April 8, 2010 at 5:02 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBT groups take stance on priest sex abuse

The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force has joined LGBT religious groups in criticizing Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church hierarchy for not taking sufficient action to stop alleged sexual abuse by priests against children and teenagers in the U.S. and Europe.

In a joint statement, leaders of five groups that are part of the Task Force’s National Religious Leadership Roundtable cited recent allegations that a priest who headed a school for deaf children in Wisconsin sexually abused more than 200 youths at the school over a period of more than 20 years.

“The appalling story from Wisconsin of the priest who abused over 200 students, and whose sins and crimes were covered up by the Catholic hierarchy, wrenches the heart and tests a person’s faith,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the gay Catholic group New Ways Ministry.

“It gets to the heart of what has too often been the case in stories like this — the clerical system of secrecy, silence and unaccountability is the main culprit,” he said. “Sadly, until the bishops responsible for moving abusers to other locales acknowledge their responsibility, the cycle of abuse will continue.”

For more than a decade, LGBT media advocacy group Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has lobbied the news media for fair coverage of the priest sex abuse scandal. Literature on the group’s web site points to scientific studies showing that abuse of children similar to the reported action by priests is related to pedophilia, which is not linked to homosexuality.

But the March 30 statement from the Task Force and leaders of its National Religious Leadership Roundtable represents one of the first instances of a national, secular LGBT political group taking a visible stand on the widening priest abuse scandal.

Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, director of the Task Force’s Faith Work project, said the group’s decision to speak out on the issue was in keeping with its mission to advance the cause of social justice for all people, not just the LGBT community.

Among the people the group stands in solidarity with, she said, are the victims of priest sexual abuse.

She said the Task Force and its religious roundtable leaders also wanted to clarify and debunk claims by some church officials that the priest abuse cases are rooted in homosexuality and perpetuated by gay priests.

“Rather than taking responsibility for and creating an atmosphere of justice, the church has chosen in many, many contexts to basically blame the problem on, quote unquote, homosexual priests,” Voelkel said. “This goes against everything we know about sexual abuse being perpetrated 95, 99 percent of the time by heterosexual men.”

Voelkel and GLAAD spokesperson Richard Ferraro said their respective groups were concerned about media coverage of a renewed campaign begun last week by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, claiming that the priest abuse case in Wisconsin was rooted in homosexuality.

In interviews on CNN and in a full-page ad in the New York Times, Donohue pointed to findings that most of the male youths in a Wisconsin school for the deaf were above the age of puberty. Victims of the abuse, who are now adults, reported they were targeted by Father Lawrence Murphy between 1950 and 1974. Murphy died in 1998.

Donohue said that because the youths were post-pubescent, the abuse was a “homosexual issue,” not a matter of pedophilia, which he said is linked to pre-pubescent sexual abuse.

GLAAD and other groups monitoring the case in Wisconsin and other alleged priest abuse cases have said sexual abuse is no more linked to homosexuality than it is to heterosexuality, noting that abusers should be criminally prosecuted and prevented from harming other children or youth.

“Donohue is feeding a hostile climate that gay people continue to face in this country,” said Rashad Robinson, GLAAD’s senior director of media programs.

Voelkel said the Task Force is most concerned about the lack of action against Murphy by church authorities in Wisconsin and possibly the Vatican, which reportedly had learned of specific abuse allegations against him while he still headed the Wisconsin school.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, president of the national LGBT Catholic group Dignity USA, said Donohue’s claims linking priest sex abuse to homosexuality go against comments made by Pope Benedict himself during his visit to the U.S. in 2008.

When asked at that time about homosexuality, Benedict said he preferred not to talk about that subject on his U.S. visit, but added that pedophilia and sexual abuse of minors was not related to homosexuality and instead was “another thing.”

Rev. Debra Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, an LGBT supportive organization and a member of the Task Force’s National Religious Leadership Roundtable, called on Benedict to take immediate steps to moderate the church’s position on human sexuality.

“The pope now has an urgent responsibility — and an extraordinary opportunity,” she said. “He must not only move beyond apologies to action, but could also use his influence to urge all religious institutions to address sexuality in healthier, more open and responsible ways.

“Pope Benedict, the world is watching and waiting.”

Others who contributed to the joint statement on the priest abuse scandal were Rev. Darlene Nipper, the Task Force’s deputy director, and Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics & Ritual.

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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