A Roman Catholic priest working as a chaplain at D.C.’s Washington Hospital Center refused to give last rites and communion to a heart attack patient earlier this month after the patient told him he’s gay and believes Pope Francis is sympathetic to gay people, the patient told the Blade.
D.C. resident Ronald Plishka, 63, a retired travel agent and lifelong Catholic, said he asked a nurse to arrange for a priest to see him on Feb. 7, one day after he was admitted by ambulance to the hospital emergency room for a heart attack. He said that at the time he wasn’t sure he would survive.
A short time later, Plishka said, Father Brian Coelho, a priest assigned to the hospital’s Department of Spiritual Care, arrived at his bedside. He said Coelho offered to take his confession before proceeding with communion and last rites, which the church now calls the sacrament of anointing of the sick.
“We started talking and I told him I was so happy with this new Pope because of his comments about the gays and his accepting the gays,” Plishka said. “And I mentioned that I was gay. I said it and then I asked him does that bother you? And he said, ‘Oh, no, that does not bother me,’” said Plishka.
“But then he would not proceed with administering the last rites or communion. He couldn’t do it.”
According to Plishka, Coelho, who brought a supply of holy water to his hospital room, never said in so many words that he was refusing to administer communion and last rites.
Asked what Coelho told him, Plishka said, “Well, I mean he stopped. He would not do it. By him not doing it I assumed he would not do it because why was he getting ready to do it and all of a sudden when I say I’m gay he stops?”
Plishka said Coelho gave no reason for not giving him the sacraments he requested but offered instead to pray with him.
“He said what he wanted to do,” said Plishka. “He wanted to pray. That’s what he wanted to do. He said well I could pray with you. And I just told him to get the fuck out of here — excuse me. But that’s what I told him.”
The patient with whom he shared the hospital room overheard some of what was said and asked him, “What in the name of God happened?,” Plishka said.
“And then the doctors came in and told me to calm down or I’m going to have another heart attack,” he said.
Coelho, whose photo appears in the Washington Hospital Center’s online staff directory of hospital chaplains, did not return a call from the Blade seeking comment on his interaction with Plishka.
So Young Pak, Washington Hospital Center’s director of media relations, said the Archdiocese of Washington assigned Coelho to serve as a Catholic chaplain at the hospital. She said the hospital did not hire Coelho.
Pak released a statement to the Blade saying the hospital cannot comment on the specifics of the interaction between Coelho and Plishka “because we were not a party to it.”
But her statement says the hospital is taking “our patient’s concerns very seriously.” She said the Human Rights Campaign Foundation recognized Washington Hospital Center last year as a “Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality.”
“We want to hold true to this important commitment to the LGBT community and to all of our patients,” she said. “It is our expectation that all who offer spiritual care to patients in our hospital adhere to our values and extend excellent care, both physical and spiritual, to all patients regardless of their faith traditions,” she said.
Pak added, “Our Department of Spiritual Care will reinforce our expectations with this priest and his superiors.”
Plishka said the treatment he received from the hospital itself was “excellent” and praised the hospital and its doctors for saving his life.
Chieko Noguchi, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington, which has jurisdiction over D.C. area priests working as hospital chaplains, said her office would have no comment at this time.
A June 2010 biography of Coelho published on the Archdiocese website says Coelho was appointed at that time as parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish in Landover Hills, Md. It says he was “born in India and attended seminary there prior to entering the Archdiocese of Washington’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary.”
The biography says he was ordained on May 26, 2007 and served as a parochial victor at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, Md., and at St. Elizabeth Parish in Rockville, Md., in previous assignment.
Pak said Coelho began his tenure as chaplain at Washington Hospital Center in October 2013.
Officials with the LGBT Catholic organizations Dignity U.S.A. and Dignity Washington expressed disbelief that a priest would refuse to offer last rites and communion to a patient in need.
“This is just abhorrent and not Christ-like at all,” said Dignity Washington President Daniel Barutta. “I can’t imagine where that priest is coming from.”
Henry Huot, a retired Catholic priest who serves as chair of Dignity Washington’s Pastoral Ministry Committee, said longstanding Catholic practice calls for priests to provide the sacraments to people in situations similar to Plishka.
“Any baptized Christian ought not to be denied the sacraments at his or her request,” Huot said. “And that is a cardinal rule of pastoral care. So I don’t know what was going through the mind of this hospital chaplain to deny this man the sacraments,” he said. “It violates this cardinal rule.”
Huot and other Dignity officials, including a priest who asked not to be identified, said no church rule or policy says sacraments should be withheld to people because of their sexual orientation.
“The fact that conditions existed for a priest to make this call is upsetting,” said Dignity USA President Marianne Duddy-Burke. “There should be very clear standards. You minister to the person in need without judgment and without conditions,” she said. “It is not the role of the priest to cause the person in distress additional hardship.”
Duddy-Burke said it’s the responsibility of the Archdiocese to set pastoral care standards for priests under its jurisdiction.
“And I would hope that if this case is brought to the attention of Archdiocesan officials, as it should be, that they would respond appropriately and discipline this priest and make it known to every priest and every person that’s providing pastoral care in the Archdiocese that people should be treated as children of God first.”
Barutta said the group’s pastoral committee headed by Huot has a list of priests on call to provide pastoral care for people in situations similar to Plishka.
“Can you imagine Pope Francis being at that hospital?” Barutta said. “He would be siting by the bedside and be with this guy for more than an hour. I’m almost positive of that.”
Plishka said he is thankful that, unlike his encounter with the priest, his medical treatment at the Washington Hospital Center worked out well. In what he called state of the art cardiac procedures, he said doctors implanted stents through a catheter to reopen clogged arteries in his heart. Much to his surprise, the hospital discharged him just three days after he was admitted, with instructions that he adhere to several weeks of rest and outpatient treatment.
Once at home, Plishka said he called the hospital chaplain’s office to lodge a complaint against Fr. Coelho. He said he also called the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next to Catholic University, where he has attended Mass nearly every Sunday for years.
“They have a priest on call,” he said. “So he called me back and said he agreed with what the priest at the hospital did. He said unless you’re willing to change and basically become somebody you’re not, then this priest had every right to do that, to refuse you communion and to refuse you the last rites of the church,” Plishka said.
He said he doesn’t recall the priest’s name but recalls the priest saying he was the one assigned to take calls from members of the community on that day — Feb. 8.
Ironically, Plishka said, a minister from another denomination came to his hospital room and gave him the spiritual support he didn’t receive from Fr. Coelho. In response to a call to the hospital by one of his friends, who Plishka had told of his encounter with Coelho, the hospital sent a Methodist minister to see him in his hospital room shortly after Coelho’s visit.
“He prayed with me and gave me communion and all of that,” said Plishka. “But it’s not the same. It’s not my religion, you know? I’ve been a Catholic all my life and for them to refuse me a sacrament and to refuse me communion? It destroyed me.”
Now, Plishka said, he decided to speak out about his experience with the hope that it might make a difference.
“I think there comes a time when as a gay man you have to take a stand, you know? It’s just intolerable to be treated like you’re nothing. And I could have died. And all I did was ask for the rites of the church that are due to me. But because I’m gay I’m denied that.”