One priest had sex for the first time at 62, no strings attached, with a man he met online. The relationship was discovered and reported to his bishop, and he has not had sex since. Another priest, when asked if he had ever considered himself as having a partner, wondered what that even meant. He paused, before mentioning one very special friend. “I fell in love several times with men,” he said. “I knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to last.”
Though open, the closet means that many priests have held the most painful stories among themselves for decades: The seminarian who died by suicide, and the matches from a gay bar found afterward in his room. The priest friends who died of AIDS. The feeling of coming home to an empty rectory every night.
So they find ways to encourage one other. They share books like Father James Martin’s groundbreaking “Building a Bridge,” on the relationship between the Catholic and L.G.B.T. communities. Some have signed petitions against church-sponsored conversion therapy programs, or have met on private retreats, after figuring out how to conceal them on their church calendars. Occasionally, a priest may even take off his collar and offer to unofficially bless a gay couple’s marriage.
Some may call this rebellion. But “it is not a cabal,” one priest said. “It is a support group.”
Just over a year ago, after meeting with a group of gay priests, Father Greiten decided it was time to end his silence. At Sunday Mass, during Advent, he told his suburban parish he was gay, and celibate. They leapt to their feet in applause.
His story went viral. A 90-year-old priest called him to say he had lived his entire life in the closet and longed for the future to be different. A woman wrote from Mississippi, asking him to move south to be her priest.
To some church leaders, that outpouring of support may have been even more threatening than his sexuality. Father Greiten had committed the cardinal sin: He opened the door to debate. His archbishop, Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, issued a statement saying that he wished Father Greiten had not gone public. Letters poured in calling him “satanic,” “gay filth,” and a “monster” who sodomized children.
“We have to get it right when it comes to sexuality.”
The idea that gay priests are responsible for child sexual abuse remains a persistent belief, especially in many conservative Catholic circles. For years, church leaders have been deeply confused about the relationship between gay men and sexual abuse. With every new abuse revelation, the tangled threads of the church’s sexual culture become even more impossible to sort out.