NEW YORK – Accusations that disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick involved in sex with adult seminarians are ignited a long running debate about the presence of gays in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Some conservatives are calling for a purge of all gay priests, a challenging task given that they are supposed to be numerous, and few are open about their sexual orientation. The moderates want the Church to eliminate the need for secrecy by claiming that gay men are welcome if they can be effective priests, to celibacy.
One of the most outspoken moderates, the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer whose book, “Building a Bridge,” describes a path to the warmer relations between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community.
“The idea of a purge of gay priests is both ridiculous and dangerous,” Martin said in an e-mail. “Each flush would empty parishes and religious orders of the thousands of priests (and bishops) who live a healthy life of service and faithful life of celibacy.”
Outlook infuriates a number of conservative Catholics.
Citing McCarrick, Michael Hichborn, president-director of an institute that promotes traditional Catholic doctrine says that there must be a “full and thorough removal of all the homosexual clerics of the Church.”
“It’s going to be difficult and will probably result in a very serious shortage of priests,” Hichborn said. “But it is certainly worth the effort.”
While the McCarrick scandal has intensified debate in the US about gays in the priesthood, it is a worldwide problem. Recent gay-priest-sex scandals have surfaced in Chile, Honduras, France and Italy.
In the united states, where the surveys can determine whether or not the leaders of the church turned a blind eye to McCarrick’s fondness for young students, there are follow-up of the allegations of sexual misconduct in seminaries. Cardinal Sean O’malley of Boston recently announced a study in his episcopal seminary.
The catholic doctrine, when it comes to homosexuality, is nuanced. The church says that gays should be treated with dignity and respect, but it has long been taught that homosexual acts are ” intrinsically disordered.”
In 2005, the Vatican said that even gays to be celibate should not be priests, say the leaders of the church could not accept seminary applicants who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'”
Pope Francis has reaffirmed this policy, in spite of his famous “Who am I to judge?” comment in 2013 when asked about an apparently gay priest.
In a meeting with the Italian bishops, Francis said: “If there is even the slightest doubt exists, it is better to not accept them” in the seminar, according to participants at the closed-door session.
On the front lines in the implementation of that policy are priests as well as the Rev. Thomas Berg, admissions director at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Berg said that he and his colleagues aim to rigorously screen of the young men applying for admission, the assessment of their psychosexual development and emotional maturity. The applicants are asked about their dating history and their level of attraction to the other males; Berg believes the process has reduced the number of seminarians with same-sex attraction.
As for gays already serve as priests, Berg says not to argue for a “witch hunt” to root. But he says that the Church should identify sexually active priests, challenge them to repent, and consider their removal from office.
Berg states that the diocese appoint independent watchdog — ideal people with law enforcement background — to receive and evaluate anonymous allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.
“Our problem is-sexually active priests breaking their commitment to celibacy,” Berg said. “That wreaks havoc.”
Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for equal treatment of LGBT Catholics, have questioned the effectiveness of the seminar screening.
“Anecdotally, what we find is that the policy encourages people to lie,” DeBernardo said. “If a man feels called to the priesthood, he will rationalize that he would not admit his sexuality.”
The effort to exclude gays complicates things for those who become priests, DeBernardo added.
“The institutional leaders want to promote a message that gays and lesbians should not exist in the priesthood,” he said. “So that they do not offer a healthy, holy examples of homosexual priests that their celibacy in effective ways.”
Rome-based journalist Robert Mickens, a veteran of the Vatican coverage, suggested in a recent essay that the Church should be more determined in recognition of the substantial presence of homosexual priests.
“Instead of encouraging a healthy discussion about how gays can celibate chastity in a healthy way, the Church, the official policies and teachings drive these men only, but deeper in the closet,” Mickens wrote.
Some conservative Catholics to blame for the climate of secrecy directly on homosexual clergy, because there is a “homosexual subculture” in many dioceses and seminaries.
“Numerous reports of priests and seminarians are coming out in the world, which confirm the existence of networks of homosexually active men who are for each other,” said the Rev. Paul Sullins, who has taught sociology at the Catholic University in Washington.
The current debate about gay priests is framed by the accusations against McCarrick, that he allegedly had sex with adult seminarians as well as abuse of minors. Pope Francis ordered him removed from public ministry in June.
In recent years, the debate is often focused on the problem of sexual abuse of children by priests, and the extent to which homosexuality played a role. These questions are reviewed after the recent release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailing alleged sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by about 300 priests in six dioceses over a 70-year period.
A study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, released in 2011, concluded that gay priests were no more likely than straight priests to abuse minors. Some conservatives, noting that about 80 percent of the abuse victims were men, however, as the findings to advocate for a purge of gay priests.
One of the top conservatives in the U.S. Catholic leadership, Cardinal Raymond Burke, indicated this month that he favors at least a partial purification.
“It now seems clear in the light of this recent horrific scandals that there is indeed a gay culture, not only among the clergy, but also within the hierarchy, that needs to be purified in the root,” he said in an interview with Catholic Action for Faith and Family, a conservative advocacy group.
“What is needed is an honest investigation of the alleged situations of serious immorality followed by effective action to punish those responsible,” Burke said. “Shepherds can go astray … and then must be appropriately disciplined and even dismissed from the clerical state.”
One of Burke’s moderate colleagues, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, sounded a different tone in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America.
“I really believe that the problem here is more about a culture of clericalism in those few who are ordained to feel they are privileged and so protected, so they can do what they want,” Cupich said. “People, whether heterosexual or homosexual, need to live by the Gospel.”
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield, who covers the Vatican for the AP, contributed to this report.