The Daily Northwestern

At St. Nicholas Church, LGBTQ+ Catholics grapple with abuse crisis

Christopher Vazquez

Christopher Vazquez, Video Editor

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This article contains references to sexual abuse.

When the LGBTQ+Family and Friends ministry at St. Nicholas Church first launched, Marion Flynn found herself with a young child and a secret. She hadn’t come out as a lesbian woman, but she watched the work the ministry did from afar and felt encouraged.

Despite the perception that Catholicism and queer identities are mutually exclusive, the LGBTQ+ ministry at St. Nicholas has welcomed queer parishioners since 2002. Cristina Traina, the ministry’s co-coordinator, sees the parish as a place to reconcile her Catholic faith with her identity as a lesbian. She said she and the ministry have received support from pastors, fellow parishioners and other Evanston churches.

However, Traina said LGBTQ+ Catholics often face opposition from leaders of the Roman Catholic Church — including a false association between homosexuality and abuse. She said she has been less active in the church for this reason.

In December 2018, the Illinois attorney general released a preliminary report stating that six Illinois dioceses received abuse allegations against at least 500 priests and clergy members that were not previously identified.

Traina knew to expect an association from church leaders between abuse and homosexuality, despite experts finding no link between the two.

“I immediately feared that people would start making that link,” said Traina, who is also a professor and the chair of the religious studies department at Northwestern. “We’re unfortunately so accustomed to this sort of reductionism and it continues to be discouraging, but it’s not new.”

In November, a former St. Nicholas priest who worked at the parish from 1917 to 1925 was added to a public list of priests with substantiated allegations of abuse against them. Traina and Flynn both said they were not familiar with the priest and were unaware of any reaction from within St. Nicholas.

A 1975 Catholic Church document taught that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” a position maintained by the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ten years later in Evanston, St. Nicholas launched its LGBTQ+Family and Friends ministry. The parish is the only Evanston Catholic church on a list of LGBTQ-friendly churches from New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ Catholics.

Traina said the ministry focuses on incorporating LGBTQ+ people into the parish and holding educational events. She also said St. Nicholas has largely welcomed the ministry’s work, though some parishioners have avoided their events or moved to other churches.

Flynn, a longtime St. Nicholas parishioner who joined the LGBTQ+Family and Friends ministry in the early 2000s, said she has seen conservative parishioners recognize the ministry’s importance.

“There’s a piece of me that wishes the ministry didn’t need to exist,” she said, “but I have to say I take great joy in looking over our parish on a Sunday morning and seeing gay and lesbian families with babies and couples that are doing productive work.”

However, Traina said leaders in the Catholic Church have pushed back harder against welcoming LGBTQ+ people.

St. Nicholas parishioner Eileen Hogan Heineman recalled a comment from Pope Benedict XVI about queer people that she found discouraging. The LGBTQ+Family and Friends ministry had scheduled a painting project the following weekend to update St. Nicholas’ social hall, Heineman said. Following the Pope’s comments, she was surprised when members of the ministry came with painting supplies.

“I was blown away by their willingness to show up, and also grateful that they knew so clearly that our St. Nicholas community did not share the Pope’s assessment, but knew (LGBTQ+) folks as an integral part of our parish community,” Heineman said.

But as anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from the top of the Catholic Church persisted, fewer LGBTQ+ parishioners turned out, Traina said.

Traina said whenever a new abuse scandal rocks the church, multiple “wings or factions” begin pointing to one root cause — an all-male clergy, a celibate clergy or homosexuality.

“There are at least five different spins to put on this, and one of them is going to be the gay spin,” Traina said. “You can always predict that because whoever is afraid of same-sex orientation, whoever sees same-sex orientation as sinful is always going to go in that direction.”

Church leaders made that spin, Traina said, often based on poorly-done studies.

As a result of this false association, Traina said she has seen many LGBTQ+ parishioners either become less active at St. Nicholas or leave entirely.

“It’s difficult to remain in a setting in which you feel persecuted,” Traina said, “even if the persecution is somewhat distant and not so close by.”

Traina said this year, she has felt “more marginal” in St. Nicholas than before. Still, she said she would not consider leaving. She wants to remain to see changes, including improved responses to sexual abuse claims, the blessing of same-sex unions and a diminishing number of church leaders making a false link between homosexuality and abuse.

“The community is the people who are there and the people who are active,” Traina said. “If you want those things to change, you have to stay. So over the course of this winter, I’m scurrying up my resolve to do just that.”

Twitter: @ByChrisVazquez