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Posted October 20, 2005

Rossetti: Most Priests Well-Adjusted and Happy

Despite the news headlines, most Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. are well-adjusted and happy, says priest and licensed psychologist Stephen Rossetti -- but that doesn't mean there aren't important problems to be addressed. Rossetti is president and CEO of the St. Luke Institute, which helps Catholic priests and other religious deal with issues such as anxiety, depression, sexual problems, overeating, and compulsive spending. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about gay priests, the upcoming inspection of U.S. seminaries, and the good news from his new book, The Joy of Priesthood.

The upcoming "apostolic visitation" — a kind of inspection of Catholic seminaries—will tackle many issues; homosexuality is only one of them. But to the extent that the visitors to the seminaries are concerned about homosexuality, is this about sexual abuse, about recruiting straight priests, or about something else? What are their major concerns?

I do know there have been complaints in the distant past about inappropriate homosexual behaviors in young seminarians. I was more aware of those in the 1970s and 1980s, frankly. In some ways, I think the visitation is about 20 years too late. I spend a lot of time with seminaries and I think they're pretty good now. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were some inappropriate things going on.

The standards weren't clear enough. The standard is chaste, celibate behavior. We expect people as they're entering the seminaries to live that. And not only that, but there should be a clear living of a chaste, celibate life for at least three to five years before they enter the seminary.

I think it was part of the post-sixties era that infected the Church as well as society.

So when people say the sexual revolution had negative reverberations in the priesthood, you'd agree with that?

Yes. I saw some of that in the 70s and 80s. I entered the seminary in 1979. I saw some behaviors that were incongruous with the priesthood, frankly.

People are expected to live a mature, integrated, chaste, celibate life. The seminary is not a place for someone to struggle with his sexual orientation issues. That needs to be resolved long before he enters the seminary. We saw people doing things that were not compatible with our life.

In the book, you say the priesthood holds unique challenges for gay men. What are some of those challenges?

Lots of people say, as long as they live a chaste life, it's enough. But chastity is about more than simply not engaging in sexual relationships. Celibacy implies a level of psychosexual maturity in which you've integrated sexuality in a way that leads you to healthy interpersonal relationships and helps you to nurture others. When that level of maturity is not there, you find all sorts of aberrant interpersonal behaviors.

I've worked with a number of seminarians and priests who find themselves having homosexual feelings that distress them greatly. They would get rid of those feelings if they could. I think this is a challenge that faces them. Another challenge is, how do I, as a priest who experiences homosexual inclinations, act in a seminary? How do I behave?

Labels are not helpful. A better way to think is that there are many kinds of homosexualities and heterosexualities. There are many kinds of homosexual folks who would not be appropriate for the priesthood. Parishioners do not want their pastor marching in the Gay Pride parade or standing in the pulpit announcing to the whole world that he's gay, as happened recently in one diocese. You can imagine the response. Fifty percent say, "We don't care, as long as you're a good priest." Fifty percent say, "We don't want him." Now you're finished. You can't minister to fifty percent of the parish."

Not to mention acting-out behaviors.

There are behaviors—campy behaviors which at times we're seeing in seminaries that are so wildly inappropriate.

Such as?

You know what campy behavior is. Everybody will know.

It's just not OK. It bespeaks a lack of maturity around one's sexual orientation.

Now, are there some kinds of homosexualities that would be acceptable to the priesthood? I think there are. They're much less obvious, more personal. Those who are adamantly against taking any homosexual persons to be priests may not be aware that a couple guys down the street, good priests they know, might be homosexuals. They are fine priests, doing good work, living a chaste life, and not the stereotype they're thinking of.

In your work at St. Luke's, in terms of actual sex offenders, what has the breakdown been between straight and gay priests? This is a difficult issue, because it's very complex. But I would say our initial numbers look like a higher percentage of priests who identify themselves as homosexuals are abusing minors, versus the straight priests. The danger there is people say "Ah, it's a homosexual problem." No, because there are plenty of straight priests who have molested minors. Most homosexual priests do not molest minors. The two extreme approaches are "Homosexuality has nothing to do with it" and "It's a homosexual problem."

I think the reality is what Martin Kafka was quoted as saying in the National Catholic Reporter. He thought homosexuality is a risk factor. What he meant by that is if you took a thousand gay priests and a thousand straight priests, you'd have a higher percentage of the gay priests molesting. And I think that's true; that's been our experience [at St. Luke's]. The question is why, and that gets very complicated.

But there are lots of other risk factors. For example, if you have someone who was sexually abused as a minor, that's clearly a risk factor—probably a higher risk factor. Another risk factor would be an alcohol problem.

Based on your work with troubled priests, if you were in charge of all seminary screenings in the US, how would you screen seminary candidates?

Actually, my program gives quite a bit of input into the seminary screening process. One, I would look for the presence of life-giving peer relationships. When someone has friends their own age, they're not going to go after minors. Number two, I would give every one of them an extensive psychosexual history; the clinician would sit down with the individual and go through their entire psychosexual history.

What red flags turn up in that?

Extremes: the totally repressed person who never had a sexual thought in his life, [or] the person with an extensive history of sexual acting out as a young person. Another red flag: having been sexually abused. Doesn't mean you're going to reject the person, but it needs to be addressed. Any sort of deviant sexual arousals or deviant sexual contacts. There's a normal progression from sexual exploration in terms of "playing doctor" that kids do, versus some very disturbing sexual contacts young people might have.

What percentage of potential offenders might you be able to identify with this kind of screening?

A significant percentage. You won't get them all, but more than a couple.

By the way, they've been doing screening for 30 years. I was screened 26 years ago. They did MMPI, Rorschach.

What can seminaries do to help men live celibate lives?

Some sexual "training," if you will, is a part of every seminary I've visited in the past 20 years. It's getting better as the years go on.

One of the things we do at St. Luke's to help seminary professors and mentors be better at this is we bring them to St. Luke's for a week-long training program. We call it "integrating healthy sexuality"--learning how to teach others to be chaste and celibate.

What are pointers from that sort of course that they find most helpful?

1) Know who you are sexually. Not simply are you gay or straight, but know how you communicate yourself sexually. Who are you attracted to? How do you relate to others? Are you really chaste in heart and mind? Are you a warm, affectionate person? People can be coming on to each other and flirting and that sort of thing--in inappropriate ways--without ever touching each other. So, do you know who you are? 2) Am I at peace with it? Have I come to terms with it? It doesn't mean you have to like it. I know lots of people who are homosexually oriented don't like it. But they've come to terms with it. They've come to terms with it and said I am able to live at peace with it. If they don't, if their level of internal conflict is high, they're more likely to act out, or they simply can't minister to others because all their energy is going towards this internal conflict. 3) Can I express myself sexually in a way that is in consonance with my vocation? Can I express myself as a warm, affectionate, kind, caring person, yet at the same time not be flirting with people, coming on to people, giving them the wrong messages?

Your study compared priests' satisfaction levels to married people's. Can you talk about that?

Most people today have this distorted view of the priesthood, that priests are lonely, unhappy, discouraged guys. But if you ever actually sat in a group of priests, there's a lot of laughing and fun going on. The first impression you get is, "This is a bunch of pretty happy guys." When I did the survey of over 1,200 priests, the level of happiness with the priesthood was found to be extremely high, like 90%, which is higher than the average American if you ask "how many of you are happy with your jobs?" I suspect that priests are some of the happiest people in this country.

I asked the priests, "How many have found celibacy to be a gift or grace to you?" Sixty-six percent said yes. That's not bad. Your book points out that Hinduism and Buddhism have traditions of celibacy that go back thousands of years. They have their own problems, but you don't hear as much criticism of celibate Buddhist monks as you do of Roman Catholic priests in America. There's this American idea that celibacy is completely impossible, is unnatural, and doesn't make sense.

The reporting is very different. Can you imagine CNN walking into a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, popping a microphone in front of a monk, and saying, "How's the celibacy thing going?"

Our culture comes at celibacy in a very negative, distorted way. I think the people in Tibet, for example, have a much more positive understanding of the place of a chaste monk. They would see this as a very natural thing, and a desired thing for their society, to have some chaste celibate monks.

How is celibacy good for society?

Well, each one of us tells us something different about God. Marriage shows us the connectedness of God in the Trinity, the bond of unity. Marriage is a witness and mirror of that. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a witness of the dedication of God, the total commitment. That striving towards oneness with God. Jesus was chaste and celibate. Based on what you found in your survey, what do you think are the hardest things and the best things about being a priest? The best things always are God, Eucharist, and people. To have your life so intimately bound up with God made present in the Eucharist is a great gift, and always a highlight of a priest's life; they all said it. And the community is the priest's family.

The hardest thing: expectations. It is a sacred calling and a wonderful gift, but we have this expectation we're going to be perfect, and we're not. We're flawed human beings. But God didn't decide to ordain a bunch of angels. He ordained human beings. It's in human weakness that God's grace achieves its perfection, as St. Paul tells us.