In 2002, at the height of the US Catholic Church's sex abuse crisis, Pope John Paul II summoned American bishops to Rome for 10 days. During the visit, the then president of the US Bishops Conference Wilton Gregory, said the Catholic Church (in the US, but presumably elsewhere too) had a problem with aspiring priests.
So many young men of a homosexual inclination were applying to study for the priesthood that “we might as well talk about a feminary rather than a seminary”, he declared. In 2002, a study by a Canadian consultancy, ReligiousTolerance.org, reported half of seminary students were gay. However, the percentage is irrelevant. For homosexual men, the reality is the priesthood is very attractive.
The majority of priests have a genuine vocation. However, there are others who are attracted to an all-male community, a place that may well have a gay subculture and offers instant relief from the difficulties of being openly gay in the secular world.
Such considerations apply to the Holy See, just as much as the rest of the church. Last October, a senior official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Polish monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa "came out". Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have both admitted a "gay lobby" is active in the Vatican. Even the 2013 conclave which elected Pope Francis began with the withdrawal of Scottish cardinal Keith O'Brien, after he ad admitted to inappropriate gay "sexual misconduct".
The Vatican's "gay lobby" does not campaign for gay rights; rather it is an informal group of gays who look out for each other. Msgr Charamsa, now dismissed from the CDF, told the Padova gay pride festival last June there is a great deal of hypocrisy in the Holy See where people preach one thing during the week "and then go off to spend the weekend with their gay lover".
Six years ago, reporter Carmelo Abbate, working undercover for weekly news magazine Panorama, recorded a flourishing, highly active gay "scene" in the Vatican in an account filled with graphic details of gay parties and brief encounters.
One night, thanks to an unnamed gay friend, he and a French priest, referred to as Paul, went to a club to watch semi-naked gay dancers. At one point, Fr "Paul" got up to dance, met another man and headed off for the night, Abbate wrote later in his book, Sex and the Vatican.
Even if the Irish College in Rome is a serious, caring study centre, the Eternal City itself can provide myriad distractions. For centuries, people have warned about Rome, saying Roma veduta, fede perduta (See Rome and you will lose your faith).
That may be unfair. What is true is that with 20 pontifical colleges and 58 religious order colleges , there may be over 10,000 seminary students in Rome at any one time. The vast majority of these men study and go home without “distractions”, happy to have been sent to the centre of Christendom to study. But not all.