Last month, with the Vatican gearing up a policy that would screen gay men out of the priesthood, retired Roman Catholic priest Karl Clemens went public about being gay on Vision TV’s series 360, making him the first Canadian priest to do so. Clemens, 63, grew up in Kingston and spent his entire working career there. He now lives in Toronto’s gay village. Here’s an edited version of a conversation he had with Xtra writer Tanya Gulliver.
Tanya Gulliver: When did you first decide to become a priest? What motivated/drew you?
Karl Clemens: I had thought about it throughout my high school years. Then I taught school for a few years and it was more and more in my mind. I entered seminary in 1968; I was in my mid-20s. I was very much involved in church life as a child. I was always a people person, always concerned about the needs of people.
Gulliver: When did you first realize you were gay?
Clemens: Certainly in late elementary school, maybe early high school.
Gulliver: What kinds of conflicts did this present?
Clemens: I just felt that I had to be a good boy and not be sexually active. Being very much into my faith I looked upon it very seriously and that was the way it went.
Gulliver: Do you feel you are an activist?
Clemens: I would guess so. I have been an activist of sorts in that [queer people and people dealing with HIV/AIDS] have been my main ministry for the past six years. Helping the HIV/AIDS community is why I decided to locate in TO when I retired early from the priesthood. There is a very much needed ministry with people in the gay community who are feeling rejection, isolation, self-image problems — that became part of the whole package.
Gulliver: Where do you do your ministry now?
Clemens: In the coffee shops, in the bars — wherever I am present and they want to see me and talk to me.
Gulliver: Has there been any fallout from your decision to come out on Vision TV?
Clemens:The fallout is very good and positive. There were, according to Vision, an extraordinary number of e-mails. A number of those e-mails were [from] priests and were congratulatory, thanking me for opening the door and admiring me for being brave. There were some from lay people. All but four were also positive.
Gulliver: What kind of response have you received from the archbishop or your superiors?
Clemens: I’ve had nothing. Vision TV tried to make contact and they said they had no comments. The archbishop of Kingston — that’s my diocese — he asked Vision for a copy of the tape which they sent. But I’ve received nothing in response.
Gulliver: Are you surprised at the lack of a response?
Clemens: I don’t know… Maybe they’re just taking time. I don’t know. Because you see, really I am in the diocese in TO where the Cardinal [Ambrozic] is the archbishop. I’m sure you’re quite aware of him. [Ambrozic was a major opponent of the same-sex marriage bill.] They’re both maybe putting their heads together about that. I’m here as a retired priest… [but] once a priest, always a priest.
Gulliver: You said on the Vision show that your superiors have sometimes insinuated that you weren’t being celibate. What form did the insinuations take and how did you respond?
Clemens: Someone had… reported that I was leading an openly gay life here and that I wasn’t… being celibate. That’s a lie. Openly gay life can be interpreted in many ways. Am I going about seeking out gay relationships or I am gay? But I am a priest and living as a priest and I am living a celibate life. If I was any more celibate I don’t think I’d be alive.
Gulliver: Some people don’t understand that you can be sexually celibate and still identify emotionally in terms of orientation as gay.
Clemens: The whole mentality that people have toward what a gay person is they have this idea that gay people are like a sexual addiction. They’re so wound up in it that they don’t see that heterosexual people are sexual beings, too. If you’re a heterosexual or you’re gay or you’re bi, if you’re going to be celibate you’re going to be celibate.
Gulliver: There have been a lot of negative portrayals of gay Catholic priests. In particular, and I saw this in a story about your coming out, there seems to be an implication that being a gay priest equates with being a paedophile. How do you respond?
Clemens: That’s very near and dear to me. I had cases that I pastorally dealt with of paedophiles and child molesters and in every instance that I dealt with them, with the exception of one, they were heterosexual men. Paedophilia and homosexuality is such a misconception. It’s just not true. The two don’t go together. It doesn’t mean a gay person can’t be a paedophile but paedophiles are heterosexuals also.
Gulliver: How prevalent do you think gay priests are?
Clemens: They asked me on Vision, “Would you say 50 percent of priests are gay?” I would agree that it could be that high. I don’t have a statistic; I’m not Sherlock Holmes. But common sense says that it’s as common for gay people to become priests as for heterosexual people. That’s the best way to put it. We don’t have an accurate figure. I’m very safe in saying from my experience as a priest and as vocation director that it’s common.
Gulliver: Homosexuality and the Bible has always been controversial with specific verses being used.
Clemens: To me the bottom line is that if you’re going to be Christian, then it’s love of God and love of neighbour and that’s unconditional. You can’t start picking and choosing things, whether it is to deal with sexuality or capital punishment. That certain groups do that I find very sad and think they become very unchristian. It’s very dangerous when you start taking a particular passage and using that as a mainstay.
Gulliver: Are there passages in addition to love of God and love of neighbour that help you?
Clemens: That’s the foundation and you go out from there. Maybe a person is really messing life up. But we must remember that we’re all God’s children. That’s one of the reasons for my calling to be involved with the gay and AIDS community in the way that I am. God doesn’t make junk.
Gulliver: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Clemens: I see myself as continuing the ministry as a priest where I am needed. For me for the next five years my ministry probably will be where it is. I don’t expect to get a voice from on high. There are a lot of people out there who are waiting to be ministered to. I call mine a ministry of presence and will continue to be present and to be there and to let them know God loves them and I love them. As Tim Francis put it, “We’re all called to be evangelists wherever we are — and once in a while a few words are necessary.”