VATICAN CITY — Is Pope Francis, through some recent comments he has made, encouraging a broader discussion of homosexuality in the consecrated and priestly life ahead of the Vatican meeting on clerical sex abuse in February?
The Vatican will host the special meeting of bishops Feb. 21-24 to address the clergy sex-abuse crisis, with an official theme of the “protection of minors and vulnerable adults.”
The question of homosexuality has so far not been raised by those preparing for the event, which, until now, has appeared to focus on minors. But the issue has now come to the forefront since the Pope made unusually strong remarks about homosexuality in a book interview published earlier this month.
In the interview, which appeared in The Strength of Vocation: The Consecrated Life Today by Father Fernando Prado, Francis said there is “no room for that kind of [homosexual] affection” in consecrated and priestly life and recommended those who have such an “ingrained tendency” should not be accepted as priests or religious.
Those who are homosexual, he said, should be “impeccably responsible” and never live a “double life”; otherwise, it is “better for them to leave” the ministry or consecrated life.
He also said the issue of homosexuality is “very serious” and must be “adequately discerned from the beginning” of a candidate’s formation. “We have to be exacting,” the Holy Father said. “In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable, and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church.”
Although he did not link homosexuality with the sexual-abuse crisis, recent scandals, such as those involving ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and other clerical sex-abuse cases in the U.S., Germany, Chile and Honduras — many of which have involved seminarians — have led many to see the two as connected.
And although the Pope’s interview was recorded in August, before the idea for the February meeting had been conceived, those who see a link between homosexuality and clerical sex abuse view the issue of homosexuality as crucial to the upcoming discussions.
“This is an important issue since it has become apparent that some members of the clergy, including bishops, engage in homosexual activity,” said Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices.
“It is known that they prey upon seminarians and young men,” he added, pointing out the “problem of ‘gay networks.’” Such behavior, he told the Register Dec. 11, “cannot be tolerated,” and the February gathering “desperately needs to address these issues if the meeting is to be taken seriously.”
In a recent interview with the Register, Father D. Paul Sullins, a senior research associate of the Ruth Institute and a recently retired professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America, highlighted a correlation between a rise in the number of priests of a homosexual orientation from the 1950s to the 1980s and “a very similar increase” in sexual-abuse incidents over the same period.
Father Sullins’ findings, contained in a recently published Ruth Institute report on the clerical sex-abuse crisis, found that the share of homosexual men in the priesthood rose from twice that of the general population in the 1950s to eight times the general population in the 1980s, a trend that was very strongly correlated with increasing child sex abuse.
At the same time, the report showed that whereas a quarter of priests ordained in the late 1960s reported the existence of a homosexual subculture in their seminaries, that figure rose to more than half of priests ordained in the 1980s. This, the report concluded, was a second trend that was also strongly correlated with increasing child sex abuse.
Father Sullins said this meant his conclusion must be the “opposite of that of the John Jay Report,” referencing the 2011 study commissioned by the U.S. bishops in response to the sex-abuse crisis. That report found no causative relationship between either celibacy or homosexuality and the sexual victimization of children in the Church, despite the findings of the initial 2004 John Jay Report: that more than 81% of the victims of clerical sex abuse were male.
“Even if most priests with same-sex attraction have not abused anyone, the fact remains that 80% of the abuse cases involved homosexual acts perpetrated on the victim,” noted Msgr. Charles Pope, dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., writing in the Register Dec. 8.
He, therefore, believes that to forbid any discussion of the link between clergy sexual abuse and homosexuality “amounts to a kind of malpractice,” as it not only “endangers potential future victims as well as the souls of potential abusers,” but also “seriously damages the credibility that will be necessary for any proposed solutions and policies.”
Msgr. Pope said he saw the Pope’s recent comments on homosexuality as a “ray of light” that “deserve our support” as the February summit draws near. He also predicted that supporters of the homosexual and transgender cause will try to suppress a link between the clergy sexual-abuse scandal and homosexuality at the meeting, and they must be “conscientiously and charitably” resisted.
But for Phil Lawler, CatholicCulture.org commentator and author of The Smoke of Satan: How Corrupt and Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, the Pope’s words give him little solace.
“To be honest, I don’t place too much importance on the Pope’s recent comments,” he told the Register Dec. 10. “I read them as another off-the-cuff statement, not necessary tied to any policy decisions.”
He added that he sees “no indication that the Pope plans to introduce any discussion of homosexuality at the February meeting.” But like Father Weinandy, he believes if the topic is not discussed, it will be “a terrible missed opportunity, because the problem is not simply the abuse of young people; it also involves the violation of chastity, which is far more widespread, and the near-universal failure of Church leaders to address that problem.”
Father Weinandy said he found it “hard to judge” the impact that the Pope’s words will have on the February meeting.
“The problem is that the Pope has to act on his own words,” he said. “If he himself does not actively engage the issue, no one else will. Without his actively engaging the issue, no one will take him seriously.”
Another point calling into question whether the issue of homosexuality will be discussed at the meeting is the appointment of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago as head of the summit’s preparatory committee.
Cardinal Cupich has expressed strong skepticism that homosexual priests are a key factor of clerical sexual abuse, saying instead the problem stems from clericalism in the Church. Similarly, Pope Francis has placed most of the blame for the crisis on clericalism and, to date, never on homosexuality.
The Register asked Cardinal Cupich, in his capacity as head of the meeting’s organizing committee, to share his views on the link between homosexuality and clerical sex abuse and whether it will be discussed at the meeting in light of the Pope’s comments. As of publication time, he had not responded.
The Register asked Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, who is also on the committee, the same questions, but he has similarly not replied.
A Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Register Dec. 10 that it is not at all clear the Pope wants the issue of homosexuality discussed at the meeting, as the book interview comments were given in light of the McCarrick scandal and not with respect to the February meeting.
But Lawler does not rule out the possibility that the topic could be broached.
“I still hold out some hope that other bishops — notably the American contingent — will demand a broader discussion in February,” he said. “They could cite the Pope’s recent statements toward that end.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.