Though fewer than 10 priests in the United States have come out publicly as queer, gay men comprise anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to estimates from gay priests and researchers, the New York Times reported in an article exploring the reality of being a closeted clergy member. Some priests claim the percentage to be much higher, at 75 percent, while one Florida priest told the Times that, when it comes to priests, “A third are gay, a third are straight and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”
For the article, the New York Times spoke to two dozen gay priests and seminary students from 13 states. Almost all the priests who spoke to the Times did so anonymously, saying that their being identified as gay, even if they have kept their vow of celibacy, could lead them to lose their livelihood, as the Church controls their housing, health insurance, and retirement pension.
One priest described living in the closet as an “open closet,” saying that, though gay priests don’t speak about their sexuality, many know about other gay priests. Those who do come out tend to come out much later than the average gay man. While the average coming out age is 15, according to the Times, many priests do not come out to themselves until their 30s or 40s.
One priest who spoke to the Times, Father Gregory Greiten, said he realized he was gay when he was 24 and considered suicide. He confided in a fellow seminarian, who then came out to him, as well. It was then that Greiten realized there are more people like him that were keeping their sexuality silent. He reached out to a seminary professor who he thought might be gay.
“There will be a time in your life when you will look back on this and you’re going to just love yourself for being gay,” Greiten says the man told him. “I thought, ‘This man must be totally insane.’”
“I was in my 50s when I came out,” Father Bob Bussen, a priest in Salt Lake City, Utah, told the Times. “I entered the seminary at 18, a young, enthusiastic, white, male virgin who doesn’t know anything, let alone straight or gay. There were years that I carried this secret. My prayer was not that, would God change me. It was that I would die before anyone found out.”
One priest told the Times that “you can be taught to act straight in order to survive” in the priesthood. The same priest remembered seeing students leave each other’s dorm rooms late at night.
“I can still remember seeing a seminarian come out of another’s room at 5 a.m. and thinking, isn’t it nice, they talked all night,” he said. “I was so naïve.”
Some priests saw hope when Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” when it came to the issue of gay-identified priests. But, the hope that that statement engendered has dissipated after the revival of sexual abuse scandals, for which gay priests have been scapegoated. The church’s ongoing sexual abuse epidemic made headlines again last week when the Pope defrocked cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick for sexual abuse of boys and young men.
“The vast majority of gay priests are not safe,” Bussen said. “Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating.” He said that it is “not a closet. It is a cage.”
Though studies have found no connection between being gay and abusing children, many bishops point to gay priests as the root of the issue. Changing his tune from his earlier remarks, Pope Francis said in December that gay priests should not be accepted for ministry and called homosexuality “fashionable.” A 2002 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, commissioned by the church after the revelations of sexual abuse first came to light, found that same-sex experience didn’t make a priest more likely to abuse minors.
Some priests claimed they had sex with other men or watched gay porn to explore their sexuality, but the Times noted they “ultimately found more anguish than pleasure.” Gay priests have found ways to support each other, whether through fighting against church-sponsored conversion therapy, going on secret retreats, or even taking off their collar to unofficially bless a same-sex marriage.
“It is not a cabal,” one priest said of gay priests’ camaraderie. “It is a support group.”
An upcoming meeting of prominent bishops to discuss the Church’s sexual abuse crisis has many gay priests worried that they will once again be blamed for the problem. Greiten said that if he could talk to Pope Francis, he would tell him the story of how the Catholic Church traumatized him for being gay.
“It’s not just about the sexual abuse crisis,” Greiten tells the Times. “They are sexually traumatizing and wounding yet another generation. We have to stand up and say no more sexual abuse, no more sexual traumatizing, no more sexual wounding. We have to get it right when it comes to sexuality.”