News & Advance Article: "Falwell Agrees to Soften Anti-Gay Rhetoric, Rev. Mel White to Bring Activists to Lynchburg in October"

by Shannon Brennan
The News & Advance
Lynchburg, Virginia
August 18, 1999

The Rev. Jerry Falwell agreed Tuesday to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric after meeting with the Rev. Mel White, a gay activist who plans to bring 200 gays and lesbians to Lynchburg in October to talk to Falwell and 200 of his followers.

"It’s historic," White said during an interview in his motel room in Lynchburg. "We are euphoric."

White said he told Falwell the purpose of the meeting was "not to stop you from preaching your conscience, but to lower the volume and shrillness of the rhetoric."

Falwell said the discussion was not new. He and White first discussed the same issues three years ago and Falwell noted that he has his own concerns.

"I speak constantly around the country and almost invariably some of the radical activists … disrupt the meeting or commit violent acts," Falwell said. "It has been getting more precarious with passing time … Mel sincerely wants to lower the rhetoric on both sides. That is exactly what we want."

White, who co-chairs Soulforce, Inc., said his group will be coming to Lynchburg Oct. 22-24, and had been prepared to demonstrate in front of Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, if necessary.

But now, instead of bringing 5,000 people to Lynchburg, he will invite only 200, including Lynchburg residents, who will be trained in non-violent discourse before a Saturday night dinner with Falwell. Soulforce is based on the principles of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

White said his group sees Falwell as a victim of misinformation and welcomes the chance to share stories with Falwell and his people.

White said Falwell has been issuing hate language against homosexuals for 10 years and that his group, Soulforce, Inc., is committed to stopping the language which leads to violence against gays.

"Speech has power … Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound ends in a deed," said Rabbi Abraham Heschel in one of White’s flyers. Those words describe the purpose of the meeting with Falwell, White said.

But Falwell said his anti-gay rhetoric is aimed only at the fringe activists who believe in same-sex marriages and commit violent acts. White disagrees.

"We have 10 years of horrible stuff," he said.

A letter signed by Falwell about Al and Tipper Gore entertaining 150 members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, for example, says, "I wonder how much of our tax funds were used to wine and dine these perverted homosexuals who absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, God-fearing citizens stand for …

"Make no mistake. These deviants seek no less than total control and influence in society, politics, our schools and in our exercise of free speech and religious freedom."

Falwell said "I do not think that our letters in any way are violence-oriented," but added, "We are most certainly willing to look carefully at what we write."

White knows Falwell and his writings well. He ghost wrote Falwell’s autobiography "If I Should Die Before I Wake!" in 1984 and until 1991, "was regarded by the leaders of the religious right as one of their most talented and productive supporters," according to the book jacket on White’s 1995 book, "Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America."

White, who also wrote for Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Bakker and Ollie North, finally came out publicly about his sexual orientation in 1993. For 25 years, White attempted to deny his identity through counseling and even exorcism and electric-shock. He said he attempted suicide before finally realizing he couldn’t change who he is.

White was subsequently interviewed on "60 Minutes" and "Larry King Live" and has received coverage throughout the country for his radical shift from a straight, married man from a fundamentalist background to an openly gay minister.

Falwell said any dialogue with White will never change Falwell’s opinion about homosexuality. "There’s no way I could ever change my view that homosexuality is a sin," Falwell said. "We both agree that violence on the part of gays and lesbians and non-gays … needs to be stopped."

While White said Falwell invited him and his group to dinner on Oct. 23, Falwell said nothing is firm yet. The two plan another meeting before then to finalize details.

White also asked Falwell to have members of his congregation house the 200 activists coming to Lynchburg, but Falwell declined, citing Biblical quotations about not showing hospitality to sinners, White said.

White said Falwell urged him to take one step at a time. White’s partner, Gary Nixon, said the meeting was a good beginning.

"You’ve both taken the first step together," said Nixon, who also attended the meeting with Falwell.

White said he believes Falwell is sincere about his belief that homosexuality is a sin and admits he shared it for most of his life.

"It took me 25 years," White said. "I have to give him a little time."

Los Angeles Times Article: "Vatican: A Conflicted Attitude Toward Gays"

Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1999

NEW ORLEANS – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s recent decision to prohibit an American priest and nun from doing pastoral work with gays and lesbians underscores a moral myopia in the Vatican. How long can the church officially deny ministry to homosexuals on the outside while ignoring the impact of homosexuality within its own ranks?

Pope John Paul II’s mastery of the geopolitical stage is undisputed. His eloquent statements on the evils of materialism and the horrors of poverty have made him, in many ways, a global figure transcending his church. His orchestration of and participation in the church’s celebration of the millennium will solidify his international standing. Yet, his failure to confront the sexual crisis in his own clerical culture can only weaken his stature as a moral leader.

The Vatican investigated Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, founders of New Ways Ministry for gays and lesbians, for 12 years. The two urged gay people to see themselves as children of God and had hoped that the official church would take a more tolerant view of their work, despite a 1986 letter, authored by Cardinal Ratzinger, that called homosexuality "an intrinsic moral evil." It was Nugent’s and Gramick’s refusal to endorse Ratzinger’s language that triggered the cardinal’s order to halt their work.

The church’s refusal to deal with lay homosexuality on any terms other than as an issue of free will may explain its conflicted response to a sexual revolution taking place within its own ranks. Studies show that heterosexuals continue to leave the priesthood because of the church’s celibacy law. According to Fran Ferder, a Seattle nun and therapist who has treated many priests, the church has a tendency to attract young men who could not openly discuss their gay proclivities with their families, so they "choose seminary as an acceptable way of not having to deal with sexuality. And then it comes out when they’re in their 20s or 30s, emotionally at an age of 15 or 16 – a regressive homosexuality."

In civil litigation sparked by alleged sexual abuse by clergy, plaintiff attorneys have often discovered that ecclesial authorities tolerate consensual homosexual activity by priests within a pattern of concealing child abuse by a much smaller number of priests. This is not to confuse homosexuality, an orientation, with pedophilia, a pathology. Most gay people, like most straights, don’t molest kids. But a celibate culture honeycombed with sexual secrecy has its own unique crisis.

On July 21, Bishop Patrick Ziemann resigned after a priest in his Santa Rosa,Calif., diocese accused the bishop in a lawsuit of coercing him into homosexual acts. Ziemann admitted having had sex with Father Jorge Hume Salas but said it was consensual. Salas, who was removed from his parish for stealing church funds, was also accused by parishioners of making sexual advances toward young Latino men. Despite the accusations, the bishop reportedly took no disciplinary steps against the priest. Salas’ suit alleges two years of sexual involvement with the bishop, in exchange for Ziemann’s silence about theft of the $1,200 in church funds.

For years now, an unofficial group of therapists associated with facilities that treat problem priests has tried to get the bishops to assess data on the range and implications of sexual conflicts in clerical life. They have made little headway, according to Dr. Leslie Lothstein, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Living, a mental hospital in Hartford, Conn.

"The study people in the church don’t want us comparing deviant sexual behavior among Protestant, Jewish and Catholic clergy," says Lothstein. "We’ve seen over 200 priests involved with teens or children in the last 12 years. Of about 50 ministers of other denominations I’ve counseled, the vast majority have been involved with adults – women."

In assessing the social implications of the church’s unwillingness to deal with its internal homosexual problem, Lothstein says: "When people live a contradiction, they build a house of cards. . . . The Catholic Church is so powerful that there’s no telling what the effect of the denial will have on its structures. I’m always amazed at how individual Catholics have faith in their religion but shy away from making substantive changes to make the institution healthier."

Finding scapegoats is one way the Vatican has tried to deflect scrutiny from the church’s own conflicted culture. Cardinal James A. Hickey, as archbishop of Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, forced New Ways to leave his archdiocese, a move that curried favor for him in Rome. Then, in 1987, Father Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist on whom Hickey and many bishops relied for advice in treating pedophile priests, died of AIDS. Members of Hickey’s staff knew that Peterson had been in the closet. At the burial mass, Hickey praised Peterson’s work at St. Luke Institute, a clergy psychiatric facility in a suburb of Washington.

After reports in the early 1990s of priests with AIDS, dioceses began requiring seminary candidates to pass an HIV test before beginning priestly studies.

The most glaring example of the Vatican’s conflicted attitude toward homosexuality is Father Marcial Maciel, head of the Legion of Christ, an ultraconservative religious order that operates elite prep schools in Latin America, Europe and the United States. Maciel founded the Legion in Mexico in 1941. Courting wealthy supporters, he soon established seminaries in Spain and Rome. In 1978, when the Legion’s American leader, Juan Vaca, left the order, he wrote a letter that was sent to the pope by officials in the Rockville, N.Y., diocese. The letter detailed a history of sexual activity he had had with Maciel, beginning as a teenage seminarian and continuing into his 20s. He accused Maciel of having had sexual relations with other Legion students. When Vaca left the priesthood in 1989, he wrote a second letter repeating his charges. A Florida priest who left the Legion sent a similar letter to the pope.

But the Vatican never contacted the men. Seven other Mexicans sent similar messages to church officials, accusing Maciel of abusing them as seminarians. They didn’t file suit or ask for money. They simply wanted Maciel removed from his position. In 1997, they gave their account to the Hartford Courant.

"The pope has reprimanded Germans for lack of courage during the Nazi era," said one of the men, Jose de J. Barba Martin, a Harvard-trained literary scholar in Mexico City. "For years we were silent. Then we tried to reach authorities in the church. This is a statement of conscience."

The Vatican refused comment. Father Maciel refused to be interviewed but denied the accusations. Subsequently, the pope named Maciel a special delegate to a synod of bishops in Rome.*

Jason Berry, Who Won an Alicia Patterson Fellowship for His Work on David Duke in the Late 1980s and Early ’90s, Is Author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," Which Won a Catholic Press Assn. Book Award

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