Denial of Anointing of the Sick Needs More Explanation by Archdiocese

A Washington Blade story this week reported that a Catholic gay man in the District of Columbia was refused the anointing by a Catholic hospital chaplain after the patient experienced a heart attack.  This story is made more complex, though, by the fact that the priest and the Archdiocese of Washington who supervises him are refusing to make any comment on the story.

Here’s the facts of the story, according to the Washington Blade:

“D.C. resident Ronald Plishka, 63, a retired travel agent and lifelong Catholic, said he asked a nurse to arrange for a priest to see him on Feb. 7, one day after he was admitted by ambulance to the hospital emergency room for a heart attack. He said that at the time he wasn’t sure he would survive.

“A short time later, Plishka said, Father Brian Coelho, a priest assigned to the hospital’s Department of Spiritual Care, arrived at his bedside. He said Coelho offered to take his confession before proceeding with communion and last rites, which the church now calls the sacrament of anointing of the sick.

“ ‘We started talking and I told him I was so happy with this new Pope because of his comments about the gays and his accepting the gays,’ Plishka said. ‘And I mentioned that I was gay. I said it and then I asked him does that bother you? And he said, “Oh, no, that does not bother me,’” said Plishka.

“ ‘But then he would not proceed with administering the last rites or communion. He couldn’t do it.’

According to Plishka, Coelho, who brought a supply of holy water to his hospital room, never said in so many words that he was refusing to administer communion and last rites.

“Asked what Coelho told him, Plishka said, ‘Well, I mean he stopped. He would not do it. By him not doing it I assumed he would not do it because why was he getting ready to do it and all of a sudden when I say I’m gay he stops?’

“Plishka said Coelho gave no reason for not giving him the sacraments he requested but offered instead to pray with him.

“ ‘He said what he wanted to do,’ said Plishka. ‘He wanted to pray. That’s what he wanted to do. He said well I could pray with you.”

Plishka refused the offer of prayer, angry at what he felt was discrimination.  

The news story reports that both Coelho and the Archdiocese of Washington have refused to comment on the story.  This silence is very unfortunate.  If Coelho had a legitimate pastoral reason not to administer the anointing of the sick, he should state what it was.  Without such a statement, his actions can easily be interpreted as homophobic.  Their silence opens the way for great speculation.

A person with pastoral experience was quoted in the Blade story, commenting on the unusual reaction by the priest:

“Henry Huot, a retired Catholic priest who serves as chair of Dignity Washington’s Pastoral Ministry Committee, said longstanding Catholic practice calls for priests to provide the sacraments to people in situations similar to Plishka.

“ ‘Any baptized Christian ought not to be denied the sacraments at his or her request,’ Huot said. ‘And that is a cardinal rule of pastoral care. So I don’t know what was going through the mind of this hospital chaplain to deny this man the sacraments,’ he said. ‘It violates this cardinal rule.’ “

DignityUSA also commented on the strange pastoral response:

“ ‘The fact that conditions existed for a priest to make this call is upsetting,’ said Dignity USA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke. ‘There should be very clear standards. You minister to the person in need without judgment and without conditions,” she said. “It is not the role of the priest to cause the person in distress additional hardship.’

‘Duddy-Burke said it’s the responsibility of the Archdiocese to set pastoral care standards for priests under its jurisdiction.

“ ‘And I would hope that if this case is brought to the attention of Archdiocesan officials, as it should be, that they would respond appropriately and discipline this priest and make it known to every priest and every person that’s providing pastoral care in the Archdiocese that people should be treated as children of God first.’ “

The Archdiocese of Washington already has had one terrible occasion of pastoral care violation directed toward an LGBT person when in 2012, Barbara Johnson, a lesbian woman was denied communion at her mother’s funeral.  In that case, the Archdiocese apologized, the priest involved was disciplined and eventually removed from pastoral work.  The Archdiocese should move swiftly to explain this situation more fully, and if the priest involved had committed a homophobic error, some public correction should be made.

There is no reason that an LGBT person should be denied pastoral care, especially in a city with as many LGBT Catholics as Washington, DC. This whole episode illustrates why so much education of priests and pastoral staff in regards to LGBT people is still sorely needed.  And the Archdiocese needs to be swift in making some public statement either that an error was committed by the priest or that the Archdiocese is committed to fairness and equality in administering the sacraments.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article

Washington Post:  Gay patient says Catholic chaplain refused him last rites

0 replies
  1. L. Newington
    L. Newington says:

    Disgusting, yet the Vatican is full the male species.
    It reminds me of Richard Sipe, and the clergy he dealt with contracting aid, introduced to the lifesyle as seminarians……
    Clergy in Crisis : Never another Pat.

  2. Terence
    Terence says:

    Thanks, Frank. This whole affair seems to me so extraordinary that I hesitate to pass comment without hearing the other side, from the priest or from the diocese – but their refusal to put their case in itself speaks volumes.

    Your headline gets it exactly right – the diocese has some explaining to do.

  3. Sal James
    Sal James says:

    To continue the story. This is from

    Catholic Priest Refused to Give Me Last Rites, Says Gay Man
    Filed By John M. Becker | February 19, 2014 8:00 AM | 5 comments

    …..continuing from where the blog left off. …

    Plishka says that Coelho instead offered to pray with him, rather than administering the sacraments. “‘He said what he wanted to do,’ said Plishka. ‘He wanted to pray. That’s what he wanted to do. He said well I could pray with you. And I just told him to get the f*** out of here — excuse me. But that’s what I told him.'”

    He was so upset that he says doctors warned him that if he didn’t calm down he might have another heart attack.

    After hearing about Plishka’s encounter with Fr. Coelho (left), the hospital sent a Methodist minister to his hospital room.

    Plishka says the medical care he received at the hospital was excellent and life-saving. When he returned home he lodged a formal complaint against Coelho with the hospital chaplain’s office. He also called his church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and asked to speak with the priest on call about his experience at the hospital. Shockingly, that priest agreed with Coelho’s abhorrent actions:

    “[The priest] called me back and said he agreed with what the priest at the hospital did. He said unless you’re willing to change and basically become somebody you’re not, then this priest had every right to do that, to refuse you communion and to refuse you the last rites of the church,” Plishka said.

    Henry Huot, a retired Catholic priest who now chairs the Pastoral Ministry Committee of the D.C. LGBT Catholic group Dignity Washington, called shenanigans. He told the Blade, “Any baptized Christian ought not to be denied the sacraments at his or her request. And that is a cardinal rule of pastoral care. So I don’t know what was going through the mind of this hospital chaplain to deny this man the sacraments.”

    A spokeswoman for Washington Hospital Center told the Blade that they take Plishka’s report very seriously and are investigating the allegations. She noted the hospital’s commitment to LGBT-inclusive healthcare, pointing out that they were named a Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality on HRC’s 2013 Healthcare Equality Index.

    The Archdiocese of Washington, which assigned Coelho to Washington Hospital Center and has jurisdiction over D.C. hospital chaplains, refused to comment on the story.

    Asked why he was speaking out now, Plishka told the Blade:

    “I think there comes a time when as a gay man you have to take a stand, you know? It’s just intolerable to be treated like you’re nothing. And I could have died. And all I did was ask for the rites of the church that are due to me. But because I’m gay I’m denied that.”

    Using the sacraments as weapons to spiritually bludgeon LGBT people? Sadly, it sounds like just another day in the church of “Who am I to judge?”.


    Father Brian A. Coelho was born in India and attended seminary there prior to entering the Archdiocese of Washington’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary. A member of the Neocatechumenal Way, he was ordained May 26, 2007.


    If he is part of the pastoral care team of the hospital he should be a board certified chaplain with the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and completed the requisite Clinical Pastoral Education program. If he does not, he should never have been hired. I think the hospital and the diocese could be liable to malpractice, a route I would suggest Ron Plishka seriously consider.

    I am appalled by the action of this priest.

    Is there any way to get this event to the attention of the Pope?

  4. Chaplain Bill
    Chaplain Bill says:

    “If Coelho had a legitimate pastoral reason not to administer the anointing of the sick, he should state what it was.” And what, pray tell, might be a “legitimate reason” to deny the sacrament? The more things change, the more they remain the same for the Roman Church. Francis is very attractive window dressing but the outcome is that of Benedict. Shameful!

  5. Friends
    Friends says:

    My own response to this horrible story — a response which I posted directly to John Becker’s Bilerico site via Facebook — was that Pope Francis ought to “woodshed” this rogue priest, and then send him back to retake “Pastoral Theology 101”. However, I was appalled to note that a large number of the responses posted at John’s site were from conservative Catholics who strongly defended the priest’s action, and who declared that the ailing man needed to “confess and to repent of his homosexual lifestyle” before he was deemed worthy to receive the Last Rites. Why far-right-wing Catholics are following John’s Bilerico site at all is a mystery to me — unless they’re merely trolling it to create disruption. An end to this bitter and divisive “culture war” within the Church seems to be nowhere in sight.

  6. Friends
    Friends says:

    Following up, after some additional research: there’s an extremely interesting and relevant “back story” to this atrocious situation. The priest involved, Fr. Brian Coelho, has been identified as an initiate of the “Neocatechumenal Way” — which is a highly controversial cult-like community within the larger Roman Catholic Church. Here’s an informative Wikipedia discussion of Fr. Coelho’s affiliated community:

    These two paragraphs (at the end of the Wiki) are extremely relevant to the Coelho controversy. Quote:

    In some places such as China and the Middle East, local Catholics have complained that missionaries of the Way have forced European songs, rituals and prayers on them. Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada has described the Way’s presence in Japan’s small Catholic community as “a serious problem” and “divisive and confrontational”. Staff and students of the Takamatsu Redemptoris Mater seminary relocated to Rome in 2009, and in 2010, the Japanese episcopal conference asked the Way to suspend its activities in Japan for five years. Local bishops suspended the Way’s activities in the Philippines in 2010, and in Nepal in 2011.

    In February 2014, Pope Francis praised the zeal of the Neocatechumenal Way. He also told the movement it should not impose its distinctively Spanish-Italian model of Church on other cultures, or insist on following practices that are frowned upon by local bishops. “The freedom of the individual must not be forced, and you must respect even the eventual choice of those who should decide to look outside of the Way” the Pope said.

    A very interesting “back story” indeed!

  7. Margaret Manning
    Margaret Manning says:

    Having been a volunteer in Pastoral Care this story brought me to tears. How can a person represent the Church as a Priest and, not be their for one God’s children? This was a man in need of comfort. It was his right to receive the Sacrament of Anointing. There is no excuse. And we wonder why so many are leaving the Catholic Church.


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