Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

There is an old newsroom saying that I have found often holds true: journalist + math = correction.

This comical equation exemplifies how often people working in newsrooms just get math wrong in their stories. From polls and surveys to trying to quantify something by way of statistics, most reporters and editors find themselves befuddled — even fooled — by numbers.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been, especially in recent years, a large number of data journalists who excel in using math in their storytelling. Overall, that remains a small number. At least, I have found that to be the case anecdotally given my circle of former colleagues who work as general assignment reporters and news editors at mainstream news outlets.

What does math have to do with the Catholic church? Well, a lot if you’re trying to quantify how many priests are gay.

These days, the story about how much homosexuality has permeated the church at all levels — from cardinals and archbishops down to parish priests — remains very much a topic of much news coverage. Just how many men in the Catholic clergy are gay? Depends who you ask and who you read. Here’s where the math can be very fuzzy, a cautionary tale to anyone covering the events of this week and the sex-abuse scandal going forward.

The scandal remains very much in the news. The defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick and the upcoming Vatican’s sex-abuse summit means rehashing many past allegations, a slew of fresh ones and lots of fuzzy math. If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it is that polls and surveys are often not to be trusted.

Journalists keep trying to do the math. In April 2017, Slate put the number of gay U.S. priests somewhere from 15 to 50 percent, which the article points out is “much greater than the 3.8 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ in the general population.” The 15 percent the article cites comes from a 2002 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times. The 50 percent figure comes from a figure from the same year, reported by USA Today, as coming from “some church experts estimate.”

The article doesn’t elaborate — a great example of how a number not given proper context or sourcing can be repeated without hesitation by journalists, thanks to searches with Google or LexisNexis.

A US News and World Report article, under the headline “Catholic Priests: It’s 'Empirical Fact’ That Many Clergy Are Gay” from July 2013 — almost four years before the Slate feature — has this important paragraph midway through:

The notion that many Catholic priests are quietly gay is not new. In the 2000 book ‘The Changing Face of the Priesthood,’ Rev. Donald B. Cozzens suggested that the priesthood was increasingly becoming a gay profession. Cozzens estimated that as much as 58% of priests were gay, and that percentages were even higher for younger priests. His numbers matched previous estimates by sociologists who put the numbers of gay priests between 10 and 60%.

Cozzens is a crucial voice on the progressive side of U.S. Catholic life. For more background on his views on this topic, see these two “On Religion” columns that tmatt wrote back in 2002 — “Fathers, mothers & Catholic sons,” part I and then II.

This takes us to the present. On Feb. 15, columnist Frank Bruni of The New York Times wrote an opinion piece under the headline, “The Vatican’s Gay Overloads.” This is how he opens the piece:

Marveling at the mysterious sanctum that his new book explores, the French journalist Frédéric Martel writes that “even in San Francisco’s Castro” there aren’t “quite as many gays.”

He’s talking about the Vatican. And he’s delivering a bombshell.

Although the book’s publishers have kept it under tight wraps, I obtained a copy in advance of its release next Thursday. It will come out in eight languages and 20 countries, under the title “Sodoma,” as in Sodom, in Western Europe and “In the Closet of the Vatican” in the United States, Britain and Canada.

It includes the claim that about 80 percent of the male Roman Catholic clergy members who work at the Vatican, around the pope, are gay. It contends that the more showily homophobic a Vatican official is, the more likely he belongs to that crowd, and that the higher up the chain of command you go, the more gays you find. And not all of them are celibate. Not by a long shot.

There’s more. A few paragraphs down Bruni added:

The sourcing of much of “In the Closet of the Vatican” is vague, and other Vatican experts told me that the 80 percent figure is neither knowable nor credible.

It’s not a scientifically based accusation — it’s an ideologically based one,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for Religion News Service who visits the Vatican frequently and has written several highly regarded books about the Roman Catholic hierarchy. “One of the problems is that Catholic bishops have never allowed any kind of research in this area. They don’t want to know how many gay priests there are.” Independent studies put the percentage of gay men among Catholic priests in the United States at 15 percent to 60 percent.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Martel stressed that the 80 percent isn’t his estimate but that of a former priest at the Vatican whom he quotes by name in the book. But he presents that quotation without sufficient skepticism and, in his own words, writes, “It’s a big majority.”

Again, a phrase like “it’s not a scientifically based accusation” — even in an op-ed piece — doesn’t help.

Making matters worse, the newspaper’s big feature this past Sunday also didn’t help matters (see tmatt’s earlier post on this topic). The feature — written as a broad look at gay priests in America — included this paragraph that stood out to me:

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men likely make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest is gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight, and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”

None of these numbers are attributed to any organization, study or person — unless you consider “a priest in Florida” as someone who know the sexual proclivities of all American priests. The figures also fail to shed any light on whether these priests are gay (and celibate) or gay and sexually active.

These numbers can be seen as agenda-driven since inflating them somehow makes the church appear hypocritical in its teaching on homosexuality. Furthermore, it allows those on the Catholic left to push for “reforms” within the priesthood, something I wrote about recently in this space regarding the dwindling number of ordinations.

An easier way would have been to say: The John Jay Report, published in 2004, said that “homosexual men entered the seminaries in noticeable numbers from the late 1970s through the 1980s.” It may not have specific figures, but does paint an accurate picture of what has been going on in terms of ordinations over the past few decades.

The term “ephebophilia” is rarely used by in news stories when discussing the clergy sex scandal. Nearly two decades ago, Cozzens, a seminary leader and former vicar for clergy in Cleveland, wrote the following in his influential The Changing Face of the Priesthood, published in 2000:

Perhaps it is feared that it will call attention to the disproportionate number of gay priests. While homosexually oriented people are no more likely to be drawn to misconduct with minors than straight people, our own experiences was clear and, I believe, significant. Most priest offenders, we vicars agreed, acted out against teenage boys.

In one of his most-controversial chapters, Cozzens quotes reports claiming that some 50 percent of U.S. priests are gay. This is an old figure, but it’s a specific source that could have been used in recent stories. Instead, we get more and more fuzzy math. As little as 15 percent, as high as 75 percent and at least 30 percent to 40 percent.

Something doesn’t add up. An all-male celibate clergy has become problematic for the church over the past few decades. Journalists do need to report on that. The sex-abuse scandals, blamed on pedophilia by many in the mainstream press, has now turned to renewed talk about homosexuality, following reports of the abuse of seminarians. It’s the Catholic version of #MeToo and it has plunged the church into crisis. This, too, has been — and should be — reported.

All this we do know. It can be quantified by grand jury reports and the release, by various U.S. dioceses, of priests the have substantiated allegations against in the past and deemed to be a problem. This can also be illustrated journalistically with accounts from victims and whistleblowers.

What can’t be measured is the exact number of gay priests, no matter how much activists on the Catholic left (and sometimes on the right) try to set the agenda on this polarizing issue.

Journalists shouldn’t be in the business of offering up fuzzy math to make a point. This is an ongoing scandal that calls for sharp reporting, not guesses.

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