December 4, 2009 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
New web site targets closeted Catholic priests

A gay activist has launched a web site to collect information about closeted gay Catholic priests assigned to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., with the aim of “persuading” them to disclose their sexual orientation and speak out against the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

Phil Attey, an Internet consultant who coordinated local gay volunteers for the 2008 Obama campaign, said he hopes to identify such a large number of gay priests that a “critical mass” will be reached and church leaders won’t be able to oust them.

“The goal of this campaign is not to hurt any of these Catholic priests,” Attey said. “The goal of this campaign is to create an environment where priests will be able to come out safely to their parishes.”

Attey told D.C. Agenda that his web site could disclose the identity of priests he confirms are gay if they decline to identify themselves.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that,” he said.

“One of the reasons we’re asking for such detailed information is that the more details we have, the more appealing it is for the priest to come out on his own so that all he has to say is that he’s gay rather than have all of the lurid details we may have on them or not have on them come out.”

According to Attey, the response to the web site, www.churchouting.org, has been “overwhelming,” with D.C.-area gay Catholics submitting information about closeted priests about whom they have first-hand information.

He said the information received would be carefully vetted and a priest’s sexual orientation would not be disclosed unless it is verified by two or more people with reliable information.

“Once a story is verified, we will be contacting the priests involved to help them make the right choices,” a message on the web site says.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington could not be immediately reached for comment.

Bill Donahue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called Attey’s web site a form of “religious cleansing” and a “witch hunt,” according to Christian News Service.

“Are they going to start harassing, intimidating, stalking priests?” CNS quoted Donahue as saying. “This is simply beyond the pale.”

Attey said he expects conservative, anti-gay groups such as Donahue’s organization to level that type of accusation against churchouting.org.

“None of that is true, and people will come to see that as we move forward,” he said.

The site includes a drop-down menu showing the entire roster of 314 priests assigned to parishes throughout the D.C. metropolitan area under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Washington. It also includes directions prompting readers to submit their name and e-mail address along with a narrative identifying a closeted gay priest and a description of how they know the priest is gay.

Attey said recent statements by Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who heads the Archdiocese of Washington, opposing the same-sex marriage bill pending before the D.C. City Council played a role in his decision to launch the web site late last month. He said Wuerl’s decision to sign a document prepared jointly with fundamentalist Christian groups known as the Manhattan Declaration, which calls for using civil disobedience to oppose certain laws that conflict with religious beliefs, including same-sex marriage laws, also prompted him to act at this time.

However, Attey said he had been planning the site for several years, largely as a concerned gay Catholic interested in challenging the church hierarchy’s anti-gay positions and the large number of closeted gay priests who, according to Attey, lend their support to the anti-gay policies by remaining silent.

“This is a site dedicated to every Catholic family who has lost a loved one to suicide or disassociation, needlessly caused by the spiritual pain inflicted by the church hierarchy’s relentless attacks on LGBT people,” Attey wrote on the site.

Gay activists have had mixed views on the use of outing as a means of advancing LGBT rights. D.C. gay activist Michael Rogers, editor of the gay blogs PageOneQ and BlogActive, has received national attention for his stories outing closeted anti-gay politicians. Rogers said he would have no objections to Attey’s outing of priests who actively campaign against gay rights. But he said he was less certain about outing priests who remain silent or who quietly support the LGBT community but don’t take a public stand.

“I don’t know where to draw the line on religious outing,” he said.

Mitch Wood, president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance, said an outing campaign against the Catholic Church should be directed at “higher up decision-makers, not rank-and-file clergy.”

GLAA Vice President Rick Rosendall cautioned that indiscriminate outings of priests could backfire and hurt the LGBT rights movement.

“If you had an ordinary priest who was not brave or bold enough to throw his pastoral career into a tailspin by confronting the hierarchy publicly, targeting him would likely turn the main focus back on those doing the outing, and show them to be cruel and fanatical,” Rosendall said.

“Our opponents on the radical religious right already portray themselves as victims,” he said. “We should take care to avoid playing into their hands.”

Father Joseph Palacios, an openly gay Catholic priest who teaches at Georgetown University, said he was ambivalent about the outing web site.

“A gay priest leading a double life and working overtly or covertly against gay rights is working against his own self interests and that of the gay community that he participates in,” Palacios said. “This kind of hypocrisy should be brought to light – just as should be done to straight priests living double lives.”

He said a gay priest generally should be “personally encouraged to look at himself and make the decision to live the truth of his sexuality.”

Attey said he doesn’t expect his web site to disclose the names of gay priests in the immediate future.

“I’m not looking at this as a short-term project,” he said.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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