Gay priest firestorm, in retrospect ...

While I was on vacation, the mainstream press experienced another mini-storm of coverage linked to an old simmering story. I refer to the release, by the Italian weekly magazine Panorama, of a cover story -- backed with covert videos -- about the private affairs of gay Catholic priests in Rome. It helps to know that Panorama is part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's media empire in Italy and, thus, much of the coverage immediately focused on accusations that this investigative piece was intended as a smokescreen to help hide some of the headlines about his own scandals and colorful private life. Of course, much of mainstream coverage of the issues raised by Panorama jumped straight to tabloid-style headlines about Gay priests! In Rome! Another sex scandal!

Most of the coverage was on the other side of the Atlantic, with American media sitting this one out for the most part. However, there was one major exception, a news feature that puts me in unusual position -- needing to praise Newsweek for publishing a story that contained as much, or more, news and information than mere opinion. If you missed it, here is a key piece of the report for context:

For residents of Rome, the sight of courting priests is hardly an anomaly. The phenomenon is a well-known secret here, and one that was largely ignored until last weekend, when the Italian weekly magazine Panorama published a shocking expose called "Le Notti Brave Dei Preti Gay," or "Good Nights Out for Gay Priests." Investigative journalist Carmelo Abbate spent 20 days undercover posing as the boyfriend of a man who ran in gay clerical circles, secretly videotaping the sexual escapades of three Rome-based priests. Abbate caught the priests on hidden camera dirty dancing at private parties and engaging in sex acts with male escorts on church property. He also caught them emerging from dark bedrooms in time to celebrate mass. In one postcoital scene, "Father Carlo" parades around seminaked, wearing only his clerical vestments. Abbate's "date" even had sex with one of the priests to corroborate the story. "This is not about homosexuality," Abbate, who is not gay, told NEWSWEEK. "This is about private vices and public virtues. This is about serious hypocrisy in the Catholic Church."

But the story is, of course, about those who are preaching, to one degree or another, the doctrines of the Catholic Church while disobeying them in semi-private.

Then, looming in the background, is another controversial issue: Why is it so easy for Vatican officials to demand that gay priests leave the priesthood while it is so hard to crack down on bishops and senior church officials who helped shelter priests who abused children and young people, most of them teen-aged males?

The Newsweek story will not please many defenders of the Vatican, for the most part, although it contains information that will please Catholics who want to see these various scandals addressed and the church's teachings defended in an open and coherent manner.

What struck me was that this report actually took seriously the fact that something is going on in the Catholic priesthood that is causing increased tensions about sexual orientation. Thus, we read quotes from actual church documents:

Through the years, a number of directives have been issued addressing priest sexuality. A 1961 Vatican document signed by Pope John XXIII clearly outlines church policy. "Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers."

In 2002, the church softened its stance slightly under Pope John Paul II, whose spokesman said the church should become "less welcoming" to gays in priesthood. "That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality," he said, refraining from calling homosexuality an "evil tendency" like under the earlier papacy. "But you cannot be in this field." In 2003, before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope, he described homosexuality as a "troubling moral and social phenomenon" affecting the church. And when he became pope in 2005, he focused on gay priests with a five-page "instruction" document calling homosexuality "objectively disordered" but allowed that men could enter the seminary after a period of abstinence. "Men who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture' cannot be admitted to seminaries," Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, wrote. "The only exception would be for those with a 'transitory problem' that had been overcome for at least three years."

But requirements like those are impossible to enforce, and they are plainly ignored.

Is that final statement true?

I was pleased that Newsweek didn't settle for this blast of pure opinion, but went on to offer several statements that represent a journalistic attempt to support that broad statement. Yes, one is anonymous. But it is also framed with crucial factual information about the anonymous source.

In Rome's medieval quarter of Trastevere not far from Le Mani In Pasta, the International Ecclesiastic Seminary attracts men from all over the world who want to study for the priesthood in the heart of Rome. A professor there, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, says the vast majority of the young men who come to study are sexually active gay men who quickly become part of the lively gay culture in Rome. Not all the priests are gay or practicing, he concedes, but in recent years he says he has noticed that most new students are young men with a certain sexual slant, and he fears that the institution has a reputation for attracting only gay seminarians.

Then there is a reference to a familiar, on-the-record source of information, from the progressive wing of the church in America:

The exact number of gay priests worldwide is unknown. A study conducted in 2000 by Father Donald Cozzens for his book The Changing Face of Priesthood suggests that as many as 60 percent of all American Catholic priests were gay, but those numbers varied greatly depending on geographical location. "At issue at the beginning of the 21st century is the growing perception that the priesthood is, or is becoming, a gay profession," Cozzens wrote in his book. "Heterosexual seminarians are made uncomfortable by the number of gays around them."

There's much more to read and ponder. My point is not that the article is perfect or somehow pleasing. What I am noting is that it is possible -- even in Newsweek -- to quote actual documents and voices that are linked to the facts of the story at hand, even a story as scandalous as this one.

I was surprised, for once.

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