Despite the news headlines, most Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. are well-adjusted and happy, says priest and licensed psychologist Stephen Rossetti--but that doesn't mean there aren't important problems to be addressed. Rossetti is president and CEO of the St. Luke Institute, which helps Catholic priests and other religious deal with issues such as anxiety, depression, sexual problems, overeating, and compulsive spending. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about gay priests, the upcoming inspection of U.S. seminaries, and the good news from his new book, The Joy of Priesthood.
The upcoming "apostolic visitation"-a kind of inspection of Catholic seminaries-will tackle many issues; homosexuality is only one of them. But to the extent that the visitors to the seminaries are concerned about homosexuality, is this about sexual abuse, about recruiting straight priests, or about something else? What are their major concerns?
I do know there have been complaints in the distant past about inappropriate homosexual behaviors in young seminarians. I was more aware of those in the 1970s and 1980s, frankly. In some ways, I think the visitation is about 20 years too late. I spend a lot of time with seminaries and I think they're pretty good now. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were some inappropriate things going on. The standards weren't clear enough. The standard is chaste, celibate behavior. We expect people as they're entering the seminaries to live that. And not only that, but there should be a clear living of a chaste, celibate life for at least three to five years before they enter the seminary.I think it was part of the post-sixties era that infected the Church as well as society.So when people say the sexual revolution had negative reverberations in the priesthood, you'd agree with that?Yes. I saw some of that in the 70s and 80s. I entered the seminary in 1979. I saw some behaviors that were incongruous with the priesthood, frankly. People are expected to live a mature, integrated, chaste, celibate life. The seminary is not a place for someone to struggle with his sexual orientation issues. That needs to be resolved long before he enters the seminary. We saw people doing things that were not compatible with our life.In the book, you say the priesthood holds unique challenges for gay men. What are some of those challenges?Lots of people say, as long as they live a chaste life, it's enough. But chastity is about more than simply not engaging in sexual relationships. Celibacy implies a level of psychosexual maturity in which you've integrated sexuality in a way that leads you to healthy interpersonal relationships and helps you to nurture others. When that level of maturity is not there, you find all sorts of aberrant interpersonal behaviors. I've worked with a number of seminarians and priests who find themselves having homosexual feelings that distress them greatly. They would get rid of those feelings if they could. I think this is a challenge that faces them. Another challenge is, how do I, as a priest who experiences homosexual inclinations, act in a seminary? How do I behave?
Labels are not helpful. A better way to think is that there are many kinds of homosexualities and heterosexualities. There are many kinds of homosexual folks who would not be appropriate for the priesthood. Parishioners do not want their pastor marching in the Gay Pride parade or standing in the pulpit announcing to the whole world that he's gay, as happened recently in one diocese. You can imagine the response. Fifty percent say, "We don't care, as long as you're a good priest." Fifty percent say, "We don't want him." Now you're finished. You can't minister to fifty percent of the parish.Not to mention acting-out behaviors.There are behaviors-campy behaviors which at times we're seeing in seminaries that are so wildly inappropriate.Such as?You know what campy behavior is. Everybody will know. It's just not OK. It bespeaks a lack of maturity around one's sexual orientation.Now, are there some kinds of homosexualities that would be acceptable to the priesthood? I think there are. They're much less obvious, more personal. Those who are adamantly against taking any homosexual persons to be priests may not be aware that a couple guys down the street, good priests they know, might be homosexuals. They are fine priests, doing good work, living a chaste life, and not the stereotype they're thinking of. In your work at St. Luke's, in terms of actual sex offenders, what has the breakdown been between straight and gay priests?This is a difficult issue, because it's very complex. But I would say our initial numbers look like a higher percentage of priests who identify themselves as homosexuals are abusing minors, versus the straight priests. The danger there is people say "Ah, it's a homosexual problem." No, because there are plenty of straight priests who have molested minors. Most homosexual priests do not molest minors. The two extreme approaches are "Homosexuality has nothing to do with it" and "It's a homosexual problem." I think the reality is what Martin Kafka was quoted as saying in the National Catholic Reporter. He thought homosexuality is a risk factor. What he meant by that is if you took a thousand gay priests and a thousand straight priests, you'd have a higher percentage of the gay priests molesting. And I think that's true; that's been our experience [at St. Luke's]. The question is why, and that gets very complicated. But there are lots of other risk factors. For example, if you have someone who was sexually abused as a minor, that's clearly a risk factor-probably a higher risk factor. Another risk factor would be an alcohol problem. Based on your work with troubled priests, if you were in charge of all seminary screenings in the US, how would you screen seminary candidates?