The US Catholic Church, stung by a sex abuse scandal, is poised to launch a quiet campaign to expel from its seminaries students suspected of homosexual orientation, sparking protests from the gay community whose members have compared the effort to a "witch hunt."
The protests were prompted by the Vatican's decision to begin at the end of this month what Catholic officials call "apostolic visitation" of US seminaries and church-controlled colleges to make sure their students abide by celibacy rules.
A Vatican-sanctioned commission that counts 117 members is expected to canvas 229 seminaries and interview students about their past sex lives and preferences, according to church officials.
In a statement release through Catholic News Service, US Conference of Catholic Bishops communications secretary Francis Maniscalco said the queries would be justified because the seminary is a place to prepare men for a lifelong commitment to celibacy.
"So anything that affects that commitment, whether it relates to heterosexual behavior or homosexual behavior," he stated, "I think, is appropriate to ask."
Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, who overseas Catholic institutions operating within the US military, is in charge of the probe.
On Friday, the investigators wrapped up a two-day meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, finalizing preparations for the drive that will continue through this academic year.
But the effort drew sharp criticism from the Human Rights Campaign, the leading US organization representing the gay and lesbian community.
"The real debate around this witch hunt is not between us and the Vatican, its between the Vatican and the truth," HRC President Joe Solmonese said. "When the church makes gay men a scapegoat for pedophiles, it ignores one problem and creates another. It does nothing to keep children safe or punish criminals."
The group cited a number of authoritative studies that refute the notion that homosexual orientation among men inevitably leads to pedophilia. It said the belief that homosexuals were particularly attracted to children was completely unsupported by scientific data and that gay men were no more likely to engage in sexual abuse of children than straight men.
One of the studies quoted by the campaign insists that a child runs a 100 times greater risk of being molested by his or her relatives' heterosexual partner than by someone who might be identifiable as being homosexual.
The seminary sweep comes in the wake of a damaging sex abuse scandal that shook the very foundation of the Catholic Church in the US. According to a 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a total of 10,667 individuals made allegations of child sexual abuse by US Catholic priests between 1950 and 2002. Over 40 percent of all victims were males between the ages of 11 and 14, the report said.