The witch hunt for gay priests


It is not surprising that Catholics are furious about the latest sex abuse crisis, which began, most recently, with accusations of abuse and harassment against the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick; deepened with the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing 70 years of abuse in the Commonwealth; and intensified with the former Vatican nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s 11-page “testimony” accusing many high-ranking clerics, including Pope Francis, with covering up the crimes.

Catholics have a right to be angry at abusive clergy, at bishops who covered up their crimes and at the sclerotic clerical system that allowed the crimes and cover-ups to go unpunished for decades.


But the intensity of hate and level of anger directed at gay priests are unprecedented in my memory.

The intensity of hate and level of anger directed at gay priests are unprecedented in my memory.

What I mean by “gay priests” is ordained priests with a homosexual orientation who are living their promises of celibacy (and in religious orders, their vows of chastity). That it is necessary even to define the term “gay priest” points out the widespread misinformation about what has become perhaps the most incendiary topic in the current discussion. A few commentators have even declared that the term “gay” implies that a priest must be sexually active. As I use the term, a “gay priest” simply means an ordained priest who has a homosexual orientation.

The long-simmering rage against gay priests and the supposed “homosexual subculture” or “Lavender Mafia” has been fanned into a fire that threatens to engulf not only faithful gay priests but also, more broadly, L.G.B.T. people.

While the contempt directed at gay clergy is coming from just a handful of cardinals, bishops and priests, as well as a subset of Catholic commentators, it is as intense as it is dangerous. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord,” wrote Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis. A Swiss bishop, Marian Eleganti, declared that the “networks” of gay priests in the church must be investigated before the “great purification” can begin. A bishop in Kazakhstan, Athanasius Schneider, listing remedies for clergy abuse, began with this: “cleanse uncompromisingly the Roman Curia and the episcopate from homosexual cliques and networks.” Cardinal Raymond Burke, the influential former archbishop of St. Louis, said, “There is a homosexual culture, not only among the clergy but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root.”

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Michael Hichborn, president of the Lepanto Institute, takes this to its inevitable conclusion, telling the Associated Press that what is needed is “a complete and thoroughgoing removal of all homosexual clergymen in the church.”

In the last few days I have seen more homophobic comments on my social media accounts than ever before. The rise in vitriol is not surprising, especially after such comments from church leaders and Catholic commentators or after headlines like these: “Pope Blames Sex Abuse on Clericalism, Leaves Out Homosexuality”; “Sex Abuse Crisis in Church is about Homosexuality Not Pedophilia”; “Homosexual Predators, not Pedophile Priests, Are Church’s Deadly Cancer.

Archbishop Viganò’s “testimony” was also rife with this same kind of language: “These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” (Full disclosure: both Archbishop Viganò in his “testimony” and Cardinal Burke in a recent interview have mentioned me by name.)

We should state clearly: Many priest abusers had a homosexual orientation. That is undeniable.

It is important to say that the majority (but not all) of the clerical abuse crimes were cases of priests preying on male adolescents and boys. Also, the majority (but not all) of the sexual harassment cases were men harassing other men or young men. Prescinding from the complex psychological questions of how much a person’s sexuality has to do with abuse, how much differentials in power do and how much proximity does, we should state clearly: Many priests abusers had a homosexual orientation. That is undeniable.

But the next step is where the conversation can take a dangerous turn. That many abusers were gay priests does not mean that all or even most gay priests are abusers. It is a dangerous and unjust stereotype. Simply because a certain percentage of a group acts in a certain way does not mean the entire group or even most of the group acts in the same way.

Then why does it seem like so many gay priests are abusive? One reason is that there are no public examples of the healthy, celibate gay priests to counteract these stereotypes. Why not? Because gay priests are not willing to be as public about their identity as straight priests are. For example, in a community suffering from a spate of L.G.B.T. violence, there can be no references in a Sunday homily to knowing what it is like to be bullied for being gay. The presider cannot say, “As a boy, I was bullied, too, for being gay.”

That many abusers were gay priests does not mean that all or even most gay priests are abusers.

Why do gay priests feel that they cannot be public? For several reasons. First, the fear of coming out in this increasingly poisonous environment. (Ask yourself if you would come out when even bishops are calling for a “cleansing” of men like you.) Second, bishops and religious order superiors fear that their men (again, celibate and chaste priests) could be targeted by the media or homophobic websites. Third, an underlying shame about their sexuality. Fourth, an innate desire for privacy about a personal aspect of one’s life. Fifth, the fear that in the absence of other “out” priests one might become the “poster boy” for the group.

Such reasons mean that the example of the many hardworking, healthy and celibate gay priests (and chaste members of religious orders) is almost entirely absent from both the church’s consciousness and the public eye. There are exceptions, like the Rev. Gregory Greiten of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Rev. Fred Daley of the Diocese of Syracuse, priests who have come out publicly as gay. But Fathers Greiten and Daley are two of only a handful of clergy like this. And until bishops and religious superiors support gay priests in their desires to be more public about who they are, and gay priests are willing to pay the price of honesty, the situation is unlikely to change.

Consequently, the stereotype of the “gay priest abuser” now predominates. To use another example, imagine if the only stories aired about members of an ethnic, social or religious group were of those who had committed crimes. Further, imagine that no positive stories about their law-abiding members were made public. Eventually, the negative stereotype would dominate: “All members of this group are criminals.” (Sadly, this is not a hard scenario to imagine: Many ethnic groups face the same kinds of stereotypes.)

Fewer celibate gay priests in the public eye means more stereotyping. More stereotyping leads to more fear.

This fear leads to a cycle of secrecy: Fewer celibate gay priests in the public eye means more stereotyping. More stereotyping leads to more fear. More fear leads to more secrecy.

Other malign stereotypes are also being peddled, for example, the idea that homosexuality inevitably leads to abuse. This is contradicted by almost every study, including the John Jay Report, an exhaustive study of sex abuse in the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2010. Most abuse happens in families. And no one, as far as I know, suggests that heterosexuality promotes abuse.

Beyond these reasons is a perhaps more important explanation: the intense homophobia that still exists in some quarters of the church. And this must be named for what it is: hate. A few days ago, a gay priest texted me this astute observation: “We are so used to gay people being mistreated in the church that we can internalize the homophobic bigotry that we are now seeing, and that Viganò expressed in his testimony, and fail to call it out. It’s deeply hateful. And if he were making similar attacks against another ethnic or religious group, there would be a far different reaction—probably even from within the church. But because gay priests have been so conditioned to play the scapegoat we are too ashamed to speak out.”

Where does this extreme hatred of gay priests come from? It comes from fear.

Is there a “gay subculture” in the church? I have never worked in the Vatican, so I cannot comment on that workplace. But in my 30 years as a Jesuit, I have seen that gay priests in U.S. dioceses, as well as in religious orders, work well with their straight counterparts—as well as with straight lay people: pastoral associates, parish council members, parishioners, as well as principals, administrators and teachers. In religious life, they live peaceably with their straight brothers.

More to the point, I know hundreds of gay priests, and I can say with honesty that all of them strive to keep their promises of celibacy and vows of chastity, none of them conspire with other gay priests, and yet many of them are demoralized by this increasingly hate-fueled witch hunt.

Where does this extreme hatred of gay priests come from? It comes from fear. Fear of the "other." Fear of the person who is different. Sometimes fear of one’s own complicated sexuality. In frightening times, it can also feel empowering to blame and scapegoat the “other.” As the philosopher René Girard consistently points out, scapegoating unites us around a common enemy and encourages us to believe, falsely, that we have solved the problem.

This hatred currently being whipped up by a few influential church leaders and commentators will, if unchecked, lead us to a place of great darkness, characterized by an increased hatred for innocent individuals, the condemnation of an entire group of people and a distraction from the real issues underlying this crisis of sexual abuse.

There are many things that need to be addressed when it comes to clergy sex abuse: the improper screening of candidates; the prevalence of clerical culture that privileges the word of priests over lay people (and parents); the poor seminary and religious formation, especially in areas of sexuality; the need for regulations that punish bishops who have covered up abuse and many other factors.

What is not needed is the demonization of gay priests. What is not needed is more hate.

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Trent Shannon
1 year 6 months ago

Exactly! But Martin engaged in the witch hunt too! "Many priests abusers had a homosexual orientation. That is undeniable."

This is just not true. Abuse, especially child abuse, is about power and control, physical, sexual and emotional: I should know, as a triple CSA survivor and an emotional abuse survivor, I have first hand experience in being under that power and control - it affects me mentally to this day

Im bi and going catholic, and yes I will be celibate in that regards - though i disagree the church should uphold those three catechisms given its persecutory past in the face of the fag bashers grabbing their torches and pitchforks to cleanse the church of homos (they don't care about survivors), and especially given the insidiousness of the cover up.

Starting a witch hunt will only alienate people in the church who have found God. I found the guy, why should I pick another church because of my sexuality? Why can't I be in a church with celibate gay clergy - they're inspiration for my own celibacy!

But given my understanding of myself and my sexuality, I won't seek god's mercy for my sexuality or dealings in that regard, and I'll tell my priest this - I've worse sins of lust, and wrath, and greed to absolve and rectify that I've let myself descend to in the aftermath of my particular traumatic life.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 6 months ago

Wasn't it a witch hunt that went after Jack Philips, the Masterpiece cake maker, Barronelle Stutzman the flower shop owner, or Mozilla's founder Brendan Eich? The Supreme Court used a word for hate, "animus." Which hunt is the witch hunt? Who is the real hater, the one who leaves you in your sin or who wants you rescued? James 5: "My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins."

mark melchior
1 year 6 months ago

One of the most pernicious conflations in the discussion of sexual misconduct by clergy is between pedophilia and homosexuality. Heterosexuality does not imply pedophilic intentions nor does homosexuality. Persons who identify as homo- or heterosexual may demonstrate pedophilic interests. The vast majority of cases of pedophilia involve inappropriate heterosexual contact between adult and child. The demonizing of gay priests began with the erroneous and, I believe, intentional conflation of homosexuality with pedophila. And from whence did that begin? In Catholic communities, most of these learned responses come from the clergy themselves or clerical support for lay intolerance and ignorance. The Church has a lot of re-education to do within its membership, and it only has itself (the clerical community within the church) to blame for the homophobia that it must confront. This article is a start. Thank you, Rev. Martin.

J Jones
1 year 6 months ago

I agree with you 100%.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 6 months ago

Mark - This is newspeak. Homosex means same-sex. 81% of sex abuse of minors is same-sex. Pedophilia is sex with pre-pubescent children, which is less than 20% of the sex abuse in the Church. Therefore, the vast majority of sex abuse is non-pedophile same-sex abuse. Homosexuals or bisexuals make up 2-5% of the general population (CDC figures), so it is not surprising that, using absolute numbers, more sex abuse of minors is perpetrated by 95% than by 5%. But, the relative incidence is higher even there. In the priesthood, the situation is more extreme, since 81% is same-sex. As to causes, it cannot be celibacy or clericalism, since they have stayed constant while the incidence of sex abuse of minors has dropped dramatically in the Church since the 1970-80s (see references below). Clericalism could still play a role in a cover up, so let's have an investigation let by faithful Catholic laity, of both minor and adult sex in the clergy.

New PA Grand Jury report -
John Jay Report - and the full report

J Jones
1 year 6 months ago

Tim, as I have said before, you cannot mix and match statistics to come up with new statistics.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 6 months ago

This is boring, J. No counter argument or counter statistics. Just unsubstantiated assertions.

J Jones
1 year 6 months ago

Tim, I am not interested in debating you. You persist in your practice of making up statistics to create new claims and you free-lance with your interpretations of citations. You once stated here that tbe point of publishing medical studies is for the reader to their own conclusions about the meaning of the data. That was a simplistic and ignorant dodge when I confronted you about a conclusion you made up after citing a study which did not, in fact, publish that conclusion.

My interest is in pointing out the obsessive nature of your focus on homosexuality, an obsession that has a strong flavor homophobia or bigotry (only you know which it is) AND your misuse of statistics and citations to support your own claims, while attempting to lend credibility to that misuse of the scientific literature by claiming scientific training and expertise.

I believe, if you review my responses to you, you will discover I have never debated your points. Thus, you do not know whether I agree with your specific points or not.

Your misuse of data and citations to "prove" your own conclusions and (as you say) "simple math", combined with your occasional statement that you are a medically trained clinician, makes your use of citations and data worthy only of censure, not serious debate, Tim.

Dennis Doyle
1 year 6 months ago

Tell me if I am missing something here. The Church says gay men are “disordered “ which implies they are sexually, very unhealthy. The Church won’t ordain women or married men. The Church needs male priests to function since priests have the exclusive right to administer the sacarments which are the Church’s mainstay. Thus, in order to stay in business the Church has to admit large numbers of gay men who the Church say are “disordered” because they won’t admit “ordered” people as priests The gay men who they ordain are embarrassed to say they are gay becase their employer says they are disordered. Martin rails against homophobic Catholics whose Church taught them gays were “disordered” which suggests all gays are are weird .
Am I wrong ? Isn’t this whole thing Nuts?

Michael Barberi
1 year 6 months ago


You are correct that the Church says homosexuality is a intrinsic disorder. However, the Church has not put forth any convincing evidence, none at all, to support this claim. The Am. Psychological Association studied the issue of homosexuality and concluded that homosexuality is not a intrinsic disorder. It is a natural condition that people are born with. It is like being born left-handed. More importantly, people do not choose homosexuality and those with a same-sex orientation/inclination do not, ipso facto, become pedophiles. We should not forget that the overwhelming majority of heterosexuals and homosexuals priests abide by their vows of celibacy and chastity, are good priests and do the Lord's work well.

There are many comments here that directly or indirectly call for all homosexual priests, bishops and cardinals to be defrocked. If most homosexual priests are silent, how do we do this? Is not a more reasonable solution to defrock any priest, bishops or cardinal that are found guilty of sexual abuse or immoral sexual behavior with a minor or adult?

I don't think any of us should sugar coat the "who", "what", "when', "why" or deflect from what appears to be sexual abuse, inappropriate actions and negligence involving everyone, popes included. However, let us not forget that everyone should be considered innocent until proven guilty even when things do not look good. Let's pray that a lay-lead impartial, competent and transparent committee with Vatican participation thoroughly investigates everyone that is accused or involved by accusation and not spare popes and their advisors. We need the complete truth, appropriate and suitable justice and reform.

J Jones
1 year 6 months ago


Tim O'Leary
1 year 6 months ago

Dennis - The homosexual inclination is "objectively disordered" (CCC #2358 below) but not in itself sinful (lustful desires and acts are). The Church teaches that men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" (or identify as gay) should not be admitted to seminary, since celibacy requires a sacrificial giving up of the potential role of a physical father in a marriage with a women. So, something has gone horribly wrong with the seminaries in the last 50 years. It happened before (11th Century) and required a massive reform. What is new today is that the abnormality has become the ideology. That no doubt is connected to the sex abuse cover-up and the gay lobby Pope Francis rails about. He needs to be part of the solution in uncovering this and cleaning this up.

Here is the full Catechism teaching "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. (CCC# 2358).

Monica Trojniak
1 year 6 months ago

I agree with the theory of, "scapegoating." Blaming the abuse on gay priests alows clergy to think of the issue to belong to, "the other."

J Jones
1 year 6 months ago

Agreed. It also allows laypeople to avoid questions about the power inherent in the Church

Tim O'Leary
1 year 6 months ago

Monica - what alternative explanation would you give? Let's try a couple.
Clerical power- the culture of clericalism has been stable for the last 50 years, yet the incidence of sex abuse by priests peeked in the 1980s and has been dropping since, even before the John Jay report in 2002. It could certainly play a part in the McCarrick affair, which is to be investigated.
Celibacy - was also stable the last 50 years, and yet there was a peak and trough.
Scapegoating implies an isolated victim used to cover a larger group. However, it appears the majority were same sex abuse.
Here is a possible solution to fit your needs - relabel any same-sex activity that is criminal as really disordered heterosexual activity. I know it sounds absurd but I have seen some people try this one. But even Fr. Martin won't buy that one.

1 year 6 months ago

Since priests are celibate of what interest is it to anyone whether a particular priest is heterosexual or homosexual other than prurient gossip?

Tim O'Leary
1 year 6 months ago

Maureen - this could work if gay priests prove to not be enabling other gay priests, or heterosexual priests. This is a good question for McCarrick. Is he giving gay priests a bad name?


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