By BRAD KNICKERBOCKER
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
The Rev. Mike Fones has his hands full. He scans the building's directory for Alice Kennedy Hooten's apartment and buzzes to be let in.
Father Fones is "Father Mike," a Roman Catholic priest. They face each other, hands folded, as the familiar litany is performed, the sacrament administered. She is recuperating from a fall, and Fones prays aloud, "for wholeness of body and heart and spirit."
It's a quiet Sunday visit -- except for the moment when Mrs. Hooten declared herself "very upset with the hierarchy" of her church. Father Fones is not the target of her ire, but faraway officials whom she perceives as mishandling cases of child sexual abuse by priests.
"I'd like to just shake and bake 'em," she said, her Irish dander flaring. Fones lets the moment pass.
The recent sex-abuse revelations have rocked the Roman Catholic Church hard as priests have been jailed or bishops have resigned. It would seem these are hard times to be a priest -- and the scandal is only part of it.
How bad things are: About 20,000 men have left the priesthood in recent years -- a large portion of the church's "work force" in the United States. Most left to get married.
Their empty posts outnumber the new priests coming out of seminary. And the shortage is made more acute by the fact that church membership is growing.
Many Catholic writers and leaders also note that the percentage of homosexuals is significantly higher among priests than it is in the general population -- and especially high among young seminarians about to enter the priesthood.
All this has stirred intense debate of late about the historical or theological necessity for priestly celibacy.
At St. Thomas More University Parish, anger flashes now and then among many of the parishioners gathered outside. But the general attitude regarding the ongoing scandal involving priests elsewhere around the country is more muted.
Later, the priests take up the subject while sitting around their kitchen table.
"I personally favor that," said Rev. Thomas McGreevy, the third Dominican priest who recently joined his two fellow Dominicans here in Oregon. "Why shouldn't we have women priests or married priests?"
The Rev. David Orique is hesitant to endorse what would be a radical change for the church, and reluctant to appear critical of higher authority.
But he acknowledges the trend, and said, "there's a greater role for laity and for women, and that's a good thing."
What's different: Father Orique observed that his generation tends to be more respectful of authority.
"I'm not a papal-positivist," he said, adding that younger priests sometimes may voice criticisms on issues such as how the church has handled the sexual-abuse scandal. But in general, he said of his generation, "We love the church, we respect the church, respect the traditions and hierarchy of the church.
"The world doesn't need any more cynics," he said. "It's easy to tear down, but what's needed is to build up."
The three Dominicans discuss "Fall From Grace," a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by former priest Eugene Kennedy, professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University.
"Bishops believed that the good of the church justified denial, delay and evasion in managing the problems of priests," he wrote.
Father McGreevy, the oldest of the three, remembers the days when such sexual offenses were seen as a "simple moral lapse," and not something discussed in public.
"In my family, we never even talked about my cousin who had gotten a divorce," he said.
"If they didn't talk about it, it didn't exist," said Father Orique.
Wider topic: The discussion turns to the broader subject of human sexuality. "There's a need for a lot more open discussion of sexuality and where sexuality fits into the spiritual life," said Father Fones.
& quot;We [Americans] are oversexualized, but people are starving for intimacy," Father Orique said.
"And that's at the heart of spirituality -- intimacy, companionship, friendship," Father Fones chimed in.
For these men, part of their quest is finding a healthy expression of intimacy and companionship within their community of priests as well as with parishioners and others outside their Dominican order. These days, that presents at least two challenges: the vow of celibacy and relations with children.
Greeting parishioners after Mass, Father Fones often is hugged by children. But how that kind of affection may be perceived is never far from his mind now.
"I suppose the way that it has affected me is a realization of the need not to be alone with a child," he said.
"People hand me their babies, kids will come up and hug me, and I feel comfortable with that. But if that were to happen to me [alone] in the sacristy, I would immediately leave and take them back to mom and dad."
For the priests, the issue of marriage is very personal, very profound, nearly ineffable.
About marriage: "Being married seemed like a good idea, but I could never visualize it for myself," said Father Orique. "I love the rhythm of our lives -- the prayer, the study, the services. I don't think I could have a wife and children with everything I do."
Digging deeper, he said: "I see that there's a freedom in celibacy. My love is not exclusively to one woman in my life. There's a freedom of my affections. ... We don't give up sex because it's bad. It's a good thing. But we give it up because we seek a higher good."
Father Fones addressed the issue in his Sunday homily.
"Our contemporary scandal, the abuse of minors by priests and the inability of our church to honestly and directly deal with that abuse, is ... a story of betrayal," he said.
"For many Catholics, our current crisis has shaken their faith. Yet in spite of human sin and reluctance to change, Jesus will never abandon us. Let's pray our current crisis, this moment of truth, may be a moment of conversion in which we embrace Truth."