Same-Sex Attraction in Boys, Treatment of Priests and
An open letter, inspired by the clerical sex abuse scandals, was
addressed to the U.S. Bishops by a group of psychiatrists from the
Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based Catholic Medical Association. This is the
letter, "slightly adapted," as it appeared in ZENIT, 27 &
28 June 2002.
Psychiatrists' Letter to the Catholic Bishops
As a Catholic psychiatrist and psychologist who have treated a
significant number of priests from various dioceses and religious
communities over the past 25 years for same-sex attraction (SSA or
homosexuality) and for pedophilia and ephebophilia (homosexual behavior
with adolescents), we believe that our particular expertise and those of
our colleagues in the Catholic Medical Association may be of help to the
American bishops as they seek to create effective long-term strategies
to prevent the recurrence of the problems in which the Catholic Church
in the United States now finds itself enmeshed.
Many have pointed out that solving the problem of sexual abuse by clergy
will necessarily involve addressing the problem of SSA among priests.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops, admitted at a press conference in Rome on April 23 the
existence of an ongoing struggle to ensure that the Catholic priesthood
is not dominated by homosexual men.
As the revelations of abuse have become public it has become
increasingly clear that almost all the victims are adolescent males, not
prepubescent boys. The problem of priests with same-sex attractions (SSA)
molesting adolescents or children must be addressed if future scandals
are to be avoided.
In treating priests who have engaged in pedophilia and ephebophilia we
have observed that these men almost without exception suffered from a
denial of sin in their lives. They were unwilling to admit and address
the profound emotional pain they experienced in childhood of loneliness,
often in the father relationship, peer rejection, lack of male
confidence, poor body image, sadness, and anger.
This anger, which originated most often from disappointments and hurts
with their peers and/or fathers, was often directed toward the Church,
the Holy Father, and the religious authorities. Rejecting the Church's
teachings on sexual morality, these men for the most part adopted the
utilitarian sexual ethic which the Holy Father so brilliantly critiqued
in his book, "Love and Responsibility."
They came to see their own pleasure as the highest end and used others—including
adolescents and children—as sexual objects. They consistently refused
to examine their consciences, to accept the Church's teachings on moral
issues as a guide for their personal actions, or regularly avail
themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation. These priests either
refused to seek spiritual direction or choose a spiritual director or
confessor who openly rebelled against Church teachings on sexuality.
Tragically, these mistakes allowed these men to justify their behaviors.
The bishops, individually and collectively, should develop screening
protocols which will identify men who may pose a risk to others and who
cannot live the chaste celibacy required of a priest. This is essential
to protect the Church and her children from further pain, sorrow and
future scandals. While no screening system is absolutely foolproof,
sufficient research is available to develop efficient tools for this
One of the major problems we have discovered in discussing this issue
with the clergy and the laity is the enormous amount of misinformation
about the nature, origins, and treatment of homosexuality/SSA. This is
not accidental. For over 20 years, activists, intent on changing the
laws on sexual orientation, have put forward a massive public relations
campaign specifically designed to spread misinformation that will change
the social acceptance of homosexuality.
For example, many people sincerely believe that scientific research has
produced conclusive evidence that homosexuality is a genetically
inherited condition, determined before birth, and cannot be changed. In
fact, no such evidence exists. Several studies have been promoted in the
media as providing the "proof," but when one reads these
studies, one discovers the authors do not even claim to have presented
There is no verifiable evidence that same-sex attraction is genetically
determined. If same-sex attraction were genetically determined,
identical twins would always have the same sexual attraction pattern.
Numerous studies of twins have shown that this is not the case. And
there are numerous studies documenting change of sexual attraction
pattern (see "Homosexuality and Hope," available at
One of the reasons why people have been so willing to accept the idea
that same-sex attraction is genetically determined is their own
experience with men who are extremely effeminate and have been so since
early childhood. This condition of extreme effeminacy is called Gender
Identity Disorder (GID).
The differences between boys with GID and other boys are so profound,
that those observing them conclude that the boys with GID must have been
born that way. Those who treat GID have found that effective family
therapy in which the father bonds more closely with the son and affirms
his son's masculinity can in a relatively short time result in the
elimination of these symptoms and the emergence of normal boyish
Tragically, because this information is not widely known most boys with
GID do not receive treatment and approximately 75% of them will go on to
develop SSA in adolescence. Unfortunately, if these boys come from
Catholic families, those around them may point them toward the
priesthood. Because they aren't attracted to girls, people wrongly
assume that the celibate life will be easy for them.
In our practice, we have seen many boys who suffered from distant father
relationships, lacked hand/eye coordination and subsequently were
subjected to humiliating teasing from peers because of their inability
to play sports. These and other factors lead to feelings of male
inadequacy and loneliness and later to homosexual attractions. The
sooner these problems are addressed in therapy, the more hope there is
for a full recovery.
For example, a 26-year-old client had experienced severe peer rejection
as child and teen-ager because of his inability to play sports. In
addition, his father was distant, and his mother overly dependent. At
age 10 he began to experience same-sex attractions which intensified in
Fortunately, as a faithful Catholic he never gave into the temptations
to act on these feelings. During therapy he was able to identify the
causes of his same-sex attraction, to forgive those who had hurt him,
and to develop a stronger and comforting relationship with God the
Father and St. Joseph as another loving father, Jesus as his loving and
accepting friend at every life stage and Our Lady as a cheerful giving
mother. As the emotional pain was resolved, his male confidence grew,
his same-sex attraction diminished markedly and later resolved. He came
to realize that he was not homosexual, but a man who had been wounded
emotionally in many relationships from early in his life and who could
Michael (not his real name) was a seminary student when he came into
treatment for same-sex attractions. He gradually understood that the
origins of the same-sex attractions arose from a very negative body
image which he had had from the time he was a young boy because he had
He was regularly picked on by his peers in elementary and middle school
because of his physical appearance. He has intense loneliness in peer
relationships from his childhood and adolescence. During his several
years in therapy, he worked at trying to forgive his peers who ridiculed
his physical appearance. He also attempted to reject the culture's
obsession with physical appearance, and began to thank God for his
masculine gifts and body image.
He also meditated upon the Lord being at his side as his best friend in
elementary and middle school. He benefited by reflecting that his body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit, in addition to asking for a certain
sense of detachment, and by being thankful for his God-given body.
Finally, he also worked out physically to prevent more weight gain.
Slowly his masculine identity and body image improved. His deep inner
loneliness lessened through a profound sense of being loved by the Lord.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that homosexuality's
"psychological genesis remains largely unexplained" (#2357).
While it is understandable that the writers of the Catechism would not
wish to make a definitive statement about a question which is at the
center of such a contentious public debate, this statement does not
accurately reflect what is known about homosexuality.
There is ample evidence that same-sex attraction has many different
causes. These lead to significant childhood and adolescent emotional
pain and psychological problems. Among males these could include a weak
masculine identity, social isolation and loneliness, peer rejection or a
poor body image and in females, a mistrust of male love or a weak
feminine identity. No one can say "this is the cause" for
same-sex attraction as though there were a single cause, but an
individual can come to understand the origins of his or her own same-sex
attractions through insight gained in therapy.
Men and women experiencing same-sex attraction may rightly feel that
they "have always felt different," but that doesn't mean they
were born that way. Children are born either male or female, but they
have to learn what it means to be a man or a woman. They have to
identify with—and be accepted by—their same-sex parents and peers.
If they are going to grow up psychologically healthy they have to feel
safe and comfortable with their masculinity or femininity. If, for
whatever reason, they fail to pass successfully through this essential
developmental stage, they may in adolescence develop same-sex
There has been a massive campaign to hide this information from the
general public and from those who sincerely wish to be free from
same-sex attraction. In 2000, Dr. Robert Spitzer of Columbia University,
who had been instrumental in the removal from the American Psychiatric
Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of homosexuality as a
diagnosis in 1973, was challenged by men and women healed of their
same-sex attractions that change is possible.
Spitzer interviewed 200 men and women claiming to have achieved
significant change and found that 60% of the males whom he studied
identified themselves as heterosexual five years after their treatment
ended. Most of those who were successful also participated in
faith-based support programs.
While there are numerous reports of substantial change through therapy
alone, programs which rely on God or which are specifically Christian
provide significant help in dealing with the compulsive behaviors,
loneliness and lack of confidence that accompany SSA. This should come
as no surprise to Catholics who already know the power of Christ's
healing love. To those who wish to be free from same-sex attraction it
can be said with confidence that God didn't make them that way and he
wants them to be free. The good news is that SSA attraction can respond
to therapy and that membership in a support group such as Courage can
help a person to find healing and freedom.
The road to freedom, however, is long and arduous. For many individuals,
it is often accompanied by other serious psychological problems and
addictions. Three recent well-designed studies (Fergusson, Herrell and
Sandfort) have shown that persons with SSA suffer from other
psychological problems at a rate substantially higher than those without
SSA. Some of these problems, such as pathological narcissism and
borderline personality disorder are very difficult to treat.
Additionally, men with SSA are more likely to suffer from substance
abuse problems, sexual paraphilias, and sexual addiction. Such problems
complicate recovery. Also, men with SSA are more likely than other men
to have a history of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). While arriving at an
exact percentage is difficult, some experts suggest that about 16% of
all men have experienced CSA. Several studies of men self-identified as
homosexual revealed that 40% had a history of CSA. Given the high level
of long-term psychological problems associated with a history of CSA, it
is not surprising that men with SSA have numerous problems.
There are other serious problems which need to be addressed. For
example, sexual harassment exists at certain seminaries. Any Catholic
institution which knowingly tolerates sexual harassment—heterosexual
or homosexual—betrays the moral teaching of Christ and contributes to
the suffering of others. It also risks incurring financial liability.
Treatment for priests with same-sex attraction (SSA)
We observed many priests grow in holiness and in happiness in their
ministry as a result of the healing of their childhood and adolescent
male insecurity and loneliness and, subsequently, their same sex
attractions. This healing process has been described in Father John
Harvey's book, The Truth About Homosexuality and in the statement of the
Catholic Medical Association, "Homosexuality and Hope,"
available at www.cathmed.org.
Bishops would also see this healing if they encourage priests with SSA
to pursue appropriate therapy with those loyal to the Church's teaching.
Most males with SSA had painful childhood and adolescent peer
relationships. Under the stress of loneliness and insecurity in adult
life, there can be an unconscious association to this adolescent and
Attractions to children, adolescents or adult males then develop in an
unconscious attempt to gain acceptance and lessen the pain of sadness,
loneliness and lack of male confidence. The treatment of this emotional
pain is essential in order to protect the Church and her children from
further sorrow and scandal.
Priests, with or without SSA, who have themselves been the victims of
childhood sexual abuse should receive counseling. Only a small
percentage of victims of childhood sexual abuse will go on to abuse
children, but a significant percentage will suffer from various problems
which affect their ministry.
Our experience over 25 years has convinced us of the direct link between
rebellion and anger against the Church's teaching, and sexually
promiscuous behaviors. This appears to be a two way street: those who
are sexually active dissent from the Church's teaching on sexuality to
justify their own actions, while those who adopt rebellious ideas on
sexual morality are more vulnerable to become sexually active, because
they have little to no defense against sexual temptations. Growth in
forgiveness and growth in humility are essential in the treatment of
Finally, priests should be screened for homosexuality by their bishops
or religious superiors prior to being considered for a position of
responsibility in a diocese, religious community or in the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops. The previous attitude of
"winking" at homosexuality in priests must end. Otherwise, all
Church teaching on sexual morality is undermined. Also, complaints by
priests of aggressive homosexual behavior in rectories and religious
communities should be addressed and no longer ignored.
Screening of seminarians
Protocols should be developed which will allow those professionals who
screen candidates for the priesthood to identify those individuals with
serious problems, to recommend therapy for those with correctable
problems, and to accept those who can live chaste celibacy and pose no
threat to others. Simply asking a candidate if he is a heterosexual or a
homosexual, or if he is sexually interested in adolescents or children
is not sufficient. Proper history taking, a clinical interview, and
psychological testing correctly interpreted will uncover most current
and potential problems.
Two different studies have found that the answers to a small number of
questions about childhood and adolescent experiences included within a
larger questionnaire allowed the clinical interviewer to conclude, with
90% accuracy, whether the subject was a heterosexual or a homosexual.
When screening reveals probable SSA, the candidate is not automatically
excluded from consideration. If he is willing to do the hard work
required to come to freedom from his emotional pain, his same-sex
attractions will be resolved and then he can reapply later. The Church
should not take the moral risk of allowing someone with SSA to enter the
seminary. Also, a period of sexual abstinence for five years should be
required of those with SSA prior to entering the seminary.
It should be noted, that many men with SSA will have problems besides
their SSA which could make admission to the seminary inadvisable. For
example, men with SSA are more likely to have problems with compulsive
masturbation, other sexual addictions, substance abuse problems, history
of childhood sexual abuse, and depressive illness.
It is essential that mental health professionals involved in any way
with screening candidates for seminary or with treating seminarians or
priests, as well as the faculty at the seminaries support the teaching
of the Church on sexuality, particularly on homosexuality. In our
experience, there are some dioceses and religious communities relying
upon the work of mental health professionals who actively disagree with
the Church's sexual morality.
Pope John Paul II at his meeting with the American cardinals on April
23, 2002, stated: "People must know that bishops and priests are
totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual
morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the
episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life."
Many faculty members of seminaries and religious houses do not adhere to
the truth on matters of sexual morality and faith. For decades moral
relativism, proportionalism and situational ethics have been taught in
these centers of formation. These teachings have contributed to the
present crisis in the Church. Seminarians who support Church teaching on
sexual morality, Scripture, the liturgy, and fundamental moral theology
have been labeled as rigid and often expelled from seminaries. Seminary
faculty members and members of formation teams in religious communities
who have a homosexual agenda are driven to remove from the seminary
males who are loyal to the Church's teachings on matters of faith and
We recommend that cardinals, bishops and religious superiors either
personally interview or send visitation teams to interview all faculty
members of seminaries and formation teams. They need to be certain that
these individuals are loyal to the Holy Father and the Church's teaching
on faith and morals and that they refrain from intimidating seminarians
into questioning the value of orthodoxy. Those who are not loyal should
In order to protect the priesthood from further homosexual behavior with
adolescent males by priests, we recommend ending the referral of
seminarians to seminaries which are well known to be heterodox in regard
to homosexuality. The purification of the seminaries is essential to the
protection of the Church and her children. Finally, seminarians,
including those in religious orders, with homosexual tendencies should
not be ordained until they understand the emotional causes of their
attractions, work to resolve them, and are emotionally healthy.
The availability of treatment and education in every diocese
Having seen the suffering caused by untreated SSA, the burden of sexual
sin and the freedom that comes when the emotional problems are addressed
and healed, we believe that nothing is more pastoral or more loving than
the clear proclamation of the Church's teaching on sexual morality,
accompanied by effective, accessible treatment.
Courage is the only recovery program for those with same-sex attractions
which adheres to the Catholic moral teaching on homosexuality and has
been endorsed by the Vatican. This program should be available in every
diocese for both laity and priests. If priests and laity do not have
access to therapy which can help them come to the freedom proper to the
children of God and support groups like Courage,
they may fall into despair and feel that the Church has placed upon them
a burden that is impossible to bear. Unfortunately, in some dioceses
groups, such as Dignity, which do not accept the Church's teaching on
sexual morality, have a voice, while Courage is not welcome.
Priests need to understand the origins of SSA and the healing approaches
which have been demonstrated to be effective. In addition, because of
the tremendous confusion over homosexuality, it would be beneficial that
conferences for priests and seminarians be given by experts such as
Father John Harvey, O.S.F.S., the founder of Courage, and by other
mental health professionals who accept the Church's teaching on
homosexuality and are experienced in the successful treatment of SSA.
Education for priests concerning the nature, origins and treatment of
SSA should increase their compassion and help priests who regularly deal
with these problems in the confessional.
Unfortunately, conferences have been offered to priests and seminarians
in which homosexuality is presented as being genetically determined and
no hope for healing is offered. The recognition of chastity as a healthy
virtue is rejected. Chastity, in the experience of many mental health
professionals, is, in fact, a positive quality in any individual's life.
At the present time, a number of treatment centers to which priests are
sent for sexual disorders treat homosexuality as an identity to be
embraced. Influenced by the politics within the American Psychiatric
Association and American Psychological Association, the possibility of
healing is censured. Patients are encouraged to participate in 12-step
groups for compulsive sexual behaviors, but the emotional origins of
their same-sex attractions are not explored nor is a plan offered for
healing unresolved emotional pain. These vulnerable men are often
returned to ministry with serious untreated problems. Father Harvey's
program could be modified for incorporation into the present inpatient
treatment programs in group and individual therapy, as well as in
Since training in the treatment of SSA and gender identity disorder (GID)
in conformity with the Catholic understanding of the human person is not
being provided at most secular institutions, it is important that this
training be available either in Catholic institutions or through
On April 23, 2002, the Holy Father encouraged the American cardinals:
"We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a
purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is
urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel
of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that
where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (Romans 5:20). So
much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier
episcopate, and a holier Church."
There are reasons for hope. The problems of homosexuality in the
priesthood have been painfully uncovered and need to be addressed. There
is no proven genetic basis for homosexuality. The emotional wounds which
cause same-sex attractions can be identified and healed. Large numbers
of people, including clergy, who had SSA are now cured, especially if
they brought the power of faith into the healing process. These men and
women no longer view themselves as being homosexual. The statement of
the Catholic Medical Association on homosexuality, "Homosexuality
and Hope," should be made available to all priests, educators and
Catholic families. With the Lord's help, the Catholic priests who
struggle with homosexuality can be healed.
For the Catholic Medical Association by
Richard P. Fitzgibbons, M.D.
Peter Rudegeair, MA
Eugene F. Diamond, M.D.
ZE02062722 & ZE02062820