Fathers, mothers & Catholic sons, Part I

The Chicago news was full of sex, children and Roman collars.

This wasn't part of the first national "Sins of the Fathers" furor in the mid-1980s. This was the early 1990s and the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago eventually opened its files on all 2,252 priests who had served in the previous four decades. The powers that be hunted for pedophiles and they found one.

The key word is "one." One priest had been accused of assaulting a prepubescent child. The other allegations involved priests and sexually mature, but under-age, adolescents -- mostly boys.

"Those Chicago numbers are not unusual. This is, in fact, part of a pattern we see in diocese after diocese," said Father Donald B. Cozzens, former vicar for clergy in Cleveland and then rector of a graduate seminary in Ohio.

"Of course, any abuse of children is horrifying and it is just as wrong -- morally and legally -- when sexual abuse occurs with teen-agers. But it isn't helping matters, right now, for people to keep blurring the lines between these two conditions. This isn't just about pedophilia."

Debates about sexuality and the priesthood will only heat up, if that is possible, now that a crucial Vatican voice has spoken. A close aide to Pope John Paul II told the New York Times that it's time to slow or even stop the flow of gays into the priesthood. "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained," said psychiatrist Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Cozzens stressed that he agrees with researchers who believe sexual orientation is irrelevant in discussions of pedophilia. But what if pedophilia is not the issue?

By definition, pedophiles are sexually attracted to boys and girls who have not reached puberty. But Cozzens said reports he has studied, and his own experience as a counselor, indicate the more common problem among Catholic clergy is "ephebophilia." This is recurrent, intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people -- teen-agers.

The term "ephebophilia" is rarely used in church debates and the press. Yet, Cozzens said that whenever clergy vicars held conferences 90 percent of the sex-abuse cases they discussed fell into this category. Church authorities are reluctant to investigate this reality.

Why this conspicuous silence?

"Perhaps it is feared that it will call attention to the disproportionate number of gay priests," wrote Cozzens, in his influential "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," published in 2000. "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 his most controversial chapter, Cozzens quotes reports claiming about 50 percent of U.S. Catholic priests are gay, with the numbers higher among priests younger than 40. Talk of a "gay subculture" grew in recent decades as 20,000 men left the priesthood to get married.

The seminary climate changed - radically. Cozzens cited a survey in which 60 percent of one seminary's students identified themselves as gay, 20 percent were "confused about their sexual identity" and 20 percent said they were heterosexual.

Cozzens concluded: "Should our seminaries become significantly gay, and many seasoned observers find them to be precisely that, the priesthood of the 21st century will likely be perceived as a predominantly gay profession."

This is the proverbial elephant in the sanctuary that few bishops want to discuss.

Cozzens said that, along with many other researchers, he does not see a direct link between homosexual orientation and sexual abuse. Yet the cloud of secrecy and denial that swirls around the gay subculture makes it hard to discuss urgent issues -- such as ephebophilia.

"Pedophilia is a totally different kind of sickness and it can't really be treated," he said. "You simply have to do what you can to help the abuser and then make sure all future contact with children is cut off. There is no other way. ...

"But there are many bishops out there who, for a variety of reasons, have been convinced that priests can be successfully treated and reassigned to other parishes if the sexual contact was with teen-agers. Now, that belief is being shaken."