AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

First things first: Let me point readers to a must-watch video feature that will be taking place in real time in an hour or so after this post.

At 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time, veteran Washington Post religion reporter will take part in a streaming video session focusing on the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic Church sex abuse. Watch here: Watch here: https://www.twitch.tv/washingtonpost

Then, at 3:30 p.m. ET, Post editor Marty Baron will take part. The Post PR email said he will be talking about the "Boston Globe reporting and present day accountability in the Catholic Church." Baron was, of course, editor of the Globe during it's famous "Spotlight" project on clergy sexual abuse.

The Post media team said that video clips will be available -- hopefully on YouTube -- after the live stream.

Now, back to business. Needless to say, readers saw the Associated Press report that ran all over the place with headlines similar to this one, from Religion News Service: "Cardinal McCarrick scandal inflames debate over gay priests."

Yes, your GetReligionistas saw it, too. In fact, you would not believe the amount of email I am getting (lots of nasty "spiked" comments board stuff, as well) about how the mainstream editors and even GetReligion folks have downplayed the "gay priests are the problem" angle in this story.

It is certainly true that some elite newsrooms don't want to investigate the issue of sexually active gay priests -- period. However, as I stressed the other day, There are crucial voices on the Catholic left and right who agree that the "non-celibate gay priests" angle has to be seen in a larger, more complex context.

Please allow me to repeat my summary on that subject, included in a post the other day with this headline: "The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis." I do this because I think that this is the clearest statement I have made, so far, on journalism about this hot-button topic:

I: The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders -- left and right, gay and straight -- have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.
II. Classic pedophiles tend to strikechildren of both genders. However, in terms of raw statistics, most child-abuse cases linked to Catholic clergy are not true cases of pedophilia, but are examples of ephebophilia -- intense sexual interest in post-pubescent teens or those on the doorstep of the teen years. The overwhelming majority of these clergy cases are adult males with young males.
III. One of the biggest secrets hiding in the bitter fog from all of these facts is the existence of powerful networks of sexually active gay priests, with many powerful predators -- McCarrick is a classic example -- based at seminaries and ecclesiastical offices. Thus, these men have extraordinary power in shaping the lives of future priests.

In other words, the "gay" issue is important -- but it is not the most powerful reality in this complex tragedy. I am convinced of that, no matter how many angry emails I get saying otherwise. You can't cover the facts without dealing with all three of these major elements of this story.

So what about that AP story? Here is the overture:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Allegations that disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick engaged in sex with adult seminarians have inflamed a long-running debate about the presence of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Some conservatives are calling for a purge of all gay priests, a challenging task given that they are believed to be numerous and few are open about their sexual orientation. Moderates want the church to eliminate the need for secrecy by proclaiming that gay men are welcome if they can be effective priests who commit to celibacy.

Uh, once again we have a classic use of the term "moderate" in the context of a debate about Catholic moral theology. Are there no liberals in this debate, doctrinally speaking? For example: 

Among the most outspoken moderates is the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer whose book, “Building a Bridge,” envisions a path toward warmer relations between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community.
“The idea of a purge of gay priests is both ridiculous and dangerous,” Martin said in an email. “Any purge would empty parishes and religious orders of the thousands of priests (and bishops) who lead healthy lives of service and faithful lives of celibacy.”

That's a good quote and Martin is an essential voice, in part because his work so infuriates conservative Catholics who want the Catechism to stay the way it is on this topic (the AP story does include actual language from Catholic doctrine). However, in light of Martin's close ties to the very liberal, very controversial, New Ways Ministry, it seems rather strange to say he is the centrist voice in this debate. 

The story does note that the McCarrick case has yanked the seminary angle out into the open, for some journalists, in several locations -- worldwide. 

While the McCarrick scandal has intensified debate in the U.S. about gays in the priesthood, it’s a global issue. Recent gay priest sex scandals have surfaced in Chile, Honduras, France and Italy.
In the U.S., where investigations may determine if church leaders turned a blind eye to McCarrick’s penchant for young seminarians, there have been follow-up allegations of sexual misconduct in seminaries. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who said Monday that he didn’t see a letter sent to his office by a priest in 2015 concerning McCarrick’s activities, recently announced an investigation into his diocesan seminary.

The story goes back and forth between voices on the left and the right, discussing the wisdom of a "gay purge" of the priesthood and the potential impact of such a radical move.

You can hear echoes of the larger issues in this passage:

On the front lines in implementing that policy are priests like the Rev. Thomas Berg, admissions director at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Berg said he and his colleagues strive to rigorously screen the young men applying for admission, assessing their psychosexual development and emotional maturity. Applicants are asked about their dating history and their level of attraction to other males; Berg believes the process has reduced the number of seminarians with same-sex attraction.
As for gays already serving as priests, Berg says he doesn’t advocate a “witch hunt” to root them out. But he says the church needs to identify sexually active priests, challenge them to repent, and consider their removal from the priesthood.

Here is the crucial point that is being debated, about the seminary issue: What does it mean to be a celibate "gay" priest? What is the point of a celibate making public declarations about his sex life in the past or his sexual orientation in the present? 

You can see this tension in a fairly recent Crux lede, expressing the nuanced (some would say conflicting) views of Pope "Who am I to judge?" Francis:

ROME -- According to various Italian news reports following a closed-door session with Italian bishops, Pope Francis on Monday said that men with “deeply rooted” homosexual tendencies, or who “practice homosexual acts,” shouldn’t be allowed into the seminary.
A report by Vatican Insider says Francis told the Italian prelates: “These tendencies, when they are ‘deeply rooted,’ and the practice of homosexual acts, can compromise the life of the seminary beyond that of the young man himself and his eventual future priesthood.”

So, sexual activist is a no go. But what, asks the Catholic right, is sexual "practice" or activity? Also, what does "deeply rooted" mean? If a priest is openly gay, does that equal "deeply rooted"?

Let me be clear: This story is way better than then norm, these days. What is missing is the candor that certain voices -- I'm thinking of the late Richard Sipe and the liberal Father Donald Cozzens, in particular -- have brought to discussions of the size and power of the so-called "lavender Mafia" in Catholic structures.

So here is a question that really needed to be asked and debated in this AP story: What are the informed estimates on the percentage of gay priests in the American priesthood?

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