As America's eight stunned and chastened cardinals meet with Pope John Paul II this week, a consensus already appears to be growing among church leadership about the roots of the problem. According to several recent statements, the problem is not celibacy, secrecy or ordination of women. It is homosexuality among clergy.
"Homosexual students were allowed to pass through seminaries. Grave mistake," said Monsignor Eugene Clark, Cardinal Edward Egan's stand-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday. "It is a disorder and...should prevent a person from being ordained." In March, Vatican spokesman Joachim Navarro-Valls said ''people with these inclinations just cannot be ordained.'' Last week, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the influential conservative journal "First Things," said that most of the priest sexual abuse cases involve men having sex with teenage boys and young men. "We call that a homosexual relationship."
And the Pope's statement on Tuesday seemed reaffirm the traditional Church view. "[People] must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life." Earlier in the week, he pointedly ruled out discussion of celibacy as an issue but said there may well be a problem with seminaries. "Seminary formation is very important, for the convictions and practical training imparted to future priests are essential for the success of the church's mission," he said in a statement. For the most part, when church leaders talk about reforming the seminaries they are talking about the need to screen out priests with sexual problems.
The problem is that the solutions being discussed--screening out gays--could well make matters worse.
Before one understands the perils of this solution, it's important to test the premise. Is the Catholic clergy increasingly gay? Apparently the answer is yes. No statistics are truly reliable, but several studies have been done over the years that place the figure at between 10 and 50% of the priesthood. The most reliable statistic is believed to come from a study by A.W. Richard Sipe, in his 1995 book "Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," who writes that 30% of priests have a homosexual orientation, far higher than the percentage in the overall populations.
Two years ago, the Kansas City Star reported that hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the United States were dying of AIDS-related illnesses, and hundreds more were living with HIV, the virus that causes the disease, according to medical experts, priests and health statistics. Though the actual number of AIDS deaths is difficult to determine, it now appears priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general U.S. population.
"At issue at the beginning of the 21st century is the growing perception, one seldom contested by those who know the priesthood well, that the priesthood is, or is becoming, a gay profession,'' writes the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, then rector of a Catholic seminary in Ohio, in ''The Changing Face of the Priesthood,'' a book published in 2000.
But what's the connection between homosexuality and pedophilia?
An increasing number of sociologists have concluded that many of the abusive priests prey on adolescents--not children--and that these priests often are homosexual men with stunted sexual development. Often, they are men who entered the seminary in high school, before they were truly aware of their sexuality. Sometimes, they are men running from homosexual tendencies. In either case, they are attracted to the environment of the priesthood because it is a place where they can be with other men.
Former priest Eugene Kennedy studied the issue for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Often, their sexual feelings only asserted themselves after they had entered parish work," he wrote. "They were dismayed and puzzled by a erotic attractions to boys that reflected their own pre-adolescent state."
This tendency to attract gay men--and more important, at least some gay men with confused sexuality--then combines with another fact: the church officially views homosexuality as a disorder. This makes it quite difficult for gay men who might begin to wrestle with incipient homosexual feelings to talk them through in a constructive way.
And that's why the approach the Vatican seems to be taking could well make the crisis worse. The cardinals seem to be circling around a plan to rigorously screen--some people say purge--men with homosexual tendencies out of the seminaries.
If it "works" --screening out all gay or homosexually-inclined men (as opposed to only those with a proclivity for abuse)--then it will lead to a dramatic drop in the number of priests. "A serious purge of gay priests would be so sweeping, and we'd be so short of priests. I don't think many people have any idea of how critical the shortage is," says Philip Jenkins, author of "Pedophiles and Priests."
Just as likely, says Jenkins, the policy will drive gay priests deeper into the closet. Some gay priests are quite comfortable with their identities, but those with stunted emotional growth will be less likely to get help and possibly more likely to play out their frustrations in destructive ways later.
Marianne Duddy, Executive Director of Dignity/USA, a Catholic gay rights group, admits there is an "element of truth" to the idea that gay men are attracted to the priesthood because they think it will allow them to conceal their sexuality. "Before the 1970s and 80s, when homosexuality became more accepted in society, many devout Catholic gays saw the priesthood as a way that celibacy could be put to good use." Duddy believes seminaries have become more worried about accepting men who might enter the priesthood as a way to stall or hide their sexuality.
Mostly, however, she believes the church is scapegoating gay priests. When the scandal first broke earlier in the spring, the Vatican's initial comments were not an apology, but an announcement, as she puts it, "that the cause of this was that there are too many gay priests."
"We were extremely upset that the Vatican would take that stance," she said, instead of focusing on what she considered the more pressing and important issue of the cover-up of abuse.
But other church scholars disagree. Joyce Little, author of "The Church and the Culture War," also believes the scandal revolves around homosexuality. "If we look at the ages of the children involved, they are older children, and they are overwhelmingly male," says Little.
For Little, the issues of morality and homosexuality are necessarily intertwined. "The Catholic Church teaches that there are moral absolutes," she says. "Homosexual acts are a sin--and that's a moral absolute."
Catholics like Russ Ditzel, vice president of the liberal group Corpus, the Association for an Inclusive Priesthood, believe that this sense of morality must change. As a result, he says, "it's only a matter of time" before the priesthood changes. "It might come sooner with the next pope."