Breaking the silence

As a parish priest, whenever Father Steve Rosczewski wanted to celebrate Mass for the gay and lesbian members of Dignity in Central Florida, he had to walk a straight and narrow line. The 30-year-old organization for homosexual Catholics, which has 80 chapters nationwide, is officially non grata to the Roman Catholic Church. Dignity's very presence is banned from churches in the dioceses of Orlando and Tampa Bay. "Like other priests in my situation, I was in a tight position and had to be careful," he says. "We could meet on Church property, but we couldn't mention Dignity. If we wanted to refer to Dignity, we'd have to find another place to meet."

Finally, enough was enough. After 12 years assigned to parishes around Tampa Bay, Father Steve resigned from his order, which effectively barred him from performing priestly functions at any diocesan church. "It was a tough decision but I needed to be true to myself," he says. "And I wanted to celebrate my life with my partner." But, as he is quick to point out, once ordained, "a priest is always a priest." So now Father Steve openly worships with and tends to the needs of his Dignity flock, saying Mass each Sunday at the non-denominational gay Metropolitan Community Church in St. Petersburg.

There aren't many priests in Florida (or anywhere else) who are as outspokenly out-of-the-closet as Father Steve. But he is a member of a growing national chorus of gay Catholics who are raising their voices in opposition to the way the Church has handled its scandal over sexual abuse of minors. "To blame gay people is just another example of the Church's institutional bashing of the homosexual community," he says. "What we have to make understood is that there is a difference between healthy sexuality and unhealthy sexuality."

Dignity's position is that it's "OK to address the issues head-on," he says. "We've grown to hate silence."

Vowing not to sit back and allow the Church to conduct a witch hunt against gay priests, Dignity's national office is planning a day of peaceful demonstrations at churches, cathedrals and diocesan offices across the country. It is also working with such secular gay-rights advocacy groups as the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and People for the American Way to mount a public-relations offensive leading up to the June meeting of the National Conference of Bishops in Dallas. At that gathering, American bishops will formulate policies for dealing with sexual abuse by their clergy, based on recommendations from last week's Vatican discussions.

Dignity has expressed particular outrage at statements made during the Vatican strategy sessions by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President Wilton Gregory, who called for "a struggle" to make sure that the "priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men." Gregory suggested that gay applicants to seminaries be turned away in an effort to assure that "candidates are healthy in every way." His statements followed similar remarks by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who blamed the sexual-abuse scandal on gay priests, saying, "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained." He even suggested that ordinations of priests known to be homosexual might be annulled.

Dignity/USA President Mary Louise Cervone calls such remarks "nothing more than a vicious and transparent attempt to shift the blame, in an effort to deny institutional culpability. This is about violence against children and abuse of power. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation."

As part of their public-information campaign, the NGLTF and GLAAD are publishing scientific research and quotes from experts regarding the non-homosexual nature of most sexual abuse and pedophilia ``. "It is well established that more than 95 percent of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are heterosexual men," says NGLTF Executive Director Lorri L. Jean. "The system-wide cover-up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy is appalling, as are efforts to shift attention from the true nature of this child sexual-abuse scandal by scapegoating homosexuality and gay priests."

Gay priests have always carried out the Church's work, adds Dignity/USA Executive Director Marianne Duddy: "They have visited the sick, comforted the dying, celebrated marriages and baptized children. Now, when the Church faces a crisis, its leaders are willing to sacrifice these good men."

Another gay Catholic group, New Ways Ministry based in Mount Rainier, Md., plans to target Catholic laity directly with an educational campaign in churches nationwide early this summer. According to New Ways Director Francis DeBernardo, information kits will include a resolution of support for parish priests regardless of their sexual orientation, sample prayers for use in services to celebrate the contributions of gay people to society, and model letters to write to bishops and the media in support of gay priests and other gay/lesbian church workers.

"Lay people have to start taking more responsibility for Church governance and cannot allow the clerical culture to run the church," DeBernardo says. "The clerical culture is too steeped in silence and secrecy."

Father Steve agrees. "Change in the Church always comes from the bottom up, not the top down. You know, in 12 years `assigned to` parishes, I never had a heterosexual couple confess to the sin of using artificial birth control. Most Catholics follow their consciences over Church laws."

Carol Brinati, director of communications for the Orlando diocese, disagrees with those in the Church hierarchy who believe that gays are the problem. "I wouldn't want anyone to think that homosexuals are child abusers," she says. "That's not what our Church believes. There is not necessarily a correlation between homosexuality and child sexual abuse. A person who is a child abuser has psychological differences. Many are parents; many are heterosexuals."

Indeed, gay groups condemn the practices of priests who use their positions of power to obtain sexual gratification. "We're not going to soft-peddle any form of abuse, including that which has come from within our ranks," Father Steve says, noting that Dignity/Tampa Bay is planning a fund-raiser for Florida victims.

Dignity favors a "Christian response" to the problem, says its president, Cervone. The Church should "make meaningful restitution to the victims, cooperate with law-enforcement to bring perpetrators to justice and prevent future abuse," she says. But that's not the stance she perceives as coming from the Church hierarchy: "It sees self-preservation as more important than caring for individuals."

One of the big questions facing the Catholic Church in its time of crisis is whether it could survive if it eliminated gay priests.

Syndicated gay columnist Rex Wockner, whose work appears on, wrote in a recent article that, when he was a Catholic seminarian at the University of St. Mary on the Lake in Illinois in the early 1980s, at least half of those studying for the priesthood were gay. "The straight students felt like a minority and felt excluded from some aspects of life to such an extent that the administration staged a seminar at which we discussed the problem of the straight students feeling left out."

With the U.S. Church already in crisis because of a drastic shortage of priests, Wockner writes, a decision to screen-out homosexuals would be "a near-final nail in the Church's coffin `in this country`."

"The priesthood of the 21st century will likely be perceived as a predominantly gay profession," says Rev. Donald Cozzens, pastoral psychologist at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland and author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." His studies reveal that as many as half of American priests today are gay, and most of them are under 40 years old. What's more, he says, seminaries have become "significantly gay," as more heterosexual males decide not to become priests because of the celibacy requirement. Father Cozzens estimates that more than 20,000 of the nation's 53,000 priests have resigned to get married in recent years.

Conference of Bishops leader Gregory, in his remarks at the Vatican conference, referred to such statistics. But, rather than suggesting a review of the Church's position on celibacy for all priests, he blamed gay people for creating a "homosexual atmosphere" at seminaries that "makes heterosexual young men think twice" about joining the priesthood.

"It's another example of the Church sticking its head in the sand and not addressing the real issues of sexuality," says Father Steve. "Until the Church rethinks its whole approach to sexuality, it's not likely that gay people will be welcomed with open arms." And there won't be any change in celibacy rules as long as the current Pope is around, he notes. "But with another pope, it could be changed with the stroke of a pen."

Schizophrenic might be an appropriate term to describe the Catholic church's attitude toward homosexuals in general and gay priests in particular. That applies to Central Florida as much as anyplace else. On the one hand, the Orlando diocese includes job protection on the basis of sexual orientation in its employment handbook. On the other, it prohibits such groups as Dignity from meeting on its premises.

There used to be a chapter of Dignity in Orlando. The organization had grown rapidly all over the country during the 1970s and early 1980s. Bishops of many dioceses embraced it, recognizing a need for pastoral attention to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. And official church doctrine had no opposition.

"There's nothing dogmatic `in Church law` against being homosexual," says Father Steve. "The Church is against acts that go against nature, by which it means against its heterosexual values." (Keep in mind that even heterosexual sex is considered inappropriate, unless performed by a married couple with the intent of allowing procreation.)

So, for a long time homosexuality "simply wasn't a big issue," he says. Then a church-policy group called the Congregation of the Faith, a modern-day successor to the group that originally was known as "the Inquisition," decided that Dignity was becoming too influential. In October 1986, the Congregation aligned itself against ministering to homosexuals on Church-owned properties. Although it was not an edict from the Pope (as is often mistakenly reported), the policy was endorsed by the Vatican. "It effectively ousted Dignity and similar groups, and forced them into silence," says Father Steve.

It was left to each diocese to implement the policy, and bishops in some cities found ways around it. In Orlando and Tampa, Dignity remains banished to this day. "Without access to their churches," says Father Steve, "a lot of gay Catholics in Central Florida were driven away."

About five years ago, the Orlando chapter disbanded. "There were problems getting priests to come forward to minister, particularly after one was dissuaded from participating," he recalls. "In an effort to counter Dignity, the Orlando diocese began its own gay and lesbian ministry, essentially for counseling. But gay Catholics didn't want to go back in the closet, so that, too, recently died."

Brinati, of the Orlando Diocese, put it this way: "Bishop `Norbert` Dorsey did not want the gay community to feel set aside as a different group and looked at in a prejudicial way." He started an Office of Gay Ministry, which attempted to include homosexuals and their parents, with a "faith-based outreach" of "forgiveness and inclusion," she says. The ministry included counseling for families of gay children, as well as "some offerings of Masses in different parishes. The Masses were open to all, which may have confused some gay people."

Now, the role of the gay ministry has been returned to the individual parishes, all of which "welcome the gay community," she says. Only two of the diocese's parishes, Church of our Savior in Cocoa and Church of the Ascension in Melbourne, currently have any specific programs geared toward gay people; one of those is for parents of homosexuals.

With few local parishes seemingly willing to proclaim themselves as "gay friendly," many gay Catholics in Orlando have turned to the Metropolitan Community Church. "At least 40 percent of our congregation is Catholic, or formerly Catholic," says John Middletown, director of team ministries for Joy MCC in Orlando.

Founded in 1968, the MCC is the world's largest gay denomination, with 300 affiliated churches worldwide. Thus far, church leaders, including founder Rev. Troy Perry, have distanced themselves from the debate regarding Catholic priests and homosexuality. "It's not that we shy away from political controversy," Middleton says, "but, speaking unofficially, we haven't felt compelled to get involved in `another church's` issue. Our role is to offer prayers for everyone, including the children and priests. There's plenty of pain to go around." Some MCC leaders in New York City have been involved in planning protests at Catholic churches, including one this past Sunday at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Father Steve laughs as he says, "The Catholic Church's stand against ministering to gays has been the best thing that's ever happened to MCC. It has really increased their numbers here and all over the world."

But Dignity hasn't given up on Orlando. Father Steve will join representatives of chapters around the country in hosting a Mass at 6:30 p.m. June 1 at the Grosvenor Resort in Downtown Disney during Gay Days. "It is our hope to reach out again to the Orlando LGBT community," he says, "and perhaps spawn interest in starting a new local chapter."

Keeping gay Catholics involved in their faith is tough, he concedes, decrying the small numbers who attend his St. Petersburg services. "We're only getting about 60 people a week in one of this country's largest gay communities. That says to me that the Church is driving away its gay members, just as it's driving away so many of its best candidates for the priesthood.

"You know," he says, "If you ask kids today if they want to be a priest or a nun when they grow up, it's like asking them if they want to be president of Enron. Both once were strong, important institutions. Now, the mistakes of a few have disempowered them."


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