Inside The Church's Closet

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    The decision could have a dramatic effect on seminaries like St. Patrick's in Menlo Park, Calif. Its director, the Rev. Gerald Coleman, agrees with Silva that psychosexual education and open dialogue are among the best ways to prevent inappropriate sexual behavior, not to mention depression, addiction and other dysfunction. He requires his 103 seminarians to reckon with their sexuality, be it gay or straight, throughout their five years there. They are expected to discuss their sexual attitudes and development, among other things, once a month with their advisers and must take three courses on sexuality: a class on overall human sexuality, another on intimacy and celibacy, and one on sexual abuse, which includes guest lectures by victims and perpetrators. But even in that spirit of enlightened openness, the dialogue is fraught and unsteady.

    At a recent meeting of Coleman's elective class, Homosexuality and the Church, words and phrases like penis, Freud, male rectum and Will & Grace are bandied about without embarrassment. Coleman covers the scriptural teachings on homosexuality and the psychological impact of homophobia. At one point he says that gay teenagers suffer from a lack of role models. In the next moment, he says gay priests and teachers should not come out of the closet, lest they confuse children. It is an awkward balancing act, and a seminarian calls Coleman on the contradiction. "How are young people supposed to work out their sexuality if they don't have role models?" asks Chris Sellars, 27, who is scheduled to be ordained next January. Coleman listens intently but stands by his imperfect position. "Our fundamental role is to proclaim the Gospel," he says. The other seven students around the table look slightly confused, but Coleman encourages them to accept ambiguity and just be aware of different perspectives.

    The recent statements of the Cardinals linking homosexuality to pedophilia make his job even harder, Coleman says. "I think they've confused the issues immeasurably." Although St. Patrick's is among the more liberal, most seminaries now have psychological screening exams and some form of psychosexual training. But some more conservative members of the church advocate a different approach. St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside Philadelphia asks applicants about their orientation and denies entry to gay men, regardless of their willingness to be celibate, archdiocesan officials told the Philadelphia Inquirer in April. (St. Charles officials declined to speak to TIME.)

    Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has expressed concern that seminaries foster a "homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes heterosexual young men think twice" about entering them. But seminaries vary tremendously, depending on the time and place. Whereas Pinkerton says he never noticed a "gay subculture" during his student years in the 1970s, a New Jersey priest who attended a Chicago seminary around the same time has more colorful memories: "It was a pretty wild, free-for-all place. If you went into any of the gay bars, you were bound to meet a priest or seminarian there." Meanwhile, at St. Patrick's, Sellars says the atmosphere is one of serious study, where only close friends know one another's orientation. Jokes seminarian Ron Zanoni, 46: "There's no culture at all. Forget about subculture."

    But the greater challenge — for gay and straight priests — comes in life after seminary. Living in a rectory, says the Rev. Jim Morris, can be a desperately lonely experience. "You share some of your parishioners' most important moments — birth, marriage, death — and at the end of the day, you lock the door, and you are by yourself." Morris, 51, spent six years as the associate pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Queens Village, N.Y. In 1995 he found himself in love and took a leave of absence to live with his partner. He continues to act sacramentally, though, celebrating Mass for a group of gay New York Roman Catholics, presiding at funerals for former parishioners and hearing confessions. "Yes, I am breaking a promise by not being celibate," he says. "But the promise has become meaningless to me. As long as my community demands my services, I will be there."

    Pinkerton, who now has a private therapy practice and leads a support group for current and former clergy, is still a priest. He celebrates Mass occasionally in his home, as he did last week with a few friends to mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination. He is uncharacteristically sheepish when he talks about "celebrating" such an event. "There is a certain sadness. I ask myself, Is this a failure? Did I just want it all?"

    Several weeks ago, Pinkerton got together with old friends — a couple who have two children, now grown. He had been close to their son, whom he used to take to Yankees games. Now, over dinner, just as he had once told them he was gay, he made another sudden declaration: "I told them, 'I want you to know, I never touched your children.'" They looked at him like he was crazy. But in the glare of the spotlight, he says, he is guilty until proved innocent.

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