Advocacy Groups Call Priest's Plight a Gay Issue
The Diocese Says It Disciplined the Priest for His Explicit Web Site, Not for His Homosexuality
By Steven G. Vegh
Portland Press Herald (Maine)
March 26, 2000
Earlier this month, John Schreiber sat with fellow parishioners at Our Lady of the Rosary in Sabattus and listened as their priest, an ashen-faced Rev. John Harris, admitted to being gay.
"There was silence," Schreiber said. "I guess some people knew. But it was no big deal. It was like, 'All right, we don't care. Tell us the real reason we're here.' "
Harris, they were told, is being disciplined by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland because of his involvement in a pornographic Web site.
Harris broke no laws and physically hurt no one. But because priests are held to high moral standards, the diocese felt bound to withdraw Harris from his ministry to the 100-odd members of Our Lady of the Rosary. He was sent to an out-of-state retreat to reflect on whether he can fulfill his obligation as a priest to be chaste and celibate.
The diocese says the case is about proper priestly behavior, not about homosexuality. But a Midwestern group of conservative Catholics and a national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics both say the incident is all about homosexuality and the church's attitude toward it.
In Sabattus, parishioners say the incident is about a beloved spiritual leader whose poor judgment opened him up to the destruction of his privacy and his ministry.
The night Harris confessed to his parishioners, "There were people crying, tears streaming down their cheeks" -- tears of empathy, Schreiber said. "Father John, shame on him; we all love him, he did this, we want him back as fast as we can."
Many members fear Harris may be lost to them, and to the priesthood. If that happens, "it would be a moral tragedy," Schreiber said.
The chain of events that could cost the parish its priest started with Harris' homosexuality. Harris created "St. Sebastian's Angels" as a Web site for gay priests.
Because of the site and its sexually explicit content, Harris was targeted by Roman Catholic Faithful of Springfield, Ill., which is dedicated to exposing clergymen's sexual activity. The group's publicity about Harris and other priests who were active on the Web site drew the attention of Maine's Catholic diocese.
Gay clergy targeted
On its own Web site, Roman Catholic Faithful denounces the "evil," the "false spirituality" and the "watered-down Catholicism" that it blames on the liberalization of the Catholic church by the second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
Founder Stephen Brady said Roman Catholic Faithful formed in 1996 and has fewer than 5,000 members nationwide, including some in Maine. What he calls "heretical abuse of catechistical education" -- illegitimate ideas in Catholic schooling -- prompted his group to document abuses and present them to local bishops.
But Brady said he soon found that priests and bishops were guilty of violating Catholic doctrine. "Every time we've come around to trying to find the source of the problem in a diocese, it leads to homosexuality on the part of the clergy," he said.
Brady said Catholics from across the country call Roman Catholic Faithful with information to expose gay clergymen. One of those callers reported the existence of St. Sebastian's Angels.
Members of Roman Catholic Faithful logged on to the site and got the names and e-mail addresses of the priests who were active on it. The group then sent messages to the priests, telling them they'd been discovered and recommending that they confess their homosexuality to their diocesan leaders.
Harris sent an expletive-laden reply. Brady said Roman Catholic Faithful responded by faxing information about St. Sebastian's Angels to Catholic cardinals, including Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, whose authority extends over Maine's diocese.
The group also publicized St. Sebastian's Angels on its Web site, and told Harris it was going to tell Maine's Bishop Joseph Gerry about the site. Harris then admitted to Gerry that he'd been involved in the site.
According to Marc Mutty, the spokesman for Maine's diocese, the scandal also involved a retired priest, the Rev. Antonin Caron of Lewiston, who also had a Web site for gay priests. Diocesan authorities have revoked Caron's privilege to perform sacraments in public.
A third Maine priest posted messages on an e-mail list frequented by gay priests and carried at Onelist, an Internet site. Mutty would not identify that priest.
Diocese, church blamed
To Brady, the scandal is as much an indictment of Maine's diocese as it is of the priests. "It's impossible that those folks close to (Harris) didn't know there was a problem," he said. "The leadership of the diocese is definitely lacking."
But to Rosemary Ananis, the incident indicts the church's attitude toward homosexuality.
Ananis is president of Dignity Maine, a chapter of Dignity USA, a national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics. Dignity wants the church to accept practicing homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people as "full and equal members of the one Christ," according to the group's Web site.
"I think the church's mistake is not addressing sexuality, period, and not addressing the sexual expression of people as part of their wholeness," Ananis said. "If someone is struggling with sexual issues, the church has to pull its head out of the covers and address that."
Harris' creation of St. Sebastian's Angels was a sign of his struggle to express his sexuality, Ananis said. "I feel sad he chose this quasi-public venue, but I think that just points to how difficult it is when someone is living with the rules and still trying to be a whole person."
At the same time, Ananis said Harris' punishment is consistent with church doctrine that disapproves of any sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
Maine's diocese has staff members and committees assigned to be liaisons to women, people with disabilities and other groups, but there is no liaison to gay and lesbian Catholics.
That doesn't mean the church ignores human sexuality, Mutty said. In 1997, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that homosexuality is not freely chosen and that parents must not reject their gay children.
As for the sexuality of the clergy, "the church says a lot about that and how there are ways of sublimating sexual urges," Mutty said. "Nobody makes any bones about the fact that chastity is very, very difficult, certainly a very challenging thing for many men who are priests."
The diocese's approach to Harris and the other priests in the recent scandal reflects this understanding, Mutty added.
'A broken man'
In a homily last Sunday at Our Lady of the Rosary, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote said it would have been "quite acceptable" for the clergymen to be part of an Internet discussion forum focused on the struggles of gay priests.
But the Web site's pornographic images and "sexually provocative messages" were unacceptable for priests, who are expected to be "examples of holiness," he said.
Cote also noted that Bishop Gerry had sent a memo to Maine's priests and deacons last September warning that the Internet is not private and should be used responsibly.
"Sexual orientation is not the issue at hand," Cote said.
Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, said Roman Catholic Faithful perpetrated violence in its "outing" of the Maine priests.
"In Dignity's opinion, we certainly encourage people to come out, because we think it's healthier . . . but it's a very personal decision and has to be done in a personal way," Duddy said. "To take that choice away from someone constitutes violence."
Schreiber agreed. On the night Harris confessed to the parish, "Father John was a broken man," he said. "This foreign group coming from out of state and intruding, saying they oppose him and then leaving, that upset us all."
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