"It's not truly a pedophilia-type problem," said Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit. "It's a homosexuality-type problem."
Maida later claimed he didn't mean to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, a sexual attraction to pre-adolescent children that most experts agree usually involves heterosexual men and young girls.
"Homosexuals are not pedophiles," Maida said earlier this week. However, he added, "Pedophilia is a situation where you have a priest who molests a boy from zero to 12 years old . . . then you get into the adolescent area; that's where the homosexuality problem kicks in."
To some, one solution may be to ban gay men from the priesthood.
Indeed, Vatican spokesman Joachim Navarro-Valls said before the meeting that "people with these inclinations just cannot be ordained."
No clear consensus on a "one-strike-and-you're-out" policy emerged from the cardinals' meeting with Pope John Paul II, and the subject is expected to top the agenda at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting in June. However, the cardinals agreed to an "apostolic visitation" of seminaries by Vatican representatives who will examine admission requirements and stress "the need for them to teach Catholic moral doctrine in its integrity."
It is an "ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men," said Bishop Wilton Gregory of Illinois, president of the bishops' conference.
Such statements have some clergy and laity fuming.
"This is nothing more than a vicious and transparent attempt to shift the blame [for abuse], in an effort to deny institutional culpability," Mary Louise Cervone, president of Dignity/USA, a Catholic group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, wrote on the group's Web site. "This is about violence against children and abuse of power. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation."
Bishop George N. Niederauer of the Diocese of Salt Lake City also opposes banning homosexual priests, saying they are not necessarily more likely to violate vows of celibacy than their heterosexual peers.
"Catholics go to their priest for their sacramental life, for counseling and guidance in their spirituality and for leadership in the parish, not interest in their sexual orientation," he said this week.
Seminaries should welcome any priest candidates who have "the human and spiritual gifts to live a chaste life and a capacity for virtuous living and generous service," said Niederauer, chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Priestly Formation, which oversees policy regarding seminary curriculum, admissions and programs.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly America, said there is a clear distinction between priests' ephebophelia -- a sexual attraction to adolescent boys -- and typical homosexuality.
"A mature homosexual and a mature heterosexual are attracted to adults, not to children," said Reese, a Jesuit priest. "What we are talking about is abuse by people who are dysfunctional and sick and that's where the emphasis should be."
While there are no reliable statistics on the sexual orientation of the church's more than 46,000 priests in the United States, surveys have put the number of gays well above the often-cited 10 percent in the general population.
In his 1989 book Gay Priests, sociologist James Wolfe estimated that 48.5 percent of priests and 55.1 percent of Catholic seminarians were gay, while a 1991 NBC report put the number between 23 percent to 58 percent of the clergy.
By all accounts, the percentage of gay men among priests under 40 or in religious congregations is even higher, Donald Cozzens wrote in his recent book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood.
In the openness spawned by the Second Vatican Council of 1962- 65, which modernized much of the church, more than 20,000 priests left to get married, Cozzens wrote. That "dramatically changed the gay/straight ratio and contributed to the disproportionate number of priests with a homosexual orientation."
Since then, gay men have joined the Catholic priesthood in increasing numbers, creating a "gay subculture" at many seminaries, Cozzens wrote. That may cause some heterosexual seminarians to think they no longer belong, he wrote, but at the same time, it offers a place for devout gay Catholic men in a faith in which holy orders as well as marriage are sacraments.
But even there a gay priest must grapple with Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered . . . towards an intrinsic moral evil."