Inside The Church's Closet

  • The Rev. William Hart McNichols is gay. He is also a Roman Catholic priest in Taos, N.M. There is no paradox there, according to church teachings. Technically, it is homosexual activity — not the orientation — that is considered sinful. Nevertheless, McNichols will surely get hate mail and risk losing his ability to minister by stating his sexuality in the pages of this magazine. He has said it publicly before, so he knows. "Talking to you," he told me last week, "is just as scary as the first time I came out to anyone. But you can't go through life hiding who you are and feel any honesty before God."

    McNichols, 52, sounds weary when he says this, not righteous. After 23 years as a Jesuit priest, he remains deeply loyal to the church. He is a painter, among the most famous creators of Christian iconic images in the world. He has a parish that he speaks about with so much awe, it strains the imagination. And he is enraged by the notion of priests preying on children. But he says he cannot stay silent while all gay priests are blamed for such crimes. "This is an extremely dangerous moment," he says quietly.

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    Now that the transgressions of clerical abuse and official cover-up have been exposed, the church's second biggest secret is coming out of the closet: an institution that denounces homosexuality is kept afloat by a disproportionately gay work force. This irony is old news among most priests. For decades, gay clergy have held annual retreats, met in local support groups and kept in touch through an underground national newsletter. Estimates of the percentage of gay priests range from 15% to more than 50%. While the correct figure is impossible to pin down, it seems safe to say the proportion is higher than that of gay men in the male population at large.

    Yet while U.S. Cardinals are now publicly acknowledging the huge numbers of gay priests — a historic first — some are at the same time blaming them for the debacle of the abuse scandals. Since many of the victims are teenage boys, the thinking goes, the perpetrators must be gay — and that must be the problem, not sexual repression, not leaders who ignore serious criminal allegations. And having reached that conclusion, certain officials are going one step further: they are breaking a gentleman's agreement that has long existed within the church by calling into question the validity of even celibate gay priests. Said Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia: "We feel that a person who is homosexually oriented is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood, even if he has never committed any homosexual act."

    This much, however, is clear: no mainstream research has found any link between pedophilia and homosexuality. And even in the current storm of scandal, no one knows whether there are any more pedophile priests than, say, pedophile teachers. And while the great majority of the victims who have recently come to public attention were teenage boys when they were abused, no one knows how many girls may also have been molested.

    But Bevilacqua's assertion cuts to the marrow for gay priests. Interviews with a dozen gay Roman Catholic priests around the country and several psychologists who specialize in treating homosexual clergy make it clear that many gay priests have spent their lives tortured by the conflicts between their church and their heart. Their ability to find peace has depended, in many cases, on which order or parish they joined or on the reason they entered the priesthood. Some have had to leave active ministry. Others have devised complicated ways to reconcile the church's teachings with who they are — often by reinterpreting Scripture that has been used to condemn homosexuality. And like straight priests, many have broken their vows of celibacy with other consenting adults.

    Now, under the cloud of the current crisis, the tipping point may have been reached. Some gay priests, unable to stomach the ingratitude after their years of service, say the comments may force them to walk away from a job they excel at. Many others are stepping further back into the closet, deeper into a world of secrecy, shame and isolation — the very dark place where priestly dysfunction can breed. "At once I get very angry about it and also very hurt," says a gay New Jersey priest who was ordained 19 years ago. "It's very much like being rejected by a parent."

    In 1973, when Jay Pinkerton, now 53, entered the Washington Theological Coalition in Silver Spring, Md., he knew he was gay. He had wanted to be a priest for a reason common among older gay clergy. "I knew I didn't want to get married, and I loved the church," he says. "I had thought about it since I was a kid, and it felt like a safe place. I wouldn't have to worry about my sexuality. Nobody would expect that I would date."

    What he didn't know was that so many other gay men had made the same choice. Pinkerton was part of a religious community called the Franciscans. Compared with diocesan priests, religious communities — which are usually not under the close watch of a bishop and a parish — generally attract more gay men. Pinkerton's community of East Coast Franciscans included about 400 men; he estimates that about 250 to 300 were gay. He didn't figure that out, though, until after he was ordained, he says. He soon found himself seated at the "gay-priest table" at a celebration for a brother priest's ordination, and he began to connect the dots.

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