Two cases involving Catholic priests reveal the inadequacy of the hierarchy’s methods of dealing with gay priests.
First, parishioners in Northern Ireland are standing beside a local priest placed on leave after it was found that he was using a gay dating app.
Fr. Rory Coyle “posted a series of comments and pictures of himself” on the app Grindr earlier this year, reported Irish News. His presence on the app became known and, in March, Coyle notified parishioners he would be taking a leave of absence. That leave has since been extended for the priest to “engage in a period of personal discernment and receive further help,” according to the Archdiocese of Armagh’s spokesperson. There are no reports that Coyle violated any laws.
Coyle had been heavily involved in the Armagh community where he ministered, including serving on the board of governors for a Catholic school, as chaplain to St. Catherine’s College, and as a member of the local Gaelic Athletic Association. Community members have risen to his defense.
Cathal Boylan, a local politician, said Coyle is “well respected” and people were wishing him well “at this difficult time.” Matthew Corr, chair of SDLP LGBT+, a political organization of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, wrote in letter to the editor:
“Dealing with your sexual orientation can be one of the most pressurised and challenging processes a person has to go through, even more so for him given his vocation and public role within the community. It is a process people handle very differently. . .
“Anyone who knows Fr Rory will speak of the warmth and devotion he has for the local community and I’m proud to see the community in Armagh standing up for him. As a member of the Armagh parish and an LGBT+ activist, I join with them in offering my support for him. No matter the path he chooses, I hope it’s one where he’s happy.”
Irish News columnist Allison Morris called the community’s support “heartening” as she explored the incident. Suggesting sexually active priests face “a terrible dilemma,” Morris wrote:
“Priests who are gay find themselves wrestling not just with a vow of celibacy but feeling stigmatised as ‘sinful’ by a Church that preaches against homosexuality. . .Imagine the turmoil of those men and women who are forced to preach against same sex marriage while trying to conceal their own sexuality.”
If the question were left to the Catholic faithful, Morris noted, they will almost always chose compassion for their priests, as Fr. Coyle’s flock has shown him. She continued:
“If they like and respect a priest they don’t seem to care about whether or not he is adhering to his vows or the fact he’s dating either men or women. . .That alone should be a reason to reopen the debate into the future of the Catholic Church and whether to survive it needs to change. . .It’s time for real debate about the subject, to look at how the Catholic Church can evolve and survive the pressures of modern society.”
The second case is that of French Msgr. Tony Anatrella. The National Catholic Reporter stated that he is facing at least four allegations that he had sexual encounters with male clients in his capacity as a therapist for clergy, seminarians, and religious struggling with their sexuality.
Anatrella has written against homosexuality in vicious terms, suggesting previously that gay people were “narcissists” and responsible for the clergy sexual abuse crisis. In at least one of the allegations, it is claimed that the priest told the client that sexual acts would cure the client of his gay identity.The Vatican has consulted Anatrella on sexuality matters, too, including the development of 2005’s guidelines to bar gay men from the priesthood. At a training for new bishops, the priest recently commented that the prelates need not report sexual abuse even if civil law mandates it.
Msgr. Anatrella remains a priest in good standing though, but, as the NCR article makes clear, the questions about his future and the potential cover up by French prelates of his abuse are mounting.
In considering the cases of these two priests, there is a broad set of issues involved with many nuances in each. In this post, we will focus on how church officials handle the issue of homosexuality and bisexuality in the priesthood.
John O’Doherty of the Rainbow Project, an LGBT health organization in Northern Ireland, told Irish News that Fr. Coyle’s case is not unique because “invisibility and isolation” remain the largest issues affecting LGBT people in a country where the leading churches remain non-affirming. This statement is likely true for many regions in the world, and this invisibility and isolation is intensely true for clergy and religious.
If invisibility and isolation were part of Coyle’s life, they could very well have contributed to his decision to use a gay dating app. It’s important to at least ponder the idea that had he been able to acknowledge and share information about his orientation with parishioners and superiors, he might not have felt the need to put his vow of celibacy on the line. Further, if seminary and formation training had allowed him to affirm his sexuality and explore whether he was ready to commit to celibacy as a gay man, he might never have had to seek to explore relationships in a surreptitious way.
The celibacy question aside, the closet remains prominent and oppressive in the priesthood. The climate of fear surrounding homosexuality in the hierarchy of the church promotes secrecy and shame, instead of openness and acceptance. It is important to note though, that while church leaders promote a closeted existence, the faithful are much more likely to support their gay priests, as they did in Coyle’s case.
Meanwhile, priests who sexually abuse children and adults of all genders, as Msgr. Anatrella is alleged to have done, remain in ministry. The saddest part is that Anatrella repeatedly scapegoated gay men for the pedophilia crisis, without any justification. If the allegations are proven true, then it will be one more case which shows the bizarre behavior that some closeted leaders will go to because of their own self-denigration and fear of being known. Targeting faithful gay priests beloved by their communities has only allowed real abusers to continue abusing and to have their crimes protected.
Despite the fact that by most accepted estimates 50% or more of Catholic priests are gay, only a few are openly so in their ministries. This is a deep loss not only for the the priests involved, but for the people of God. The outcomes in these two cases contrast painfully to illuminate the desperate need for a reality check by Catholic leaders and institutions when it comes to their treatment of sexuality in ministry, particularly on LGBT issues.
–Bob Shine and Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry