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Spotlight Report

Vatican stance on gay clergy criticized

Scholars see a ban slashing priesthood

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/4/2002

The Vatican, in its first comments on the clergy sexual abuse crisis, declared this weekend that gay men should not be ordained as priests.

The comments by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, were made at a time when a growing body of research suggests that a large proportion of Catholic priests are gay, and scholars who study sexuality and the priesthood said any effort to bar them would lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of priests in the United States.

''If they were to eliminate all those who were homosexually oriented, the number would be so staggering that it would be like an atomic bomb; it would do the same damage to the church's operation,'' said A. W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist. Sipe has been studying the sexuality of priests for 25 years and has written three books on the subject.

''It would mean the resignation of at least a third of the bishops of the world. And it's very much against the tradition of the church; many saints had a gay orientation, and many popes had gay orientations,'' Sipe said. ''Discriminating against orientation is not going to solve the problem.''

Navarro-Valls made his comments in an interview published yesterday in The New York Times. He said ''people with these inclinations just cannot be ordained'' and suggested that just as a marriage can be annulled if the husband turns out to be gay, so the ordination of gay men might also be made invalid.

''That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality,'' Navarro-Valls also said. ''But you cannot be in this field.''

Although scholars have established no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, the Vatican's comments were apparently provoked by the fact that many of the victims of clergy abuse in Boston, as elsewhere, have been adolescent boys, and not the prepubescent children who are victimized by the standard pedophile.

Efforts to reach Navarro-Valls in Rome yesterday were unsuccessful, and another Vatican spokesman, Ciro Benedettini, declined to comment. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston would not speak to reporters after Mass, and Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, declined to comment.

Specialists studying sexuality in priesthood

Sipe estimates that half of all priests are honoring their vows of celibacy. He said his studies have shown that ''over twice as many priests are involved with adult women as with boys.''

''Homosexually oriented priests don't violate their celibacy any more or less than heterosexually oriented priests,'' Sipe said.

The Vatican has not suggested new ordination regulations to respond to violations of celibacy vows by heterosexual priests.

Numerous scholars have attempted to estimate the percentage of priests who are gay. They have arrived at varying results, but there is a consensus that the number of gay priests vastly exceeds the percentage of gay men in the general 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,'' the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, then rector of a Catholic seminary in Ohio, wrote in ''The Changing Face of the Priesthood,'' a book published in 2000 by Liturgical Press. The book was well reviewed; the spiritual director of St. John's Seminary in Boston declared in The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, that ''nothing of what he said is untrue.''

Several studies have concluded that about half of priests and seminarians are gay, Cozzens wrote. The number of gay priests is so high that seminaries have become increasingly uncomfortable places for heterosexual men, he wrote.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Cozzens professed disappointment at Navarro-Valls's comments, although he said the remarks were similar to a statement attributed to a top Vatican official, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, several years ago.

''This statement is a significant spiritual setback for the many fine Catholic seminarians and priests who are gay that I've had the privilege of working with. Their interior life must be rocked by this, and we're talking about a good number of priests and seminarians,'' Cozzens said.

''The number of priests is already down, and if we were not to ordain gay seminarians who are committed to celibacy, we would have an even lower number.''

Eugene Kennedy, a specialist on sexuality and the priesthood, also lamented the comments. Kennedy, a former priest, is a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and is the author of a new book, ''The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality.''

''We have always had gay priests, and they have often been models of what priests should be,'' Kennedy said. ''To say that these men should be kept from the priesthood is in itself a challenge to the grace of God and an insult to them and the people they serve. The church has not only many gay priests, but many gay bishops, and they are some of the most wonderful priests I've known.''

Kennedy said most priest abusers are ''not people who have well-defined sexual development, heterosexual or homosexual, but people whose overall personality development is stunted.''

''The big question is not whether they are gay or not, but do they form healthy relationships with the people they serve,'' he said.

The Catholic Church has not in the past barred gay men from becoming priests - many seminaries ask potential priests about their sexual orientation and knowingly admit gay men who promise to be celibate - and current church teaching focuses on condemning gay activity rather than a gay orientation.

Rome turned up pressure for tough stance on gays

In the past 15 years, the Vatican has repeatedly pushed American bishops to take tougher stands against gays, and has disciplined priests and theologians who have questioned church teachings on homosexuality. The Catholic catechism declares gay and lesbian acts to be ''intrinsically disordered'' and ''contrary to natural law'' and says that ''under no circumstances can they be approved.'' The catechism declares that gays and lesbians are to remain chaste.

''The Church teaches that homogenital behavior is objectively immoral, while making the important distinction between this behavior and a homosexual orientation, which is not immoral in itself,'' the American bishops wrote in ''Always Our Children,'' a document updated in 1998.

Specialists and victim advocates say they do not believe there is a link between the high number of gay priests and clergy sexual abuse.

''There is no research that indicates that a person who says he is gay, or who is sexually attracted to an adult person of the same gender, is more likely to be sexually interested in children,'' said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the Vatican comments ''a narrow, misguided statement.''

''The fact that there seem to be a disproportionately higher number of gays in the priesthood - I don't think it has a direct relevance to the pedophilia problem,'' he said. ''The relevance of gay priests is somewhat like the relevance of celibacy in that both contribute to a culture of secrecy and that culture enables abuse to go undetected. But celibacy doesn't make one molest kids, and neither does one's sexual orientation.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/4/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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