Gay Priests Defended in Wake of Study
Their Presence Not Blamed for Sex Abuse

Times-Picayune [Washington DC]
February 29, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Of all the disturbing patterns that have emerged from the Catholic Church's detailed look at its child-sex abuse scandal, one certainly will occupy the church for months: Abusive priests overwhelmingly molested boys.

That confirmation by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice is likely to intensify debate between Catholic liberals and conservatives over whether gay men belong in the priesthood.

The answer so far from the American Catholic leadership, though not final, is yes.

That "yes" was supported Friday by a blue-ribbon panel of prominent lay Catholics led by Robert Bennett, a powerhouse Washington, D.C., lawyer who defended President Clinton during his impeachment.

Understanding the character of the sex-abuse scandal is not possible without acknowledging that 81 percent of priests' victims were boys, Bennett said. Most were between the ages of 11 and 14, according to the John Jay study, which took more than a year to compile and was disclosed Friday.

Still, neither Bennett's committee nor the bishops' American leadership blamed the scandal on the mere presence of gay priests.

Most "have been absolutely faithful to the promises they made and absolutely dedicated to the ministry they have given," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

There was a scientific component to Bennett and Gregory's judgment, too.

Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist on the John Jay team, cautioned that homosexuality cannot fully explain why priests seduced boys of about 12, the average age of victims.

Substituting a child for an adult as a preferred sex partner means a different impulse is at work, he said.

"I've talked with a lot of men who describe themselves as straight but have gotten in trouble with boys," agreed Thomas Plante, a clinical psychologist in Santa Clara, Calif., who said he has worked with dozens of priests accused of sex abuse and their victims.

Heterosexual men, like prisoners, sometimes molest men or boys in the presence of other factors such as stress, loneliness and depression, he said.

"So you've got a coach, he's got access, the team's out of town, everybody's drinking," Plante said. "A lot of things can come together -- and boom."

Catholic doctrine holds that although homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered" it is not sinful in itself. Only homosexual acts are sinful, according to the church.

Catholic practice and policy so far is that healthy gay men, no less than healthy straight men, can be molded by prayer and discipline into effective and celibate priests -- although gay seminarians need closer scrutiny and a different kind of preparation, said Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, a former seminary rector.

Nobody knows what percentage of American priests is gay. Most seminaries don't ask that question directly, because most do not bar gay men as matter of policy.

In the past two years, a rough consensus has emerged that the number of gay men is higher in the Catholic priesthood than in the general population, but beyond that, much is speculation.

Bennett's panel chronicled reports that during the 1970s, the turbulent backwash of Vatican II and upheavals in sexual mores in popular culture destabilized the priesthood and many Catholic seminaries.

Tens of thousands of straight priests resigned, many to marry. Meanwhile, seminaries began to uncritically admit significant numbers of gay men, many of whom were psycho-sexually immature, said New Orleans writer Jason Berry, who chronicled the upheaval in his 1992 book, "Lead Us Not into Temptation."

"There developed at certain seminaries a 'gay subculture,' and at these seminaries, according to several witnesses, homosexual liaisons occurred among students or between students and teachers," Bennett's report said.

Although Berry, a liberal critic, views the crisis differently than conservatives, he and they concur that damaged Catholic seminaries internally conflicted about issues of sexuality provided the seed-bed for the crisis 30 years ago.

Among diocesan priests, the ordination classes of 1970, 1973, 1974 and 1975 all produced exceptionally high proportions of flawed priests. Ten percent or more of each class would eventually be accused of molesting a minor, the John Jay study found.

Those years marked another peak of sorts.

The John Jay study found that the incidence of sexual abuse of children began climbing sharply in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s then began to tail off sharply. Bennett and the bishops suggested that was because sex-abuse reforms of the church began to take effect, although they were not fully in place until the early 1990s.

Because the suitability of gay men as priests has never been formally approved by Rome, the American crisis has made it a contentious question.

"As far as a blanket position on any of these areas, I know the bishops are in conversation right now," Gregory said. "And I know the Holy See is giving it careful consideration. I hesitate to predict where that decision will come down."

Still, Gregory, Bennett and other bishops argued that a simple ban on gay priests would not be effective or appropriate.

For one thing, a blunt prohibition "will have the effect of driving them underground, so that this subculture exists in an even more hidden way," as an unidentified bishop told Bennett's panel. Additionally, seminary failings that produced flawed priests in the 1970s have been largely fixed, they said.

"The seminaries of today are not the seminaries of 20 or 30 years ago," Gregory said.

Seminary candidates, gay and straight, are better screened for unhealthy psychological traits. They also are getting more counseling and psychological support to prepare for celibacy, said Dolan of Milwaukee, who was rector for four years at the prestigious North American seminary in Rome.

"When you see the wholesomeness, and when you see the dedication, and you see the resolve and fervor and maturity" of seminarians today "that gives you a good reason for hope


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.