Gay Priests in a Barely Closed Closet

By Bill Zajac
Springfield [MA] Republican
February 29, 2004

Just a few blocks from the Catholic Church's offices on Elliott Street in Springfield sits The Pub, a popular downtown gay bar at which a Catholic priest is a regular customer.

The priest, who often can be found sipping a diet Coke at the bar several times a week, is not the only local cleric with close ties to the gay community. Another was described in a lawsuit as "living a homosexual lifestyle," a former priest had a male partner while he was in the priesthood and another priest disclosed he was gay years before he died of AIDS.

The issue of homosexuality in the priesthood may be a foreign one to most Catholics, who grew up learning that practicing homosexuals were engaging in sin. But it is an issue that has been forced into the public eye by both the church's own crusade against gay marriage and the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Some national studies have concluded that as much as 30 to 50 percent of the priesthood is gay. While many gay priests are celibate, the incidence of homosexuality in the priesthood has been the focus of concern for some religious leaders.

In the magazine the Catholic World Report, Jesuit Paul Shaughnessey in 2000 wrote "the ugly and indisputable facts: a disproportionately high percentage of priests is gay; a disproportionately high percentage of gay priests routinely engages in sodomy; this sodomy is frequently ignored, often tolerated and sometimes abetted by bishops and superiors."

One of two men who accused former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre of sexual abuse said he was moved to come forward only after reading of Dupre's preachings against gay marriage. The man, who is gay, said he was angered by the hypocrisy.

A statement issued by the man's lawyer read, "He believed that Bishop Dupre's comments reflected his disapproval of our client's lifestyle. ... (As a result) he began to see his relationship with Bishop Dupre in a different light and he contacted our office."

At The Pub, the priest has been a regular for years, according to staff there.

"And he's not the only priest who comes in either," said Pub bartender Thomas Martin, who is also a plaintiff in a clergy abuse suit.

The priest didn't return a call from The Republican, but others have acknowledged or been accused of engaging in a gay lifestyle.

The Rev. James A. Sipitkowski was living a homosexual lifestyle while assigned to Holy Family Parish in Springfield several years ago, according to a sworn statement by the Rev. Paul E. Manship, who found pictures of Sipitkowski dressed in women's clothing with other scantily clad men. The statement was included in a suit charging Holy Family Parish and a church deacon with a variety of employment violations, including sexual harassment. Sipitkowski is not a defendant in the suit.

About four years ago Sipitkowski was transferred to Sacred Heart Parish in Easthampton, where he currently works. He refused to comment on his situation, referring a call to his lawyer, who also had no comment.

Last week a Springfield man's obituary in The Republican revealed his 25-year relationship with his male partner, a period which included the last three years he served as a priest in the Springfield Diocese.

When Chicopee native and Springfield diocesan priest the Rev. Robert L. Arpin was on loan to the Diocese of San Francisco in the 1980s, he announced from the pulpit that he was gay and had AIDS. In doing so, he became the first American priest to openly discuss his sexual orientation and the illness that eventually claimed his life at age 48 in 1995.

Two other priests working in the Springfield Diocese have close ties with the gay community. They include a once high-ranking priest who performed publicly at an AIDS benefit.

In an attempt to place the abuse scandal in historical context last week, Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, the acting administrator in the Springfield Diocese, said some priests in the past thought it was all right to have sex with young men. He later clarified his comments, adding that sexual misconduct in any context is never acceptable, and apologized if his comments offended anyone.

The idea that there are gay priests may be as shocking to some Catholics as it was to a former Springfield resident who was enrolled in a seminary high school in the 1970s. At the time, he said, he was trying to decide whether to become a priest while simultaneously struggling with his own sexual identity.

He met a Springfield diocesan priest who told him he would not be alone if he was a gay priest and that not all priests respected their vow of celibacy.

"Until then I thought being a priest was only about helping others become good people," said the man, a New York City lawyer who is gay.

Although he has left the Catholic church, he has come to realize there are many good priests, like his own former parish priest.

Only a fraction of all priests - less than 2 percent locally and 4 percent nationally - have ever been accused of sexual abuse, but some have seized upon homosexuality in the priesthood as a root cause of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Roman Catholic Faithful, a national nonprofit organization based in Petersburg, Ill., say the current abuse crisis is rooted in the gay, liberal culture that took hold in American seminaries in the 1960s and 1970s.

They contend the atmosphere forced many heterosexual, conservative Catholics out of the seminaries. That, combined with an exodus of priests who married, accounts for the disproportionate percentage of priests who are gay today, they say.

"Homosexuals are far more likely to abuse than heterosexuals," said Stephen G. Brady, president of the Roman Catholic Faithful.

Although heterosexuals are far more likely to be pedophiles than homosexuals, he believes 90 percent of the priests nationwide who have sexually abused are homosexuals who targeted post-pubescent teen-age boys.

In the John Jay College study of clergy abuse over the last 50 years that was released Friday, 81 percent of the 10,667 minors who were abused were males. Eighty-six percent of the males who were abused were between the ages of 11 and 17, falling in to the pubescent and post-pubescent categories.

James J. Bell, the recently resigned head of the Springfield Diocese's Review Board, said homosexual predators account for a significant portion of the more than 40 abuse cases the board has investigated over the past two years.

Although some cases involved pedophilia and others involved priests who sexually assaulted women, more cases involved homosexual priests with unwilling post-pubescent boys, according to Bell.

"What these priests did was make these young men feel special and then seduced them," Bell said.

Six priests have been removed from ministry in the Springfield Diocese in the past two years. But many others with close ties to the gay community have never been accused of abuse, including the priest who frequents the gay bar, and others.

Priests today, both homosexual and straight, are not always moored to the rectory. Some own vacation homes or other housing in and out of their dioceses.

One Springfield diocesan priest who has never faced a sexual abuse allegation once owned a condo in downtown Springfield with a 15-year-old boy. The unusual arrangement prompted a neighbor to call the newspaper, but the boy and his family told a reporter there was nothing improper about the relationship.

Several other priests also owned condominiums in the same complex even though they also had church residences.

Although some people assert that pedophilia is a homosexual problem, nationwide statistics suggest otherwise. Heterosexual pedophiles outnumber homosexual pedophiles by a 2-1 ratio, according to a study in the Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa.

And while most clergy sexual abuse victims are male, one of the worst offenders in the Diocese of Worcester was the Rev. Robert E. Kelley, who has admitted he sexually abused 17 young girls.

Some people, like the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president of the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., don't believe homosexuality itself accounts for the abuse.

"The problem is not that the church ordains homosexuals. Rather, it is the church has ordained regressed or stunted homosexuals," Rossetti is quoted as saying in the Jesuit magazine, "America."

"These homosexual men are emotionally stuck in adolescence themselves, and so are at risk for being sexually active with teen-age males," said Rossetti, who believes two-thirds of the abusing priests were abused themselves.

Dupre, who resigned Feb. 11 - the day after he was confronted by The Republican about sexual abuse allegations involving two boys more than 20 years ago - is receiving treatment at the St. Luke Institute.

The facility treats a variety of mental disorders, including sexual ones.

A Springfield diocesan priest, who didn't want to be identified in this story, agrees with Rossetti. He also said that some priests, both straight and gay, routinely break the vow of celibacy they take before they are ordained.

"I know priests who are gay and celibate and are good priests. I know priests who are gay and not celibate and are good priests. Just as I know priests who are heterosexual and are celibate and are good priests and others who are heterosexual and not celibate and are also good priests," he said, attributing clergy sexual abuse largely to priests with arrested psychological and sexual development.

Some priests have been steered toward the profession as early as 12 years old, immaturely embracing a calling that brings status and respect for their families.

In discussing the John Jay study, national church leaders said seminaries are already scrutinizing gay applicants more closely than heterosexuals. Also, the Vatican is discussing the possibility of banning homosexuals but Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it needs further study.

The fact that some priests are gay presents a challenge for church leaders as they continue their mission against gay marriage in Massachusetts.

Some devout Catholics say the institution's stance on gay marriage smacks of hypocrisy.

Ann W. Turner, a 57-year-old children's author and mother of two from Williamsburg, says her own faith has been enriched by fellow St. Mary's of Northampton parishioners who are gay men and lesbian women and have remained Catholics.

"They have recognized their faith is bigger than the church and it always has been," Turner said.

"Given the fact that homosexuality is part of the current priesthood, the church has to come to grips with this. The church has to come to accept homosexuality as part of God's creation," Turner said.


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