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Screening The Priests

6 minute read
David Van Biema and Sean Scully/Philadelphia

Thomas Plante asks the question roughly 20 times a year, and if it doesn’t work, he’s ready with the follow-up. “You say, ‘Well, tell me what your dating history is like,'” explains the Santa Clara University psychology professor. “And usually they’ll hand it to you on a silver platter. If they don’t, you say, ‘Well, do you find yourself more interested in involvement with women or with men?’ If they say, ‘I’ve never dated,’ you say, ‘Well, when you walk down the street, who catches your eye?” And so, gently but relentlessly, Plante, one of several dozen U.S. therapists who screen candidates for Roman Catholic seminaries, attempts to ensure that the church knows the sexual orientation of one more would-be priest.

For the past month, screeners like Plante have braced for a new directive from the Vatican. In the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal among U.S. clergy–in which some 80% of the victims were boys–the church seemed poised to carry out a blanket ban on admitting homosexuals, even celibate gays, to its seminaries. Italian newspapers, however, are now reporting that Pope Benedict XVI had signed a somewhat less extreme “instruction.” (See accompanying story.) But while awaiting that edict, the psychologists like Plante, who (among other things) help determine whether prospective seminarians are gay, have been drawn into a debate about that particular aspect of their job. Predominantly Catholic but not necessarily ordained, most of these psychologists are quite comfortable with the notion of celibate gay priests. And most are quick to point out, as Plante does, that “being homosexual doesn’t put you at higher risk for committing sexual offenses against kids.”

Fifty years ago, Plante’s sideline–he has done roughly 175 seminary evaluations since 1988, at about $450 apiece–did not exist. While seminaries have always screened candidates through interviews, personal references and, often, written spiritual autobiographies, the process has become increasingly complex and now takes one to three years. Testing by professional psychologists, introduced in the ’50s, has proliferated in the past two decades as the American church has redefined spirituality from a narrow focus on piety and discipline to one “involving things like the psychological and social maturity on which spirituality builds,” explains Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Mo. Supporters of the added vetting believe that it may eventually be seen to have played a role in reducing priestly sexual abuse, which appears to have crested in the ’80s. Says Bouchard: “Unknowingly, we actually screened in some people who, we now realize, had markers for sexual abuse. Compliance, docility and solitariness fit the earlier definition of holiness, but we now recognize [those traits] as possible indicators for an abusive personality.”

The mostly secular tools employed by seminary screeners may be familiar to anyone who has experienced a basic psychological test at a large company. Plante uses the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test, geared to screening for psychopathologies; a Myers-Briggs-like self-image quiz for characteristics such as introversion or dominance; and a sentence-completion exercise featuring such opening statements as “If I had all the money in the world, I would …” or “After they had sex, he felt …” Armed with the results, Plante later sits down for 60 to 90 minutes with the candidate, “specifically looking,” he says, “to see if they can handle the vows of religious life.”

To that end, he and fellow screeners hope for high scores on empathy and intelligence (one recommends a minimum IQ of 110). They are worried that a predisposition toward solitude, though fine for monks, may bode ill in pastoral settings. They red-flag callings that seem to have been rebound responses to romantic breakups or other traumas and look for unrealistic job expectations (one of Plante’s candidates modeled himself after Mother Teresa, down to the year he expected to accept his Nobel Prize). They are especially vigilant for histories of sexual abuse combined with low impulse control regarding alcohol, gambling, sex or anger. Many screeners think the combination may put the candidate at risk of becoming an abuser.

Until now they reported on homosexuality not as an intrinsic evil but as a simple data point while addressing a candidate’s psychosexual maturity. A few seminaries nonetheless regard the information as crucial. When a psychologist reports a candidate’s describing his prior dating life as “‘I didn’t go with a girl, I went with a guy for three years,’ that’s usually a game stopper,” says Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, rector at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmetsburg, Md. But most in his position are more accepting. Plante reports that one West Coast diocese responded to rumors of Rome’s new hard line by asking him to keep homosexual designation out of his final reports, for fear it would hurt gay priests’ careers down the line.

That suited Plante, who is comfortable with the 20% to 40% of the priesthood he believes are homosexually oriented. He notes that while Catholic teaching calls homosexuality a disorder, the American Psychiatric Association dropped that descriptive decades ago. “Being gay in and of itself, I would hope, wouldn’t prevent someone from becoming a priest,” he says. All four church-contracted psychologists interviewed by TIME agreed vociferously with his contention that homosexuality doesn’t make one more likely to sexually abuse children. For instance, Father Gerard McGlone, a Jesuit psychologist and a vice president of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, believes some tightening of the admission process is appropriate: “I think to a certain extent the Vatican is correct in trying to weed out unhealthy expressions of the homosexual experience.” But he is also worried that tougher guidelines might backfire by encouraging gay or sexually confused priests to deceive themselves about their own orientation, which could lead to a subsequent crisis and pathology.

In any case, says Plante, when new rules come down, he will soldier on. His entry into this line of consulting, he recalls, was a little like being an Army reservist: “They called: ‘You’re a shrink. You’re Catholic. You can help us.’ How do you say no?” And he notes that “there are a lot of things we don’t agree with in the church, but we still identify as Catholic.”

In fact, given the reported subtlety of the impending decree, he may not even find himself in disagreement. But it may take more than three quick questions for him, not to mention his future interviewees, to parse it all out.

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