Gay Priests Say It’s Harder Now to Tell the Truth
“Be honest with one another,” Father Jim told his collegiate congregation gathered in the chapel just off campus for the early evening Mass. “Be open with one another. Live your baptismal truths.”
For 37 years, Father Jim has taught truth--the truth of God, the truth of the Gospels, the truth proclaimed for two millenniums by the Roman Catholic Church. But he could not tell the whole truth about himself. The truth be known, Father Jim, 63 and graying, is gay.
As the scandal over the sexual abuse of minors surges through the Catholic church, Father Jim and thousands of other homosexual priests say it is harder than ever to tell the truth. Catholic bishops and prominent members of the laity, mulling reforms to stop molestation, are bluntly suggesting the church has too many gay priests. That issue is certain to linger in the background next month when the nation’s bishops convene in Dallas in an effort to come to grips with the scandal.
In a church where homosexuality in the priesthood has largely been a don’t-ask, don’t-tell affair, many gay priests are wary, saddened and angry--convinced they are being made the scapegoats for the failure of bishops to properly address the sexual abuse problem in the first place. Some are bracing themselves for what they fear could be a kind of sexual inquisition, in which sexual orientation plays a bigger role in whether a candidate is accepted by a seminary. Others say they may leave the church in protest.
Two statistics--not necessarily related--fuel the mounting debate on gay priests: the fact that the majority of the church abuse victims were adolescent boys, and the estimate by seminary deans and other experts that at least one in five priests is homosexual.
In the last several weeks, one American cardinal, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, said that homosexuals are not suited for the priesthood, even if they have never committed a homosexual act. Pope John Paul II’s press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, was quoted as saying that not only should homosexuals not be ordained, but that the church should consider removing homosexuals who have already been ordained. The Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, bishop of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke of “an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.” And Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, described pedophilia as a “concrete form of homosexuality.”
The statements followed an extraordinary meeting at the Vatican of U.S. cardinals and John Paul and ranking Vatican cardinals on how to address the sexual abuse crisis. They set off a debate that had long simmered below the surface.
Conservatives hope that the sexual abuse crisis will mark the beginning of the restoration of the priesthood to a holiness defined by strict adherence to the church’s moral teaching against homosexual acts. Liberals see it as a time to openly acknowledge the contributions of homosexual priests. Or, they fear, it could lead to more secrecy and denial--and a decision by dedicated gay priests to leave the church.
No one knows how many of the nation’s 46,000 Catholic priests are homosexuals. At minimum, 20% of priests are believed to be homosexually oriented, according to Father Donald Cozzens, author of “The Changing Face of the Priesthood.” Others say the number could be as high as 50%. Former priest and researcher H.W. Richard Sipe predicts that by 2010, homosexuals could well constitute a majority of Catholic priests.
Among the reasons for the upswing, experts say, is the fact that an estimated 25,000 men have left the priesthood since 1965, most in order to marry. Moreover, it has long been assumed that some gay men enter the priesthood in part to hide their sexual orientation: They don’t have to explain why they aren’t married.
Shortage of Priests
The fact that homosexuals represent a significant percentage of priests at a time when the church is already trying to cope with a shortage suggests that bishops will talk rather than act overtly on the issue of sexual orientation when they meet next month.
Many gay priests are convinced that their struggles with homosexuality could be inspiring stories of redemption--if only they had the confidence to tell them.
“They’re submarining ... and they’ve got their periscopes up,” said Father Curtis Bryant, a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “They have so re-closeted themselves that you will not find a Roman collar in West Hollywood. Everybody is running for cover.”
Gay priests like Father Jim, a university chaplain at a West Coast university who asked that his last name and campus not be identified, said his anger mounted at “the implied insult that because a priest is gay he is acting immorally, unfaithfully and illegally.”
He said he will not publicly disclose his homosexuality, at least for the moment. Much of his future--including his decision on whether to leave the priesthood--will depend on what the bishops do at their annual spring meeting. The meeting will attempt to set the first national guidelines in all 194 American dioceses on dismissing any priest found to have sexually abused a minor.
“If a homophobic bias against the ordination of homosexual people becomes canonical and sacramental policy, then thousands of us will have to make a very big decision,” Father Jim said. “It will be a catastrophic loss to the church.”
In the current climate, expert opinions on the causes of the sexual abuse of minors can easily get lost. The problem, according to psychologists, is arrested psychosexual development, which they say transcends sexual orientation. Such sexual and emotional immaturity, which can afflict an individual regardless of sexual orientation, can lead to the sexual abuse of minors. Psychologists report that most sexual abuse of minors involves heterosexual men who are related to or are friends of their victims.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the church’s scandal, the focus has expanded to homosexual priests as well as the issue of celibacy.
“By being gay,” says Father Charles Dahlby, a conservative Illinois priest, “you are already carrying a burden into the priesthood. People who are gay don’t accept celibacy easily.
“If he is a good, holy priest and living a good holy life, he can be a saint. It’s a cross to bear,” said Dahlby, who pastors two rural parishes in Kinkaid and Pawnee. “But a large number of them aren’t living a pious life. The [sex scandal] is proof of that.” He said actively gay priests are threatening the holiness of the priesthood.
Cardinal James Stafford, the former archbishop of Denver who is now assigned to the Vatican as president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, made a similar point. Outside one Vatican meeting, Stafford said it was a misnomer to call the U.S. church’s crisis a pedophilia scandal. Pedophilia refers to a sexual desire for pre-pubescent children. “I think it’s more of an acting out homosexually,” he said.
Although the cardinals made no explicit mention of homosexuality in their final communique after the Vatican meeting, some observers said the message between the lines was unmistakable.
Among other things, they called for inspections--called apostolic visitations--of U.S. Catholic seminaries to make certain that they remain faithful to the church’s teachings and moral theology, which condemns homosexual acts. They also said there is a “need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood,” suggesting that the church needs to make sure that candidates for the priesthood--regardless of their sexual orientation--are emotionally mature and healthy, and capable of living a celibate life. Some liberals worry that the language could be interpreted by conservative bishops and seminaries to make it more difficult for homosexuals to enter the priesthood.
Even in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which has a reputation for being relatively liberal under Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, gay priests generally keep a low profile.
Of the 1,200 priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, only eight regularly attend a support group for homosexual priests, according to the priest who started it a decade ago.
The lives of gay priests are often tightly compartmentalized. One gay priest told The Times that he socializes with another gay priest who has no idea that they have a mutual friend who is the first priest’s lover.
Few dispute the fact that gay priests have been instrumental in the church’s ministries. Gay priests say they can bring unique insights and sensitivities to the task, in part because they know what it is to be marginalized. They say that helps them relate to the poor, people of color and immigrants.
Father Jim, the campus chaplain, says it is enough for him to know that his own struggles have made him an “authentic” priest who can minister to their needs.
“They trust me. They respect me. They admire me,” he said. “I don’t assume that in any way they have to know my story intimately to be positively affected by my story.”
Growing up in an Irish-Catholic family, he had wanted to be a priest since he was 14. He remembers priests who became his models--bright, articulate, funny but “appropriately serious.”
When he was 12, another boy sexually molested him. He was physically injured, and emotionally scarred for years.
He jokes now that he thought everybody in his family had to be the product of immaculate conception because sex was never talked about. Even in seminary, he had no idea about his sexual orientation. “It wasn’t clear to me then and it wasn’t even an issue [in seminary] we really dealt with a whole lot,” he says. “It was more a question of just practicing celibacy.”
A week after ordination, he blacked out from drinking. He drank “expensive stuff” when he could get it. He was afraid of his sexual instincts. Eventually, they took him into the arms of other priests as well as women. His alcoholism, he now says, was an effort to paper over inner conflict about his sexual orientation.
He describes himself as moving closer to full celibacy day by day. On rare occasions, he is still intimate with another priest.
“There’s something very healthy about it and something about it not in keeping with my professed celibacy, so I am living a contradiction a little bit,” he says, pausing to reflect. “It may not be a little bit in some people’s eyes. I feel the tension.
“Coming out of this incredibly repressed, depressed experience of my earlier life, these occasional connections with this other person, for me, I almost hear, you know, guns going off. It’s an achievement that I can actually connect with somebody and I can actually have a physical, a sexual feeling, that does not divide me in two, that is not traumatic.”
Led to Self-Discovery
He traces his clarity to a Thanksgiving evening in Seattle 15 years ago. Father Jim had invited other priests to his parish’s rectory for the holiday meal. He had a lot to drink. After dinner, the other priests inexplicably left early, leaving Father Jim by himself. He felt alone and worthless--unaware that the priests had left to put the finishing touches on their strategy: an “intervention” that would result in sending Father Jim to an alcohol recovery center.
He left his rectory and began walking the streets aimlessly on a drizzly night. Eventually, he found himself at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. He could hear the ethereal harmony of Gregorian chant inside. Soaked, miserable and hung over, he shuffled through the doors. Then, Father Jim--said by his church to be an icon of Christ--made his way to a dark corner and slumped into a fetal position.
“I knew I wanted something. I didn’t know what I wanted, didn’t even know if I could ask God for it,” he said. Soon, he said, he stopped drinking, and came to terms with his sexuality in a manner he compares to Lazarus coming out of his tomb.
“I have grown over the years to recognize my orientation is primarily homosexual because I pay more attention to my feelings,” he said. “All of this has given me a reality, an authenticity, that people pick up on,” he said. “They know I’m not giving them B.S.”
The point of his story, he said, is not the disclosure of his sexual orientation but the authenticity that came with his struggle. When it comes to authenticity, he said his parishioners don’t ask--and he doesn’t have to tell.
Times staff writer William Lobdell contributed to this story.