As the group"s name suggests, its members believe they have identified at least a partial solution to the church crises. They point out that celibacy was not always a requirement for priesthood - Jesus" disciples were mostly married men, and prior to the year 1139, popes, bishops and priests were allowed to marry. According to Celibacy Is the Issue, in the past two decades, over 20,000 U.S. men have left the priesthood to marry - an average of 400 per state - and 110,000 throughout the world. Nationwide, for every two active priests there will be one priest who can no longer conduct services because he is married.

This week, the Boston-based lay Catholic group Voices of the Faithful will hold a national convention calling for change in the church"s structure in response to the abuse scandals. Emery says Voices of the Faithful"s position in the ideological mainstream gives the group a real chance to influence church reform. Like many members of Voices of the Faithful, Emery would like to see ordination of married men and women, the laity exercising a greater role in selection of bishops and the church reaching out to abuse survivors.

But Emery admits to pessimism about whether such reforms are coming any time soon. In early May, he tried to communicate with Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, who Emery knew from his seminary days. In a two-page letter, Emery described his journey from clergy abuse victim to his current ministry reaching out to other victims of clergy sexual misconduct, many of whom are still frightened to come forward. (Buechlein was out of town and unavailable for comment for this article.) Emery has received no reply to his letter, and he doesn"t attempt to hide his disappointment. He says the lack of response is indicative of a larger trend. "I think the church will go into the mode Archbishop Buechlein is - hunker down and stay low until this wave of attention and outcry passes."

For more information, check Michael Emery can be contacted at

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