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Protests and sit-in besiege meeting of U.S. bishops

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Gays and lesbians, an advocate of women’s ordination, and Catholic schoolteachers seeking better wages besieged the Catholic bishops with protests and a sit-in during the annual meeting of the bishops Nov. 13-16 here at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

A small group of gays and lesbians attended an opening Mass Nov. 13 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and were ushered by shrine officials to a rear pew.

Before the bishops concelebrated Mass, a spokesman for the shrine told the more than 2,000 gathered, “There are a few here who have said they plan to receive the Eucharist not as a sign of community but as a sign of protest.” The spokesman said that Communion would not be offered to them.

When members of the group calling themselves the Rainbow Sash Movement went forward to receive the host, they were offered a blessing instead. The day before, the group had also been denied Communion at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.

Members of the 3-year-old movement, founded in Melbourne, Australia, want the church to conduct a public dialogue on human sexuality and to come to an appreciation of the gifts, wisdom and experience that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people bring to the church, said spokesman Michael Kelly.

An Australian, who has worked as a campus minister at Holy Name College in Oakland, Calif., Kelly told NCR that the protest was a simple action that gays and lesbians can do at their churches and cathedrals.

While confrontational in tone, the group stands “reverently and prayerfully,” wearing their sashes throughout Communion, Kelly said. Previously they have been refused Communion by Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne and the late Cardinal Basil Hume in London.

If the bishops had difficulty seeing the Rainbow Sash group at the back of the huge church, they could not miss the 250 members of Soul Force and Dignity, other gay rights groups, which lined the street in front of the shrine. Dignity President Mary Louise Cervone and Dignity Executive Director Marianne Duddy helped hold up a banner that read “Open Wide the Doors -- Dignity or Discrimination.”

“Our message to the bishops is that their policies and teachings have been interpreted by some people in a way that causes us physical pain,” Cervone told NCR. “What the bishops are saying has to stop,” she said, noting that it is “harmful to us for them to split hairs over our orientation and our activity.”

She said the group, a national interfaith body that has protested at other large assemblies of mainline Protestant groups this year, appreciated apologies made by Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney for the times the church’s words or deeds have hurt gays and lesbians.

Arun Gandhi of Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn., stood in solidarity with the gay group. The hate and discrimination that has marked much of the 20th century “has contributed to its being the most violent century in history,” said the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. He called for the creation of an atmosphere of love and respect.

Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas and Auxiliary Bishop A.J. Quinn of Cleveland spent 90 minutes Nov. 11 meeting with a delegation of Soul Force and Dignity at the urging of Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the bishops’ conference. While both sides agreed that the discussion would remain private, Galante told the bishops he wanted to go on record as upholding the fidelity of the gospel teaching on marriage and sexuality as an essential part of being a disciple of Christ.

Another protester, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, surprised the bishops Nov. 13 when she grabbed a microphone just after Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston had proposed a statement on the situation in the Middle East. “I’m here to use my voice for many who cannot speak. There’s an injustice within our church that affects the whole world,” she said, urging the bishops to be “compassionate to your sisters” who are “women called by God to ordination.”

Fiorenza ordered members of the bishops’ communication staff to turn off Sevre-Duszynska’s microphone. They asked her to leave, but she sat quietly in protest on the floor while the bishops’ meeting continued. Journalists who waited to talk with her were instead urged to attend the bishop’s 12:30 p.m. news conference. While the news conference was going on, police ushered Sevre-Duszynska out of the room and the hotel.

It was the second time in less than three years that the woman who has wanted to be a priest since childhood had interrupted church officials. In January 1998 Sevre-Duszynska approached the altar presenting herself as a candidate during an ordination ceremony in her home cathedral in Lexington, Ky. In June she took part in the Women’s Ordination Conference’s prayerful vigil outside the bishops’ meeting in Milwaukee.

While many bishops told NCR that they had not been able to see her protest, which occurred in a far corner of the ballroom-sized meeting room, Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., said that the woman “was appropriately frustrated. It needs to be discussed,” Lucker said. “The church’s arguments against it haven’t been persuasive.”

Sevre-Duszynska, 50, a playwright, teacher and artist, had applied for press credentials to report on the meeting as a freelance journalist interested in immigration.

St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, said that while she would not have chosen “this way” to approach the bishops, “I can understand her passion.”

“I have some sympathy for the bishops,” many of whom, she said, “believe the day will come when you can talk about this. … The truth is women have no voice in the church,” despite the fact that they comprise 82 percent of all lay paid ministers.

Catholic schoolteachers also sought the bishops’ attention, protesting outside their hotel the evening before their meeting. Some 70 teachers unveiled a report card grading the church leaders on labor issues.

The teachers noted that while Catholic schools significantly outperform public schools in overall student tests scores, graduation rates, minority achievement and lower dropout rates, Catholic schoolteachers are paid substantially less than their counterparts in the public system. Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, based in Philadelphia, said that parochial school teachers lagged 23.3 percent behind public school teachers in starting pay.

On the report card, the bishops scored 10 Fs in such subjects as salary, job security, conflict resolution and the right to organize and three Ds including one in family benefits.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000