St. Sebastian’s Angels
When a group of American laymen discovered an internet site catering to
homosexual priests, they expected a vigorous response from the hierarchy.
By Jay McNally
Five months after it came to light that he had expressed the hope that Pope John Paul II would drop dead, an auxiliary bishop of Cape Town, South Africa, remained unrepentant. Five months after he told participants in an Internet “chat room” that he wished Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would be poisoned, Bishop Reginald Cawcutt was still an active user of a controversial web site for homosexual priests.
Although he has written approvingly of gay sex and of his own homosexual orientation in scores of e-mail messages that he has posted on the site, Bishop Cawcutt has found strong support among his fellow bishops, including the ordinary of his own archdiocese. Catholic newspapers in both the US and South Africa have also taken his side, often by publishing misleading stories about the site and its members.
The internet site for homosexual priests and seminarians, entitled St. Sebastian’s Angels, was opened for business in early 1999 by a priest from Topeka, Kansas, who has since left his religious order. The site included a separate page with photos of some priests who were participants, and an e-mail “chat room” which handled hundreds of messages. Many of those messages were crudely pornographic. Many others were explicit in their condemnation of Catholic Church teachings, especially regarding sexuality.
“This is a support group for Gay Religious Brothers and Clergy of the Roman Catholic Church,” an introductory page on the site explained, making no reference to its lewd aspects. “It seeks to be an area where men in orders and/ or vows can share their lives and talk about their problems, concerns, joys and sorrows. It also seeks to be that [sic] place of spiritual as well as relational friendships.”
Discovery and early reaction
By autumn of 1999 the St. Sebastian’s Angels site had attracted the participation of 55 active members. At that point the site was brought to the attention of Steve Brady, the founder of a group known as Roman Catholic Faithful, based in Springfield, Illinois. Brady copied material from the Angels site—including six web pages and thousands of e-mail messages—onto his own computer files. On January 14, 2000—after his series of appeals to the American hierarchy had failed to produce any response—Brady brought all that material from the Angels site into public view, by copying it onto his own Roman Catholic Faithful site.
As the news about the homosexual priests’ web site quickly spread through the American Catholic Church, the reaction was decidedly mixed, with opinions breaking down along predictable liberal/conservative lines. A few US bishops, presented with clear evidence about the nature of the site, took prompt corrective action.
Father John Harris, the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Sabattus, Maine, had been an early participant on the site, and maintained his own Internet operation which furnished nude photos for the Angels site. The content of the Angels site was so offensive to Bishop Joseph Gerry of Portland, Maine, that he ousted Harris from his role as pastor. “The bishop is shocked and obviously very upset about this,” Marc Mutty, a spokesman for the diocese, told a reporter from the local newspaper, the Sun Journal. “Portions of Harris’ web site and another related site visited by the priests were `highly offensive and in some cases obscene,’” Mutty said.
A statement released by the Portland diocese went further:
The Church cannot condone or excuse membership in a group where sexually provocative communications are exchanged, even when it is claimed that these communications were meant to be therapeutic and intended to remain private.
The Sun Journal reported that Father Harris “was ordered to shut down the site.” He was sent to an undisclosed retreat facility, to discern whether he wanted to remain active in the priesthood.
A second priest of the same Portland diocese, Father Antonin Caron, had been pictured on Harris’s site, where his e-mail address also appeared. Father Caron was stripped of his faculties to administer the sacraments. Bishop Gerry also demanded that Father Caron immediately shut down a similar web site which he had operated on his own.
In San Diego, California Bishop Robert Brom removed Father James Mott from his post as pastor of St. Patrick Church because of the priest’s involvement on the Angels site. Father Mott had informed other participants on the site that he had been provincial of the Augustinian order for eight years, and vocation director for 12 years. In one message he wrote: “I left vocation work after 12 years straight (if I can use that expression). I wonder what [they] would have thought if they knew I was gay and encouraging men to join us? I have been very well thought of by the province as a whole, but if they knew . . . I wonder?”
As CWR went to press, another regular visitor to the Angels site, Father William Auth, was the subject of an investigation by his religious order. Father Auth, who operates a one-man mission in the Yucatan, once posted a photo of himself with a 12-year-old boy, accompanied by an e-mail message that assured viewers, “the little guy with me is not my current lover.”
But while three priests are known to have been disciplined because of their involvement in the Angels site, and others are now under investigation, the site remained active in mid-May, as this article was written. And several priests have disclosed on the site that they have not been disciplined despite their superiors’ knowledge about their involvement.
The renegade bishop
By virtue of his rank, Bishop Reginald Cawcutt is the most visible of the 55 regular members of the Angels site. In part because of his rank, and in part because of his adamant defense of the site and criticism of Steve Brady, the bishop has been the main focus of media attention.
In an e-mail response to this reporter’s January request for an interview, Bishop Cawcutt said that his involvement in the Angels site was an outgrowth of his work as chairman of the South African bishops’ committee on AIDS. He explained:
Naturally enough this got me involved with ministry also to gay people. Both of these ministries are totally known and quite public—to my fellow bishops as well as to the general public. Somehow the group of gay priests heard about me and invited me to discuss gay related matters with them—hence I joined the “newsgroup”—quite openly letting the members know I was a bishop. I did not try to hide anything.
Bishop Cawcutt declined to be interviewed, however, because he claimed that Roman Catholic Faithful had been guilty of “quite an illegal action of someone breaking into this confidential group’s support of each other.” He charged that Brady had “picked out only the spicy bits” from the material on the Angels site. The bishop lamented that the public exposure of the site would probably lead to “gay-bashing,” and refused to be “an accomplice” to that campaign.
“I have consistently promoted celibacy in the group,” Bishop Cawcutt claimed in his e-mail message to this reporter. But that claim is difficult to reconcile with the tone and content of some of his e-mail postings on the site. In October 1999, for example, the bishop wrote:
I suppose the issue really is celibacy and not gay sex. I am of the belief that we have all been screwed up by holy mother church. I do not think that sex is the ultimate in sin anyhow—and not always a matter for confession either—even for celibates—come on—the good old book also says dirty thoughts are grievous stuff and always matter for confession—come come now!!!
As someone said, confession is meant to be a help for growth in holiness—if celibacy is your thing—then I am sure breaking it is matter for cfn [confession]—if not—well hey guys remember what Vat II said about personal conscience being the prime guide.
After his initial reluctance to discuss his participation in the site, Bishop Cawcutt now seems to be reveling in the limelight as the controversy unfolds. In early May he boasted on the site that he was told by a visiting American bishop that the US hierarchy considers Roman Catholic Faithful to be a group of “raving lunatics,” and tries to ignore the group completely. Perhaps that sort of response gave him the confidence to post a new message on May 15:
. . . we really do need to keep pushing that all gay priests can be able to celebrate our sexuality—we just have to be able to rejoice and thank God for making us gay—just like we encourage others to have a pride in themselves for being white or black or Americans or Chinese or tall or blonde etc. We are gonna win, guys! I truly believe that.
“I just don’t understand how a bishop can be saying that gay priests should ‘celebrate being gay,’” Steve Brady said. “This is clearly contrary to the Catechism, which says it is an intrinsic disorder. Everyone has to ask, what can people who hold this view be telling young men or women in the confessional?” Brady issued a press release April 21 calling for the resignation of Bishop Cawcutt, claiming he had “violated the most solemn promises that he made when he was ordained as bishop.”
The National Catholic Reporter disclosed that in January the papal nuncio in South Africa had held a discussion with Bishop Cawcutt about the situation. The paper also reported that Bishop Cawcutt had met with Cape Town’s Archbishop Lawrence Henry, and offered to resign if the allegations were going to create a problem for the Church. “Archbishop Henry refused even to consider it. He said that if you reach out to people and it gets you into trouble, then so be it,” Cawcutt told the Reporter. He added he had been heartened by the extent of the support and encouragement he had received, and claimed: “All the priests and nuns in Cape Town have been supportive.”
The regular members of the e-mail distribution list that formed the heart of the St. Sebastian’s Angels group apparently included several other priests who held positions of responsibility within the Church, including at least two who had been provincials of their religious orders. Others held chancery posts. Some members were newly ordained, while others were nearing retirement age. Most of the members were based in the United States, but others were scattered across Europe, South Africa, and Mexico. But however diverse their backgrounds and positions might have been, anyone reading even just a few of their e-mail messages on the site would quickly conclude that the priests were overwhelmingly in favor of homosexual sexual activity.
When Steve Brady discovered it, the opening page of the St. Sebastian’s Angels site displayed a particularly shocking image: a short video clip which even Bishop Cawcutt has admitted is pornographic.
“This was the only thing remotely close to being ‘porn’” on the site, Bishop Cawcutt claimed, according to an article in the April 7 issue of National Catholic Reporter. Moreover, the bishop said that the offensive image was displayed only for a short period of time—until regular users of the Angels site sought its removal. “Other members of the group complained straight away” about the image, he told the Reporter. “It was gone almost immediately, but unknown to us a hacker had already gained access to the site and kept a record of this picture.”
That “hacker,” of course, was Steve Brady. But Brady, who had monitored the site for several months, reports that the pornographic image had been on display for at least a month. It only disappeared, he says, when he made his presence known. “They took down the entire site after they found out I had discovered it,” Brady recalls. “Then a few days later they put it back up without the offensive image.”
Moreover, the home page where that image was displayed furnished only a portion of the Angels material that was available to regular users. The site also featured an e-mail distribution list, through which members could exchange messages and photographs. So while he concedes that there was only one pornographic image permanently displayed on the site itself, Brady points out that “they were sending out photos of nude men on the e-mail list, and the bishop did participate in the distribution of nude photos.”
The e-mail messages, including many from Cawcutt, made repeated references to the nude photos. In a message dated November 13, for example, the bishop writes that a newly ordained priest in his own South African diocese had cautioned him regarding the use of nudity: “Jurgens has advised me against being the first to send porn pics,” he said. The bishop then went on to comment on several pictures of nude men or semi-nude men in obvious states of arousal.
Blaming the messenger
Bishop Cawcutt has repeatedly accused Roman Catholic Faithful of “hacking” into the site illegally, and that accusation has been relayed to the public by several newspaper accounts. The bishop has also charged that Steve Brady is giving a deliberately distorted impression of the tone and purpose of the Angels site.
Brady flatly rejects those accusations. In fact, he says, he took great pains to ensure that the site was exactly what it appeared to be:
The first thing I did was confirm that they were actually web sites. I monitored it for a while—to make sure it was not a hoax—for a few weeks after I saw it. Then I e-mailed both Reg [Bishop Cawcutt] and Harris [who was administering the site at that time] to confirm it was a legitimate address. Reg wrote back and signed it “hugs.” I saw his note had the same type of phrases, the same kind of style as in those on the web site, and realized this was the real thing.
Brady had no difficulty gaining access to the Angels web site, and he violated no laws in doing so. And the e-mail messages to which he gained access were not “private” in the sense that is ordinarily used for written correspondence; they were intended for circulation among dozens of people who were active participants in the e-mail distribution list. So the head of Roman Catholic Faithful has been amazed to find that many journalists have taken the accusations against him at face value, without even bothering to contact him and learn his side of the story.
In a March 19 column entitled “Bigotry is an affront to our faith,” Gunther Simmermacher, the managing editor of the Cape Town archdiocesan newspaper, the Southern Cross, wrote:
A South African bishop seems to have an outfit of right-wing US Catholics running scared. How else would one account for the deviousness of the Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF) which disseminated what amounts to slanderous innuendo about Bishop Reginald Cawcutt, auxiliary in Cape Town, and in doing so employed illegal means. To accomplish this, they hacked into an internet forum on homosexuality in which Bishop Cawcutt, at the request of an Australian priest, participated as part of his ministry.
For those who happily exist outside the on-line world, I might explain that such hacking is akin to breaking into somebody’s house and stealing the owner’s private correspondence.
Although he boldly (and inaccurately) declared that Brady’s actions had been illegal, Simmermacher was much more reluctant to render any judgment on the materials found on the Angels web site. He wrote:
Having neglected to include canon law in my wide-ranging university curricula, I would not be competent to judge the bishop’s statements, whatever they were. I have noted, however, that he has not yet been transferred to the remote diocese of Sonderbiskopsfontein, as indication that Rome has found no cause for censure.
Think what you may about Bishop Cawcutt and his chosen ministry, but please do not applaud those cowards who have taken it as their task to discredit, embarrass, and possibly destroy this fundamentally good man. Their action, I believe, is a much greater affront to our faith than the private conduct of practicing homosexuals.
The American “spin”
Back in the United States at the Catholic News Service (the agency sponsored by the US bishops’ conference) veteran writer Jerry Filteau reported on the controversy surrounding the Angels site in a 780-word dispatch on April 5. In that article, which focused mainly on the suspension of the two Maine priests, Filteau does not quote Steve Brady; he admits that he made no effort to obtain Brady’s side of the story.
Filteau quoted Bishop Cawcutt’s complaint that Brady’s maneuver was “illegal, unchristian, irresponsible, and immoral scandal-mongering.” He paraphrased Cawcutt as charging that “hacking into a private newsgroup violated the law and rights of its members to confidentiality.” When reminded that Brady’s actions did not violate any law, Filteau defended his decision to let Cawcutt’s allegation stand without challenge. “You have a Church official alleging it was against the law,” he reasoned. “I’m not an expert on laws governing the Internet and breaking into web sites.” Asked if he might write a story clarifying the legal issues involved in the case, Filteau said, “I would certainly consider it.”
Filteau explained that he did not call Brady for a comment because “he had the web site that pretty much speaks for itself. He laid it out on the web site.” But virtually none of the content of Brady’s web site—or of the Angels site—was accurately reported in the Catholic News Service account. The report offered no hint that Cawcutt and most of the others endorsed and encouraged sexual relations among priests. Readers were given no indication that many priests e-mailed nude photos of themselves, some of them patently pornographic, or that Cawcutt himself made boastful references about such photos of himself.
Instead, Filteau quoted Cape Town archdiocesan spokesman Sydney Duval as saying:
The archdiocese supported Bishop Cawcutt and called the hackers’ exposure “despicable snooping.” They have chosen the unethical route—hacking into an interactive counseling service, eavesdropping on confidential material, betraying, judging and damaging the victim and then rehashing their dark discoveries for public consumption.
It is true that the Catholic News Service story told readers that the Angels site contained “sexually explicit material.” And one Church spokesman weighed in with a negative evaluation of the site, saying:
While the stated purpose of the e-mail list in question appears to be in harmony with Catholic teaching, some of the content of the e-mails exchanged and the captions present on the web site have proved to be not only contrary to the teachings and discipline of the Catholic Church regarding human sexuality and priestly celibacy, but highly offensive and in some cases obscene.
However, that relatively mild statement of disapproval would not give readers an accurate understanding of the sort of strident opposition to Catholic teachings that flourished on the Angels site. Readers would have no idea that Bishop Cawcutt on more than one occasion said he hoped the Pope would die, or that he indicated his loathing for Church teachings regarding sexuality.
“Frankly we write for family newspapers and some of the things are not quotable,” Jerry Filteau explained. “The bottom line was that we did not think the story deserved a great deal of detail. When you are writing with restricted amount of space to write, you have to limit it to what you write about. We can’t use all the details.”
Catholic News Service, which sometimes sends out more than 100 stories in a week, routinely publishes materials from liberal organizations critical of Church teaching. But in the five years Brady has operated Roman Catholic Faithful, he said, “I’ve never heard from them. I’ve never gotten a phone call.”
Nearly all of the Catholic diocesan newspaper in the US rely on CNS heavily, if not exclusively, for their national and world news. So very few Catholic papers gave their readers any realistic picture of the controversy over St. Sebastian’s Angels. Brady reports that secular newspapers—especially those published in regions where priests have been disciplined as a result of the controversy—have offered more thorough and more accurate coverage of the topic.
The bishops’ reaction
Brady said his decision to publicize the Angels site was made two months after the papal nuncio in the United States declined to look into the matter, and after five cardinals rebuffed his efforts.
“The papal nuncio is the first official I contacted, in November 1999,” Brady said.
I talked to a priest in the nuncio’s office and I explained exactly what we had, and that were looking for assistance and guidance. He said he’d pass it on to the nuncio and reminded me that what they [the Angels] were doing was legal. I never heard from him again. He said he’d get back to me if the nuncio was interested. They weren’t interested.
Brady then contacted Cardinals John O’Connor of New York, Bernard Law of Boston, James Hickey of Washington DC, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, and Francis George of Chicago. He reports the results:
Cardinal George is the only one who responded. He faxed to me a response and then I had a phone conversation with him and told him how to access the site. He said he thought that it might be an occasion of sin if he looked at. That really bothered me. How can our moral leaders deal with stuff like this without looking at it?
Before going public with the story, however, Brady tried one more tactic. He asked a friendly priest to write a message to every member of the St. Sebastian’s Angels site. Under the pseudonym “Father G.,” Father Dahlby wrote:
We accept fully the teaching of the Church that the state of being homosexual is not a sin. However we also accept the teaching that the physical expression of homosexual desires is a seriously sinful action and an unacceptable expression of what the Church has called “an objective moral disorder.”
We are not accusing you personally of any crime or sin; however the chat room is a scandal and we have learned that the only response to such darkness is to draw it into the light. The existence of the chat room with recorded pictures and messages will be made available to the Church and to others. We do not do this for the sake of bringing scandal but because the Church itself has not shown itself to be capable of dealing with these issues. Given time, we poor weak human beings can come to accept almost anything, but the darkness still hates the light!
We sincerely pray for you and encourage you, if the need is there, to seek God’s mercy in the sacrament of Confession and counseling and the assistance of those in authority. You are a priest forever and like all priests, on the day of your ordination or religious profession you freely assumed the cross and the joy of celibacy. We pray that you and all priests may be faithful to that commitment.
The response from the Angels’ webmaster, Father John Harris, shocked Brady. He characterized the message as “the most vile kind of thing we could imagine from a priest.”
“F—— you, a———!,” the message from Harris began. It went on:
You talk about bringing things into the light. I suggest you step out of the “darkness” of your anonymity and into the “light’ of recognition. PLEASE do that . . . and I will show you a brand of “darkness” you will not soon forget! You a———s are so tough when you can hide in the shadows. Step forward and show yourself, tough man, PLEASE step forth and show yourself.
“That letter really showed us what they were thinking and their state of mind,” Brady recalls. “At that point we decided the only thing to do was to go public.”
No other choice?
After Roman Catholic Faithful called public attention to the Angels site, the level of participation by regular members declined significantly. Brady then took his next step: contacting the bishops and religious superiors of the priests who were participating (if he could identify them).
Brady reports that one bishop—Edwin O’Donnell of Lafayette, Louisiana —wrote back to thank him for bringing the Angels site to his attention. Bishop O’Donnell assured Brady that he wanted to see the materials, that he would take them seriously, and that he would deal with the problem.
Brady also spoke with a bishop from Texas. “He was thankful,” Brady said. “Two of his priests were active in this chat room.” One of those priests, who identified himself on the site as “Cliff from Texas,” had sent an e-mail message on November 22 after returning from a youth conference. “It was a blast!” he wrote. He continued:
I was able to get to know other youth and the youth ministers in my own diocese. I must say, that although I am no “chicken hawk”—there are some really cute guys around the country. I did, however, share a room with one of our youth ministers here in Dallas —and is he cute! He’s no Ricky Martin —but he is Hispanic and we got along— wonderfully! It was almost like we were meant to be together. I do have a very special place in my heart for those Latin blooded ones!!
A week after the Angels’ site was made public, “Cliff from Texas” reported that he had been called into the chancery office to discuss his involvement in the site. Ultimately, the young priest said, the diocesan authorities “said they had no intention of respecting the RCF [Roman Catholic Faithful] and actually seemed a bit embarrassed that they had even responded.”
In the past, Steve Brady says, he and Roman Catholic Faithful have been threatened with lawsuits because of their campaigns for reform within the Church. But in the case of the Angels site, no such threats have been forthcoming. He believes that he can explain that fact.
“They are having a hard time denying the scandal here,” Brady says. Some bishops have already taken disciplinary action against priests who were involved in the site, he observes, and “not even Father Harris or Bishop Cawcutt has denied anything that has been on the site.”
Moreover, Brady disclosed that he has held some evidence in reserve: “We’ve got some of those images that were e-mailed to us. I think that’s why they are so afraid of us and won’t sue. They don’t want pictures of nude priests being shown in a courtroom.”
Brady and his colleagues at Roman Catholic Faithful say that the 1998 pedophilia case involving Father Rudy Kos in Dallas—and the response of the diocese to that case—played a role in convincing them that the American hierarchy would not be willing to deal directly with actively homosexual priests. “The Rudy Kos case said it all,” Brady says. The Dallas diocese gave clerical faculties to a sexual predator, he recalls, and then sought to divert attention from reports of his transgressions. “And the victims were treated as enemies of the Church.”
“You would think some bishop somewhere would have stood up and said the cover-ups have to stop,” says Brady. “Everyone knows the cover-ups are going on, continually. You’ve got to laugh or cry.”
Jay McNally is a newspaper editor and executive director of Call to Holiness.