The subject of gays in the priesthood has been hotly debated throughout the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in the U.S.
Many Catholic traditionalists, including some bishops and Vatican officials, have sought to blame gay priests for the scandal. On the other side, many have said the church has increasingly come to depend on gay men who have entered the priesthood in larger numbers in recent years.
Despite the debate, there has been little data on how many priests actually are gay.
The Times poll of priests asked respondents to characterize their sexual orientation. A combined 15% identified themselves as homosexual (9%) or "somewhere in between, but more on the homosexual side" (6%).
But among younger priests -- those ordained for 20 years or less -- the figure was 23%.
The figures, particularly for the younger priests, are higher than most estimates of the percentage of U.S. gay men, but lower than some estimates of the percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood, which have ranged up to 50%.
The figures bolster the idea that more gay men have entered the priesthood in recent decades or at least that gay priests are now more open about their sexuality.
Five percent of respondents placed themselves "completely in the middle" between heterosexuality and homosexuality, while 67% identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual in orientation. Eight percent referred to themselves as "mostly" heterosexual, and 5% declined to answer the question.
Asked whether a "homosexual subculture" -- defined as "a definite group of persons that has its own friendships, social gatherings and vocabulary" -- exists in their diocese or religious order, 44% said "definitely" (17%) or "probably" (27%) yes, while 52% said no. Asked if such a subculture existed at the seminary they attended, 26% said "definitely" (12%) or "probably" (14%) yes, while 71% said no. But 53% of priests who were ordained in the last 20 years said such a subculture existed in the seminary when they attended.
Just as many traditionalists have blamed the sexual abuse scandal on homosexuals in the priesthood, many liberals have blamed the church's requirement that priests be celibate.
The poll also asked priests about "the role that celibacy plays in your life." One-third of those surveyed said they "do not waver" from their vow of celibacy, while 47% described celibacy as "an ongoing journey" and 14% said they "do not always succeed in following" it. Two percent said they are not celibate, and 5% declined to answer the question.
Psychologists and other experts on sexuality generally say sexual abuse of children is not connected to sexual orientation or celibacy. Most offenders suffer from arrested psychosexual development and are heterosexual, those experts say. But such views have done little to discourage arguments in the church and the secular media about celibacy or the renewed efforts by the Vatican to discourage the ordination of homosexuals.
The poll respondents were guaranteed anonymity, but results on the sexuality questions could have been influenced by wariness of the media and fears among gay priests that disclosing their sexual orientation amid the current crisis would be ill-advised.
Catholic research groups periodically survey priests' views on many subjects, but the church has never polled its priests about their sexual orientation. Catholic researchers have said members of the church heirarchy did not want the question asked.