Gay candidates for priesthood need scrutiny, church panel says

Same-sex abuse scandal prompts 'practical' advice

February 28, 2004|By Frank Langfitt and Dennis O'Brien | Frank Langfitt and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Responding to data showing that more than 80 percent of clerical sex abuse occurred between males, a lay Catholic board recommended yesterday that the church increase scrutiny of homosexuals seeking to join the priesthood.

While emphasizing that the ultimate issue is the celibacy of priests - not their sexual orientation - the board said the same-sex character of the church's abuse scandal suggested that homosexuals be screened more carefully.

The recommendation came yesterday as the church released two documents detailing the nature and scope of its sex-abuse problem for the first time.

A statistical study, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated that more than 4,000 priests - 4 percent of the priesthood - had been accused of sexually abusing children in 1950 through 2002. The number was greater than some had predicted.

The study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, also said there were more than 10,000 victims, most of them boys with an average age of 12.

The Catholic Church spent at least $657 million for legal damages, lawyers' fees and treatment during that period - but researchers say the actual figure is certainly higher.

To prevent further abuse, the church's National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People made various recommendations, including closer screening of homosexual candidates for the priesthood.

Currently, the church does not bar homosexuals from the priesthood but insists they remain celibate, as it does with heterosexuals.

"Given the nature of the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors, the realities of the culture today, the male-oriented atmosphere of the seminary, a more searching inquiry is necessary for a homosexually-oriented man," the board said.

"For those bishops who choose to ordain homosexuals, there appears to be a need for additional scrutiny and perhaps additional or specialized formation to help them with the challenge of chaste celibacy."

After a briefing yesterday on the reports, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee said he does not equate homosexuality with pedophilia but emphasized the church must be realistic in the face of the statistics.

In the future, he said, seminary leaders must have more forthright conversations with homosexual applicants about the challenges of celibacy and their own sexuality.

"I think we've got to be practical," said Dolan, a former rector of the North American College in Rome, a training ground for future church leaders.

In their survey of abuse cases, investigators did not provide a breakdown by diocese, and they were not given the identities of alleged perpetrators.

"Those names are known only to the individual bishops," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who serves as president of the U.S. bishops. "It's a decision that local bishops are grapping with."

Some dioceses are making details public.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore said yesterday that 83 priests and deacons had been "credibly accused" of abusing 226 children since 1950. None of the men is now in the ministry, according to the archdiocese. Twenty-six of the priests died before their accusers came forward.

Cardinal William H. Keeler called the disclosures an important step in healing the church: "Detailing the national scope of the abuse - no matter how abhorrent - is necessary to rebuild the trust of our brothers and sisters. The children of our church cannot and will not be put at risk again."

The archdiocese drew national attention and some praise when it posted the names of abusive priests on its Web site for two months in 2002.

Since then, 63 more victims have made allegations and the archdiocese has identified two additional priests - the Rev. Robert Lentz, a diocesan priest, and the Rev. Charles Coyle, a Jesuit who had left Baltimore and was serving in New Orleans when he was accused. Neither is currently in ministry, according to Sean Caine, director of communications for the archdiocese.

Keeler, who was criticized by fellow priests for posting the names on the Internet, said his approach might not work elsewhere. "You can't say that it should be handled the same way in every area," he said.

In its report, the lay board blamed the crisis on a variety of factors, from poor screening and training of seminary candidates to a failure of leadership and accountability among bishops.

The report did not, however, address the pressing question of whether pedophilia was more prevalent in the priesthood than in general society.

"The honest answer is we simply do not know," said Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and prominent Washington lawyer who chaired the board's research committee.

"Our study focused on the priesthood. This is an area that has to be explored further."

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