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As a Jesuit seminarian, Roger LaRade shared with his fellow students a contemplative life of prayer, Scripture and philosophy, a life steeped in the ancient rituals and traditions of Roman Catholicism.

But in their spare time they shared something else. There were excursions to San Francisco's gay bars and clubs, and outings to see gay-themed films such as La Cage aux Folles. Some classmates even had campy female nicknames.

Mr. LaRade, and some of his classmates, were gay.

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"That is not to say people were having wild sex in the washroom. Many were celibate. But there was a gay sensibility," said Mr. LaRade, 47, whose faint French accent reveals his Acadian roots in Cape Breton. "People continue to think of priests as sexless beings, or as 'Father' as being a celibate heterosexual."

In the midst of a campaign against same-sex marriage, and still reeling from the crisis of pedophilia that has shaken its foundations in recent years, the church is in no mood to discuss what to many is an open secret: that seminaries in North America are becoming significantly gay places.

The priesthood in the 21st century will be perceived as a "predominantly gay profession," says Rev. Donald Cozzens, an American priest who wrote a book on the topic.

According to scholars, as well as current and former priests, the priesthood in North America is a vocation with a disproportionately high number of homosexuals. As many as 40 per cent of priests in the United States are gay, Father Cozzens estimates.

In Canada, more than 25 per cent of 203 seminarians and priests surveyed in 1996 were gay or bisexual, according to a book by Martin Rovers, a former priest and a professor at Ottawa's St. Paul's University.

The church's fiery denunciations of same-sex unions makes the many homosexuals in its ranks cringe in embarrassment.

"The Roman Catholic Church is still guided more by fear than by Jesus's message to love one another as I have loved you," said Mr. LaRade, who left the priesthood more than a decade ago.

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The church regards a gay lifestyle -- but not a homosexual orientation per se -- as a sin. Church officials say a priest's sexual orientation should not matter, as long as he is chaste, and agrees to counsel gay congregants to follow his lead.

Richard Sipe, an American priest-turned-therapist who has written three books on priests, sex and celibacy, says gay priests are no more apt to break their vows of celibacy than heterosexual priests. (He also estimates that as many as 50 per cent of priests in the United States are not chaste).

Father Cozzens worries that the gay culture in some seminaries is so prevalent it will dissuade heterosexuals from considering the vocation.

"I have had men say to me, 'I thought about the priesthood, but my perception is I wouldn't feel comfortable with the strong gay subculture,' " said the former rector of St. Mary's Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio.

Scott, a former priest who requests his surname not be used, found a thriving gay subculture at St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ont., while studying there in the 1990s. At least 20 of his 60 classmates were gay. They indulged in bitchy gay humour, à la Will & Grace. Although seminarians are expected to be celibate, he said some had affairs with other students.

"People were out of the closet to other priests and seminarians who were gay," said Scott, 34.

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"At the same time, seminary professors were prowling around checking up on you and watching out for what they called 'particular friendships.' They told us to be on guard that your friendships didn't become too obsessive."

After he was ordained, two priests took him to a gay strip club.

"I tried to stay the course, but it was difficult. It was a terrible internal struggle," said Scott, who resigned from the priesthood in 1999, just one year after being ordained, and is now studying to become a United Church minister.

Suzanne Scorsone, communications director for the Archdiocese of Toronto, believes the percentage of gay priests may be overstated by scholars relying on self-selected surveys.

"How would we know in a sound way what the numbers are?" she said. "But everyone knows that priests, both homosexual and heterosexual, are expected to follow church teachings.

"All candidates for the priesthood undergo interviews to determine if they can accept a priestly life."

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The Vatican presupposes that homosexuals act out of free will and "choose" their orientation, which is considered to be "objectively disordered."

A sexually active gay contravenes the very essence of church teachings on sexuality and marriage: that sex is only for procreation.

This summer, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticized same-sex unions, calling marriage holy and homosexual acts "against the natural moral law." Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary even warned Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who is Catholic, that he risks burning in hell if he legalizes same-sex marriage in Canada.

Three Canadian priests dared to disagree, including Rev. Paul Lundrigan of Goulds, Nfld., who called the Vatican's opposition to same-sex marriage hypocritical.

"This institution that will not allow [gay]marriages . . . demands that its leaders lead a celibate life and suppress their sexuality to the point that hundreds of them around the world have been perverted into abusers of children," said Father Lundrigan, who was sanctioned for his sermon.

Last year, one Vatican official responded to the sex scandals that swept the Roman Catholic Church in the United States by suggesting no gays be allowed to enter the priesthood. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican's spokesman, said all ordinations of gay priests should be declared "invalid."

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However, a Vatican cleric rejected this idea, saying that while the church does not want any one group to dominate the priesthood, each candidate must be judged on his individual capabilities.

Gay priests joke that if they were forced to leave, the church would suffer an even worse vocation crisis than it currently does, as scores of priests have left to marry.

Others believe that by taking an aggressive stand against same-sex marriage, the church is inviting critics to expose the hypocrisy within its own ranks.

"The reality of gays in the church will come to the fore. The church is setting itself up," said François Brassard, a former priest and spokesman for Corpus Canada, an organization that helps non-clerical priests.

"So many people ignore what the hierarchical church says about sexuality because they know in their hearts it doesn't respond to what Jesus taught us about loving our neighbour as ourself."

While Mr. LaRade found many gay seminarians to keep him company while studying in Toronto and San Francisco, his life changed after he was ordained and appointed chaplain at the University of Regina. There, he could not share his secret with either his congregants or his superiors.

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His pain at being closeted in an institution that had only harsh words for active gays and lesbians intensified. He felt increasingly hurt by Vatican edicts that homosexual behaviour was "deviant."

It was this clash between his true self and his public persona, his personal views and official Church dogma, that led to his departure from the vocation. By 1990, he had also fallen in love with a man he met in a gay bar in Toronto, and could no longer live up to the vow of chastity.

"I had come to the point in my life where I wanted to be in a committed relationship with a man and I could no longer be a mouthpiece for official Roman Catholic teachings putting down gays," says Mr. LaRade, who left the church in 1990.

Today, he wears his grey hair in a buzz cut and a single silver hoop in his left ear. He is studying Jungian psychology and recently married his lover of 12 years in a civil ceremony.

After a crisis of faith, he recently returned to what he calls "a sense of holy in the world." The Old Catholic Church, which broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1800s over the issue of papal infallibility, ordained Mr. LaRade and he hopes eventually to function as a priest again.

As the debate on same-sex marriage rages on, he says that "what gets missed is the humanity of people in loving, committed relationships."

A more complex question is why the church remains so attractive to the very people it is trying to exclude.

Father Cozzens, the American priest and scholar, believes that the church is homophobic and homoerotic at the same time: an all-male domain where people who already feel marginalized may find acceptance. "Some people may believe that by entering a religious order or seminary that requires celibacy, they can put the sexual issue on the shelf," he says.

"For others, many of the cultural traditions can be quite appealing. There are opportunities for liturgy and ritual and theatre. There is the intellectual stimulation."

One gay man in his 50s who studied to become a Jesuit believes some gays are attracted by the rituals of Mass: the incense, embroidered vestments and beautiful music. "It is like the opera. Why wouldn't gays like it?" he says. (Those who focus overly on the theatrics of Mass are known as "liturgy queens").

Other scholars believe that historically, the church has provided a monastic environment where gays and lesbians have been able to flourish as human beings.

In his book Homosexuality in the Priesthood, John Boswell argues that gays and lesbians were attracted to the priesthood and monastic orders as a natural alternative to the obligations of marriage and warfare.

"Joining a religious community from about 500 [AD]to about 1300 was probably the surest way of meeting other gay people," he writes, noting that some clerics from the Middle Ages left accounts of their own involvement with people of the same gender.

Father Brown, who requested his real name not be used, has struck a compromise few gay priests would dare.

He sits primly on a bar stool, sipping a diet Coke, in a gay hustler bar in a mid-sized Canadian city. Plumes of smoke waft through the air, red lights flash, and the owner stops to kiss the priest on the lips and thank him for coming to his "bordello confessional."

"I come here in my clerical collar in part to protect myself," explains Father Brown. "No one can say I'm cruising gay bars. I am here to listen to these people. I am still in the church, and yet, I am also in the gay community. It helps me as a priest and as a person to be here."

Father Brown's decision to spend his spare time in a gay bar with male prostitutes is his way of ministering to "his community" -- though he knows his motives could easily be misunderstood.

"There is still such a taboo," he says. "I know numerous priests who are obviously gay. I'm not stupid. I watch the way they act and many are closet queens. I can't discuss sexuality with them because it might ruin their ministry."

Father Brown estimates that at least 40 per cent of priests he has known in his three decades as chaplain and diocesan priest in different communities across Canada are gay. Some are celibate, while others actively pursue lovers and affairs.

One diocese in small-town Ontario became notorious for the preponderance of gay priests who ended up working there, he said, in part because of a sympathetic local bishop.

Here in this gay bar, several regular patrons seek out Father Brown, including Dayd, a 28-year-old hustler who now works in a law firm. "When I first saw Father in here I was really worried for him. This bar can be tough," said Dayd, lighting a cigarette and perching his sunglasses in his hair. "But people really accept him. It is great to see someone religious out in the community, caring for people."

Father Brown blesses a beaded, hand-made rosary and hands it to Dayd, who was raised a Roman Catholic but became estranged from the church after being sexually abused by two priests. Through his friendship with Father Brown, he hopes to regain a sense of faith.

Then there is 29-year-old Jeff, who puts his arm around Father Brown: "I'm a hustler and a drug dealer. Father makes me feel like I have some dignity. He has also made me re-evaluate my lifestyle. He listens to me."

Father Brown hopes his decision to stay and work openly with the gay community, as well as with people living with AIDS, will force the church to accept the unique gifts of gay priests, many of whom are accustomed to being marginalized. "Why shouldn't I be a priest?" he says. "If I just pack my bags and leave, then the church will never change."

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