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Gay man says priest refused to give last rites

Incident at Washington Hospital Center angers LGBT Catholic group

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crucifix, Christian, gay news, Washington Blade

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.”

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District of Columbia

Will D.C. host World Pride 2025 after Taiwan cancellation?

InterPride organizers mum on selection of new host city

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(Photo by Andy Lain 多元的台灣 2014彩虹大遊行)

A surprise announcement last week by Taiwanese organizers of World Pride Taiwan 2025 that they have withdrawn their agreement to host the international Pride event has raised the immediate question of whether the event will be moved to Washington, D.C., which lost its bid to host the event to Taiwan.

Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes D.C.’s annual Pride events, submitted a bid for D.C. to become the host city last September with the support of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and city agencies that help organize large events.

World Pride Taiwan 2025 is the group that won its 2021 bid to host World Pride 2025 in the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung. The group said in a statement that it decided to cancel its role as the host for World Pride following a dispute with InterPride, the U.S.-based international organization that founded and administers World Pride, and that selects the host city.

World Pride, an international event that takes place every two years, draws thousands of participants from throughout the world to the host city. 

Although disagreements had surfaced over whether World Pride Taiwan had the economic capacity to host an international event like World Pride, the group said in its statement that the issue that prompted the cancellation was InterPride’s insistence that the name “Taiwan” could not be used in the title of the event and only the name World Pride Kaohsiung 2025 could be used.

According to the statement, the name “Taiwan Pride” has symbolic significance for the Taiwanese LGBTQ community, among other reasons, because all the island nation’s Pride events since 2003 have used the name Taiwan Pride.

In its own statement, InterPride said all past World Pride events have used the name of the host city rather than the country in which the city is located. In its statement, it said it offered a compromise allowing Taiwanese organizers to call the event “World Pride Kaohsiung, Taiwan,” a claim Taiwanese organizers dispute.   

The Washington Blade couldn’t immediately reach an official or spokesperson for InterPride to determine whether it plans to reopen the bidding process to select another city to host World Pride 2025 or whether it would invite D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance to host the event on behalf of D.C.

Capital Pride Alliance submitted what it said was a comprehensive bid last September calling on InterPride to select D.C. as the World Pride 2025 host. Capital Pride and the Taiwanese group were the only two organizations to submit a bid for World Pride 2025.

When InterPride announced last November that it had selected the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung to host the international event, Capital Pride issued a statement congratulating Kaohsiung Pride and World Pride Taiwan 2025 for winning the bid.

Ryan Bos, the Capital Pride Alliance executive director, told the Blade on Wednesday that as of early this week InterPride had not contacted Capital Pride Alliance about the Taiwanese group’s decision to cancel the event. He said Capital Pride learned about the cancellation from news media reports.

Asked if Capital Pride plans to reactivate its bid to host World Pride 2025, Bos did not offer a direct answer.

“We definitely need to have conversations about it,” he said. “We definitely would be open to the conversation. Our team put in a lot of time and effort to put together a very comprehensive and strong bid,” Bos said. “D.C. is a worthy destination, and we can truly make a major impact on the world stage by hosting an event such as this,” Bos said. “So, we would be open to entertaining the conversation.”

Bos pointed to Capital Pride’s announcement at the time it submitted its bid to host World Pride 2025 last September that hosting the event in 2025 would come at a time when Capital Pride plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D.C.’s first LGBTQ Pride event in 1975, which began as a block party near Dupont Circle.

“So, though we were not selected last fall, we have been moving forward in organizing an international Pride event for 2025 on the world stage for our 50th anniversary,” Bos said. “So, regardless of what happens, we will be continuing down that path.”

Bos said Capital Pride Alliance officials will also be attending InterPride’s annual international conference this October in Guadalajara, Mexico, which is held each year in connection with InterPride’s role as an association of LGBTQ Pride organizations throughout the world. Bos said the issue of selecting a new host city for World Pride 2025 could emerge as a topic of discussion at that conference.

World Pride Taiwan 2025 organizers said in their statement that InterPride did not insist on leaving out the name Taiwan in the title of the event during the bidding process last year and at the time InterPride decided to select the Taiwanese group to host the event in Kaohsiung. The group also disputes InterPride’s claim that it offered a compromise to include the name Taiwan along with Kaohsiung in the event’s title.

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Delaware

Delaware to open monkeypox vax clinics in Rehoboth, Wilmington

State expands access per CDC recommendations

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CAMP Rehoboth is hosting a vaccine clinic next week. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rehoboth and Wilmington, Del. will host monkeypox vaccination clinics next week after the Delaware Division of Public Health authorized the administration of one-fifth of the original vaccine dosage — per federal recommendations — on Monday.

On Aug. 23 CAMP Rehoboth, a local LGBTQ organization, will host a vaccine clinic from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in its community center at 37 Baltimore Ave. An additional vaccine clinic will be held on Aug. 25 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Wilmington on the ground floor of the city’s Community Service Building at 100 West 10th St.

According to a Tuesday CAMP Rehoboth news release, individuals “engaging in high-risk activities” should consider vaccination against monkeypox, namely men who have sex with men or anonymous sexual partners, trans and non-binary individuals assigned male at birth who have sex with men, sex workers, and staff at establishments where sexual activity occurs. 

To receive a vaccine at the Rehoboth clinic, individuals must register in advance by calling 302-227-5620 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. To receive a vaccine at the Wilmington clinic, individuals must register in advance by calling 302-652-6776 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Two hundred slots are available at each clinic, and second doses will be administered on Sept. 20 in Rehoboth and Sept. 22 in Wilmington at the same time as the initial vaccination appointment.

The two-dose vaccination series is not considered effective until two weeks after the second dose, CAMP Rehoboth noted in a Tuesday news release. The vaccine, JYENNOS, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but may not provide protection to those who have received a smallpox vaccine more than three years ago, the news release added.

In addition, as of Monday, individuals living with HIV or taking pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV are eligible for vaccine access, and can contact their healthcare providers or DPH at 866-408-1899 to receive a vaccination appointment.

The state’s decision to expand vaccine access follows national trends, and comes after local and national organizations advocated for increased action from the Centers for Disease Control to combat the spread of the virus. On Aug. 12, more than 150 LGBTQ centers and organizations across the country, including Delaware’s Sussex Pride, signed a letter to the CDC in favor of “increasing the number of available vaccines” and expanding current data and testing on the virus nationally. As of Aug. 5, Delaware has administered 33 doses of the monkeypox vaccine, according to a DPH news release.

For more information, individuals can contact the DPH hotline for monkeypox-related questions and concerns on weekdays from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 866-408-1899, or email [email protected]. Information concerning monkeypox prevention programs and resources can be found at de.gov/monkeypox.

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District of Columbia

Most LGBTQ Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners not seeking re-election

No candidates running in 56 districts, reflecting waning interest in posts

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After serving seven terms as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, John Fanning is not seeking re-election. (Photo courtesy of Fanning)

Only ten of D.C.’s 34 known LGBTQ Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners are running for reelection in the city’s Nov. 8 general election, according to the most up to date list of ANC candidates released by the D.C. Board of Elections.

Some of the 24 LGBTQ incumbent ANC members who are not running for reelection have said they decided to step down after having served multiple two-year terms in an unpaid elective office that they say involves a considerable amount of time as well as political strife that can be stressful.

Congress created the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions as part of the city’s home rule local government in the early 1970s. There are a total of 40 ANCs located throughout the city with each having between two and ten single member districts representing the city’s diverse neighborhoods. Currently, there are a total of 345 single member districts citywide.

Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, the ANCs are charged with making recommendations to city officials on a wide range of neighborhood issues, including the approval of liquor licenses for bars and restaurants, for which city officials are required to give “great weight” but the government officials are not required to adopt the recommendations.

Thirty-three of the current 34 openly LGBTQ ANC members were among a total of 47 known LGBTQ ANC candidates that ran in the city’s 2020 general election.

One of the current LGBTQ ANC members, Dupont Circle community activist Randy Downs, won in a special election to fill a vacancy earlier this year for the Dupont Circle ANC Single Member District 2B07. Downs, who served as an ANC member in previous years, is among the 24 LGBTQ ANC incumbents who are not running for reelection in November.

Other LGBTQ members who have decided not to seek reelection include longtime Dupont Circle ANC member Mike Silverstein, who is completing his tenth two-year term, and Logan Circle ANC member John Fanning, who’s completing his seventh term in office.

“I have served seven terms, and I just felt like it was time to allow another resident of my single member district an opportunity to serve,” Fanning told the Washington Blade. “And I am happy that I accomplished the things that I did in my seven terms,” he said.

Silverstein attributes what he called “COVID fatigue” as one reason some of the LGBTQ as well as non-LGBTQ ANC incumbents are not running for another term in office. He said another factor prompting at least some incumbents not to run again is greater demands on ANC commissioners and less support from city officials.

Among other things, he said, some community members who disagree with the recommendations made and positions taken by ANCs have filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests seeking hundreds of email messages exchanged among ANC members, forcing ANC members to expend many hours of work tracking down those messages as well as other documents.

“People don’t want to be hassled, they don’t want to be subjected to the same crap that people who are making $140,000 a year go through when they’re not being paid anything,” Silverstein said. “We’ve had to beg people to run,” he said in referring to him and other Dupont Circle ANC incumbents who were trying to find qualified people to replace them.

The D.C. Board of Elections list of ANC candidates shows that there are no candidates running in 56 single member districts across the city, the highest number of districts in which no ANC candidate is running since the ANC’s were created. Observers familiar with the ANCs note that the candidate list also shows there are a record number of single member districts in which only one candidate is running, which the observers say indicates an apparent lack of public interest or support for the city’s ANCs.

Silverstein and Fanning said they know of several non-incumbent LGBTQ ANC candidates running in the November election, but they don’t have a complete list of all known LGBTQ ANC candidates citywide.

At the time of the 2020 D.C. general election, the then newly created LGBTQ ANC Rainbow Caucus compiled a list of the known LGBTQ ANC candidates. But Silverstein and Fanning said the Rainbow Caucus has been inactive this year, in part, due to its former chairpersons becoming involved in other activities.

One of the founding chairs of the caucus was local transgender activist and Ward 3 ANC member Monika Nemeth, who is not seeking reelection this year. Also serving as one of the founding chairs was gay Ward 1 ANC member Japer Bowles, who resigned from his ANC seat earlier this year after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed him as director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

Nemeth and Bowles couldn’t immediately be reached this week to determine whether they have arranged for others to replace them as leaders of the ANC Rainbow Caucus and whether the caucus will compile a list of LGBTQ ANC candidates running in the November election.

Among the other incumbent LGBTQ ANC members who are not running for reelection include longtime Southwest waterfront commissioner Andy Litsky of ANC 6D04; Dupont Circle ANC 2B09 member Kyle Mulhall, an attorney and longtime LGBTQ rights advocate; and Logan Circle ANC member John Guggenmos, the co-owner of the Logan Circle area gay bars Number 9 and Trade.

Also, among the LGBTQ incumbents not running this year are Logan Circle ANC members Rehana Mohammed and Alexandra Bailey.   

Following is a list of the ten incumbent LGBTQ ANC members who are running for reelection in November, their ANC single member districts, and the neighborhoods they represent:

Kent Boese, 1E01 (Park View)

Michael Wray, 1E03 (Park View)

Larry Handerhan, 1B01 (Ledroit Park)  

Michael Shankle, 2C01 (Penn Quarter-Chinatown)

Evan Yeats, 4B04 (Takoma)

Ra Amin, 5B04 (Brookland)

Salvador Sauceda-Guzman, 5D05 (Trinidad)

Robb Dooling, 6A06 (Capitol Hill East)

Ronald Collins, 6D02 (Near Southwest)

Anthony Lorenzo Green, 7C04 (Deanwood)

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