NEW YORK -- The American prelate overseeing a sweeping Vatican evaluation of every seminary in the United States said yesterday that most gay candidates for the priesthood struggle to remain celibate and the church must ''stay on the safe side" by restricting their enrollment.
Archbishop Edwin O'Brien made the comments as Roman Catholics await the release of a Vatican document on whether gays should be barred from the priesthood. O'Brien and several US bishops have said they expect that document to be released soon.
O'Brien, who leads the Archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington, said ''there are some priests, I don't think there are many, some ordained people with same-sex attractions and they've done very well" remaining celibate.
''But generally speaking, in my experience, the pressures are strong in an all-male atmosphere," he said. ''And if there have been past failings, the church really must stay on the safe side. . . . The same-sex attractions have gotten us into some legal problems."
O'Brien had told the National Catholic Register, an independent newsweekly, that ''anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity, or has strong homosexual inclinations, would be best not to apply to a seminary and not to be accepted into a seminary," even if they had been celibate for a decade or more. O'Brien said the church is not ''hounding" gays out of the priesthood, but wants to enroll seminarians who can maintain their vows of celibacy.
The Vatican ordered the seminary review three years ago in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis. The review is investigating anything that contributed to the scandal, which has led to more than 11,000 abuse allegations in the last five decades. The evaluation is set to begin this month and much of the focus is expected to be on sexuality, including what seminarians are taught about maintaining their vow of celibacy.
The Vatican agency overseeing the evaluation -- the Congregation for Catholic Education -- is also reportedly drawing up guidelines for accepting candidates for the priesthood that could address the question of homosexual seminarians. The church considers gay relationships ''intrinsically disordered."
A senior Vatican official had suggested previously that the document might have been shelved, but said yesterday he cannot rule out that a Vatican office might issue such a document.
James Hitchcock, a specialist in church history at St. Louis University, said that it is impossible to know what Pope Benedict XVI has decided regarding the document, but that the archbishop's comments should not be dismissed.
''O'Brien is well-connected and probably knows what the thinking in Rome is," Hitchcock said. ''Officially, he's not speaking for the Vatican, but he's not speaking out of tune with the Vatican either."
The debate over gays in the priesthood reached a critical point last year when a study the US bishops commissioned found that most of the alleged abuse victims since 1950 were adolescent boys.
The exact number of gay seminarians is not known. Estimates vary from one-quarter to more than half of all American priest-candidates. However, several Catholic leaders said the gay presence is so large that heterosexual seminarians feel alienated and many have dropped out over the years.
Yet, the leaders said there is no easy way to enforce a ban on gay priest-candidates, since many do not discover they are homosexual until after they enroll and others may simply hide their sexual orientation from seminary administrators.