NEW YORK -- A Vatican evaluation of American seminaries planned three years ago in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis is expected to move forward under Pope Benedict XVI and will probably tackle the polarizing issue of whether gays should be allowed to become priests.
The appraisal will focus on conditions in the seminaries, including how instructors present church teaching on sexuality and celibacy, to look for anything that contributed to the scandal.
Church officials conducting the review will inevitably take up complaints that gays are enrolling in large numbers in the seminaries and their sexual activity is tolerated at the schools, specialists on Catholicism said. Some Catholics contend an atmosphere of sexual permissiveness -- for straight and gay seminarians -- was a factor in the crisis, which has led to more than 11,000 abuse claims in the last five decades.
Dean Hoge, a Catholic University sociologist who has spent 30 years studying the priesthood, said seminary rectors are anxious about the review, known as an ''apostolic visitation."
''Having the boss show up makes anyone nervous," Hoge said.
Vatican officials announced the evaluation in April 2002, after Pope John Paul II convened an emergency summit with US cardinals at the height of the scandal. The visits had been set to begin this fall. Church officials expect that schedule to stay about the same, even with the transition to a new papacy. Benedict has been in office less than two weeks.
Several church specialists said they expected few changes in how the review will be conducted, since planning has been underway for so long and shifting direction now would be difficult. More than 200 schools will be evaluated in a process that could take years.
The Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican agency overseeing the project, has been given a list of recommended bishops and priests to visit the seminaries. Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the US Military Archdiocese has been appointed to coordinate the review.
The Vatican education office has also been drafting new guidelines for accepting candidates for the priesthood that could address the question of whether gays should be admitted. The church considers same-sex relationships ''intrinsically disordered."
The Rev. James Martin of the Jesuit magazine America says four Vatican sources had told him that, under John Paul, the Vatican was about to issue a decree placing severe restrictions or an outright ban on seminarians who acknowledge they are gay, even if they are celibate.
The fate of that document and its exact contents are unknown. Benedict reappointed the previous heads of all Vatican agencies for now, and lower-ranking staffers who prepared that policy remain in place. However, the new pope could decide to revise or shelve the guidelines.
Sam Sinnett, national president of Dignity USA, which represents gay and lesbian Catholics, said he was worried the seminary review and new enrollment standards could result in a ''witch hunt" against gays, despite all their contributions in parishes and elsewhere.
''Homosexual priests have done a marvelous job for the church for a long time," he said.
Catholics began voicing concern about the growing number of gay priests decades ago. However, specific worries about homosexuality and abuse were fueled by a study US bishops commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice last year that found most of the alleged victims since 1950 were adolescent boys.
Gay advocates and specialists on sex offenders said it would be wrong to conclude from the findings that gays were to blame. However, the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel formed by the bishops, said in its 2004 report on the roots of the scandal that homosexual enrollment in seminaries must be examined.
The board cautioned that the ''paramount question" was whether a priest-candidate could remain celibate, not his sexual orientation. But, the panel wrote, ''given the nature of the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors, the realities of the culture today, and the male-oriented atmosphere of the seminary, a more searching inquiry is necessary for a homosexually oriented man by those who decide whether he is suitable for the seminary and for ministry."
The number of gay seminarians is not known. Estimates vary dramatically from one-quarter to more than half of all American priest-candidates.
The last Vatican review of US seminaries took place in the 1980s, amid a broader crackdown on dissent among American Catholics in which Benedict -- the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- played a key role.