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Protesters at bishops’ meeting refused Communion, arrested


A Washington priest decided to deny Communion to Catholic members of Soulforce, a gay and lesbian organization, when the group’s members participated in a Nov. 11 Mass during the U.S. bishops’ meeting. That judgment call ultimately turned into a spectacle more damaging for the bishops -- desperately seeking to improve their image and credibility across the land -- than it did for the protesters.

While few journalists covering the bishops’ fall meeting attended the evening liturgy at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, more than 100 were present the next morning to see police handcuff and place in a police van the three who had been refused the Eucharist only 16 hours earlier.

The trio -- Ken Einhaus of Arlington, Va.; Kara Speltz of Oalkland, Calif.; and Mike Perez of Seattle -- were among seven Soulforce members inside the shrine. Four other members, who belong to the interfaith organization that opposes the church’s position on homosexuality, chose not to receive.

The three told NCR that they were lifelong Catholics. They said they wore no clothing indicating their membership in Soulforce, nor did they intend their presence at the Mass to be a sign of protest. But Fr. Michael Bugarin, director of the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, “identified them as members of Soulforce” and directed a eucharistic minister to refuse them Communion “based on their positions which are opposed to church teaching on homosexuality,” said Mercy Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the bishops.

Speltz, who wore the same rainbow-colored enamel cross that she wears to distribute Communion at Newman Hall at the University of California-Berkley, where she is a eucharistic minister, told the priest: “I forgive you for this grievous sin you’ve just committed. I’ve never been so hurt in my church before.”

Einhaus’s attempts to “dialogue” with the priest did not succeed. “You know nothing about me,” Einhaus argued with the priest, according to Speltz. When Einhaus returned to the pew, “the pain he felt, that we all felt, was overwhelming,” Speltz told NCR. Einhaus’s pleadings at the back of the huge basilica could be clearly heard in the front.

An NCR reporter who was present attempted to find out what was causing the noise. She saw two police officers and two uniformed shrine security guards usher a man out of the basilica’s main doors, where he could be seen weeping in the arms of another man. When the reporter tried to step outside to question the protester, Fr. Walter Rossi, the shrine’s pilgrimage director, stepped forward and raised his arms to block the reporter’s exit. “No, this is not going to be part of your article,” he announced.

Bugarin also refused Communion to Mike Perez, a general contractor, who has come from Seattle three years in a row to protest during the bishops’ meetings here. Perez said he thought that the prelates had “definitely heard” the demonstrators, but are “still too scared to act. They are just now waking up,” he said. “The scandals have given the church an opportunity for humility.”

A member of Dignity, an organization for Catholic gays and lesbians, Perez said the group wants to have a place in the church, but its 40-50 Seattle members “cannot even meet in church.” He compared the Holy See to royalty “which rubs you out when you buck them.” He hoped the church would learn again “how to be a servant “

A fourth person, who Bugarin judged to be part of Soulforce but who had never heard of the group, also was refused Communion. Speltz said the three later apologized to the man, telling him that they did not intend any confrontation with the priest and regretted that the man had been denied the sacrament. She said the man accepted their apology.

“This man now knows what it’s like to be a gay Catholic in the American church,” she said.

The following morning, at the Hyatt Regency hotel where the bishops were meeting, Soulforce members quietly assembled in the lobby. There Perez and Einhaus knelt in silence and Speltz stood singing while the three were handcuffed by Washington police. Eight other Soulforce members followed the police order to leave the hotel, indicating that the group had previously decided that only the three who had been refused Communion would submit to arrest.

Before the police moved in on the protestors, a Soulforce spokesman apologized to guests of the hotel and to the bishops for the group’s disruption.

“For three years we have tried to get the bishops’ attention. For three years we have spent tens of thousands of dollars of our own money to come here to help the bishops see the tragic consequences of their actions. For three years the bishops have refused to meet with us.”

Later the spokesman shouted loud enough for all in the vast lobby to hear: “Is there no bishop who will serve the Eucharist to these three faithful Catholics?”

Several bishops who had missed the group’s protest stood near the escalator looking amazed as police escorted the three outside. Scores of journalists scurried to follow the police, hotel security officers and protesters outside to the waiting police vans.

Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who entered the lobby after the group was evicted, said: “I admire them for doing it.” Gumbleton added: “I don’t think it’s ever right to refuse a gay man or lesbian woman Communion. If we are going to judge people as being in the state of sin, then we’ll have to start refusing communion to B-52 pilots and to anyone prepared to use a nuclear weapon.”

When NCR asked a representative of the bishops’ liturgy committee whether another way might have been found to appease the demonstrators and do less harm to the bishops, he replied, “You know, I really can’t answer that.”

NCR later learned that the three arrested Soulforce members were taken to the D.C. city jail where they were held 30 hours, charged with “unlawful entry” and not allowed to go within five blocks of the Hyatt Regency. Two were later allowed back into the Holiday Inn across the street where they had been staying, to sleep and pack up their things.

As the protesters were being led away they were cheered outside the hotel by members of Dignity USA, by antiwar protesters representing Pax Christi and the Washington peace community, by proponents of women’s ordination and by several of the 40 Catholics who march each Sunday outside Holy Name Cathedral in Boston calling upon Cardinal Bernard Law to resign.

Across the street from the hotel, members of Call to Action announced that the group would write to each U.S. bishop requesting “full accountability on the scope of the sex abuse crisis.” The group wants disclosure of both the financial cost of the scandal and the names of the abusers as well as allegations against them. Spokeswoman Sheila Daley expressed skepticism over the Vatican’s call for revision of the charter agreed to by the bishops in Dallas. The action looks like “a return to business as usual,” Daley said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002