In this April 18, 2005 file photo, U.S. Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick attends a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Allegations that disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick engaged in sex with adult seminarians have inflamed a long-running debate about the presence of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

Cardinal McCarrick scandal inflames debate over gay priests

NEW YORK (AP) — Allegations that disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick engaged in sex with adult seminarians have inflamed a long-running debate about the presence of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Some conservatives are calling for a purge of all gay priests, a challenging task given that they are believed to be numerous and few are open about their sexual orientation. Moderates want the church to eliminate the need for secrecy by proclaiming that gay men are welcome if they can be effective priests who commit to celibacy.

The. Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, and the author of many books. Photo courtesy of DeChant-Hughes & Assoc. Inc. Public Relations

Among the most outspoken moderates is the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer whose book, “Building a Bridge,” envisions a path toward 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 email. “Any purge would empty parishes and religious orders of the thousands of priests (and bishops) who lead healthy lives of service and faithful lives of celibacy.”

That outlook infuriates some conservative Catholics.

Citing McCarrick’s case, Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute, which promotes traditional Catholic teaching, says there must be a “complete and thorough removal of all homosexual clergymen from the church.”

“It is going to be difficult and will likely result in a very serious priest shortage,” Hichborn said. “But it’s definitely worth the effort.”

While the McCarrick scandal has intensified debate in the U.S. about gays in the priesthood, it’s a global issue. Recent gay priest sex scandals have surfaced in Chile, Honduras, France and Italy.

In the U.S., where investigations may determine if church leaders turned a blind eye to McCarrick’s penchant for young seminarians, there have been follow-up allegations of sexual misconduct in seminaries. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who said Monday that he didn’t see a letter sent to his office by a priest in 2015 concerning McCarrick’s activities, recently announced an investigation into his diocesan seminary.

Catholic teaching, when it comes to homosexuality, is nuanced. The church says gays should be treated with dignity and respect, yet it has long taught that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”

In 2005, the Vatican stated that even celibate gays should not be priests, saying church leaders cannot accept seminary applicants who “practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'”

Pope Francis has reaffirmed this policy, despite his famous “Who am I to judge?” comment in 2013 when asked about a purportedly gay priest.

In a May meeting with Italian bishops, Francis said, “If there’s even the slightest doubt, better to not accept them” into seminary, according to participants at the closed-door session.

Rev. Thomas Berg, who is director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary, poses for photos at the facility, in Yonkers, NY, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Berg said he and his colleagues strive to rigorously screen the young men applying for admission, assessing their psychosexual development and emotional maturity. Applicants are asked about their dating history and their level of attraction to other males; Berg believes the process has succeeded in reducing the number of seminarians with same-sex attraction. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

On the front lines in implementing that policy are priests like the Rev. Thomas Berg, admissions director at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

Berg said he and his colleagues strive to rigorously screen the young men applying for admission, assessing their psychosexual development and emotional maturity. Applicants are asked about their dating history and their level of attraction to other males; Berg believes the process has reduced the number of seminarians with same-sex attraction.

As for gays already serving as priests, Berg says he doesn’t advocate a “witch hunt” to root them out. But he says the church needs to identify sexually active priests, challenge them to repent, and consider their removal from the priesthood.

Berg proposes that dioceses appoint independent watchdogs — ideally people with law enforcement background — to receive and assess anonymous allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.

“Our problem is sexually active priests who are breaking their commitment to celibacy,” Berg said. “That wreaks havoc.”

Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, which advocates equality for LGBT Catholics, questioned the effectiveness of the seminary screening process.

“Anecdotally, what we’re finding is that the policy encourages people to lie,” DeBernardo said. “If a man feels called to the priesthood, he’ll rationalize that he should not admit his sexuality.”

The effort to exclude gays complicates things for those who do become priests, DeBernardo added.

“The institutional leaders want to promote a message that gay men should not exist in the priesthood,” he said. “So they don’t offer healthy, holy examples of gay priests who are living their celibacy in effective ways.”

Rome-based journalist Robert Mickens, a veteran of Vatican coverage, argued in a recent essay that the church should be more forthright in acknowledging the substantial presence of gay priests.

“Rather than encourage a healthy discussion about how gays can commit themselves to celibate chastity in a wholesome way, the Church’s official policies and teachings drive such men even deeper into the closet,” Mickens wrote.

Some conservative Catholics blame the climate of secrecy directly on gay clergy, contending there is a “homosexual subculture” in many dioceses and seminaries.

“Numerous reports from clergy and seminarians are coming out worldwide which confirm the existence of networks of homosexually active men who cover for each other,” said the Rev. Paul Sullins, who has taught sociology at Catholic University in Washington.

The current debate over gay priests is framed by the allegations against McCarrick — that he allegedly had sex with adult seminarians as well as abusing minors. Pope Francis ordered him removed from public ministry in June.

In past years, the debate has often focused on the problem of child sex abuse by priests — and the extent to which homosexuality played a role. Those questions are being revisited following 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 male, nonetheless cite 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 purge.

“Now it seems clear in light of these recent terrible scandals that indeed there is a homosexual culture, not only among the clergy but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at 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 into the alleged situations of grave immorality followed by effective action to sanction 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 issue here is more about a culture of clericalism in which some who are ordained feel they are privileged and therefore protected so that 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.


  1. Where’s Tommy Aquinas? It’s your day to shine.

  2. Why not just hang big “no gays allowed” signs on the door of every Catholic church and get it over with? The Catholic church has made it *perfectly* clear how anti-gay they are over the years. While some may have hoped Pope Francis would make things more welcoming, the fact that the church is now considering this purge of celibate gay men goes to show that they just plain *hate* the gays. Why not just make it official and quit wasting everyone’s time with their pretenses of openness?

  3. To begin with, because gays are allowed in the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church has made it *perfectly* clear that a same sex attraction is a difficult affliction but not immoral by itself.

    It has similar positions on kleptomania, nymphomania, pyromania, and a host of other conditions which make remaining moral difficult.

    What it does not do is give two thumbs up for engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage, or pretending that marriage is other than one man and one woman.

  4. It’s not an “affliction”, except for dysfuntional, self-loathing closet cases such as yourself and Tommy.

  5. Nicely vicious article. Let’s just conflate predators with homosexual hating homosexuals with sexual predators with child molesters, with abusive heterosexuals.

    Nope. No hatred hiding behind religious belief here. Move along, folks.

  6. You apparently read a different article.

    The one I read noted both sides of the discussion.

  7. bob here is going out of his way to be insulting . who would expect less of bob ?

    the catholic catechism does say is that any sex out side of a male-female marriage, that is one that directly has the possibility of a child as an outcome is sinful . here it is comparable to fornication or adultery .

    no where does the official catholic position compare homosexual activity to what bob suggests .

    this does put those with same sex orientation into a catch 22 . you can’t marry . you can’t have sex unless you enter into a marriage with one you are not attracted to .

    so the catholic position is negative, yet not engaged in the purposeful insults bob is .

  8. What two sides, exactly? The church’s continued support of the sexual abuse of children and persecution of LGBTQI people vs. what?
    What kind of people continue to call themselves Catholic? The willfully ignorant and pedophiles.

  9. I can’t figure out why ANYONE would want to belong to any Catholic church. What’s the benefit?

  10. Bob, you are suffering from several afflictions, but the Good News is that, with intensive therapy and perhaps medication, you could become a functioning member of a civil society.
    Let’s begin. Same-sex attraction is only an affliction in as far as is opposite-sex attraction. This a fact. Love between consenting adults is moral.
    Your opinion (and Catholic doctrine) is not relevant to facts. You can argue that gravity doesn’t exist if you want, but evidence proves it’s a fact.
    Consenting adults do not need your permission or the church’s to do what they want in their bedroom. Why do you think you do? Marriage can be between any two unmarried, consenting adults. Why don’t you fight a real problem, like child rape in the church and child marriage?
    Why don’t you use your energy protecting post-born children instead of harassing law-abiding adults?
    Do you claim to speak for your god?

  11. As I read your missive I can tell you are suffering from several afflictions, which is why you’ve set your account to hide what you’ve said in the past and where.

    Good move.

    Same sex attraction is only an affliction if your desire is to lead a moral life in one of the Abrahamic or other religions which consider same sex physical congress immoral.

    If you wish to live in the Castro District in Frisco, frequent gay bars, and contract AIDS it is not the slightest problem

    Any “love” between consenting adults is moral if you belong to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, join the Episcopal Church, are still practicing one of the pagan cults from the Roman Empire, or are a Temple prostitute.

    Your opinion relative to Catholic doctrine is not relevant in any way at all.

    Consenting adults with morals of alley cats can do what they want, although some of the drugs dealing with the consequences are losing their effectiveness.

    Similarly, depending on your spin, marriage can be between any any number of married or unmarried, consenting or resisting, adults or children, and nearly any species in any order you desire.

    You may drive down the home values in your neighborhood, or find people avoiding in public places, but it’s your life.

    So, why don’t you fight a real problem, like your inability to refrain from sharing the fact that you basically are immoral with people you’ve never met and who really could care less what you think?

    Capisci, madre?

  12. If you don’t know, you shouldn’t try to enter the conversation, even if you are willfully ignorant.

  13. In this country, you’re pretty much born into it and raised in it

  14. You support child rapists and have the audacity to say I’m immoral? Get help, kiddo.

  15. I state your behavior is immoral because you described your own behavior, which is immoral.

    If you say you can’t yourself, I might venture that rather immoral you need help, kiddo.

    And, of course, I don’t support child rapists.

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