Openly Gay Priest Says Catholic Church Ready to Accept Gay Clergy

c. 2005 Religion News Service

UTICA, N.Y. _ It wasn't until two years after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest that the Rev. Fred Daley acknowledged he might be gay.

``I was coming down the stairs for morning Mass, and I felt this real deep ache and pain in the pit of my stomach,'' he said. ``It was the first time I was recognizing an ache within that my activity and work and ministry was covering up, and avoiding something.''

A light went on, he said.

``I began to become aware of my sexual feelings and desires,'' he said. He was 27.

Almost 30 years later _ after a painful, prayerful and mostly lonely journey _ he disclosed his sexual orientation to his Utica congregation in May 2004.

Daley, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Utica, is the first priest in the seven-county Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse to publicly disclose he is gay. He is thought to be among just a handful of gay priests in the country who have done so.

As speculation grows that the Vatican is preparing a document that would bar some gays from ordination, Daley says he's proud to be a celibate, gay priest.

Citing unnamed Vatican sources, media outlets reported in September that the document, submitted to Pope Benedict XVI, would recommend barring gay men from the priesthood. Subsequent media reports have predicted the document will not ban gay priests outright, providing they have been celibate for at least three years and have not publicly disclosed their homosexuality.

Daley said many in the church _ gay and straight _ are concerned.

``The church is least faithful to Jesus when it is in the business of excluding,'' Daley said. ``The church should be rejoicing that gay men are ready and willing to use their talents to energize the church. To deprive the church of these gifted men would be a terrible loss.''

Daley says attention to sexual orientation causes gay priests to be blamed for problems in the church, including the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the shortage of priests. It also reinforces stereotypes of gays as immoral and unable to control their sexual impulses, Daley says.

``To the extent the church uses outdated and inaccurate information about homosexual orientation, they are indirectly encouraging the oppression and physical violence against gays and lesbians,'' Daley said.

He's not in favor of outing other gay priests, but said the church needs to acknowledge both their numbers and their contributions.

``There are a lot of us,'' he said.

Daley said he loves his career.

``I feel blessed God gave me the gifts to be a priest.''

Daley, 58, grew up in Syracuse, where he attended Catholic schools and was ordained in 1974. His assignments have included ministering at St. Agnes and Blessed Sacrament, both in Utica. He also served as regional vicar of the diocese's Eastern Region and as director of vocations for the diocese from 1981 to 1988.

He has a reputation for advocating social justice. In 1987, he led a group of 16 local Catholics on a 10-day retreat in Nicaragua and has been a vocal opponent of war.

In September 2002, organizers of an interfaith service in Utica in memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks removed Daley as the main speaker after some criticized his advocacy on behalf of gays and for celebrating Masses that publicly welcome gay Catholics.

But he is praised for supporting Utica's Hospitality Row, which includes a soup kitchen, a women's residential program, a used furniture store, a hospice and a program to help low-income people get prescription drugs in the neighborhood near St. Francis.

Daley publicly disclosed his sexual orientation to a newspaper reporter a few days before he accepted an award from the United Way of the Greater Utica Area in March 2004. A few days later, his congregation gave him a standing ovation after an emotional homily in which he described his struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

Daley said he had been grappling with going public for some time. He said he spent years hiding his nature, and felt dishonest. The feeling grew as he saw gays being blamed for the sexual abuse scandal.

``I felt hypocritical as a gay priest being silent,'' he said.

Silence about sex characterized his days as a seminarian.

``It was the last days of very little time and energy spent on human sexuality and the commitment to celibacy,'' Daley said. ``I was totally out of touch with my sexuality.''

That wasn't unusual, said Daley, who attended the former Wadhams Hall Seminary in Ogdensburg, N.Y., in the early 1970s.

``Straight or gay, repressing one's sexuality was the way many handled it,'' he said. ``There was never any official interchange with the system on sexuality and celibacy.''

While on vacation a few years after his ordination, Daley visited a gay bar and recognized the source of the ache in the pit of his stomach.

``I couldn't even say the word `homosexual' to myself,'' he said. ``But that solidified in my heart that I was gay. I realized I was sexually attracted to them.''

It didn't bring peace, though.

``I thought it was evil. I thought it was terrible,'' he said.

``Ten minutes later I found the nearest Catholic church and went to confession,'' he said. ``I thought it was a sin to even go there. I perceived that as a terrible threat to my priesthood, which I loved.''

While on retreat a few weeks later, he told a spiritual adviser he was gay.

``I was hoping he wouldn't condemn me but would help me negate that feeling,'' he recalled. ``It was a desire to cleanse my feelings and thoughts so I could go on with my life.''

He credits a 10-year prayerful relationship with that spiritual adviser for helping him to accept himself.

``He helped me to accept my sexual orientation and recognize I was OK and that God created me that way,'' he said. ``Then I was able to break through my homophobic fears in my heart and accept myself.''

He said the struggle exists for all priests, who need to confront their sexuality as they decide if they can live celibate lives. Worries about Vatican rules and rumors about weeding out gay seminarians create an atmosphere that is neither Christlike nor healthy, he said.

``My fear is this approach is going to create an atmosphere that encourages young men not to deal with those issues,'' he said. ``This is a terrible step backward.''

Daley looks to the reaction to his disclosure as evidence that the church is ready to accept gay priests. His bishop, James Moynihan, has made no comment to him about the disclosure, he said. His own congregation has supported him, and he's received hundreds of supportive notes from all over the country.

``I'm not exaggerating,'' he said. ``Out of the hundreds of letters and phone calls, I received one letter, very polite, from a person concerned I was going to hell and one telephone call, saying I was making the church look bad.''

Daley said he doesn't regret his decision.

``There's such peace and freedom in my life and inner feeling of integrity,'' he said. ``I hope I'm an example that being gay is not the end of ministry.''

MO/RB END RNS

(Renee K. Gadoua writes about religion for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.)

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