Catholicism is engaged in an internal war over the future of its LGBTQ members. Gay Catholics either can embrace the celebration of Pride, or stay as far away as possible. They can see a brighter, more welcoming future — or hear of their condemnation to hell for engaging in intimate acts.
In 2013, Pope Francis said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord, who am I to judge?” That quote was the beginning of a new era in how the Vatican discussed the gay Catholic population.
In the wake of the 2016 Pulse shootings, Father James Martin — a Philadelphian by birth and a Jesuit by practice — fashioned an international ministry to sexual minorities, first by his response to the massacre (stating in a video message that Catholics needed to “stand in strong and public solidarity” with the LGBT community), and then by writing the game plan for doing so with his book Building a Bridge. In the years since the publication of the book, Martin has expanded the ministry to include international speaking engagements, a website, and national conference. Martin’s ministry has received the blessing of Pope Francis, who commended his pastoral zeal and desire to be close to people.
So the church is making progress, right?
Well, maybe not. A another sizable contingent of church leadership has ramped up public attacks on the gay community in the wake of the Supreme Court Obergefell decision in 2015, which legalized civil gay marriage. Pride celebrations, in particular, have been a source of outrage, with numerous Catholic leaders calling these events inappropriate. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., said these gatherings engage in “promoting a culture contrary to Catholic faith.”
Taking matters one step further, the group Catholic Vote recently embarked on a national campaign titled “Hide the Pride,” with a goal of “checking out” all LGBTQ-related books from public libraries to keep children from reading them.
Corners of Church leadership are contributing to the aggressive, often threatening dialogue. Church Militant, a lay apostolate that purports to present news “through an authentic Catholic lens,” refers to Father Martin as a “sodomy-pushing Jesuit,” while Life Site News is currently asking readers to sign a petition telling the secretary of defense that Pride Month is making our country weaker.
Yet there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The cardinal of Munich has approved of blessing same-sex unions. Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich called for a change in the church’s teaching on homosexuality earlier this year, specifically stating the church’s assessment of gay relationships as being sinful was incorrect. The recent elevation of San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy to cardinal in May puts one of the most gay-friendly bishops in America in a position to shape policy and elect the next pope. And the Catholic Theological Society of America, the largest professional society of theologians in the world, this month issued a statement calling for church leaders and government officials to reconsider any policy positions that may have contributed to LGBTQ hate.
Here in Philadelphia, a change in leadership might create a more receptive ear to the needs of LGBTQ Catholics. Archbishop Nelson Pérez recently sat down with a group of gay Catholics to discuss how the church might better hear and address their needs. Such an assemblage, and more importantly a demonstrated willingness to listen, represents a different approach than that of past Philadelphia church leadership.
So what is the garden variety gay Catholic supposed to make of these mixed signals and conflicting voices? I have wrestled with this question myself. Perhaps the best answer is to let the discussion flow, watch, and — most importantly — speak up on a local level. In holding this conversation publicly, we can only hope for a more welcoming seat at the table, and a reexamination of the traditional approach to ministry to the gay Catholic.
The FBI has opened a widening investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans going back decades, a rare federal foray into such cases looking specifically at whether priests took children across state lines to molest them, officials and others familiar with the inquiry told The Associated Press.
More than a dozen alleged abuse victims have been interviewed this year as part of the probe that’s exploring among other charges whether predator priests can be prosecuted under the Mann Act, a more than century-old, anti-sex trafficking law that prohibits taking anyone across state lines for illicit sex.
Some of the New Orleans cases under review allege abuse by clergy during trips to Mississippi camps or amusement parks in Texas and Florida. And while some claims are decades old, Mann Act violations notably have no statute of limitations.
“It’s been a long road and just the fact that someone this high up believes us means the world to us,” said a former altar boy who alleged his assailant took him on trips to Colorado and Florida and abused him beginning in the 1970s when he was in the fifth grade. The AP generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
The FBI declined to comment, as did the Louisiana State Police, which is assisting in the inquiry. The Archdiocese of New Orleans declined to discuss the federal investigation.
“I’d prefer not to pursue this conversation,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond told the AP.
The probe could deepen the legal peril for the archdiocese as it reels from a bankruptcy brought on by a flood of sex abuse lawsuits and allegations that church leaders turned a blind eye to generations of predator priests.
Federal investigators are now considering whether to seek access to thousands of secret church documents produced by lawsuits and shielded by a sweeping confidentiality order in the bankruptcy, according to those familiar with the probe who weren’t authorized to discuss it and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. Those records are said to document years of abuse claims, interviews with accused clergy and a pattern of church leaders transferring problem priests without reporting their crimes to law enforcement.
The FBI opened a widening investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans going back decades, a rare federal foray into such cases looking specifically at whether priests took children across state lines to molest them.
“This is actually a big deal, and it should be heartening to victims,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and chief executive of Child USA, a think tank focused on preventing child abuse. “The FBI has rarely become involved in the clergy sex abuse scandals. They’ve dragged their feet around the country with respect to the Catholic Church.”
The U.S. Justice Department has struggled to find a federal nexus to prosecuting clergy abuse, hitting dead ends in cases as explosive as the ones outlined in the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that disclosed a systematic cover-up by church leaders. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed church records in Buffalo, New York, the same year in an inquiry that similarly went quiet.
“The issue has always been determining what is the federal crime,” said Peter G. Strasser, the former U.S. attorney in New Orleans who declined to bring charges in 2018 after the archdiocese published a list of 57 “credibly accused” clergy, a roster an AP analysis found had been undercounted by at least 20 names.
Strasser said he “naively” believed a federal case might be possible only to encounter a host of roadblocks, including the complexities of “putting the church on trial” for charges like conspiracy.
But federal prosecutors have in recent years employed the more narrowly focused Mann Act to win convictions in a variety of abuse cases, including against R&B star R. Kelly for using his fame to sexually exploit girls, and Ghislaine Maxwell for helping financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse teenage girls. In 2013, a federal judge in Indiana sentenced a Baptist pastor to 12 years in prison for taking a 16-year-old girl across state lines for sex.
Among the priests under federal scrutiny in New Orleans is Lawrence Hecker, a 90-year-old removed from the ministry in 2002 following accusations he abused “countless children.” Hecker is accused of abusing children decades ago on out-of-state trips, and other claims against him range from fondling to rape.
Hundreds of records currently under the confidentiality order “will reveal in no uncertain terms that the last four archbishops of New Orleans knew that Lawrence Hecker was a serial child predator,” Richard Trahant, an attorney for Hecker’s alleged victims, wrote in a court filing.
“Hecker is still very much alive, vibrant, lives alone and is a danger to young boys until he draws his final breath,” Trahant wrote.
Asked by telephone this week whether he ever abused children, Hecker said, “I’m going to have to hang up.”
More recent allegations are also drawing federal attention, including the case of Patrick Wattigny, a priest charged last year by state prosecutors after he admitted molesting a teenager in 2013. His attorney declined to comment.
Wattigny’s 2020 removal from the ministry came amid a disciplinary investigation into inappropriate text messages he sent a student. The case sent shockwaves through the Catholic community because church leaders had frequently characterized clergy abuse as a sin from the past.
“It was happening while the church was saying, ‘It’s no longer happening,’” said Bill Arata, an attorney who has attended three of the FBI interviews.
“These victims could stay home and not do anything,” he added, “but that’s not the kind of people they are.”
Clergy abuse is particularly fraught in Louisiana, a heavily Catholic state that endured some of the earliest scandals dating to the 1980s. Last year, it joined two-dozen states that have enacted “lookback windows” intended to allow unresolved claims of child sex abuse, no matter how old, to be brought in civil court.
But with few exceptions, most notably a former deacon charged with rape, the accused clergy have escaped criminal consequences. Even at the local level, cases have been hamstrung by statutes of limitation and the political sensitivity of prosecuting the church.
The archdiocese’s 2020 bankruptcy case has also frozen a separate court battle over a cache of confidential emails describing the behind-the-scenes public relations work that executives for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints did for the archdiocese in 2018 and 2019 to contain fallout from clergy abuse scandals.
While the Saints say they only assisted in messaging, attorneys for those suing the church have alleged in court records that Saints officials joined in the church’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.” That included taking an active role in helping to shape the archdiocese’s list of credibly accused clergy, the attorneys contend.
Attorneys for those suing the church have attacked the bankruptcy bid as a veiled attempt to keep church records secret — and deny victims a public reckoning.
“Those victims were on the path to the truth,” Soren Gisleson, an attorney who represents several of the victims, wrote in a court filing. “The rape of children is a thief that keeps on stealing.”
In the nineteen-fifties, Ravenhall, a salt-water swimming pool in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, was a destination for summer day trippers from the sweltering city, including Martin Scorsese’s family and friends, who often went there from Little Italy. On one such outing, Scorsese, in his early teens, was told that there was something he had to see. “Ravenhall was the neighborhood bathtub, so to speak, a big pool where everybody would go, and it was packed,” Scorsese recalled last week. “Some old wiseguys would be there, in cabana sets, playing cards. And there was a steam room. And one day we were there, and we heard, ‘Hey, hey, come here, they got some fag in the steam room, they beat him up. Come see the blood! You can’t miss this!’ I never saw the guy, but I saw the blood. We’re talking the mid-fifties, the Red Scare period. The aliens are coming to destroy America and the Catholic Church, and they’re Communists, and, for all we know, gay.”
This summer, Scorsese, who is now seventy-nine, is working at his town house on the Upper East Side with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, on his next film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Based on the book by David Grann, it tells the story of a plot to murder members of the Osage Nation who were thriving in the Oklahoma oil boom of the nineteen-twenties.) Meanwhile, a different Scorsese production is available on AMC+, Sundance TV, and various on-demand platforms: “Building a Bridge,” a documentary about James Martin, a Jesuit priest and popular author, who is based at America, the Jesuit magazine, in New York, and who in recent years has devoted himself to Catholic outreach to the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Scorsese told me about the incident at Ravenhall during a conversation at his home, which Martin joined by Zoom. I had asked Scorsese how homosexuality was spoken about in the Italian American Catholic enclave of his childhood.
“It was never mentioned by priests, never mentioned in the pulpit, never mentioned in the house, never talked about at all,” Scorsese said. “Anything out of what would be considered the norm was to be ostracized, humiliated, made fun of.” But then Scorsese, who had a large extended family, learned that an older cousin with whom he was very close was gay. “There was this ‘raging bull’ kind of masculinity” at that time, so “it was an extraordinary trauma for all the uncles, my father, everyone.” He added, “They even had one of my uncles ‘talk to him,’ so to speak: ‘And if this doesn’t work, I’ll break his legs.’ ” It never went that far, Scorsese said, but, “at one family event, everyone was arguing, it became tense—‘highly charged,’ as they say. After that, things calmed down, but I’ll never forget those nights.”
The cousin, though, also confided in Scorsese, who, because he had asthma, did not engage in many neighborhood exploits. “One night, as we were walking, he said, ‘I hang out with these guys, and I’m like them.’ I was stunned.”
“That’s pretty extraordinary,” Martin said, “that someone in the fifties would say something, not knowing whether you would reveal it to your friends or your family. That takes a lot of guts.”
“Yeah, it did,” Scorsese said. “But he knew what he felt, he knew who he was, and he trusted me. He knew that I was an outsider, too. He knew I didn’t belong with the street toughs.”
Martin, who is sixty-one, is a grandson of Sicilian immigrants on his mother’s side. He grew up near Philadelphia, graduated from the Wharton School of Business, and worked for General Electric, in Connecticut, before entering the Society of Jesus, in 1988. Through his articles for America, and then a series of books, he became involved in arts projects with a Catholic dimension. He acted as an adviser to the Off Broadway production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (and later presided at the funeral Mass for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who directed it); served as “official chaplain” to “The Colbert Report” (Stephen Colbert is Catholic); was an adviser on Scorsese’s 2017 film “Silence” (which is about Jesuit missionaries in Japan in the seventeenth century); and played a cameo role in “The Irishman,” as a priest performing baptisms. His Facebook page is widely read as a bulletin board of events in the Catholic and Jesuit world, and his Twitter account has more than three hundred thousand followers. “Terrible news from the Jesuit Curia: Two Jesuits murdered in Mexico,” a recent post reported. “May they rest in peace.”
“Building a Bridge” was made by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post. (Their previous documentary, “Circle of Poison,” examines the devastating effects of selling pesticides abroad that are banned for use in the United States.) It’s based on a short book that Martin wrote after the mass shooting in 2016 at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, in which forty-nine people were killed. He noticed that the Catholic hierarchy had made scant reference to gays or homosexuality in its response, and it prompted him to try to “build a bridge” between the Church and L.G.B.T.Q. people. “Father Martin’s message resonated with us both personally, with me as a Catholic and Shannon as a queer person,” Mascagni told me. The filmmakers followed Martin for several weeks in 2018 and 2019, as he met with gay people and the parents of gay people in Catholic schools and parishes. In one scene, at a book-signing event, he is approached by a young person in tears, who tells him, “I’m not out to my family,” because “they talk so badly” about homosexuality. He says to give them time.
Martin has said that he doesn’t seek for the Church to change its teachings on homosexuality; he merely wants it to treat gay people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”—a position stated in the Catechism. The film sets his efforts in counterpoint with those of Michael Voris, of the traditionalist outlet Church Militant, who hosts a video, shown in the film, decrying “homo heresy” in the Church. “Martin is a twisted pervert,” Voris says in another clip. “There isn’t a doctrine or teaching of the Church that he wouldn’t twist and pervert with his sick mind so as to excuse his acceptance of homosexual lust.” Scorsese signed on as executive producer of the film during post-production after Martin told him about it—and he sent Mascagni and Post suggestions to reëdit some sections. “Evan got a call from Marty, and he says it was the highlight of his life,” Martin said. “ ‘Guess who I got a call from?’ ”
Scorsese told another story: around the time that his cousin confided in him, he had a revelation about a young man everyone knew in the neighborhood. He “looked like Tony Curtis in ‘City Across the River,’ ” Scorsese recalled. “He was a rock—tough, but not belligerent.” He had a car that he drove to make deliveries in the area, and Scorsese and his friends once asked to go along “because we liked to go riding in cars and nobody had a car.” When the deliveries were done, the young man said he had to make one more stop, and drove to Washington Square Park, where a group of “clean-cut young men,” with “button-down collars, chinos, blond hair,” called him by name. He got out of the car, and a “flamboyant” man joined them, and, Scorsese said, “Next thing we know, he’s bringing him in the car,” saying, “ ‘I’m just gonna drop him at the subway station at Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue.’ And we’re in the back, looking at this guy, who is sort of exotic, and also sort of threatening, because we had never experienced it, and we start giggling.” The young man said, “ ‘Don’t pay any attention. They don’t understand.’ And we stopped. ‘They don’t understand.’ We never said a word about it, but it was an extraordinary moment,” Scorsese said.
Scorsese had two more cousins who were also “that way,” as it was said in the family. One cousin was in a relationship for twenty-odd years, and eventually got married. The other, Scorsese said, “was younger than me. I saw him take his first steps. Then I lost touch with him. The last time I spoke to him, he was in the hospital.” This was in the early nineties. He had AIDS, and died soon afterward.
Even in a very traditional Italian American family, then, ways were found to address homosexuality obliquely. But, in the public world of Catholicism, in Scorsese’s account, gay people were excluded and shunned. “The exclusion is what got me,” he said. “I loved my cousins. They were good people, and I saw the suffering they went through, and the suffering of the people who cared about them.” He added, “Catholicism is supposed to be about inclusion. If the outsider is out there—is my naïve way of thinking—that’s what you have to embrace. The outsider is not to be excluded: that’s a human soul. It’s who the person is. It seemed very clear to me that this was a shortcoming of the Church.”
That shortcoming became particularly vexing to him during the nineteen-eighties. Protestant fundamentalists railed against homosexuality—the Reverend Jerry Falwell characterized AIDS as divine retribution (“A man reaps what he sows”)—and were joined by some traditionalist Catholics. (Fundamentalists also protested Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”) The Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, reaffirmed the Church’s position that homosexuality is “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” as the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in a 1986 document, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” He spoke out against violence directed toward gay people, but denounced gay sexual activity and relationships. He lauded AIDS hospices in Catholic hospitals, but fought gay-rights legislation, and opposed condom use and sex education. And, at St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit parish on West Sixteenth Street, his archdiocese ended the practice of holding masses that served as gatherings for Dignity, a movement of gay Catholics, which had become rituals of grieving for a community ravaged by AIDS. It “was a painful moment for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics in New York,” Martin told me. “Many people saw it as a sign of exclusion not only from that parish but from the Church as a whole.”
Scorsese saw the tensions expressed in dramatic fashion in 1991. “I was in a taxi going down Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center on my right, St. Patrick’s Cathedral on my left,” he recalled. “All of a sudden, I hear, ‘Fuck you! Fuck! You!’ I turned around, because Fifth Avenue is a place where you don’t expect to hear that. And I see a guy—glasses, blazer, well dressed—screaming at St. Patrick’s from across the avenue. ‘Fuck you, O’Connor! You’re nobody’s father!’ I’ve never heard such anger. It came from deep in his soul.” Scorsese noted, “He may have just lost his partner, or his brother. And that brought it all home.”
Three decades later, it’s unclear how much the situation for gay people in the Catholic Church has improved. Certainly, there are signs of change. The present archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, celebrated Mass at St. Francis Xavier, and “mentioned the L.G.B.T.Q. ministries as one of the many signs of welcome in the parish,” Martin told me. In July, 2021, Pope Francis sent Martin a handwritten letter, in Spanish, supporting his work with L.G.B.T.Q. people. “God’s ‘style’ has three elements: closeness, compassion, and tenderness,” Francis wrote. “Thinking about your pastoral work, I see that you continually try to imitate this ‘style of God.’ ” This past weekend, Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, hosted Outreach, a conference, organized by Martin, on the place of L.G.B.T.Q. people in the Church, featuring the mix of workshops, listening sessions, and liturgies that makes up his ministry these days.
And yet, this past spring, the Nativity School of Worcester, in Massachusetts, a Jesuit school for low-income students, got an open letter from the local bishop, Robert J. McManus, directing it to stop flying the rainbow and Black Lives Matter flags—or else to cease calling itself Catholic. (McManus said that the Church “stands unequivocally behind” the phrase “black lives matter,” but not what he called the movement’s view on the “role of the nuclear family.”) The school’s leaders refused to take down the flags, and, this month, the bishop signed a decree stripping the school of its Catholic affiliation. And, Pope Francis’s expressions of support notwithstanding, Catholic teaching is still set firmly against homosexual activity: in March, 2021, Francis signed off on a “responsum” to questions about same-sex relationships, declaring that even their “positive elements,” such as stability, “cannot justify these relationships,” and that God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Francis is eighty-five and in declining health, and there are rumors that he will retire, and the next Pope, possibly a more conservative figure, could well bolster the existing declaration that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” in effect undoing the symbolic gestures that Francis has made. And now that the U.S. Supreme Court—which has five conservative Catholics among its nine Justices—has ruled that, as the Catholic bishops have long maintained, a woman’s right to abort a fetus is not protected by the Constitution, it’s possible that the right to same-sex marriage (which the bishops also oppose) will be challenged next.
For Scorsese, the new documentary is not so much evidence of social change as an agent of it. Recalling his own coming of age, he said that motion pictures had a major role in opening up the culture of the fifties, when the arts were regulated by an interlocking directorate of law, press, clergy, and business figures, and the candid depiction of sex of any kind was discouraged. In doing so, they challenged the production code—buttressed by the Catholic Church—that had restricted the content of movies. “I saw the change happen. It was an explosion,” Scorsese said. (Films such as “The Children’s Hour” (1961) and “Advise and Consent” (1962) presented homosexuality as a road to perdition—things turn out badly for the protagonists—but at least they depicted it as a complex and personal reality.) Similarly, “Building a Bridge” might help to open up a Church that is leery of discussions about homosexuality, especially if it is shown in parishes and schools in places where anti-gay forces are strong. “Many Catholics, not knowing any L.G.B.T. people, are ready to condemn them: ‘I don’t need to meet them, don’t need to talk to them, I’ll just condemn their life style,’ ” Martin said during our conversation. He hopes that the film will enable Catholics who might never knowingly encounter L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics directly to encounter them onscreen—a small step, but a necessary one
During the characteristically bombastic celebrations for Pride Month in many countries all over the world this June, the Catholic Church, guided by Pope Francis, has quietly shown welcome to the LGBTQ community, while avoiding changes to doctrine.
“Catholic LGBTQ ministry has been expanding astronomically in the last decade,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director at New Ways Ministry, a Catholic outreach program aimed at promoting inclusion and justice for the LGBTQ community, in a comment to Religion News Service on Friday (June 24).
“Pope Francis’ welcoming statements and gestures are the main reason for this greater openness to LGBTQ people,” he added.
Six transgender women from different cultural and social backgrounds walked into the Vatican for a private audience with Pope Francis on Wednesday (June 22). The meeting was not announced on the pope’s daily schedule and was organized by Sister Genevieve Jeanningros, 79, known for her work with marginalized groups, including circus performers, the homeless and members of the trans community.
Jeanningros, who does her ministry from a chapel located in a small caravan parked next to a funfair in the Roman port town of Ostia, has known the pope since his election in 2013. She told the Italian online media outlet Fanpage that she asked Francis if she could bring more than one person to the Vatican, to which he allegedly answered: “Bring them all.”
One of the trans women who visited the pope, Alessia, said the meeting with Francis “was emotional” and “they felt welcomed.”
“On Pride Month I think this is an important message,” she said. “The best part of having spoken to Pope Francis is that it was simply a meeting among people and not focused on our differences.”
Pope Francis “has given people courage, and his approach of dialogue and accompaniment has given people a Catholic explanation for how LGBTQ inclusion can be authentically Catholic,” DeBernardo said.
The Catholic Church has not made any changes to doctrine concerning LGBTQ people, and according to its catechism, homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” But Pope Francis’ message of welcome and inclusion toward marginalized people has had ripple effects in the Catholic Church, effects that have become especially evident during this Pride Month.
One example, DeBernardo said, “is how many Catholic parishes now participate in pride parades and festivals.” New Ways Ministry, founded in 1977, was accustomed to only one such example a year. “Now, Catholic parishes’ participation in pride events is becoming a normal part of pride celebrations, and a normal part of Catholic parish life.”
On Father’s Day (June 19), Alex Shingleton and Landon Duyka, a civilly married gay couple with two daughters, stood before congregants at Old Saint Patrick’s Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago to read a reflection on the homily.
“In all honesty, if you had told us as young boys who wasted countless hours of our lives in church trying to ‘pray the gay away’ that we someday would be standing in front of all of you in our Catholic Church talking about our family on Father’s Day, we would never have believed you,” they said in their reflection.
Cardinal Blaze Cupich of Chicago has been an outspoken advocate for redoubling the Catholic Church’s effort to promote inclusivity and welcome of LGBTQ persons.
The Jesuit university of Fordham in New York City will be hosting a conference June 24–25 called “Outreach 2022: LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Conference,” which will address questions on how to minister to LGBTQ individuals in parishes, schools and at work. Bishop John Eric Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, will be the keynote speaker at the conference, which will also tackle questions on mental health, race and theology for LGBTQ Catholics.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Germany, the Catholic Church has undertaken a “Synodal Path,” a massive consultation among bishops and the laity, to address issues ranging from female ordination to sexuality.
Pietro Morotti and Giacomo Spagnoli, a gay couple in Bologna, Italy, were among those who voiced on social media their disappointment in the Vatican ban. And this year, on June 11, after being civilly married, the couple walked to their nearby church of San Lorenzo di Budrio for an intimate “Thanksgiving Mass” with friends and priests. News of the event led to indignation by some Catholics, who saw the ceremony as in direct violation of the Vatican’s doctrinal decision.
The Rev. Maurizio Mattarelli, who oversees a parish group for the accompaniment of LGBTQ faithful called “In Cammino” (On the Way) told local media that the couple participated in his program and had been part of his parish for 30 years.
“Just a word of advice, don’t make theoretical judgements,” he said. “Try to get to know these two people, or homosexual couples, who participate in our group, in person.”
“The church is called to unite, not divide,” he added.
In a statement June 19, the Archdiocese of Bologna clarified the Mass was not a blessing of the union, adding that the diocese stands in opposition to “all discrimination and violence based on sexuality.”
The head of the Archdiocese of Bologna, Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, was recently selected by Pope Francis to head the Italian Bishops Conference — a promotion viewed by some as the pope’s encouragement for a change of direction among the traditionally conservative episcopacy in Italy.
In 2018, Zuppi wrote the preface for the book “Building a Bridge” by the Rev. James Martin, promoting welcome and outreach to the LGBTQ community. In 2020, the cardinal wrote another preface for a book by Italian journalist Luciano di Moia, “The Church and Homosexuality,” offering pastoral guidelines to minister to gay Catholics.
“When our communities will begin to truly see people as God sees them, including homosexual people and everyone else, they will naturally begin to feel part of the ecclesial community, on the way,” Zuppi wrote in the preface to the book by di Moia.
Along with the promotion of Zuppi — considered ‘papabile’ by some, meaning eligible to be elected pope — Pope Francis has also been making moves to diminish the power of the Vatican’s doctrinal department this year. His Apostolic Constitution, “Praedicate Evangelium” or “Preach the Gospel,” published in March, stripped the department of some of its teeth, placing an emphasis on dialoguing with those who hold dissenting opinions, rather than imposing sentences.
LGBTQ outreach and ministry “used to be something that was done rather secretly, with pastoral leaders wanting to stay under the radar,” said DeBernardo, but thanks to the efforts of Francis and others, he believes this work can now be done without as much fear of controversy or reprimand.
“In more and more parishes, LGBTQ people are not only welcome, but are becoming ministry leaders in all kinds of activities and programs, not just LGBTQ outreach efforts,” he said.
Two brothers who grew up in Warren County in a devout Catholic family allege that Gary Mercure, a former priest in their childhood parish who was later convicted of raping young boys in Massachusetts, had sexually abused them on multiple occasions over a period of years and that ex-Albany Bishop Howard J. Hubbard took part in some of the assaults.
In a series of recent interviews with the Times Union, the brothers recounted years of sexual abuse at the hands of Mercure beginning in the mid-1980s. They also had detailed those allegations when they testified at Mercure’s 2011 criminal trial in Pittsfield, where the former priest was sentenced to two decades in prison following his conviction on charges of raping two altar boys.
The men, now in their 40s, for the first time are publicly asserting that Mercure and Hubbard sexually abused the older brother on multiple occasions during encounters at Lake George motels, in the rectory of Our Lady of Annunciation in Queensbury, and in Mercure’s vehicle in Albany.
“The bishop forcefully denies the allegations; he’s never abused these gentlemen, never met these gentlemen, never abused anyone, whether it be a minor or an adult,” said Terence P. O’Connor, an Albany attorney whose firm is representing Hubbard in the sexual abuse cases. “The bishop wholeheartedly denies these allegations. He’s never abused either of these boys. He’s never abused anybody.”
The younger brother said he was sexually abused once by Hubbard, but that he — like his brother — had been sexually assaulted hundreds of times by Mercure beginning when they were about 8 years old and continuing into their high school years. Numerous other men, many of them former altar boys who worked alongside Mercure, also have leveled sexual abuse allegations against him.
The brothers asked to remain anonymous for this story. The Times Union does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.
The older brother said that “looking back on it now, it was almost as if Mercure was setting me up for the bishop to take over … especially going down to Albany or when the bishop would come into Lake George and come visit Mercure (at motels).”
Mercure had a close relationship with Hubbard, who has visited the former priest at the Massachusetts prison where he is serving his 20- to 25-year sentence, according to law enforcement sources.
The alleged abuse involving the bishop that took place in the rectory at Our Lady of Annunciation in Queensbury — a location where Mercure was also accused of sexually abusing other young boys — usually occurred in connection with events such as Christmas Mass or confirmation ceremonies. The older brother said Mercure would often ply him with money and alcohol, an allegation made by other alleged victims.
“John French, the pastor at that church, was constantly at odds with Mercure because kids — boys — were coming in and out of that rectory at Annunciation, and he had a strict policy that we were not supposed to be in that rectory,” the older brother said. “So Mercure went out of his way to make sure that French was out of there or gone when him and Hubbard were there doing their thing.”
He said that Mercure on occasion drove him to Albany and they would pick up Hubbard and drive into a park — he described a setting that appeared to resemble Washington Park — and pick up male prostitutes or men interested in having sex with strangers. He said those men would never have sex with him, but that Mercure and Hubbard would perform sexual acts in front of him.
He said that during the car trips to Albany, when he said he was also occasionally sexually abused by the priest and bishop, “I never was allowed inside where the bishop was. … I was always in the car or he would meet us someplace, sometimes a restaurant … but I could never go into the chancery.”
The older brother said that during the alleged encounters at Lake George motels, Hubbard maintained a low profile but Mercure often went out in public dressed like a tourist and without wearing his clergy collar. He said there were multiple sexual encounters in those motels involving the bishop, who would then leave quickly. The older brother said Mercure would sometimes hand him hundreds of dollars or take him out to dinner after the alleged incidents.
During one of the visits, the older brother said, Mercure and Hubbard got into an argument after they ran into people who knew Mercure. “The bishop was saying it was drawing too much attention — ‘You’re asking for trouble,’ ” the older brother recalled. “Hubbard had made comments that I overheard about how careless Mercure was about all this.”
Years to process
The new allegations against Hubbard have increased the number of individuals accusing him of sexual abuse to at least nine — seven of whom have filed lawsuits against the former bishop, the Catholic church or the Albany diocese. The lawsuits, among hundreds pending against the diocese, were filed under New York’s Child Victims Act, which lifted the statute of limitations for two years to give alleged victims the opportunity to sue their abusers or the institutions that may have harbored them.
O’Connor, Hubbard’s attorney, noted that an attorney for the brothers had reported their allegations against Mercure to the diocese in 2008, but had never told the organization about the allegations against Hubbard, including in the ensuing years when that attorney negotiated to have their counseling fees paid by the church.
“I would think that would have been a ripe time to raise the allegations,” O’Connor said. He highlighted another man’s allegation that Hubbard had abused him on a bus during halftime of an Army-Navy game at West Point Academy. O’Connor noted that before 2020, Army and Navy had not played a game at West Point since the 1940s.
The older brother said that in 2008, their family was in the midst of his father’s decadelong battle with a health condition that would later cause his death. He said O’Connor may not understand the complexities of suppressing the memories of childhood sexual abuse and dealing with a diocese that had never reached out to apologize to the many victims that Mercure was accused of raping when they were children.
He said that after he and his brother testified at Mercure’s criminal trial in Massachusetts, diocesan representatives, including two who attended the trial, did not thank them for their testimony that had helped secure the former priest’s conviction. He said that when Hubbard conducted a “healing” mass at Our Lady of Annunciation in Queensbury following Mercure’s criminal trial, the bishop never mentioned the victims — even though much of the sexual abuse occurred in an adjacent room.
“You have a man that’s been accused of multiple allegations throughout the years and the best question that (his) attorney has is, ‘Why didn’t they tell us about this sooner?’ ” the older brother said. “Not one time has there been any call from the bishop or anyone high up in that diocese apologizing or saying, ‘Thank you for getting up there and testifying and helping put this guy away where he belongs, because this is something we should have stopped years ago.’ ”
He said it’s noteworthy that Hubbard, who has acknowledged concealing clergy abuse and returning abusive priests to ministry after they had received counseling, has visited Mercure in prison but never reached out to the alleged victims of Mercure’s abuse.
There was an earlier — but cryptic — disclosure to the diocese about his allegation against Hubbard: The older brother’s claim of a second clergy member abusing him was shared with the diocese in 2014, when his attorney notified Michael L. Costello, the longtime attorney for the diocese, of a second abuser that the brother did not want to identify, according to letters exchanged between the attorneys.
The brothers’ attorney at that time, Tina Weber, said the older brother was not ready to come forward then about his allegations against Hubbard and, apparently because of that, Costello cut off communication with her for about two years. Costello, in a 2016 letter to Weber, noted he had raised concerns that the unidentified clergy member could victimize others, and he cited a memorandum of understanding between the diocese and New York’s district attorneys that required the church to notify them of any new sexual abuse allegations.
The older brother said that even though the diocese paid him and his brother $90,000 each in 2016 to cover their counseling, that agreement — which did not include compensation for “pain and suffering” — came only after they had endured years of the diocese allegedly failing to pay for their therapy sessions in a timely manner. The delays often required their attorney to have to call and demand payments be made. In addition, he said, the diocese tried to pressure them to sign a release enabling the church to receive copies of their therapists’ notes and other treatment records.
“They’re asking me to come forward and other people to come forward when Hubbard was still bishop? What do you think is going to happen?” the older brother said. “And their track record isn’t very good for how they’ve handled these accusations before in the past.”
The brothers said that when the allegations against Mercure were made public more than 14 years ago, they interpreted many of the public statements made by diocesan officials as implying that his sexual abuse of children involved isolated incidents and that his alleged victims were teenage boys experimenting with homosexual sex.
“We were getting beat up and lambasted like we did something wrong. We were kids — what did we do wrong?” the older brother said. “Why is Hubbard going down to that prison to visit (Mercure) instead of calling Tina to say, ‘What do your (clients) need?’ … It doesn’t give a victim a very good feeling that it’s OK for me now to come forward.”
The brothers recently agreed to tell their story publicly, they said, in part because of the manner in which they contend the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany has waged a fierce legal battle to have their Child Victims Act lawsuit against the diocese and Our Lady of Annunciation thrown out of court.
The dismissal, which was affirmed by a mid-level appellate court but may be reviewed by the state Court of Appeals, centered on the diocese’s argument that the pair had relinquished any future claims for the abuse they endured when they signed an agreement in 2016 to receive the $90,000 payments for trauma therapy.
In a letter to their attorney, Costello described the diocese’s practice of requiring a “general release … which is intended to provide partial counseling and associated expenses permitting the victim to advance with healing and their lives.”
But, he added in the letter, “the limited assistance provided covers past/prospective counseling and indirectly recognizes pain and suffering through the counseling. Assistance resolution does not earmark or compensate explicitly for pain and suffering.”
Even though the Child Victims Act at that time had been stalled for years in the state Legislature, and with no indication it would pass, the brothers said they would not have signed that release if they thought it would have barred them from any future claims against the diocese.
“They treated (the brothers) almost like criminals during and after (Mercure’s criminal trial),” Weber said. “What they wanted is periodically to review what was going on, before they would authorize additional counseling sessions, which is why finally at one point (the brothers) said, ‘Can we just settle this somehow?’ That’s how the counseling package came into play: so they never had to deal with the diocese again.”
Kathryn Barrans, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said they have “provided considerable assistance to the victims/survivors in this case.”
“Prior to the settlement reached in 2016 with the victims/survivors and their attorney, the diocese provided payment for ongoing counseling assistance for them and a family member to the health care provider of their choice,” Barrans said. “The settlement, reached with the consent of their attorney, provided an additional $90,000 for each victim/survivor in this case.”
Weber countered that the diocese’s “go-to position has been, and always will be, victim shaming and blaming.”
“It is disingenuous, at best, to now suggest — both in court and in the court of public opinion — that my former clients received fair and just compensation,” Weber said. “It must be understood that the damage caused by the abuse as well as the dismissive actions of the diocese continues to traumatize my former clients on a daily basis.”
Last year, a lawsuit filed anonymously on behalf of a male plaintiff against the diocese and St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church alleged that in 1977 — the year Hubbard was appointed bishop — he approached the then-11-year-old boy at a carnival at the Clifton Park church and told the boy to accompany him to the rectory, and molested him.
“For a period of time I experienced a lot of anger toward religion, towards God, my beliefs,” the man who filed that lawsuit told the Times Union last year. “And over a period of time, I just realized that there’s just bad eggs. There’s certain people that are just rotten people, and Bishop Hubbard is just one of those people.”
Hubbard, who stepped down as bishop in 2014, issued a statement in response to the man’s lawsuit, saying: “I pray for the anonymous individual who filed this lawsuit that he will know the healing and peace of God’s love and will find the justice and closure he seeks. I know with absolute certainty that I did not abuse him because I know with absolute certainty that I have never abused a child or an adult, sexually or in any other way.”
In the Queensbury case, the younger brother said they were sexually abused by Mercure repeatedly over a period of about a decade beginning in the mid-1980s. He reiterated that Mercure and Hubbard had sexually abused him together only once, and that he and his brother did not know until years later, when they were adults, that they had both been victimized.
When asked why he was coming forward now, he said: “A lot of this is the frustration that there’s been zero accountability in the diocese. No convictions. The Child Victims Act is all smoke and mirrors. Hubbard continues to tell all these lies. It’s really hard to swallow. You get a lot of: ‘Just try to move on. You’re a male. It happened 30 years ago, get over it.’ But the effect it takes on your entire life — relationships, family, anxiety, nightmares.”
Mercure was ordained in 1975 and served as a priest or associate pastor at St. Mary’s in Clinton Heights, St. Mary’s in Glens Falls, Our Lady of Annunciation in Queensbury and Our Lady of the Assumption in Latham.
In the mid-1990s, the diocese sent Mercure to a church-run hospital near Philadelphia, St. John Vianney, for undisclosed counseling and what church officials described as a “nervous breakdown.” That facility, according to a 2018 grand jury investigation by the Pennsylvania state attorney general’s office, was one of many facilities used by the Catholic church to secretly provide treatment to priests accused of sexually abusing children.
Mercure was visited by the brothers’ family members at St. John Vianney, where they thought he was being treated for anxiety. The parents were close to Mercure at Our Lady of Annunciation, where they had been eucharistic ministers and were unaware at the time of his alleged sexual abuse of their sons. During one of the family’s visits to the Downington, Pa., facility, Mercure allegedly fondled the younger brother after asking him to help carry some reading materials that he had received from the family to his room.
Years later, around 2000, the mother of two former altar boys contacted church officials and reported that her son had told her Mercure had once tried to kiss him on the family’s front porch.
The woman, who lives in another state and spoke to the Times Union several years ago on the condition she not be identified, said she was put in touch with Father Louis Deimeke, a diocese official who later retired.
“He wanted to know ‘What do you want from us?’ ” she said. “I said we don’t want any money. … I’m calling to protect other children.”
She said Deimeke acknowledged they’d “had problems” with Mercure.
Church officials would later say Mercure denied the allegations and resumed his ministry duties in Troy.
The woman said that about a year later she learned Deimeke would be at St. Mary’s Church in Glens Falls. She waited and followed him into the sacistry, where she introduced herself.
“He did not acknowledge me in any way, shape or form,” she said. “He continued to put his coat on and walked out the sacistry door and out of the church. I stood there dumbfounded.”
In 2008, after one her sons learned Mercure was still a priest at an area church affiliated with a school, he contacted then-Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan and recounted years of alleged abuse at Mercure’s hands. On paper, it looked as though the New York statute of limitations barred any prosecution. But Hogan’s office investigated and learned Mercure had raped some of his victims in Massachusetts, where his crimes were not time-barred from prosecution.
Hubbard’s attorney last year told the Times Union that “people have come out of the woodwork” and filed lawsuits because they are looking to get money. The attorney acknowledged at the time that having seven accusers of Hubbard “doesn’t look great” but added that many of the “factual predicates of the lawsuits are completely ridiculous.”
The former bishop also confirmed that many of the records documenting the sexual abuse allegations were kept in secret files that only he and other top church officials could access. He said the “sealed” files included allegations of abuse as well as records on priests accused of other forms of wrongdoing, such as financial misconduct or alcohol abuse.
The deposition, which was released after attorneys removed the names of alleged victims, confirms the efforts by the former bishop and the diocese to conceal incidents of sexual abuse when Hubbard was bishop of the 14-county district.
Hubbard also testified about his reluctance to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy for child sexual abuse perpetrators, and he acknowledged that despite the diocese keeping the sealed files on priests accused of child sex abuse, he did not review the files kept by his predecessor to confirm whether any priests active in ministry during his tenure were child predators.
“There was a sense in those days that these crimes should be handled with a minimum of publicity that might re-victimize a minor,” Hubbard had said, adding that church leaders’ “failure to notify the parish and the public when a priest was removed or restored was a mistake.”
In Hubbard’s testimony, he acknowledged that Mercure was the only sexually abusive priest he had removed from the clerical state — and that the removal took place only after Mercure had been convicted of rape and sentenced to prison. In an interview with the Times Union roughly a decade ago, Hubbard declined to say why he had never met with Mercure’s victims or their families, but had visited Mercure in prison.