Father Bernard Lynch: 'The Vatican Has Told Them to Get Rid of Me'
By Peter Stanford
April 8, 2012
He claims that half of all Catholic priests are gay – and has himself been married to his husband for 14 years. He believes celibacy is to blame for many of the Church's problems – and that the Vatican must take responsibility for the paedophilia in its midst. Is it any wonder so many people want rid of Father Bernard Lynch?
Unlike other whistleblowers, Lynch doesn't have a straightforward job. Vocation is more accurate, for he is a Catholic priest, a member of the Society of African Missions religious order for the past 42 years. That sense of being called has sustained his work, he says, through "terrible" times. In the 1980s, in New York, he was one of the first priests to support those dying from Aids-related illnesses. It was a ministry that earned him awards from secular authorities – including New York's mayor – but hostility from the Vatican, which was then describing the Aids pandemic as the "natural result of unnatural acts". It would have preferred he kept well away.
The tension between Lynch and his superiors ended up involving the FBI – called in by the local cardinal to investigate him – and a trial on trumped-up charges in 1989. "It was soul murder," Lynch recalls, "and it will follow me to my grave." The judge dismissed the charges out of hand in what became a cause célèbre for progressively minded Catholics at the time, later the subject of a best-selling book and several TV documentaries.
To escape the furore, Lynch came to live in England in 1992. Today, his ministry includes counselling gay priests who are in the closet in a Church that describes homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered". Yet he claims that as many as 50 per cent of Catholic clergy are gay. It is an example of how this 64-year-old has continued to point things out that discomfort his ecclesiastical superiors. Another was his decision to speak in defence of gay rights at the "Protest the Pope" demonstration that greeted Benedict XVI in London in 2010. Lynch lined up in full clerical garb alongside Peter Tatchell and militant atheist Richard Dawkins. Yet somehow, he has always managed to stay within the fold of his Catholic religious order. Until now.
He is about to publish a very intimate memoir, If it Wasn't Love: Sex, Death and God, in which he will go public for the first time on his own 14-year gay marriage. With impeccable timing, the book's appearance coincides with the Catholic Church in Britain mobilising in opposition to the Coalition Government's proposals to legalise gay marriage. The clash, he insists, is accidental. He then adds, almost in a celebratory tone, "but there is a God".
Talking openly today about Billy Desmond, his husband of 14 years, signifies for Lynch a final stage of coming out that began in 1982 when he told his parents he was gay. For his religious order, though, it seems likely that it will also be the final straw. "I know they are having a problem. They have told me so. I am under investigation. The Vatican has already told them to get rid of me."
Dressed in black, but with the traditional dog collar replaced round his neck by a simple cord necklace and metal pendant, Lynch certainly looks the part as a priest, albeit a thoroughly modern one. Indeed, he cuts quite a dash. Lean, tanned and completely bald, he has narrow but compelling eyes which give him a guru-like quality. It is emphasised by the way he tends to speak in pointed, stripped-down, polemical sentences. He is not a man for nuance or hesitation. If he thinks something, he says it. Of his candour about his sexual orientation and marriage, he remarks simply, "I'm just being honest, but that isn't the way of my Church. It says, 'Don't be honest and you will get promoted, and you will be taken care of.'"
Accusing the Church of dishonesty and hypocrisy, by contrast, seems a perfect way to ensure you are not taken care of – or, at least, not in any positive way. Yet Lynch appears remarkably calm about the cloud hanging over a vocation he insists is "the love of my life". Tellingly, it is also a phrase he uses to describe Desmond, to whom he has dedicated the book. Caught between these two loves, he is forcing himself to choose. He could just have kept quiet about his private life. "But Billy," he points out, "has made it transparently clear to me from the start that he doesn't want this degree of closetness."
Desmond should be at the table with us in the modest Camden Town home they share, but instead he has been admitted to hospital, Lynch reports, with spinal problems. "We are praying to Saint Martin de Porres [the patron saint of victims of injustice] that he won't have to have a second operation." He met Desmond, a management consultant, at a mutual friend's birthday party soon after he arrived in London. "He is an Irish Catholic, too, though younger than I, but he was totally alienated from his Catholicism. He wasn't practising, but like most gay people I know – and I am not saying this in any hierarchical or disrespectful way of straight people – had a very deep spirituality. And a longing to belong in the home of their faith."
Their marriage, in 1998, was solemnly blessed by an American Cistercian monk, referred to in the memoir simply as "Father Dan", who left his monastery for the first time in 50 years especially for the ceremony. Was he allowed to give that blessing under current Church rules? "He's now with the lover of us all," replies Lynch, "so there's no sanction for him any more. He said that day was the happiest of his life." I take that to be a no.
As a priest, Lynch has "many times" given similar blessings to other same-sex marriages. It is beginning to become clear why he causes the Church such problems. Surely, if everyone just went about breaking all the rules, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, it would be chaos? The whole point of a Church is that there is a commonly held basis to faith. He is unrepentant. "We are either about love or we are not. All this talk about gay marriage..." He stops and changes tack, for once choosing the slightly less confrontational route. "Either being a Catholic Christian is about love, or it is not about anything. I am not choosing Billy over priesthood. My vocation is to love."
In danger of sounding like the Pope's official spokesman, I mention that vocation to the priesthood, in the Catholic Church, is linked with a vocation to be celibate. "I did not have, even though I tried for many years, the gift of celibacy," Lynch replies. So logically, given what the Church continues to teach, his place is in the pews not the pulpit? "No," and here he leaves a long pause as if weary of answering a question he's been asked often, "because the Church can be different. It must be different. And if not I, then, who?"
There is an argument that all the major advances in Christianity have come through loyal dissent – from Martin Luther and the Wesleys, right up to the present day. Is Lynch painting himself as the latest in a long line of prophetic voices trying to move the Church forward? "I do feel there is need to witness to the fact that gay is good and gay belongs to God. There are millions of lesbian and gay Catholics who need a witness to the fact that their love is not evil."
Bernard Lynch grew up in Ennis, County Clare, in the 1950s. The oldest of six, he was, in his own words, "a pious little creep" who didn't fit in with his classmates. He went into the seminary at 17, where he had a long-running sexual relationship with another trainee priest. His lover eventually left, married and had a family, but Lynch was ordained in 1971. After spells in Northern Ireland, working with the civil-rights movement, and an unhappy spell in Zambia, he was sent to New York in 1975 to do further studies in counselling and psychotherapy.
There he started working with Dignity, a support group for gay Catholics. When HIV/Aids started taking its terrible toll, he was on the front line. "I was such a child before that. Talk about naïve. I ran up against young men dying for whom God's love was such a necessity. Again and again my Church told them in the most violent terms known in the English language that their love was evil. And some of those dying were priests. We used to have a saying in New York: 'Don't ever fall in love with a priest; you'll make a very unhappy widower because you will be the last to know when he has died.' When they were diagnosed with HIV/Aids, if their order or diocese was willing to take them back, the partner who sometimes had been with them for 20 years was excluded from their life."
Local Church officials and the Vatican grew more and more agitated by Lynch's work. When a colleague in his order, his former seminary rector, died of Aids-related causes, the grieving relatives, unable to accept the details of his "other" life, blamed and targeted Lynch. At the time, he was also doing some pastoral work at a Catholic school and after pressure from the family, the diocese and even the FBI, who were called in by Cardinal John O'Connor, Lynch faced trial in 1989 on charges of molesting one of his pupils. However, John Schaefer, the boy in question, recanted on the courtroom steps and revealed how much pressure had been put on him to come up with the allegation. Lynch was acquitted. It made international headlines.
"There was," he reflects of the aftermath, "a lot of anger and resentment against those who were responsible. But I've been given grace to forgive and let go. In that trial the state colluded with the Church in order to bring me down."
He was, though, solidly supported throughout by the Society of African Missions. They paid more than £75,000 in legal bills on his behalf. "The Society has been as good as they can be to me and have put up with a lot in my regard. Before the trial, they asked me a simple question – the same question my father asked me. 'Did you do it?' They only had my word that I didn't and they believed me. When I say I have a love-hate relationship with the institution of the Church, I have a lot of love because love has been given to me."
There is an appalling irony that the same Church that employed false charges of child abuse against a dissident priest in 1989 was, throughout the following decade and right up to the present day, to be overwhelmed itself with similar accusations. Only in its case, many turned out to be true, and had been swept under the carpet by bishops and cardinals for years, if not decades. "To me," Lynch reflects, "a lot of the abuse of children by priests in the Church is a result and consequence of sexually arrested development in priests. It is not paedophilia, and that is not to take from the crime and the terrible harm done to children in this way. When you go into seminary at 14 or 16, you are arrested in your sexual development. From that time on, everything sexual is sin. Sex is really not integrated in the way normal boys and girls do as they grow up. And so priests stop growing sexually. And when they start growing again at the ripe old age of 50, they start off where they left off, as a 14-year-old looking for 14-year-olds."
He seems to be suggesting that the celibacy rule for priests lies at the heart of this scandal that has rocked the entire Church. But surely many abusers are "happily married men"? "I believe," he replies, "that celibacy is certainly part of the problem. I'm not excusing abuse of children. On the contrary, I am holding people to account, but it is not only the perpetrators who are guilty. The Church hierarchy has to be held to account because of how it trains its priests."
In the counselling work he now does with gay priests – he has worked with more than 200, he says – time and again he comes up against a fault-line in a Church that condemns homosexuality but has significant numbers of closeted gay men among its clergy. The way it is dealt with institutionally is to keep quiet; but that has never been Lynch's way. "I can go into confession and say I have been in every sauna and bath-house and sex club in London 10 times a week and I can get absolved from my sins, but if I go in and say, 'I have been in love with a man for 19 years, married for 14,' there's no absolution. That's the sickness in my Church."
So what happens next? "My greatest enemies in the Church," he accuses, "are gay priests who hate themselves and project that on to me and so are intent on doing me down. I've been blessed that all my superiors in the Society of African Missions have been straight. They have known for a long time that I am a married gay man. Up to now they've left me to weave a passage between the cracks, but it doesn't seem like that can continue."
Whatever decision is reached by his order and by the Vatican – which ultimately has the right to "sack" a priest, Lynch says he won't stop what he has been doing and saying, even if he loses his platform as a cleric. "A priest is a priest for people. And if people want me..." But if the Church says he is no longer a priest? "I believe that the priesthood, like my baptism, is an indelible mark on my soul, so I will always be a priest."
Perhaps instead of trying – and so far failing – to marginalise and silence Lynch, the Church might try listening to him. Yes, for those who want a disciplined, obedient clergy, he must be infuriating, but the real question surely is whether he is right. He was certainly ahead of the Church on the need to care for people with Aids. His counselling work with unhappy priests, struggling to deal with their sexuality, gives him a rare insight into a subject where usually there is only silence and denial. And, in his very happy and now very public marriage to Billy Desmond, he gives the lie to the suggestion, made recently by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Scottish Catholic Church, that same-sex marriage is "grotesque".
If that doesn't convince the powers that be, they have to know that they are never going to shake off Bernard Lynch, even by sacking him. "It's my Church," he says, "and I'll be the last out after the Pope."