Catholic News Service reports that, on April 8, before his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI issued a clarification about homosexuals in seminaries. It’s important background to what he said on April 15 aboard Shepherd One, traveling to the United States.

He said of the abuse crisis, “I think we have to act on three levels: the first is at the level of justice. … We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry; it is absolutely incompatible, and whoever is really guilty of being a pedophile cannot be a priest.”

This first-level of response to the crisis is a step that the bishops in the United States have already definitively taken. The zero tolerance policy ends the ministry of any priest accused of inappropriate acts toward children.

The second-level of response to the crisis, said Pope Benedict, is the “pastoral level.” Victims of abuse don’t just need legal justice; they need healing and reconciliation. After all, the Church is more than a human institution, it’s a channel of God’s grace to souls. Reconciliation isn’t just a public relations issue, it’s an eternal imperative. Benedict himself modeled this second level of response when he met with victims of abuse during his visit.

The third-level of response the Church must make to the abuse crisis has to do with seminaries, said Pope Benedict. This work, too, has already begun. The Holy Father cited the visitation of seminaries, and said the Church would do “all that is possible” to ensure seminaries are properly preparing candidates. “Only sound persons can be admitted to the priesthood and only persons with a deep personal life in Christ.”

The brief remarks on the plane were not meant to be comprehensive. But it is striking that even in that brief exchange, Pope Benedict made key distinctions that are at the heart of the Church’s approach in the seminaries.

When speaking of the first level response and keeping churches free of predators, he said “I will not speak at this moment about homosexuality: This is another thing.”

Indeed it is. The Vatican sees very clearly that pedophilia is different in kind, not just degree, from homosexuality. Only a profound psychological darkness makes people capable of pedophilia. The response has to be zero tolerance.

But his words also suggest that there is another moment in which to speak of homosexuality and the priesthood. That moment had come the previous week, which is when Catholic News Service says Benedict reaffirmed the Vatican’s 2005 “Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies.”

That Instruction was all about what Pope Benedict on the plane called the “third level” of response to the abuse crisis: the seminary’s role in weeding out unfit candidates. And the Instruction makes its own careful distinctions.

It distinguished between candidates with a “deep-seated homosexual tendency” and those who had experienced a “transitory problem,” perhaps in adolescence. The Congregation for Catholic Education taught: “[T]his Dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”

In other words: Homosexual feelings or experiences in your past don’t bar you from being a priest. But being part of the “gay scene,” ongoing involvement in homosexual acts and identifying yourself as “gay” as an integral part of who you are — all of that is a different matter.

This 2005 teaching is nothing new. In a 2002 speech, Pope John Paul II linked the abuse scandals with seminary instruction and called for the exclusion of seminary candidates with observable “deviations in their affections.” And, lest we forget, his words echoed a 1961 instruction to the superiors of religious communities on “Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders.”

This spring, “In a clarification approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican said its 2005 document prohibiting the admission of homosexuals to the priesthood applies to all types of seminaries,” reports Catholic News Service.

That includes houses of formation run by religious orders and those under the authority of the agencies dealing with missionary territories and Eastern Churches, said a statement signed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.

All of this sounds terribly intolerant to our culture today. But a February 2004 John Jay Criminal College study commissioned by the bishops gives hard data that necessitates the policy. The study revealed that the majority of sexual abuse by clergy took place during the 1960s and 1970s, with 81% of the victims being males between the ages of 11 and 17.

On that evidence, National Review Board member Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, summed up the abuse crisis as “homosexual predation on American Catholic youth.”

Homosexuals, as the Catechism teaches, deserve respect and acceptance. They are certainly not all abusers — far from it. “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”

But nearly all the abusers were homosexuals, and involvement in the homosexual scene lends itself to sexual excess and militates against sexual restraint. To be “tolerant” in the face of the facts as we know them would be to continue to put American Catholic youth at risk.