Responding to the claims of an adult altar server who reported the Diocese of Peterborough to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal for removing him from service, Bishop of Peterborough Nicola De Angelis has denied the authority of the tribunal to interfere in Church governance and has appealed for Catholic unity.
Jim Corcoran, who was an adult altar server at St. Michaels’ Church in Coburg, Ontario until last April, has charged that he was removed because of his sexual orientation. According to the Peterborough Examiner, Corcoran says he lives as a “chaste gay man.” His partner was also reported to have been an altar server.
Corcoran reported that the request for him to step aside came after the bishop was sent a petition signed by twelve parishioners. He said that he still attends the parish, but those who signed the letter of complaint do not.
“I stepped aside -- but I challenged the version of why I was asked to step aside,” he told the Peterborough Examiner. "I am not being disloyal to the bishop. I did what was asked -- but I am asking for accountability for the decision. I'm simply asking why I was asked to step down. The only possible answer is because I'm gay."
Corcoran filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
Bishop De Angelis responded to the controversy at the parish in a September 12 letter to St. Michael’s parishioners and the faithful of the diocese.
Explaining that he wrote with “sadness of heart,” he said recent events at the parish have revealed an attitude “contrary to the life and nature of the Church.”
The bishop expressed puzzlement that “secular powers and government agencies” believe they can criticize the Church about her internal rules and regulations.
“If the Human Rights Tribunal should choose to interfere with the Church's governance, this will be most shocking,” Bishop De Angelis wrote. “The Tribunal has no authority to place itself as an arbiter of canonical precepts.”
He characterized the central question as being whether volunteer service is a right. In the Church’s view, it is not a right but an “invitation” that the pastor or bishop can terminate at any time, particularly when the volunteer service causes “tension, animosity, discord or division” in parish life.
He cited a July 27, 2001 letter of then-Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estevez, who strongly reaffirmed that altar boys should be encouraged to help foster vocations to the priesthood. The cardinal also said that the non-ordained faithful “do not have the right to service at the altar.”
“It follows that to call oneself a Catholic while challenging the Church and Her internal discipline entrusted to the bishops, is a contradiction,” Bishop De Angelis explained.
Responding to the charge of discrimination based on sexual orientation, the bishop wrote that he can honestly say he treated all volunteers the same.
“I am at a loss to understand how there has been any misinterpretation of a practical decision made with honesty and without any discrimination,” he said.
According to the bishop, the original unrest at St. Michael’s was the refusal of “a few parishioners” to accept a new pastor. Some parish volunteers were the objects of “tension, criticism and division,” which led the bishop to meet with the church’s pastor, Fr. Allan Hood, and to correspond with various parishioners.
“I then asked Fr. Hood to kindly invite the volunteers involved, particularly those who were the object of tension and disagreement, to step aside and give the chance to other volunteers to serve,” the bishop recalled.
He reported that these volunteers included some who served as readers, Eucharistic ministers, adult altar services, Church Restoration Committee members and others.
“I asked Father Hood to thank them for the service done so far in the Parish, but to know that it was now time to allow others the chance to serve as volunteers,” the bishop wrote. He added that he had personally written to remind them that their volunteer services was on a “temporary basis” and their stepping down would allow all parishioners the opportunity to volunteer.
Those who stepped down, despite some “sadness and frustration,” did so in “humility and obedience” to the bishop.
Concluding his letter, Bishop De Angelis said that Catholics go to church to share the “bread of life” that “makes us one.” He noted St. Paul’s comments in the Letter to the Galatians that “all are one in Christ Jesus.”
“Even though we play different roles, we all have the same dignity - that of being children of God created in His image and likeness,” the bishop continued, encouraging St. Michael’s parishioners to reconcile with each other “in humility and obedience to the bishop.”
Canadian human rights tribunals have previously been used against Catholics by homosexuals who allege discrimination. In 2005 Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary was the subject of a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission because of a pastoral letter he issued to parishioners in January against homosexuality and same-sex “marriage.”
In February 2007 the Canadian magazine Catholic Insight faced a Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint from a man who used isolated quotes from the magazine to claim it created a tone of “extreme hatred and contempt” against homosexuals. Although the complaint was dropped in July of 2008, the modestly funded magazine was forced to incur over $20,000 in legal expenses.