GARRISON, N.Y. -- A young Franciscan friar from Connecticut stood before about 100 church professionals at a gathering last month at the Graymoor Ecumenical Institute here and uttered the kind of words that shock some Roman Catholics but cause others to rejoice. The Rev. Richard Cardarelli said, "I believe in the truth of the hierarchy and I believe in the gay and lesbian community, and I am trying to stand with both." Cardarelli is one of a growing number of homosexuals in Catholic religious orders who are "out of the closet" and attempting to balance their sexuality with the demands of a church that rejects homosexual practices. Although there are no firm statistics, some researchers have estimated that as many as 50 percent of the male Catholic clerical population are homosexual, according to the Rev. Robert Nugent, a priest and author involved in gay and lesbian ministries. Between 1981 and 1985, about 5 percent of all candidates accepted into men's Catholic communities identified themselves as homosexual, according to Nugent. The number of lesbians in women's communities is believed to be much smaller. Joining Cardarelli at the gathering were two others who spoke openly of their struggle to acknowledge their own sexuality and remain faithful servants of the church. Sister Mary Louise St. John, a Benedictine from Pennsylvania, said, "The church has inflicted much pain and oppression on those who are homosexual." But at its "Gospel best," she said, the church "can leave the dialogue open." Brother David Berceli of the Maryknoll order said he has experienced homophobia "time after time" in his own religious community. But he stressed that homosexuality and the celibate religious life are not at odds when intimacy is viewed as "some sense of soul nakedness with another person." Cardarelli, St. John and Berceli all professed belief in and adherence to the celibate life as they spoke at the daylong seminar, which was organized by Sister Jeannine Gramick, a School Sister of Notre Dame active in gay and lesbian ministries. Gramick told those gathered that understanding the place of homosexuals in the church can be best achieved by listening to those who acknowledge their homosexuality. "The experience of knowing those people will best contribute to our understanding," she said. Attending the conference were church professionals from the New York area, primarily administrators and vocational specialists with religious orders. As such, many were persons directly involved in the process of screening and approving applications of those hopeful of joining an order. Berceli dwelled at length on a theme that appeared very important also for Cardarelli and St. John -- that to be truly celibate it is necessary, both for homosexuals and heterosexuals, to be in touch with their sexuality. Berceli, a soft-spoken and scholarly man who has served in several African countries and holds a licentiate in Arab-Muslim studies, said, "I'm not really fighting for my sexuality. I'm struggling for the liberation of the sexual being." Religious communities, Berceli said, extol intimacy as a concept but create an atmosphere in which persons fear their "fleshiness." Such fear, he said, is marked by the absence of simple forms of physical expression, such as hugging or hand-holding. True celibacy, he said, cannot be achieved if sexuality is simply avoided or denied. He distinguished between "those who are not having sex and those who are celibate." It is essential, argued Berceli, "that we begin to see sexuality not as detrimental to the religious experience but as intrinsic to it." Sexual sin, he said, is in part "alienation from our own sexuality." St. John, who studied world literature and psychology at Skidmore College, said she knew from an early age that she "loved differently." But she was afraid to tell anyone about her lesbianism until she entered religious life at the age of 26, when she told her prioress. "As a Roman Catholic who knew the church's position on such matters only too well, I dared not talk to a priest or sister," recalled St. John. She linked sexuality to tenderness and said, "You can live without sex . . . . But to live without tenderness would be to live a life devoid of the touch and truth of God." Cardarelli, whose animated presentation drew laughter from the audience at several points, said each time he speaks at a conference on homosexuality he becomes "more and more nervous because of the possible repercussions." Because of his outspokenness on issues of homosexuality and the church, Cardarelli has been banned from participating in any functions sponsored by Dignity, the worship group of gay and lesbian Catholics. Cardarelli was a founder of the Hartford chapter of Dignity. By the time he was 4, Cardarelli said, he knew two things: that he wanted to be a priest and that he was gay. During his high school years, Cardarelli said, his attraction for other boys made him feel evil, and he prayed, "Please, God, take this away. I don't know what it is. I feel horrible." As a young man, he attempted suicide. Cardarelli said he feels forced to find much of his spirituality outside the church. But he said he finds solace in the Eucharist and a Jesus who is "something tangible, someone I can read about." The keynote speaker at the event was historian John Boswell of Yale University, author of "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality." Boswell reviewed what he said is a long history of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. During much of that history, he said, the church did not view homosexuality negatively. Boswell said he believes the Catholic Church slowly will come to be more accepting of homosexuality, perhaps by the end of the next century, even permitting liturgical ceremonies honoring commitments between people of the same sex.