- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

The independent National Federation of Priests' Councils meets today in Chicago to discuss peer reviews as a way to improve the accountability and image of the nation's priests in the wake of sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church.

"What I hear from priests is, 'Help,'" said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the NFPC.

The Rev. Lawrence Dowling, pastor of the St. Denis Parish in Chicago and a member of the Association of Chicago Priests, said the nation's 46,000 priests can and must "call each other to task."

"Yes, I think we can police ourselves, and, yes, I think we need to talk openly," Father Dowling said.

The new awareness among many priests of the need to improve their image comes from a clergy beset in recent years with serious problems lower recruitment, steady resignations and the sex-abuse scandal that has prompted some priests to hide their identities in public.

"I told my parish that I would no longer wear a collar in public," said one Midwestern priest who, active in priest councils for 32 years, is ready for a shake-up that will weed out problem priests.

Father Silva said the meeting in Chicago will determine whether priests should issue a statement to the Catholic public and to the bishops. They also will discuss the rise in homosexual recruits, along with the issue of whether priests should be allowed to marry.

"We have to return to a place where straight guys can enter the priesthood," Father Silva said. "Things are out of balance."

He said some proposals discussed at the meeting may cause what the faithful call "scandal to the church," but added that the times demand boldness. "The search for truth in light of the new cultural and historical situation can never be scandal," he said.

Conservative priests have criticized the NFPC, organized after the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, as outdated and no longer relevant to the needs of the U.S. church. They stress that conforming to Pope John Paul II's documents on the priesthood, not association activism, will improve the religious calling of priests.

"While well-intended, [the NFPC] has a vision of the priesthood 20 or 30 years old; their time is over," said the Rev. C. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in the District.

Priests, though answerable to a bishop or superiors of religious orders, have organized into councils based on local neighborhoods and in each diocese. The NFPC, which claims 25,000 priest members, is the only national organization for the priests' councils.

The meeting comes as a study of recently ordained priests, ranging from those who express satisfaction in their work to others who have resigned, highlights some of the tensions within the priesthood as it tries to improve its future.

The study, "The First Five Years of the Priesthood," conducted by sociologist Dean Hoge and a research team at Catholic University, noted an increased tension between liberal and conservative priests on theology, ritual and church practice.

It also confirmed reports about concern over a homosexual subculture within the priesthood. The Hoge study estimates that a quarter to half of new priest recruits are homosexuals.

The Rev. Gene Hemrick of the National Institute for Renewal of the Priesthood said the problem is not the homosexual orientation of some priests but the creation of a large subculture that threatens to split the priesthood. "When a group becomes exclusive, a club with its own purposes, then it's harmful," Father Hemrick said. "That would be the complaint about gays."

Father McCloskey said honoring the vows of celibacy are key to a good priesthood. "There's no room in the priesthood, whether heterosexual or homosexual, to act it out," he said.

Many priests agree that peer reviews will be difficult to implement, but they add that policing each other may be easier on ethical and management issues than on "lifestyle issues."

The tendency for priests to become isolated also has hurt satisfaction rates and led to misconduct among some in the clergy, according to the Hoge study and interviews.

"Isolation can do all kinds of things to someone," Father Dowling said. "We've got to pay more attention to the loners, the guys out there who don't typically want to be connected."

Still, he opposes condemnation even from the Vatican of homosexuality or of chaste homosexual men who are priests. He also opposes harsh punishment of sexual wrongdoers.

"The church is about restoration, not society's model of revenge," Father Dowling said. "If a priest does wrong, we can't overlook his years of service to others." Priests, he added, should undergo annual reviews like anyone else.

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