A priest who refused to serve communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral service last month at a Catholic church in Gaithersburg, Md., has been removed from the church and placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, according to a letter from the Archdiocese of Washington to all of its priests.
The March 9 letter, written by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, chief of staff to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who heads the Archdiocese, said the action taken against Father Marcel Guarnizo was based on allegations that he engaged in “intimidating behavior” against members of the staff and “others” at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, where he served as a parish priest.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Blade, makes no mention of the allegation by D.C. resident Barbara Johnson that Guarnizo “humiliated” her at her mother’s funeral Mass at the church on March 25 when he reportedly refused to allow her to receive communion as she and others approached the church altar, saying she was living in sin.
“I write to inform you that effective today, Father Marcel Guarnizo’s assignment at St. John Neumann Parish is withdrawn and he has been placed on administrative leave with his priestly faculties removed until such time as an inquiry into his actions at the parish is completed,” Bishop Knestout said in his March 9 letter.
“This action was taken after I received credible allegations that Father Guarnizo has engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry,” he said in the letter. “Given the grave nature of these allegations, and in light of the confusion in the parish and the concerns expressed by parishioners, Father Guarnizo is prohibited from exercising any priestly ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington until all matters can be appropriately resolved, with the hope that he might return to priestly ministry.”
Last month, Johnson told the Washington Post that Guarnizo “put his hand over the body of Christ and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t give you communion because you live with a woman and in the eyes of the church that is a sin.’”
According to the Post’s account, Johnson’s partner of 20 years had been helping Johnson’s family at the church prior to the service when Guarnizo asked Johnson who she was. “I’m her partner,” the Post quoted Johnson as saying she told Guarnizo.
Bishop Knestout said in his letter that Guarnizo is a priest of the Archdiocese of Moscow, Russia, and has been serving since March 2011 as “parochial vicar” at the St. John Neumann Church parish.
Chieko Noguchi, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington, said the Archdiocese issued a statement on the same day Bishop Knestout issued his letter that repeats, nearly word for word, the contents of the letter. Noguchi initially indicated the letter was read during Mass at area churches last weekend. But she contacted the Blade to clarify that the letter was only read during the masses offered over the weekend at St. John Newmann Catholic Church in Gaithersburg, where Fr. Guarnizo had been assigned.
Noguchi said the Archdiocese would have no further comment, including a clarification of whether the action taken against Guarnizo is linked to his alleged behavior toward Barbara Johnson, because the action is a “personnel” matter that must remain confidential.
Guarnizo has told news media outlets that he would have no comment on the matter involving Barbara Johnson.
Reports of Guarnizo’s refusal to serve communion to Johnson triggered an uproar among LGBT activists, including LGBT Catholic activists in the D.C. area.
Shortly after the reports surfaced, the Archdiocese of Washington issued a statement saying Guarnizo’s action violated church policy and Archdiocesan officials would look into the matter.
“When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion, it is not the policy of the Archdiocese of Washington to publicly reprimand the person,” the statement said. “Any issues regarding the suitability of an individual to receive communion should be addressed by the priest with that person in a private, pastoral setting.”