Abuse scandal leads Roman Catholic Church to unusual public debate about gay priests

Posted: Friday, May 24, 2002

The Roman Catholic Church, which considers homosexuality a disorder and gay sex a sin, has quietly struggled for years with the growing presence of gays in the priesthood. Now that conflict has gone public.

Under siege over clerical sex abuse, church leaders are pledging to clean house. And with some blaming gays for the crisis, the debate over whether homosexuals should continue to serve has gained urgency.

Gay clergy argue they have been unfairly blamed for the scandal. They say they love the church -- just not its teachings on homosexuality -- and want to continue serving the Catholic community.

''I understand why some people leave, but for myself, working for change is equally as important within,'' said Brother Jack Talbot, a gay member of the Capuchin order.

But it may soon become more difficult for gays to find a place in the church. Noting that most of the victims of priestly abuse are adolescent boys, some church leaders have concluded homosexuals should be ousted.

Clinicians say no credible data exists on the number of abusive priests who are homosexual and there is no evidence that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children.

Still, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a spokesman for Pope John Paul II, responded to the scandal by saying gays should not be ordained. Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua recently called homosexuality an ''aberration, a moral evil'' and said he tries to screen out gay clergy.

The discussion is awkward for a church that shies from open talk of sexuality, and it is complicated by the tendency of American Catholics to see the issue through the prism of their own political beliefs.

''The left sees the question of gays as just another reason to change the law of celibacy, to ensure the priesthood doesn't get transformed into a largely gay profession,'' said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian from the University of Notre Dame.

Many conservatives see homosexuals as deviant, and feel they cannot possibly uphold traditional Catholic teachings.

A key concern about gay priests is their impact on recruitment as the number of Catholic clergy dwindles. Talk of ''gay subcultures'' within seminaries has alienated heterosexuals, many Catholics say.

Vatican officials soon will be visiting U.S. seminaries in a review mandated during last month's church leaders' summit in Rome, and seminaries' admission of gays will be among the topics, said the Rev. Edward Burns, of the vocations office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

There are no definitive statistics on the number of homosexuals among seminarians and the 46,075 priests working in the United States, but estimates range from 10 percent to 50 percent.

In the past few decades, as thousands of heterosexuals left the priesthood to marry, the percentage -- not necessarily the number -- of homosexuals rose, according to Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist who studies sexuality and the church.

In a recent Catholic University of America study of priests, 56 percent said celibacy should be optional, but only 12 percent said they would likely marry if they could. The report's author, Dean Hoge, said the discrepancy partly reflects the presence of gays in the priesthood.

Church leaders became more aware of the presence of gays in the 1970s, when the gay rights movement inspired some homosexual priests to be more open about their orientation, Sipe said.

In a 1979 letter to the Vatican, the late Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros noted that some priests had publicly revealed they were gay and were asserting that ''homosexual acts'' may not be sinful. He disclosed he had spent five years weeding out gays from seminaries.

''Where large numbers of homosexuals are present in a seminary, other homosexuals are quickly attracted. Other healthier young men tend to be repelled,'' Medeiros wrote to Cardinal Franjo Seper in Rome.

Easing of seminary discipline after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s also created more opportunities for covert sex, Hoge said.

''The seminaries earlier were almost on the models of military schools,'' Hoge said. ''Very commonly they had the rule you're not allowed to enter another man's bedroom. Every room had a hole so people could look in. No going to movies. No going off campus. It was real tough.''

John Mollish, who studied at St. John Vianney Seminary in upstate New York in the late 1960s, said he was 20 when he was drawn into a network of sexually active priests, one of whom Mollish claims molested him.

Mollish believed his experience would likely be considered sexual harassment under today's laws. Ordained in 1973, he said depression led him to leave the priesthood eight years later.

''I can say I lost my ministry over having been approached in the seminary and having been abused,'' said Mollish, who is now married.

Today, seminarians are better educated about sexuality, said the Rev. Raymond Carey, an Oregon-based psychologist who conducts workshops on assessing priest candidates.

Students examine their sexual orientation as they prepare to commit to a life of celibacy, and support groups for gay priests have been formed, in some cases with the knowledge of the local bishop, he said.

''Generally, folks are very open because they view the process as part of their formation,'' Carey said.

That may change in the coming months.

Among the many demands for a crackdown on gay clergy was a letter to U.S. bishops published this month by the conservative magazine Catholic World Report, arguing ''widespread acceptance of homosexual activity is a grave problem'' that has fostered a ''climate of hypocrisy'' in the church.

Gays argue that such statements ignore the many homosexual priests who remain celibate.

Gay-rights advocates rallied outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York last month, after a pastor leading Sunday services said admitting gays into seminaries was a ''grave mistake.'' About two dozen people joined a Catholic gay-rights protest this month outside the offices of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.

''Once again, the gays seem to be the scapegoat in the scandal,'' Talbot said. ''The more important discussion we need to have is broader -- about sexuality.''

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