Vatican seems to link scandal, gay priests

No proven connection between homosexuality, child abuse, experts say

March 23, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For decades, the Roman Catholic Church has quietly tolerated closeted gay priests.

But recent comments by Vatican officials indicate that they connect the scandal over sexual abuse of minors with a high number of homosexual priests because the victims are overwhelmingly male and adolescent.

Experts say there is no proven connection between homosexuality and child abuse, and gay priests and lay Catholics worry that they are being targeted as scapegoats. Some fear a Vatican ban on admitting gay candidates to seminaries.

"It's a way of finding someone to blame for the current crisis," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Mount Rainier-based New Ways Ministry, which promotes greater understanding of Catholic gays and lesbians.

"Beside being wrong, I think that's very shortsighted," he said. "It ignores the cause of the problem, which is church leaders' inability to discuss sexuality honestly and openly and to develop programs for seminarians and priests to integrate their sexuality fully in their lives under the vow and the discipline of celibacy."

The most recent indications that the Vatican is linking the sexual abuse scandal and homosexual priests came earlier this month in comments made by Pope John Paul II's chief spokesman to The New York Times, in which he questioned whether the ordination of a gay man was valid.

"People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained," said the spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality. But you cannot be in this field."

Last year, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the second highest official in the Vatican's office on doctrine, said he did not think homosexuals should be admitted to seminaries. The Catholic News Service has reported that the Vatican completed a study last year of homosexual candidates to the priesthood and may issue seminary guidelines on the issue.

Church teaching holds that a homosexual orientation is not in itself sinful, but homosexual activity is banned. But a 1961 document, which has never been overruled, stated that "those affected by the perverse inclination to homosexuality or pederasty should be excluded from religious vows and ordination."

Still, that Vatican policy has been overlooked in many dioceses and religious orders, who ordain gay men with the understanding they will remain celibate.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many priests are gay, but informed observers say that the number is as high as 50 percent, much higher than the estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of the general population that is gay.

The church's teaching on homosexuality makes the priesthood an attractive option for a spiritually oriented gay man, said the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector.

"The church tells gay people, `You are God's beloved men and women, but you are called to a celibate life; there can be no sexual expression,'" he said in an interview. "It seems to make sense then if a Catholic, homosexually oriented individual reasons, `Gee, I need to be celibate. Why not be celibate with the supports and rewards that come with religious life and the priesthood?'"

The Rev. John J. McNeill, who was forced to leave the Jesuit order in 1987 because he persisted in his ministry to gays and lesbians, said, "There is and always has been a very strong attraction to spiritual values and to counseling among gay men.

"I think it's because gay men are in touch with the feminine side of themselves. Therefore, they're very compassionate, very willing to reach out to others," said McNeill, a gay priest and psychologist who announced his orientation in a 1976 book. "Some of the best priests I've ever run into are gay priests."

Because most victims of molestation by priests have been adolescent boys, experts note that the accused clerics are not technically pedophiles; pedophilia is a psychological disorder involving obsessive sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Therapists disagree about the ability to successfully rehabilitate pedophiles.

But psychologists and psychiatrists who study sexuality and religious life say there is no evidence of a link between this attraction to adolescents, which is referred to as ephebophilia or hebophilia, and homosexuality.

Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and psychologist, said clergy who abuse minors are psychosexually immature people who have not learned how to have intimate relationships with either sex.

"They are not developed enough emotionally to be either heterosexual or homosexual. They're asexual," said Kennedy.

They seek out same-sex partners because they are fixated at a "friend" stage, and like boys, they seek out the company of other boys. Other therapists theorize that more victims are male because priests tend to be around boys more.

But just because it isn't pedophilia does not excuse the behavior. "It may not be that `pathological,' but it's not legal and it's a misuse of power," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychologist and sex abuse expert.

Catholics who oppose the messages coming out the Vatican say that if the church wants to rid itself of gay clerics, it will lose a lot of talented ministers, including some bishops and cardinals. As it is, the scandal and the Vatican's comments are creating a climate of fear and sadness among gay priests and seminarians.

"They know it's not safe to come out," said Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, a nationwide gay Catholic organization with a membership of more than 3,000. "Many have chosen to hide so that they can go about their ministerial work.

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