Seminarians’ sex lives

An editor recently asked me to write about some issues related to the Roman Catholic sex abuse problem. I had a wonderful time interviewing over one dozen experts. They spoke from a variety of perspectives — people extremely upset with particular church policies and doctrines and people who thought the problems arose out of failure to adhere to church doctrine.

But what surprised me was that a good number of these people brought up homosexuality in the course of their interviews. Again, they didn’t have the same beliefs on the topic, but they discussed their concern over the manner in which church and media discussed the role it played in the larger clerical culture. Writing about homosexuality is a landmine. Ideally, reporters should avoid both hurtful derogatory claims and a political correctness that sanitizes any negative discussion. Usually critical stories (and by critical, I don’t mean negative but, rather, judicial) don’t even make it to the assignment desk.

This story, from New York Times reporter Paul Vitello, involves sex and religion and it’s a great read. I’m actually surprised it didn’t generate more interest, although that’s probably due to it coming out on Memorial Day weekend. Here’s how it begins:

Every job interview has its awkward moments, but in recent years, the standard interview for men seeking a life in the Roman Catholic priesthood has made the awkward moment a requirement.

“When was the last time you had sex?” all candidates for the seminary are asked. (The preferred answer: not for three years or more.)

“What kind of sexual experiences have you had?” is another common question. “Do you like pornography?”

Depending on the replies, and the results of standardized psychological tests, the interview may proceed into deeper waters: “Do you like children?” and “Do you like children more than you like people your own age?”

It is part of a soul-baring obstacle course prospective seminarians are forced to run in the aftermath of a sexual abuse crisis that church leaders have decided to confront, in part, by scrubbing their academies of potential molesters, according to church officials and psychologists who screen candidates in New York and the rest of the country.

But many of the questions are also aimed at another, equally sensitive mission: deciding whether gay applicants should be denied admission under complex recent guidelines from the Vatican that do not explicitly bar all gay candidates but would exclude most of them, even some who are celibate.

I assume that “the” preferred answer about the last time a candidate had sex is actually “never.” But one gets the point. The story maneuvers from this engaging opening into more substantive discussion of both the psychological screening that candidates receive and the deeper theological questions raised by those screenings.

The story characterizes the screenings as beginning fairly recently but I know that some dioceses were using psychological screenings decades ago. Here’s another snippet about potential, unintended consequences:

“A criterion like this may not ensure that you are getting the best candidates,” said Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard Divinity School, who has studied homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood. “Though it might get you people who lie or who are so confused they do not really know who they are.”

“And not the least irony here,” he added, “is that these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay.”

One of the challenges of covering a complicated story about Vatican directives is that different sources will provide competing accounts of the meaning and significance of their tasks. Vitello worked that to his advantage, showing readers how directives play out in the real world and how there are inconsistencies across dioceses.

I do wish that there would have been more discussion in support of the Vatican’s directives. Part of it is that the story was subtly critical of the Vatican directives, and that made me wonder more about what church leaders were thinking. But also, when I was interviewing psychologists and moral theologians in recent weeks, I didn’t have too much problem getting folks to talk about why they were concerned about homosexuality in the priesthood. In fact, they raised these concerns themselves. And they weren’t just Vatican loyalists — one of my sources who talked about a conspiracy among gay bishops doesn’t even believe that the church should concern itself with sexual mores. Another sounded like Luther right after his first trip to Rome.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we have language limitations. Reporters generally do a good job, as Vitello did, of noting that “Scientific studies have found no link between sexual orientation and abuse.” But should reporters also note that 80% of the sexual abuse victims in American dioceses were male and that three-quarters of victims were adolescents? What do those numbers mean? Why are so many of the victims adolescent boys? I have absolutely no idea and I’m not sure we have any good studies that seek to explain that phenomenon. In the general population, most child abuse victims are female (and I’m also not sure why that is).

Anyway, discussing sex and religion is difficult enough — homosexuality is altogether more challenging. Vitello’s story casts a bit of light on how the church approaches some of these topics. I wish he’d looked at how it plays out in other dioceses across the country but the fact is that he packed a lot of information into his piece.

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  • Jerry

    Part of it is that the story was subtly critical of the Vatican directives

    What led you to believe that because I read the story as being well balanced?

  • david clohessy

    Keep in mind that the 80% figure is self-reported data from the bishops themselves. . .

    David Clohessy, Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, 7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143, 314 566 9790 cell (

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Why are so many of the victims adolescent boys?

    I always figure that some of this gets chalked up to crimes of opportunity: abusive priests have had easy access to altar boys, prospective seminarians, etc.

  • Julia

    abusive priests have had easy access to altar boys, prospective seminarians, etc.

    There are almost no HS minor seminaries any more and we have had girl altar services for decades.

    The vast majority of Catholic high schools are now co-ed.

    From what I understand, men who go after adolescent boys are not much different than straight men who go after adolescent girls. It’s despicable, but not paedophelia. Society frowns on acting on the attraction to underage partners, but the attraction itself is not considered a mental health issue.

  • Will

    “Do you like children more than you like people your own age?”

    !!!! D*n*d straight (if you’ll pardon the expression.) Most people my age around me are jerks, and stupid as well. Does this mean I am stigmatized as a pervert?

  • Mollie


    Not that this is journalism related, but that question is part of a larger personality test. It helps gives interviewers an idea of areas to explore further. I’m pretty sure that answering in the affirmative to that question does not flag you as a danger for the seminary . . .

  • Michael

    I appreciate this article for illuminating difficulties in assessing sexual misconduct by Catholic clergy. Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated against prepubescent girls by adult male family members–usually married. Yet, 81% of victims of Catholic clergy were adolescent boys. That is a profoundling striking statistical “anomaly.” Theories abound, but I am unaware of empirical data. Unfortunately, those who procfess to advocate on behalf of victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse refuse to even acknowledge the statistical anomaly-hence David Clohessy’s post. They would rather assert political correctness than attempt to discover the origins of the problem with an eye toward prevention–they have major conflicts of interest. It could be that the anomaly is due to opportunity, which might make sense, because old claims often involve altar boys at a time when there were no girl altar servers. But, there is no data to confirm that. It could be that the majority of abuse by Catholic clergy involved ephebophelia–sexual attraction to and abuse of adolescents–which likely reflect different statistical prevalences than pedophilia. But, again, I am unaware of data to that effect. If the data doesn’t exist, it is worth studying. However, so-called advocates reject every attempt to properly categorize the abuse, which impedes the efforts to assess the problem and to properly address it. It could be that the abuse is primarily perpetrated by gay priests upon males who exhibit secondary sexual characteristics that appeal to homosexually-oriented adult males. Again, I am unaware of data on this issue, although I have over the years read a number of articles to the effect that there is–I guess similar to the heterosexual community–a major emphasis on sexual attraction to and involvement with youth. Maybe homophobic attitudes among Catholics and in society at large drives gay, immature Catholic men to seek refuse in the priesthood, an unhealthy choice that ultimately manifests in acting out. Maybe the priesthood attracts gay males who feel they have more opportunity to act out sexually in a male-dominated and oriented church. Maybe it is a combination of these things, or something else altogether. We need to address this issue as scientifically as possible if we want to better understand and prevent sexual misconduct in the priesthood, regardless of how we describe it. There is no place for political correctness or the influence of big money and promotion of agendas at the expense of such an endeavor.

  • dalea

    From the article:

    Still, since the abuse crisis erupted in 2002, curtailing the entry of gay men into the priesthood has become one the church’s highest priorities. And that task has fallen to seminary directors and a cadre of psychologists who say that culling candidates has become an arduous process of testing, interviewing and making decisions — based on social science, church dogma and gut instinct.

    Interesting that the entire vetting process relies upon talk therapy rather than physical measurement. There is a device that measures response to erotic stimuli that is considered reliable:

    The results of this test can tell who is a homosexual and who is not with a high degree of reliability. And there are a variety of other factors that point to sexual orientation:
    handedness, birth order, fingerprints, brain process, spatial orientation, finger length, etc. In the BBC documentary John Barrowman’s The Making Of Me these are discussed at length. There are a great many physical tests that can be used but appear not to.

  • SteveP


    You said: “Ideally, reporters should avoid both hurtful derogatory claims and a political correctness that sanitizes any negative discussion.”

    In that light I would suggest that Vitello’s article is rather tailored for his intended audience in that it is a gay issue article rather than an article regarding seminary admission post-2002.

    The two documents posted on the Vatican’s web site, as linked into Vitello’s article, seem to talk more about “affective maturity” than anything else. For example, Vitello may have asked “Can an celibate, affective immature man become a priest?” perhaps a question to Dr. Palumbo regarding the relationship between affective maturity and impulse control; possibly a short description of affective maturity and why none seems to misunderstand that requirement.

    That being said, that the article was to focus on sex, it is well-balanced for a politically correct set of paragraphs. Letting Fr. Sweeney have the last word was quite remarkable.

    Thank you.

  • dalea

    BTW, this article on Gay men does not interview any Gay men. Instead it talks about us in the third person, making Gays a perpetual other. If there are so many Gay clergy surely the author could have found current or former priests and seminarians to interview. As it stands, the article is just a bunch of ostensibly straight people giving opinions on Gays. It is as if an article on Hispanic Catholics only interviewed and quoted Anglos.

    Mollie, do you regard this as acceptable journalism?

  • Mollie


    It’s an article about seminaries screening candidates but I think that there is a case to be made for speaking with gay clergy. On the other hand, I don’t think people were identified according to their sexual orientation, per se.

    But I’m more curious about your “third person” complaint. What person would be appropriate for a news article other than third person? I think all news articles should be written in third person . . .

  • dalea

    In terms of case, I would regard the third case as acceptable as long as at some point in the story the third casers get to speak in the first case. If that does not happen, then it does not look like well researched journalism to me. How do GB seminarians and priests experience this situation and how do they evaluate the new tests? That would be worth knowing. And they can’t be that difficult to locate. Start with this list: