Transgender Catholics hope to build bridges in the Church

By Michael O’Loughlin


Tens of thousands of Catholics descend on Los Angeles each winter to sharpen their ministry skills, partaking in dozens of workshops and seminars about liturgy, prayer, Bible, and parish life as part of the LA Religious Education Congress. With close to 40,000 participants, it’s the largest annual gathering of Catholics in North America, a celebration of all things Catholic.

But event organizers this year took a cue from popular culture and included a new session, one that attracted a standing room only crowd of 750 people, nearly all of whom jumped to their feet for a sustained round of applause after talks from two young, committed Catholics.

The name of the session? “Transgender in the Church: One Bread, One Body.”

The Rev. Christopher Bazyouros, the director of the office of religious education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said including the discussion in the program was an important first step for the Church in grappling with an issue that exploded onto the national consciousness last June when Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, announcing to the world that she is transgender.

“There aren’t many places for Catholics to discuss these things that are thoughtful, intentional, and that gathers people who have had this experience,” he said. “Many Catholics want information about this topic, they want things to help them understand this situation.”

To that end, conference organizers invited two transgender Catholics to speak, both of whom were surprised and gratified that they were included. And both used their presentations to urge acceptance by the wider universe of Catholics.

Anna Patti, a 23-year-old Michigan resident, told the crowd she didn’t believe “God made a mistake” with her, as some have said of transgender people.

In an interview after her presentation, she said having the opportunity to speak freely about her struggles and her joys was “an unexpectedly affirming experience.”

“I hadn’t realized how silenced I felt within the Church,” she said. “At Mass I always sit in the back row in the back corner, making myself as visibly small as possible. Here was the opposite, where people wanted to learn about an issue that is so often immediately condemned.”

“It was beautiful,” she said of the crowd’s reaction.

Mateo Williamson, a 24-year-old medical student at the Jesuit-run Loyola Medical School in Chicago, described with joy his deeply Catholic upbringing, part of a family that included several priests and nuns.

After his talk, he said many young people thanked him for sharing his story about living as a transgender man in the Church.

“Pope Francis’ charity, compassion, and call to mercy, it’s changed the tone in the Church,” he said. “He hasn’t been explicit about trans people, and there’s nothing in the Catechism, but there’s been a change among people in general to understand something they maybe haven’t encountered before.”

Pope Francis has spoken out repeatedly against so-called gender ideology, but Patti said she doesn’t interpret those comments as hostile to trans people. In fact, she thinks the pope’s remarks about gender not being just a social construct actually support the transgender community by pointing out that gender identity is innate.

While Catholicism doesn’t have much to say about transgender issues, at least not at the level of Church teaching, there is still tension about how the Church should respond to its transgender members.

In Rhode Island, for example, a Catholic middle and high school came under fire after a group of alumni discovered transgender students were banned from enrolling. Once confronted, school organizers promised to take another look at the policy.

This kind of uncertainty about how well the Church is equipped to deal with the needs of transgender Catholics and their families is part of the reason event organizers included the session, as a way to launch a conversation by inviting people to share their personal stories.

“We were just going with the pope’s desire to go out and encounter people, to hear their stories,” said Bazyouros, the LA priest who oversees the Congress. “We decided to see what would happen if we hosted a session for people to share their stories.”

“Sometimes issues are just these abstract things until you hear people speak about their journeys, and then you can begin to have a conversation,” he said.

Patti said that her Catholic faith has been central in her own journey, but that the culture war threatens the Church’s ability to help other transgender people.

“Catholic spirituality and the Catholic tradition can provide more nourishment, and also more sense into the trans experience, than anything else I’ve encountered,” she said.

“On the other hand, I think especially in American Catholicism, the culture war has latched itself parasitically onto Catholicism and has turned it into a politics game,” she said. “I think it makes settings that would otherwise be ideal for a trans person’s development turns it into a coffin, into the worst place imaginable.”

She said the Church also suffers from an image problem in the LGBT community, which turns some people off from exploring their faith.

“Honestly, I get judged for being Catholic because it’s just assumed that to be Catholic means hating LGBT people, more so even than what is central to our faith, the Eucharist,” she said.

Williamson said that he’s had both good and bad experiences in the Church.

At Loyola, for instance, he’s part of a group of students who meet for several hours each week to explore how Ignatian spirituality relates to medicine.

But last year, he said, he was hurt when his invitation from the White House to be one of 15,000 people on the South Lawn when President Barack Obama formally welcomed Pope Francis to the White House was criticized by the right as inappropriate.

“It was discouraging, because I’m trying to bring about this positive message,” he said. “We don’t want people to think that trans Catholics are a threat to the sanctity of any event.”

The LA Congress workshop sold out quickly, and some of the audience, which included several priests, seminarians, and nuns, said the fact it happened at all gave them hope about the future of the Church.

“I used to work at a youth shelter, and I would do some work with transgender youth who would come to the house and I didn’t have a lot of experience, so I wanted to learn more,” said Laura Wagner, who coordinates service trips at a Los Angeles Catholic high school.

“It was comforting to be in an audience of Catholic men and women, lay people, nuns, and priests, especially when this isn’t talked about a lot,” she added. “To be among other people who were very accepting and welcoming, and wanting to hear more about the issue, it gave me a lot of hope for the future of the Church.”

Kevin Stockbridge, a graduate student from Orange County, said the session was important because marginalized voices often go unheard in the Church.

“The trans experience is invisible in the Church right now, and while it’s visible in our society, we don’t know how to deal with that theologically,” he said. “Often times we deal with that through silence, so I think it’s important to voice real spiritual experiences of trans persons.”

Arthur FitzMaurice, who speaks frequently about LGBT issues in the Church and who organized the workshop, said he believes it was the largest discussion devoted to transgender issues and Catholicism in the Church’s history. He said that organizers have already asked him to plan a similar workshop next year.

While thrilled with their reception in Los Angeles, both Patti and Williamson said the Church has a long way to go before it’s a welcoming place for transgender people, but that they hope the Congress session is a step in the right direction.

“You don’t have to be an expert to make a difference,” Williamson said. “We need all kinds of people, not just experts, but people who can just respond to families in supportive ways.”

Patti, too, said that there is room for experts, but that it’s really just about love.

“We are on the ground level,” Patti said. “There are theological discussions to be had, canonical issues to be considered, and even the trans movement itself is constantly evolving. Being transgender in Catholicism might look different from what being transgender in a secular movement.”

She added, “But as all that’s all developing, at the end of the day, it comes down to, are you willing to accept another human being, a child of God?”

Complete Article HERE!

He was a monster’: how priest child abuse tore apart Pennsylvania towns

A grand jury report issued last week details abuse by dozens of Catholic leaders in the small communities of Altoona-Johnstown from the 1950s to the 1990s

The cathedral church dome under a full moon in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
The cathedral church dome under a full moon in Altoona, Pennsylvania.


One of Brian Gergely’s fellow altar boys had a code he would use to signal danger in the room where they and the priest prepared for mass.

“He would say ‘red buttons’, and that was the alert that the priest was coming up behind you, and we would try to get away from him, running around the desk in the middle of the room where he kept the chalices, the host and the wine,” said Gergely, 46.

Gergely was 10 at the time.

The priest was Monsignor Francis McCaa, a commanding figure in the small Pennsylvania town of Ebensburg in his black cassock with the red buttons, and one of dozens of Catholic leaders named in a devastating report issued last week by a state grand jury detailing appalling child sex abuse in his diocese and a systematic cover-up by the church.

“I was standing in the sacristy and he pinned me to the desk. I was just a little guy,” Gergely said. McCaa assaulted him there and also while the boy gave confession, at the Holy Name church where his family worshiped.

“My parents were patrons,” Gergely said. “They were going door to door raising money for the church. The community put Monsignor McCaa on a pedestal.”

Other priests named in the report worked in the past at the school, where Gergely recalls being subjected to tough corporal punishment.

With a population of just 3,300, Ebensburg has been jolted by the horrifying details of past abuse in its midst. The grand jury report issued by Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane describes sex crimes committed on children from the 1950s through the 1990s all across the sprawling Altoona-Johnstown diocese that lies between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, involving more than 50 church leaders and hundreds of victims. And it reveals previously concealed church documents showing lists of secret payouts made to victims in the diocese.

The pattern of offenses, cover-ups and shuffling accused priests from parish to parish echoes the huge scandals already exposed in Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in recent times.

The report also establishes that church authorities in Altoona-Johnstown knew decades ago what was going on, as did some civic officials and senior figures in the criminal justice system. Many details came out in public in one of the few high-profile civil lawsuits in the early 90s, filed against Father Francis Luddy, a priest who served in both Altoona and Johnstown.

But instead of leaping into action, authorities in Pennsylvania did little, the report asserts, and there was relatively little public outcry.

Now the extent of abuse in the diocese is being unveiled, though notably after the statute of limitations has expired for both criminal and civil action, and with many – but not all – of the perpetrators and their enablers already dead.

The Altoona-Johnstown diocese administration building in Altoona
The Altoona-Johnstown diocese administration building in Altoona.

Lying midway between Altoona and Johnstown in the Allegheny mountains, Ebensburg is typical of the many small communities across the diocese, steeped in the Catholic tradition and striving to prosper in the face of declining traditional industries, especially coal mining.

McCaa’s reported depravity on his young flock stands out.

“Father Francis McCaa was a monster,” the grand jury stated.

The investigation found 15 of his alleged victims, abused between 1961 and 1985.

“In some cases children tried to report their abuse to their parents … but were not believed … the grand jury aches at hearing the hopelessness these victims felt when being offended on by a pastor they were taught to respect and honor,” the report says. Some parents punished their children for accusing the “friendly” monsignor, the report says, though at one point the bishop at the time, James Hogan, was confronted by a group of “outraged parents” and promised action.

Hogan met with district attorney Gerald Long and assistant DA Patrick Kiniry, both now serving as judges in the area, the report says, though no charges were brought.

McCaa was removed from the diocese and replaced with a priest who is also named in the report as a pedophile.

McCaa retired in 1993 and died in 2007. Hogan died in 2005.

Gergely was at the courthouse in Ebensburg on Friday to witness three state lawmakers holding a small public event in the marbled vestibule to announce a call for more action.

The three pledged to fight for legislation – which has been stuck for many years in committee in the state capital of Harrisburg– on whether to abolish the statute of limitations in civil cases involving child abuse. They also plan to introduce a bill to create a special, two-year window allowing past victims to sue the church.

“Just in this borough, it’s like a cancer,” said the state senator David Burns. “Everyone here knows a victim, even though they may not know they know it. The attorney general did not say the investigation is closed and there may be more to come. They estimate that in a single little town like this, McCaa affected a generation of kids.”

And people may not have realized the extent to which tears in the fabric of the community were ripped by McCaa and his ilk, Burns said.

“We have a large drug problem in our area, we deal with high driving-under-the-influence (DUI) arrests, and we just think that’s because the community is poor and unemployed, but it could be that a lot of these kids have had a hard time integrating into society because of the impact of this abuse. It strains family and sexual relationships, and it often takes years, especially for a man, to report something,” said Burns.

He said he had no reason to believe that abuse was not continuing after the period covered in the report and he hoped there would be further action.

Nationally, John Salveson, founder of the campaign group the Foundation to Abolish Child Abuse, and other activist groups, such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap), are calling on Barack Obama to launch a federal investigation.

State assemblyman Mark Rozzi’s district is outside the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. But he is calling for a grand jury investigations in every diocese in Pennsylvania.

Rozzi said that legislators at the state assembly in Harrisburg were “running away and hiding in their offices, refusing to speak to me” when he tried to talk about taking government action against the abuse.

Rozzi, now 44, said when he was 13, he fell prey to his priest, Edward Graff.

When Graff invited a school friend of Rozzi’s to the rectory, too, the boy realized he was not the only one. Rozzi recalls Graff telling the friend to wait, while he took Rizzo into the shower and raped him.

“I remember staring at this bit of the shower wall and thinking: ‘I can stand here and take this or I can run,’” he said.

Rozzi shoved the man off him and raced out of the shower, grabbing some clothes and yelling to his friend to flee.

“I was running down the hall of the rectory, basically naked. Father was screaming at us. I said to my friend: ‘No one can know about this,’” he said. They ran away, terrified.

Bishop James Hogan, right, and Pope John Paul II in Rome.
Bishop James Hogan, right, and Pope John Paul II in Rome.

Rozzi became a star athlete at college, but suffered psychologically. He had appalling nightmares about being chased and raped by the priest, dreams which he tried to quell with marijuana. He credits his wife, whom he met at college, for helping to save his sanity.

After unsuccessfully lobbying the state assembly, while in his thirties, to take action on child abuse, Rozzi ran for office himself. Three of his childhood friends who also suffered sexual abuse by priests have killed themselves, the most recent on Good Friday last year.

Brian Gergely started drinking at 10 after he says he was groped by McCaa. Disappointing grades at school and two DUI convictions thwarted his ambition to become a lawyer. He is now a behavioral therapist for kids with special needs, has trouble keeping a girlfriend and is single, he said. In 2006, he tried to hang himself.

The bishop who succeeded James Hogan, Joseph Adamec, who has since retired, testified to the grand jury. He is excoriated in the report for failing to take action against numerous abusive priests, while ignoring victims. The report says church leaders sought to discredit victims and their families.

Adamec was not at home on Friday evening at the address publicly listed for him in Hollidaysburg, near Altoona, and could not be reached for comment.

But at his house next to the church where he is pastor in Altoona, Monsignor Michael Servinsky, 69, answered the door and spoke while standing in his hallway beneath portraits of the pope and the current bishop of the diocese.

Servinsky was cited in the grand jury report as having failed to notify law enforcement in 2001 and 2002 about two priests who admitted past abuse to him, one of boys the other of girls.

Bishop Joseph Adamec
Bishop Joseph Adamec

Servinsky denied to the Guardian that he had done anything wrong.

“I think the grand jury did quite a hatchet job on Bishop Joseph – they did him in. He was very concerned about making sure the victims got covered [financially]. And they talk about Bishop Hogan manipulating the legal system. No. I know situations where police and judges would collar him and say: ‘Get that guy out of here and we will not prosecute.’ We are talking about a different age, going back 40 or 50 years,” he said.

Servinsky added, however, that there was “no excuse” for child abuse.

He said some priests were dismissed and others were allowed to retire “because if we dismissed them, they would not have any income, and that would not be just”.

Asked whether the priests should be in prison, Servinsky argued that pedophilia has always been a problem going back millennia and in 2016 “we are still dealing with the same problem”, so what good would prison do?

“We have capital punishment and there are still murders,” he said, adding: “Most of the victims who came to us were not interested in taking it to law enforcement. They didn’t want to testify.”

Two miles up the street, the basilica-style Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament overlooks downtown Altoona.

Around 100 parishioners attended a Lent service there on Friday evening. Numerous priests named in the grand jury’s report served at the cathedral during their careers, and the report found that children were raped on the premises.

Emerging with her adolescent son, Tina, a physical education assistant born and raised in Altoona, who preferred not to give her last name, said she thought the turnout at the service had been “three times as high as normal” as people showed their support for the embattled diocese.

Inside, Father Dennis Kurdziel had just finished presiding.

He said he was “stunned and sickened” by the revelations in the grand jury report and regretted that it forced all those “wearing the collar” to feel the eye of suspicion, whether accurate or not.

“It takes your breath away. I felt this week like I was hit in the face with a two-by-four,” he said.

Current Altoona-Johnstown bishop Mark Bartchak apologized on Thursday. But state lawmakers Burns, Rozzi and John Wozniak said the test of his sincerity would be what he and other leaders do now.

Kurdziel said: “We should not hide behind the statute of limitations. If it could somehow help and protect people, then we should do it. I have a responsibility as a priest. I don’t like to think of it as power.”

Asked what a young parishioner should do if a man of the church attempts to touch them inappropriately, he said: “Smack them in the face as hard as you can and run to a cop.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pell case: Pontifical Commission calls for prompt response from those in positions of authority

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by Sean O’Malley, has issued a statement in light of the fracas between Peter Saunders and Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection, speaks at a news conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Feb. 16, 2015. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by US cardinal Sean O’Malley, has intervened with a statement in light of the recent clash between Peter Saunders, a member of the Commission who was abused by a paedophile priest when he was a child and Australian cardinal George Pell, Secretary of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.

Speaking on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes Australia programme, Saunders accused Pell of showing indifference to the victims of a paedophile priest in Australia when he was a young priest, even going as far as to define Pell’s attitude “sociopathic” and expressing the hope that the Pope would remove him from his Vatican role. The prelate – who will be giving evidence at a hearing before the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Child Sex Abuse after already speaking in a parliamentary inquiry in Victoria – was defensive in his response: he stressed that he never covered up any complaints made against paedophile priests and said he would resort to legal action. The Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi also issued a comment, saying that the statement made in recent days by Cardinal Pell in response to the accusations made by the Australian Commission, was “worthy of respect and attention”. The Vatican spokesman added that the statements made by Saunders “were clearly entirely personal and were not made on behalf of the Commission”. Now, the Commission Saunders is a member of has also expressed itself.

“The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, as mandated by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has no jurisdiction to comment on individual cases or inquiries,” the statement issued yesterday evening reads. “Regarding Australia’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into Institutional Child Sex Abuse, all appropriate questions are being dealt with by the Truth, Justice and Healing Council in Australia, which is coordinating the local Church’s response to the Royal Commission’s findings,” the statement says. “The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors remains dedicated to its mission as outlined in the recently approved provisional Statutes, which is to help the Church worldwide protect minors and make certain that the interests of abuse survivors and victims’ are paramount. To this ends the Commission considers it essential that those in positions of authority in the Church respond promptly, transparently and with the clear intent of enabling justice to be achieved.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cardinal George Pell has to resign, or Pope Francis must act

By Joanne McCarthy


Cardinal George Pell has to resign. Before the week is out, and on the back of his evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the cardinal must go, and Pope Francis must be involved.

If not, the Catholic Church in Australia is going to bleed numbers indefinitely. The Pope’s statements about child sexual abuse will be seen as nothing but more words from a church whose standing has been trashed on the issue, and shockingly so over the past three days.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Quirinale hotel
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Quirinale hotel

Pell has no credibility as a moral leader. Pope Francis’ reputation as the people’s Pope – champion of the poor and powerless – is damaged by association if he fails to act decisively, and immediately.

Pell was appalling in the witness box. Watching him give evidence felt almost ghoulish at times, like standing across the road from a car crash. How can any thinking, feeling, responsive – Christian for heaven’s sake – human being respond the way Pell did, when questioned about Doveton priest Peter Searson’s horrifying behaviour with children?

Asked about a report of Searson stabbing a bird to death with a screwdriver in front of children, Pell conceded it came to his attention but “I don’t know whether the bird was already dead but at some stage I certainly was informed of this bizarre happening”.

Counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness, picked up on the bleeding obvious – did it matter if the bird was dead? Wasn’t the point that a priest, supposedly one of God’s representatives on earth, had stabbed a bird? In front of children? If you were in a position of authority in the diocese at that time, wouldn’t you have made it your business to find out if the priest should have been responsible for anyone, let alone children?

Apparently not. As Pell said about another shocking allegation involving Searson – that he held a knife to a young girl and said “If you move this will go through you” – there was nothing to be done once the girl’s parents said they were unwilling to have police investigate, so the church did nothing.

How can anyone in the Catholic Church, from Pope Francis down, think it reasonable that Pell should finish his third day of evidence with the following exchange and, more importantly, remain in a position of moral leadership?

Furness asked Pell if there was anything he did as auxiliary bishop, dealing with child sexual abuse allegations, that he considered wanting or deficient in any way.

Apart from regret for being incurious about paedophile clerics who resigned, supposedly for ill health, Pell replied “I don’t believe there is.”

Pope Francis must force Pell to resign or retire early. The Pope must also meet with the Ballarat survivors in Rome on Friday before they return to Australia, and Victorian couple Chrissie and Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were raped by a priest.

A meeting with Pell, the man who thinks he did little wrong apart from being deceived by others within the church, would not only be a waste of time for survivors but add a layer of hypocrisy to what Royal Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan has quite rightly called a tragedy.

Pope Francis is the one person who can do for survivors of child sexual abuse what no one else can do – change canon law so that all Catholic clergy around the world must report allegations of child sexual abuse to police and authorities, which is something he has so far refused to do.

As Pell told the commission, they all answer to the Pope.

Complete Article HERE!