FR BERNÁRD Lynch moved to New York in 1975. It transformed his life.
He came out as gay to his parents in 1982; he was in ministry work to the city’s gay community, which was dying of AIDS. Of the 600 people he tended, only six were still alive a decade later.
Fr Lynch’s profile in New York grew because of his championing of gay rights. His polemics drew the ire of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, which, in a remarkable coalition, colluded with an organisation called SAFE (Students Against Faggots in Education), the Bronx district attorney’s office, and the FBI in fabricating a child-abuse case against him. He faced 15 years in prison, following his arraignment in Jun 1988.
Fr Lynch was born in Ennis, Co Clare in 1947. In his book, If It Wasn’t Love: Sex, Death and God, he gives examples of the perverted sexual behaviour of clerics he knew growing up, including sexual abuse by a Christian brother at school.
A friar in the local Franciscan church used to ask Fr Lynch inappropriate questions about sex and made him discuss in detail any thoughts, desires or groping he had committed against “holy purity”. Every week he went to confession and he had to announce himself with the words, “I come to you, Father” instead of the proscribed formula, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“There was, unquestionably, abuse and inquisitorial tactics in the confessional,” says Fr Lynch. “They were abusing their position as a way of getting sexual satisfaction. It was voyeurism.”
Fr Lynch was, nonetheless, enchanted with the Church, with its theology and its trappings, and set off for a seminary in Galway at 17 years of age. He says it was a natural path for someone from rural 1960s Ireland who knew he was gay but had no outlet for his sexuality
“Number one, where does a boy go, or where did a boy go, certainly in my time, when you tried your darnedest to be ‘normal’? You went out with girls, like your friends, but found it to be like kissing a post. It was unconsciously, or consciously, an escape from the inevitability of marriage,” he says.
Fr Lynch fell in love with another seminarian while studying to be a priest. The two used to mutually masturbate but were otherwise naive sexually.
When Fr Lynch told a superior in the seminary about his relationship, he was asked, ‘Have you ever entered each other from behind?’ He replied, ‘Oh, no Father, we always come in the side door.’ His confessor blushed.
Celibacy continues to confound the Catholic Church’s priesthood, and Fr Lynch cites studies in his book suggesting that gay priests constitute 40% to 50% of Catholic clergy.
The Society of African Missions, his order, was told by the Vatican to suspend him before Christmas for being so outspoken.
“I am a founding member of a psychotherapy group, which has been in operation since 1992, and we must have had over a hundred priests or more through our doors,” says Fr Lynch. “That provides a safe space where priests can freely talk about celibacy and loneliness, sexual orientation, their ability or inability to keep their celibacy, their sexual activity or their lover relationships — and many of them do have them — in the priesthood, and it is an enormous bind, but it certainly is not simple.
“This is not, for a moment, making any excuses for anybody, but in the heterosexual world if a priest meets a woman and does the decent thing, if he loves her, he will be laicised and he will marry her.
“In the gay situation, all you can do is go from living in sin to living in more sin, according to the Catholic Church.
“Straight or gay, it is difficult for priests of a certain age to leave their job because they know nothing else. What happens if a priest only discovers he’s gay in his 40s or 50s, or falls in love with a woman or a man, how is he going to earn his living? That leads to a lot of heartache.”
Fr Lynch says that he had suicidal thoughts in the early 1970s as a result of his frustrating sexual situation. He was working as a missionary in Zambia, a three-year posting that he cut short by a year before washing up in New York.
When the child abuse case against him came to trial in 1989, television cameras flooded into court to record proceedings.
“Every TV station in the town, radio stations, written press, and so on — we had formed opinions,” said Bob Teague, a reporter with NBC television, who covered the trial.
“We had all heard stories about those priests, you know, who are celibate — ha, ha, ha. I think there was a general belief, early on, that a dirty old man had been caught, and let’s hope they hang him … It costs the city so much damn money to bring someone to trial that ... we go to court — the media, that is — assuming that most offenders are guilty.”
The chief witness in the case was John Schaefer. He was 14 years old and he said that Fr Lynch, who worked as a chaplain at his high school, sexually abused him.
Schaefer’s testimony was littered with inconsistencies. At one stage, he couldn’t even establish what year the attack had taken place. He eventually told the presiding judge that the district attorney’s office and the FBI cajoled him into testifying, having promised that the case would never go to court and all that they needed was for him to give them “something dirty” about Fr Lynch. The trial collapsed after three days of hearing.
“The Catholic Church wanted to make an example of me,” says Lynch. “They destroyed John Schaefer in the process. He was, at one level, more of a victim. He was a very young boy. He was lured into doing ‘the right thing’ and even promised money if he would do it — I think $5m — then to be caught with egg on his face, to be shown that he was part of this conspiracy.”
Fr Lynch was traumatised by the experience. He moved to London. He has suffered memory loss of people and places. He has been unable to cry when people close to him have died from AIDS, yet at other times he would break down crying at inappropriate moments.
To cope with the pain, he used work, alcohol, prayer, therapy, and, when least expected, love arrived.
He met Corkman Billy Desmond at a party in 1993. The pair married five years later.
“I know the joy of life again at the most profound level. The Lakota Sioux Indians say when life gives you a burden it also gives you a gift. Maybe the gift in all of this was that I simply met the man I love. I don’t want to exaggerate that. I don’t want to say that we’re the perfect couple,” he says, laughing. “We’re not. Like any couple, we have our rows, but it works.”
* Fr Bernárd Lynch’s If It Wasn’t Love: Sex, Death and God is published by Circle Books. It costs €11.99.