Issue prompting church to deal with homosexuality among priests
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
The AIDS-related deaths of hundreds of its priests force the Roman Catholic Church to acknowledge a reality that it has tried to avoid for centuries.
A significant number of its clergy are gay.
"I really think for society as a whole and the church in particular, AIDS forced homosexuality out of the closet," said the Rev. Paul Morrissey, an Augustinian priest and psychotherapist in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Few statistics are available on the number of priests who are gay.
Psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, has spent decades studying the issue. Based on case studies of 2,700 priests, Sipe thinks 30 percent of priests are gay and that half of the 30 percent are sexually active.
Some church officials and medical experts disagree with Sipe's findings.
"I would be very cautious about anybody being able to pin a number on it (the number of gay priests)," said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and physician who helps run the clinical AIDS program at Boston Medical Center.
"I think most people would be comfortable to say it's at least the same level as it is in society in general, and likely higher."
A national random survey of priests conducted by The Kansas City Star found that 15 percent of those responding considered themselves homosexual and 5 percent identified themselves as bisexual. Estimates of the percentage of homosexuals in the general population vary, but those who conduct research on gays and lesbians say it is between 5 percent and 10 percent.
Priests and experts offer several explanations for the presence of gays among Catholic clergy. Some say the church gives gays a protective cover for their homosexuality.
"Young Catholic boys trying desperately to honor the strict sexual morality of the church and having no attraction for women see a vocation to the priesthood not only as an honorable way out, but also as a social way out," said the Rev. Harry Morrison, a California priest who has AIDS.
"Because the minute you say to the world, 'I want to be a priest,' people respect you enough not to push the heterosexual game on you any more. And that's a very liberating thing. And I think a lot of people entered the priesthood in that psycho-social mix -- to make it (being gay) livable."
Others contend that the church helps gays deny their homosexuality. Still others maintain that many heterosexual men have left the priesthood to get married, leaving behind a disproportionate number of gay men.
"There have always been the comments made on this that a celibate priesthood must be somewhat attractive for one who is homosexual, because you're joining a fraternity or group which has a status in society, and you don't have to come out of the closet," said Bishop Raymond J. Boland, of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.
"I can't argue with that statement. There must be that attraction. Now, how much the attraction has ever been fulfilled is very difficult to know."
One well-known priest who is open about being gay is William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit widely recognized as one of the world's most creative iconographers.
McNichols, who lives in New Mexico, said fellow priests warned him not to reveal his sexual orientation.
"I consulted the provincial at the time. He said, 'Well, it will make you apostolically unavailable,' which means no school or parish will want you."
But McNichols -- and his icons -- remain in demand. In 1993, the Archbishop of Denver commissioned him to create an icon to give Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day.
Though it's been difficult at times to be "out," McNichols said, "in a lot of ways, it's been a blessing, because I haven't had to be repressed."