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Group seeks a greater role for gays, lesbians

March 8, 1997

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton doubled his efforts to teach tolerance after learning of his own brother’s homosexuality. Sister Jeannine Gramick changed her life’s course after learning of the anguish Roman Catholic college students felt at being gay.

Gumbleton and Gramick are among 620 activists and church leaders meeting in Pittsburgh this weekend to discuss how the Catholic Church, which still teaches that homosexual activity is sinful, can help reach out to gays and lesbians.

``Homosexual people have experienced such terrible alienation from the church,″ said Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop in Detroit. ``They’ve felt unwanted and condemned very often. The church has not been very successful in ministering to them.″

Hosted by the New Ways Ministry, the 2 1/2-day symposium aims to broaden the role of homosexual members in an institution they see as opening slowly to them.

``Too often the church has been a follower and not a leader,″ said Gramick, a nun who directs the Lesbian-Gay Ministry for her order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

``I think we have a responsibility now, at the end of the 20th century, to educate people about acceptance of minorities and of people who are different from the mainstream,″ she said.

But many in the church oppose the New Ways Ministry and its attempts to open up to homosexuals.

In November, Bishop James Hoffman overruled a priest’s decision to play host to the group’s meeting in Toledo, Ohio. The ministry found an alternative venue _ an Episcopal church.

``We’ve always found a Protestant church nearby that was hospitable and accommodating,″ said Frank DeBernardo, the ministry’s executive director.

They won’t need to move this meeting, which started Friday. It’s being held at a downtown Pittsburgh hotel.

Gumbleton and another bishop are attending the meeting, the first time such high-ranking church officials have shown up. The organization, which is based in Mount Rainier, Md., was started in 1977.

Tolerance of homosexuals in the church has gradually improved in the past two decades, members said.

The Rev. Rodney DeMartini, head of the National Catholic AIDS Network, attributed much of the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians to the impact of AIDS. As a priest in Santa Rosa, Calif., DeMartini has helped build an outreach program for victims of the disease in five Western states.

He said he encountered little resistance from his superiors when he broached the idea, and he disputed the suggestion that the Vatican and senior church leaders are out of touch with the needs of AIDS sufferers.

``There’s a long history in the church of response to human catastrophe,″ DeMartini said. ``It’s not that we don’t know how to do this.″

But DeBernardo says many in the church remain reluctant to accept gays and lesbians, fearing that they are sexual monsters.

``There’s still a lot of fear,″ he said.

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