ROME — The Catholic Church in Italy, still reeling from the clerical sex abuse scandal, lashed out Friday at gay priests who are leading a double life, urging them to come out of the closet and leave the priesthood.
The Diocese of Rome issued the strongly worded statement after the conservative Panorama newsweekly said in a cover story and accompanying video that it had interviewed three gay priests in Rome and accompanied them to gay clubs and bars and to sexual encounters with strangers, including one in a church building.
One of the priests, a Frenchman identified only as Paul, celebrated Mass in the morning before driving the two escorts he had hired to attend a party the night before to the airport, Panorama said.
In a statement Friday, the Rome diocese denounced those priests who were leading a "double life," said they shouldn't have been ordained and promised that the church would rigorously pursue anyone who is behaving in a way that wasn't dignified for a priest.
It insisted that the vast majority of Rome's 1,300 priests were truthful to their vocations and were "models of morality for all."
Those who aren't faithful to their vows "know that no one is forcing them to remain priests, taking advantage of only the benefits," the diocese said. "Coherency would demand that they come forward. We don't wish any ill-will against them, but we cannot accept that because of their behavior the honor of all the others is sullied."
No one knows the exact number of gays in the priesthood. Estimates of the number of gays in U.S. seminaries and the priesthood range from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to a review of research by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, an author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood."
Church teaching holds that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered," and the Vatican has recently cracked down on gays in the priesthood.
In his first major policy statement as pope, Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 issued an instruction barring actively gay priests from seminaries. The Instruction said men "who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture'" cannot be admitted to seminaries. The only exception would be for those with a "transitory problem" that had been overcome for at least three years.
The fact that the document was being worked on came to light in 2002 at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States. A study commissioned by U.S. bishops found that most abuse victims since 1950 were adolescent boys.
Experts on sex offenders say homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to molest young people, but that hasn't stifled questions about gay seminarians.
The Rome diocese appeared to link the two, quoting Benedict in denouncing the sins of priests in reference to the Panorama article. The pontiff had used those words to deplore pedophile priests, not gay priests.
One Catholic commentator noted that the problem wasn't that there were "three priests running wild in gay Rome."
"There are plenty of priests — straight and gay — who misbehave sexually with other adults," said Bryan Cones, managing editor of the liberal U.S. Catholic Magazine.
"The problem is that only these gay priests are the news, not all the other gay priests who labor faithfully, honoring their commitments along with their straight brothers as best they can. We don't hear their stories because they can't tell them for fear of expulsion. And that isn't right."