By Laurie Goodstein
[SAN DIEGO] When Antonio Aaron Bianco arrived for work at his Roman Catholic church office on a recent Monday morning, he was rattled to discover that someone had broken into the conference room and spray-painted a message in large yellow letters on the wall. It said “No Fags.”
|Antonio Aaron Bianco, an openly gay man, worked as a pastoral associate at a Catholic church in San Diego. He has faced threats and harassment.CreditCreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times|
For Mr. Bianco, a gay layman in charge of managing St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, the break-in was just another terrifying omen. Two weeks earlier, someone tried to set the sanctuary doors on fire before the early Sunday Mass. Before that, a stranger swung a punch at Mr. Bianco after Mass one day. For months he had received anonymous phone calls and letters with messages like “Sodomites not welcome in the church.”
Located in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighborhood, St. John the Evangelist is one of about 300 Catholic parishes around the country that quietly welcome gay Catholics. Although the Catholic church teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful, growing pockets of the church have accepted openly gay parishioners, staff members, and even priests.
But after this summer, when the church faced renewed allegations of clergy sexual abuse, some bishops and conservative Catholic media outlets immediately blamed the crisis on homosexuality. That set off a backlash, fueling a campaign to purge the church of gay clergy members and church workers.
More than 1,700 people signed a petition started in August demanding that the archbishop of Atlanta “remove priests who promote the L.G.B.T. agenda from public ministry” and stop supporting parishes known to welcome gay people. In Chicago, a priest burned a rainbow flag and led parishioners in a “prayer of exorcism.” For the first time, protesters showed up outside an annual spiritual retreat of gay priests in Wisconsin in October. In November, bishops attending a conference in Baltimore were greeted by Catholics holding signs saying “All Homosexual Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests MUST RESIGN!”
As the church struggles to respond to the growing crisis over sex abuse — with investigations looming nationwide — gay priests and church workers have become scapegoats, even though most experts who have studied the problem in the church have found no links between sexual orientation and a propensity for abuse. At stake is whether the nascent efforts around the country to welcome gay people into the church will continue, or diminish under pressure from conservative critics.
In San Diego, at St. John the Evangelist, the pressure boiled over, with serious consequences.
Mr. Bianco, who is married to a man, spent years working to revive the dwindling church. When he started, about two and a half years ago, there were only about 40 people at a weekend Mass, said the pastor at the time, John P. Dolan, who is now an auxiliary bishop in San Diego. Many of the congregants were elderly. There were no weddings or baptisms scheduled and no religious education classes.
St. John the Evangelist is one of a few hundred Catholic churches that have quietly been extending a welcome to gay Catholics.
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
St. John the Evangelist is one of a few hundred Catholic churches that have quietly been extending a welcome to gay Catholics.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times
Working at the church was in some ways the perfect challenge for Mr. Bianco, who had studied for the priesthood in Rome for six years, but reconsidered after Pope John Paul II said that gay men should not b,e priests.
Instead Mr. Bianco took positions open to laypeople: director of religious education, Catholic school teacher, parish administrator. He briefly worked for Call to Action, a church reform group, on a project to help people fired from their jobs as Catholic school teachers, music directors, and pastoral associates because they are gay. At St. John’s, Mr. Bianco became the parish’s pastoral associate, arriving just as the church was being encouraged by Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego to start a ministry for L.G.B.T. people.
Bishop McElroy said in a recent interview that the effort was guided by Pope Francis’ vision. “What the pope wants us to do,” Bishop McElroy said, “is build that person’s relationship to God, with love and mercy and compassion.”
Pope Francis has veered between sounding accepting and critical of L.G.B.T. people, supplying the church’s opposing flanks with plenty of ammunition.
Bishop McElroy said that the pope was steering the church toward a “middle course” between liberals who want the church “to dismantle” its teachings against homosexuality, and conservatives who want to make opposition to homosexuality “a litmus test for what makes one a faithful Catholic.”
For five months, Mr. Bianco and then-Father Dolan met with community and church members to create an outreach strategy. They left fliers on doors, and invited new members to form choirs and sing at Mass. Young families joined. Many of the new members were straight, and many Hispanic.
“L.G.B.T. people started to trickle in, but with reservations,” said Richard Peterson, a gay parishioner who leads the L.G.B.T. ministry at the church. “People older than me had been very hurt, but they began to take a chance on the church. And they told their friends.”
The changes did not sit well with some of the older members, especially a handful of traditionalists who prayed the rosary there daily, according to interviews with parishioners and staff members. In a piece on the conservative website Church Militant, two people who claimed to be parishioners — but who did not reveal their names — accused Mr. Bianco of locking out the rosary group, which he denies. The website called Mr. Bianco, Bishops McElroy and Dolan and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles part of a “homosexualist cabal” that was persecuting Catholic traditionalists. Commenters called Mr. Bianco a pederast.
Several parishioners known to be opposed to the L.G.B.T. ministry and to Mr. Bianco did not respond to requests for interviews.
In the summer of 2017, the friction became worse when Father Dolan was made an auxiliary bishop, leaving Mr. Bianco in charge of the parish.
That’s when Mr. Bianco says he began receiving threatening phone calls at the church about every other day, from blocked numbers. There were angry notes left on his car, and one day he came out to find every tire had been punctured. A security camera captured a man with dark hair, but few other details.
“They keep on saying that I have an agenda, but the only agenda I had was to bring people to Christ,” said Mr. Bianco in an interview. “I know that sounds kind of hokey, but that’s why I started this work. I do believe that everyone is welcome.”
Mr. Bianco’s work began to show. In October 2017, the pews were packed with people attending a special Mass for gay Catholics and their friends and families. It was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Always Our Children,” a pastoral message by a committee of American bishops that many regard as their most accepting statement ever about gay people.
Local politicians and dignitaries came. Bishop McElroy issued an apology for how the church had treated L.G.B.T. people.
“There were tears all over the place,” said Tom Kirkman, a participant in the L.G.B.T. ministry, who wrote an account of the Mass for a local gay newspaper. “I was very pleased, because I had graduated from a Catholic school, I taught the faith for 18 years, and I felt unwanted. So it was a very welcoming feeling.”
Protesters also attended the Mass, but soon after, the threats gradually died down. Mr. Bianco said, “I believed they were leaving me alone.”
St. John the Evangelist is in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighborhood.
Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
St. John the Evangelist is in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighborhood.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times
But everything changed after this past summer, when a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a report documenting sexual abuse by hundreds of priests. That followed allegations that the former cardinal of Washington had sexually abused boys and adult men studying to be priests.
In the fall, Bishop McElroy held “listening sessions” in parishes about the abuse scandal. Some in attendance shouted at him to fire Mr. Bianco and to pledge not to ordain gay priests. The bishop said he had responded that all priests have to remain celibate, adding, “I’m not going to discriminate against men who are homosexual in orientation.”
At St. John’s, the pace of the threats increased, church staff members said. After the attempted arson and the break-in, the church installed security doors. The San Diego Police Department confirmed that there have been at least five police reports made about incidents at St. John’s, and they are investigating two, including the attempt to punch Mr. Bianco, as hate crimes.
Mr. Bianco said F.B.I. agents have met with him and appear to be investigating the incidents. The local F.B.I. field office in San Diego declined to comment.
Articles showing pictures of Mr. Bianco, with his husband and his late mother, appeared in articles in Church Militant and another website read by conservatives called Lifesite News.
When they published his home address, that was the last straw for Mr. Bianco. Fearing for his safety, he submitted his resignation to Bishop McElroy. Mr. Bianco said that while the people who run the websites likely did not perpetrate the attacks, “their unfounded rhetoric and lies about me” may have incited others.
Bishop McElroy said he accepted the resignation with “great regret” because Mr. Bianco had been effective in ministry. In a statement printed on the front of the weekly bulletin at St. John’s, the bishop said, “There is nothing Christian or Catholic about the hateful and vile people whose persecution of Aaron Bianco drove him from his ministry.”
At Sunday Mass the next week, a young, straight Hispanic father whom Mr. Bianco had counseled was baptized a Catholic. Mr. Bianco was gone, but more than two dozen members of the L.G.B.T. ministry he had started were there in the pews.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 30, 2018, New York Times