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Spotlight Report

Gay comments concern bishops

Vatican's remarks are feared to incite hate crimes in US

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/10/2002

The Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts, in a rare public challenge to the Catholic Church, are warning that a steady stream of comments by Vatican officials critical of gays in the priesthood could lead to hate crimes in the United States.

In interviews yesterday, the bishop of Massachusetts, M. Thomas Shaw, his suffragan, or assistant, bishop, Roy F. Cederholm Jr., and a bishop-elect, Gayle Elizabeth Harris, all said they believe the danger to gays and lesbians is so great that they feel compelled to speak out despite their reservations about wading into another denomination's controversy.

Shaw, the top Episcopal bishop in the state and head of the nation's largest Episcopal diocese, said he was particularly upset by a report from Rome last week that a Vatican cardinal, Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, said ''a homosexual person ... is not suitable to receive the sacrament of holy orders.''

Shaw said some Episcopal clergy have been urging the bishops to speak out all year, ever since the pope's spokesman was quoted saying that gay men should not be ordained. He said the Episcopal bishops have read with alarm news reports that Vatican officials are preparing a document that is expected to urge the banning of gays from seminaries.

''I'm really concerned about hate crimes and homophobia that comes from supposedly responsible people making statements like this,'' Shaw said. Then, referring to a gay college student who was brutally beaten and left to die in a field in Wyoming in 1998, he added, ''Matthew Shepard was an Episcopalian.''

The worldwide Anglican communion is itself conflicted about whether to ordain gay and lesbian priests, and some American bishops will not do so. But Shaw has been ordaining openly gay men and women since his election as bishop in 1994.

Shaw said that he is only aware of two instances of priests of his diocese sexually abusing minors in recent history and that both were heterosexuals.

The bishops announced their concern about the Vatican discussion of gay priests in an opinion article in today's Boston Globe.

''Suggestions that gays molest children lead to homophobia and create a dangerous atmosphere in which hate crimes flourish,'' Shaw and Cederholm wrote. ''They are irresponsible.''

An organization representing gay Catholics welcomed the Episcopal bishops' comments.

''We have long said that this focus on gay priests as a cause for the sexual abuse scandal is nothing more than a smokescreen to deflect attention away from the complicity of the hierarchy in creating this scandal,'' said Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA. ''I applaud the Episcopal bishops for speaking out on a matter of justice that is important to the vital ministry of any Christian Church.''

But Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine, a conservative Catholic journal, said ''There is credible research that suggests the homosexuals are three times more likely to be pedophiles than the general population. And given that organizations like NAMBLA have openly advocated sex with boys, the lines between homosexuality and pedophilia are not as clean cut as the bishops would like to make them.''

A leader of Forward in Faith, a conservative Episcopal organization that opposes the ordination of women and of sexually active gays and lesbians, also objected.

''The best advice I could give to the Episcopal bishops is to look at their own house before we begin to criticize our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters,'' said Rev. William H. Ilgenfritz, an Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania who serves as vice president of Forward in Faith. ''The fact that a person may have a homosexual orientation doesn't disqualify a person from orientation to the priesthood in my view, but the practice of homosexuality is contrary to the witness of Scripture for all Christians, including priests.''

The Massachusetts bishops disagree.

''Some of the finest priests we have are gay and lesbian priests that are in thriving parishes,'' Shaw said.

Shaw said the Episcopal bishops are not trying to tell the Catholic Church whom it should ordain.

''What I'm hoping to accomplish is to say that it's up to an individual denomination to ordain whomever they think is appropriate, but you should not deny someone ordination because of sexual preference if it's somehow linked with pedophilia,'' he said. ''I don't have any hesitation speaking out on something like this that I think can endanger people's lives.''

Cederholm said the bishops had been reluctant to speak out because ''it's presumptuous of us to take issue with another denomination's difficulties and problems.''

However, he said, ''this particular issue affects people outside their church, and therefore we feel that we have a place to add our voice.''

''We don't believe any person should make a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia, the way the Catholic Church has, because it increases hatred and violence,'' Cederholm said.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A30 of the Boston Globe on 12/10/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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