CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Cardinal O’Connor Decries Violence Against Lesbian & Gay People

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Cardinal O’Connor Decries Violence Against Lesbian and Gay People

Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who was Archbishop of New York in the 1980s and 1990s had a long history of statements and actions offensive to the LGBT community.  Among other things, he supported the ban on Irish LGBT groups in the N.Y. St. Patrick’s Day Parade and he challenged Mayor Ed Koch’s Executive Order 50 which banned sexual orientation discrimination in employment for groups that had contracts with the city.  Yet, he was also known to volunteer at a Catholic hospital, tending to patients with HIV/AIDS at a time when many others shunned any physical contact with the syndrome’s victims.

Another lesser known story about O’Connor is that in September 1988, he spoke out to condemn a rash of brutal beatings and stabbings of LGBT people in New York City. On September,  12, 1988,  The New York Times reported at the time:

“John Cardinal O’Connor, who is often the target of gay protesters himself, yesterday condemned recent beatings and stabbings of homosexuals as stupid, ignorant and malicious, saying that those who perpetuate violence against homosexuals ‘are doing violence against Christ Himself.’ “

” ‘Anyone who does such a thing thinking it is justified by church teaching about homosexual behavior is grossly ignorant of what the church actually teaches,’ the Cardinal said in a statement he read from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral before delivering his homily during Sunday Mass.”

Though protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral against O’Connor’s anti-LGBT stands were fairly commonplace at this time, at least one prominent LGBT activist spoke out in praise of the cardinal’s condemnation of violence.  The Times reported a statement in response to O’Connor:

” ‘This is an important step forward,’ said Thomas B. Stoddard, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.  Earlier this month, Mr. Stoddard sent a letter to the Cardinal suggesting that he make a statement condemning anti-gay violence.

” ‘Still,’ Mr. Stoddard added, ‘there is an ambiguity in the message because it does suggest that gay people are inferior, and that is dangerous and troublesome.  But I am pleased that he has at least taken this step and has gone further than others who have irresponsibly remained silent.’ “

Cardinal John O’Connor

The news story indicated that these “others” were state politicians who at the time were blocking a bill that would have added sexual orientation to the categories covered under hate crimes laws.

The Times article continued to quote from O’Connor’s homily:

 “Since I have been Archbishop of New York, I have tried in every way I know how to make clear the church’s teaching on homosexuality.  The church teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful. As in every other situation, however, the church never condemns the sinner, only the sin.

“Some people seem to get this all mixed up.  They take it upon themselves to condemn the sinner.  In recent weks in New York we have had a series of violent actions against persons perceived to be homosexuals.  These actions were so brutal that they could have resulted in murder.  As it is, one victim is stilol hospitalized in serious condition as a result of the beatings with a baseball bat and a knife wound in the lung.

“I wish I had language strong enough to condemn this kind of cruelty.  Anyone who performs such action in the belief that he or she is in some way helping society is utterly stupid.”

To those who practiced such violence against LGBT people, O’Connor said:

“You do an evil thing.  Whatever you pretend to be, do not pretend to be Christians.”

I believe that O’Connor’s good intentions are evident in his talk.  His strong language condemning anti-LGBT violence sent a powerful message.  I believe that he was probably unaware, though, that some of his language perpetuated negative attitudes which are at the base of so much homophobic violence.   By discussing “sin” and referring to gay and lesbian people as “sinners,” he was undermining his efforts to end violence by sending a message that gay and lesbian people were acting against the will of God.

When we compare O’Connor’s language to that of Pope Francis, and some of his newly-appointed bishops, we notice that even though they do not approve of same-gender sexual relationships, they avoid the pitfall of highlighting “sin” and labeling people “sinners.”  It has taken too long to get to a point where this language is now being avoided, but I thank God that there is movement in the right direction.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 30, 2017




4 replies
  1. Andy Humm
    Andy Humm says:

    Deeply disappointed that you would cut O’Connor this kind of slack. He condemned violence? What else could he do? Praise it? O’Connor was the leading anti-gay bigot in New York during his entire tenure. He was the leading obstacle to passage of the city gay rights bill, which took until 1986 to pass. He visited AIDS patients? He was appointed to Reagan’s AIDS Commission–an appointment that helped everyone understand the commission was a rightwing sham–and promised to visit AIDS patients, something he neglected to do until the night before the first meeting of the commission. He got the Pope to make the Jesuits expel Dignity from meeting in St. Francis Xavier Church. He viciously persecuted Father Bernard Lynch of Dignity who bravely spoke out for LGBT rights by trumping up abuse charges against him–charges that were thrown out of a Bronx court where Father Lynch was exonerated.

    When O’Connor was appointed, as a leader of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, we reached out for a meeting and after public protest because he wouldn’t schedule it, he did finally meet with a delegation of about 15 of us. He promised to review Archdiocese opposition to our rights bill–but he NEVER continued any dialogue about that. He just opposed it and distorted its meaning.

    O’Connor’s opposition to Mayor Koch’s Executive Order 50 was particularly heinous. He said that he would rather close city-funded child care centers rather than comply with the order–asserting that we LGBT people are a threat to children.

    This was a particularly evil man, obsessed with thwarting LGBT rights while we were suffering through the worst years of the AIDS crisis. He never did anything to teach Catholic school kids about AIDS–and tried to stop our efforts to install explicit AIDS education in the public schools including condom availability. (We beat him on that one in 1991, but he never gave up in trying to undo what we accomplished.)

    He was commonly referred to as “the Archbigot” by activists because that’s what he was–the leading voice against our rights and dignity in New York.

    He was so vigorous in keeping the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization out of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that he was made grand marshal of the parade–the first Archbishop to be so “honored,” but the distinction was earned on the basis of his anti-gay bigotry.

    One more story from a priest friend, Father Herb Rogers, SJ, who lived in the same rectory as O’Connor on Manhattan’s East Side when O’Connor was in charge of the Military Vicarate. Father Rogers was watching William F. Buckley on TV with O’Connor and O’Connor said that he disliked Buckley because he was not respectful enough to the Church–William F. Buckley! The editor of National Review!

    Praising O’Connor at any level rubs salt in the wounds of all of those in our community he relentlessly persecuted.

  2. Rick Garcia
    Rick Garcia says:

    I completely agree with Andy Humm. O’Connor’s statements and actions aided and abetted the very violence that he appears to condemn. Those of us living in the Archdiocese are all too aware of this prelate’s animosity and viciousness before and after he made this statement. Thank you Andy for putting O’Connor’s statement in context.

  3. Father Bernárd Lynch
    Father Bernárd Lynch says:

    I wish to add my voice to that of Andy Humm’s in light of your revisionist history of Cardinal O’Connor and his role during the height of the AIDS pandemic in New York. While I agree his condemnation of violence was a light in the darkness, I was shocked, saddened and deeply hurt by your attempt to re-write history without a more authentic and true account of this Prelate’s destructive behaviour toward LGBTQI people at this darkest moment of our recent history.
    Sometimes, I believe that those of us who remain within the Church and continue to work for the freedom of our people do so without true acknowledgment and public repentance for the irreparable damage and destruction done in the Church’s name by people like Cardinal O’Connor, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    As you know, in the absence of help from the institutional Church in New York during the height of the AIDS crisis, I founded the first AIDS Ministry in the city with Dignity in 1982 and devoted myself day and night to the overwhelming spiritual and emotional needs of people with AIDS for that terrible decade and beyond. I was appointed to serve on Mayor Koch’s Task Force on AIDS. (See documentary, AIDS A PRIEST’S TESTAMENT.) During that time his Eminence spared no price and counted no cost to prevent every human and civil right for the protection of our dying young brothers and sisters. I witnessed the soul destruction this caused first hand, as I accompanied so many of my fellow priests and people as they drew their last breath. Do you have any idea what it was like for these suffering souls to die in despair because of what Pope and Cardinal were saying and doing as this most ignominious disease ravaged their bodies. No one gesture on the part of the Cardinal could then or can now undo the terrible damage and destruction he visited on our community when it was most vulnerable.

    The Cardinal’s denial of my faculties to minister to the sick and dying, combined with his attempts to have me deported by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service culminated in being forced to leave New York by my Order (S.M.A.) and report to the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome. While there, his Eminence reached a new low when together with the F.B.I. he had me framed on false allegations of child abuse to stop my Ministry and advocacy for Gay Rights. I faced these groundless charges and was found ‘fiercely innocent’ by Judge Burton Roberts when my accuser John Schaefer admitted in court that he had been forced to testify and lied to by the prosecution. (Again all of this has been documented and you can watch it on YouTube. Please do so for your’s and your reader’s information.)

    Many of our great leaders like Sister Jeannine Grammick and the late Fathers Bob Nugent and John McNeill were subjected to Church discipline for their stands on our behalf. I faced fifteen years in prison simply for ministering to our LGBTQI sisters and brothers. And the Cardinal–like Pilate of old–washed his hands, telling the press he never heard of me. (By way of contrast, the Cardinal was a great defender of Father Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, when he was accused of abusing his young clients and subsequently has to resign in disgrace. But Father Ritter’s conservative politics fit with that of the Cardinal.)

    This unparalleled injustice by the Church I love and the calumnious publicity that accompanied it, will haunt me, my family of origin, my loyal friends, and the S.M.A. Order forever. No one has ever apologised or do I expect them to. But I do demand that my story together with those of thousands of others be neither denied nor whitewashed by those who should know better. I remain shocked, saddened and deeply hurt that someone of your integrity would try to rewrite such a bloody, and painful part of our lives, without giving a more authentic account of the violence the Cardinal perpetuated in so many different and diverse ways toward our people. We begged for bread and got a stone.

  4. Matias Wibowo
    Matias Wibowo says:

    I completely appreciate your final point “I thank God that there is movement in the right direction”; the core of our Christian faith is indeed about conversion and transformation. We always seek for the conversion of Saint Paul in ourselves, friends, and enemies around us. But unfortunately, the story of Cardinal John O’Connor is still far away from it. There are tons of conversion stories in the Catholic LGBT History and they are truly God’s gift. I am sad that you let Cardinal John O’Connor eclipse this God’s transformational work.


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