JUDY VALENTE: These candidates for the priesthood have just arrived at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland. The seminary is nearly 200 years old and one of the largest in the country. Like other seminaries and schools of theology, it will soon be visited for several days by one of the teams of American bishops and priests selected by the Vatican.
MONSIGNOR STEVEN ROHLFS: They have been asked to interview all of the seminarians, every single one. They've been asked to interview all of our faculty, all of the administration. We had to provide all of the coursework that we teach, all the outlines, all the bibliographies; they'll interview all of the professors.
JUDY VALENTE: The teams will also look for -- quote -- evidence of homosexuality. Archbishop Edwin O'Brien is coordinator of the seminary review.
ARCHBISHOP EDWIN O'BRIEN: We don't want our people to think, as our culture is now saying, there's really no difference whether one is gay or straight, is homosexual or heterosexual. We think for our vocation that there is a difference, and our people expect to have a male priesthood that sets a strong role model of maleness.
JUDY VALENTE: Father Robert Silva is president of a national organization of priests.
JUDY VALENTE: How can anyone determine with certainty that a man is a homosexual?
REV. ROBERT SILVA: You can't, going in and saying, "This man is a homosexual," I just think that that's impossible to do.
JUDY VALENTE: Given the current state of research.
REV. ROBERT SILVA: Exactly.
JUDY VALENTE: In the past, many seminaries focused on the intellectual and theological training of priests, rather than their personal development. Experts say as a result, some priests left the seminary ill equipped to live out the celibate ministry required of them.
That led to problems, including the sex abuse scandal. The Church has not linked child sex abusers with homosexuality, but the scandal did raise questions about the number of homosexuals in the priesthood and in seminaries.
PATRICIA KELLY: The church, fortunately, has had this huge wake-up call that has put it in a place where it says, "Whoa, we have got to ask the right questions, and we can't be afraid of the answers." And that's very much happening.
JUDY VALENTE: Patricia Kelly, in consultation with dioceses, does psychological assessments of young men who are candidates for admission to seminary. She says there is now more discussion of sexuality in the context of living a celibate life.
PATRICIA KELLY: We're looking at the whole person, and sexuality is a big part of it. We are really looking at how this person, not only has respect for himself but has respect for other people, and understands his sexuality.
JUDY VALENTE: The assessments include FBI background checks as well as questions about spending habits and past relationships. And yet --
MONSIGNOR STEVEN ROHLFS: Psychology is a very inexact science. They can raise flags, but they can't tell you for certain that someone is like this. They can just alert you to the possibility that there's a problem here.
JUDY VALENTE: The church calls homosexuality intrinsically disordered and actually, since the 1960s, it's had a policy that homosexual men not be ordained. But in the 1970s, says Archbishop O'Brien, shifting moral standards and the rush of men leaving the priesthood led some seminaries to ignore that policy. And a few years ago, a leading seminary rector wrote of the, quote, "growing perception that the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession."
ARCHBISHOP EDWIN O'BRIEN: There was doubt in the Church as to whether there would be permanent celibacy, about what celibacy entailed, and we were get something ordained priests who were confused and ambiguous in what their commitment was. The bar was there, but the institutions thought, well, we can lower it a little bit just for a while.
We want to be sure that that's not the case today, especially after the scandals that we've been through.
JUDY VALENTE: At Mount St. Mary's the message is clear: The bar is high.
REV. BRETT BRANNEN: We cannot release you to care for the souls of God's people until we're convinced that you have been formed into the image of Jesus. And that's why we have to turn up the heat. We have to turn up the heat to prepare you for this life.
PRIEST: It is also about a lot of "let it go" a lot of letting go. Bad habits must die. Attitudes that are not helpful must die. Anything that hinders your union with Christ is to be gotten rid of.
REV. DON SENIOR: What are we doing to prepare people with human and sexual development that they're healthy people really I think is what the concern is.
JUDY VALENTE: Father Don Senior is president of Catholic Theological Union, the school of theology in Chicago.
REV. DON SENIOR: Are the people responsible for their training sufficiently in touch with what's happening in the lives of these young men to realize, yes, we can send them out into the Church and not fear that harm is going to be done.
JUDY VALENTE: Keeping potential pedophiles out of priesthood is one thing. The new policy on homosexuals promises to be more difficult.
REV. ROBERT SILVA: Men of homosexual orientation are going to go to the seminary. There's no question about it. They're simply not going to say that that's their orientation.
JUDY VALENTE: You would say that it might force homosexuals underground in the seminary.
REV. ROBERT SILVA: Oh, it's not might; it will.
JUDY VALENTE: How do you think such a policy, if it comes to pass, would impact homosexual men who are already priests?
REV. ROBERT SILVA: It seems to be challenging not their behavior, but it seems to be saying that their person, that their very identity is called into question. At this point in their 40s, 50s, 60s, they're saying what is the church telling me as a human being when it questions my very identity? I've lived a celibate life for this many years.
JUDY VALENTE: Father Silva warns that the new church policy could have a profound impact on the already-existing shortage of priests, not only by excluding certain men from the seminary but by forcing ordained men out.
REV. ROBERT SILVA: That person has to make a choice: He either goes underground and says, "I'm not gay," or he leaves. If he leaves, we lose because many, many of these priests are very good priests.
Human persons have dignity, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual. And we have to have a tremendous respect for the dignity of the individuals that we're talking about.
PRIEST: Let us pray.
JUDY VALENTE: Amid all the controversy over homosexuality, Father Rohlfs at Mount St. Mary's emphasizes that the most important function of seminaries is simply to form holy priests.
MONSIGNOR STEVE ROHLFS: That's probably the single most important thing that a parish expects of a priest: They want him to be a man of God who can teach them how to pray well. They also want him to know the faith. They want him to be able to communicate it to them in a way that can inspire them.
JUDY VALENTE: The Vatican's review of American seminaries is expected to take as long as two years.
GWEN IFILL: A post-script to that story: The Vatican did send a team of priests and bishops to visit Mount St. Mary's recently. Its evaluation of American seminaries, including Mount St. Mary's, will be released in a larger report next year.