For the Roman Catholic Church, these are tough times. A burgeoning scandal over the hierarchy's coverup--in Boston and elsewhere--of hundreds of complaints of priests' sexual abuse of minors has provoked a national outcry and ripped through church credibility. So it would seem like the last thing the Vatican would want right now would be more controversy.
But that's exactly what it got after the Vatican's press office director, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, dropped a verbal bombshell by asserting in March that gay men were to blame for the abuse and that they should not be ordained as priests. He even suggested that those already ordained be purged from the priesthood. The furor began immediately, serving to showcase a Catholic fact of life that church officials are extremely loathe to draw attention to--the large number of gay priests in U.S. parishes and religious orders.
Navarro-Valls, a lay Spanish psychiatrist, made his remarks in a New York Times story on Vatican reaction to the sexual abuse scandal. Referring to the fact that most of the abuse allegations made public involve priests and teenage boys, Navarro-Valls said, "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained. That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality. But you cannot be in this field." He went on to compare gay men who become priests to gay men who marry women. Just as such marriages can be annulled by the church as invalid, he suggested, the ordinations could be similarly revoked.
Gay Catholics as well as a number of Catholic scholars immediately denounced Navarro-Valls's recommendations, calling them theologically unsound, probably impossible to implement, a desperate effort to scape-goat gays, and--if a purge is attempted--a severe blow to Catholicism. "This is nothing more than a vicious, transparent attempt to shift the blame in an effort to deny institutional culpability" in the scandal, says Mary Louise Cervone, president of Dignity/USA, a national gay Catholic group. "This [abuse] is about violence against children and abuse of power. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation."
A.W. Richard Sipe, a onetime Benedictine monk, longtime psychotherapist, and author who has studied priests' sexuality for 40 years, says Navarro-Valls's statement "runs counter to every tradition in the church," in which love, service, and celibacy have been the primary criteria for ordination. Sipe's long-term study of more than 1,500 priests found that gay priests respect their vows of celibacy in the same proportion as straight priests. He estimates that at least 30% of the U.S. priesthood and a third of the bishops are homosexually oriented--and notes that some estimates run higher.
The scandal that drew the Vatican spokesman's comments began in January with revelations by the Boston Globe that Cardinal Bernard Law routinely re-assigned a priest, accused of molesting more than 130 children over 30 years, from one parish to another without notifying parishes of previous complaints. Following an avalanche of criticism, Law handed prosecutors a list of more than 80 priests accused of sexual abuse over the years. Since January, according to The New York Times, at least 55 priests in other dioceses across the country who were serving despite abuse accusations against them have been removed or suspended from their duties.
The damage to Law's reputation and influence, some Boston activists maintain, could help local gays politically, since he has been a fierce opponent of measures like domestic-partner benefits. The archdiocese itself has refrained from blaming gay priests for the abuse scandal, although its newspaper, The Pilot, hinted that gays were at fault in an editorial that asked for an examination of whether the priesthood attracts a "dis-proportionate" number of homosexuals and whether a "valid screening tool" exists to determine who is homosexual. …