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Bishop defends gay Web site

By CARMEL RICKARD Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cape Town, South Africa

The South African bishop, alleged by a conservative Catholic organization to be part of a “Web porn site,” says the claims are “gay bashing nonsense.”

Bishop Reginald Cawcutt, auxiliary bishop of Cape Town, is one of several priests and religious named as part of a “porn site” by the group Roman Catholic Faithful, a right-wing organization based in the United States. Cawcutt told NCR that the site in question was a private news group that he had been invited to join some years ago as part of his ministry to the gay community.

“I have been involved for some time in ministering to the gay and lesbian community and to people with HIV/AIDS. Someone in Australia invited me to join this Internet news group, which offered support to gay priests and religious.

“I had no problem in doing so. It serves an important purpose, helping a group which is marginalized and in pain, and I am still part of it.”

Cawcutt said that membership in the private news group was limited to people introduced by a member. There was also a related home page, set up by someone who was part of the news group, who suggested that members should send in their photographs to be added to the site, which Cawcutt had done. This had allowed him to be identified by the right-wing group.

“Discussions were not only about sexuality, but also about the normal things of a priest’s life. Someone had a new parish; someone else was going on holiday; someone else talked about ordinary parish work. There was a lot of discussion about the young gay man who had been beaten to death in the United States, about how to counsel gay people who asked for advice, about reaction to Vatican pronouncements on gay issues - many of the things that you would hear priests anywhere discussing.”

Sometime last year, according to Cawcutt, “some idiot” put a picture now notoriously referred to as a “pulsating penis” on the site. “This was the only thing remotely close to being ‘porn’ and other members of the group complained straight away and told him to take it off. It was gone almost immediately, but unknown to us a hacker had already gained access to the site and kept a record of this picture.”

“There were never more than about 20 people prepared to have their photographs on the site. Most were very secretive about their identity and used pseudonyms. They mostly were from the U.S.A., Canada, the U.K., South Africa and other parts of Africa. There were also a couple from Rome.

“The news group still exists, and I have no doubt of the value it serves. To say, as RCF has alleged, that people on it bragged of their sexual activity is not true. Much like Alcoholics Anonymous when you fall, you go back to the group. In such a case, people would confess and try again in their battle for celibacy. It was a kind of open confession situation very often.”

For everyone who was part of the group, the discovery of a hacker in their midst was “disastrous,” says Cawcutt.

“The hacker did a cut-and-paste job with material culled from the sites over a long period, taken out of context and put together in a way that amounts to a lie.”

Soon after the group became aware of the hacker last November, Cawcutt said he began to receive “very nasty, threatening e-mails” from someone using a woman’s name who tried to get him to give an interview, saying that if he refused the group would “bash” him.

Although he ignored these messages, word spread quickly, and in January the papal nuncio had a discussion with Cawcutt about the situation. Some weeks later someone again contacted him, this time to say they were sending information about Cawcutt to e-mail addresses around the world “because I would not play ball with them.”

He immediately met with the archbishop of Cape Town, Lawrence Henry, and offered to resign if the allegations were going to create a problem for the church.

“Archbishop Henry refused even to consider it. He said that if you reach out to people and it gets you into trouble, then so be it.”

Cawcutt said he had been heartened by the extent of the support he had received from inside and outside the church. “No one has attacked me. All the priests and nuns in Cape Town have been supportive. ... I was very touched by this. I have really been surprised at the numbers of sisters who came to express their solidarity. Everyone who has spoken to me has been very encouraging.”

Reflecting on why he chose to remain part of the news group, Cawcutt said the church had a duty to reach out to people, “to women and anyone else who is oppressed.”

“A lot of priests benefited from this group. They were able to cry and express their pain, and to receive support and encouragement. We heard about the agonizing, the rejection, pretending, hiding, fear, frustration, loneliness and gay bashing that many priests have to endure.

“No one can criticize what I said. I was forever pushing celibacy. It would be outrageous to suggest otherwise.”

Cawcutt has harsh words for the group that hacked into the site, saying their actions have worsened the situation for many priests.

“The RCF pretend to be better Catholics than anyone else, but they have done something despicable. They broke into what amounts to a private group, in which priests shared an open confession with one another - priests who already feel bashed around - and then told lies about it.

“Their sin is worse than any of which they accuse the members.”

Cawcutt said while he has remained part of the group, many others had pulled out, forced to do so by the publicity generated by the hackers or for fear of being identified.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000