By Catholic News Agency's Vatican Observer, Andrea Gagliarducci

VIP treatment for LGBT group at the Vatican? Not really.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter's Square during the General Audience, Nov. 19, 2014. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.
Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter's Square during the General Audience, Nov. 19, 2014. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

.- Vatican sources have cast doubt on reports of VIP treatment for New Ways Ministry, an American LGBT activist group that rejects Catholic teaching, at Pope Francis’ most recent general audience.

A source in the Prefecture for the Pontifical Household told CNA that “no requests are rejected” for the general audience seating in the so-called “reparto speciale,” which has a capacity of about 500 people.

While media reports said the group sat in a front section with dignitaries and special Catholic groups, this portrayal is questionable. The “reparto speciale” section of St. Peter’s Square is not considered part of VIP treatment. The seats are available on a “first come, first served basis,” and no chairs are specially reserved for a group of pilgrims.

Another Vatican source underscored that the press office knew nothing about the presence of the group at the general audience. He pointed out that “the group was treated as any other group of faithful in the square.”

The New Ways Ministry group of about 50 people were among the many people gathered for the Feb. 18 general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

The group’s leaders were Francis DeBernardo and Sister Jeannine Gramick, S.L., respectively the executive director and co-founder of the organization. New Ways Ministry promotes LGBT activism in the Catholic Church. Its ministry to homosexuals has been rejected as theologically unsound by Church authorities, but DeBernardo and Sr. Gramick often have sympathetic ears in the news media.

Both the Associated Press and Reuters claimed the group had “VIP seats” at the audience and portrayed the group’s attendance as unprecedented, though they did not cite Vatican officials saying so. David Gibson of Religion News Service told the New York Daily News the group’s attendance was a “substantial change of direction for the Catholic Church” and “not just a symbolic move.”

DeBernardo and Sr. Gramick claimed that Wednesday marked the first time the group was welcomed at a papal general audience, while previous requests had been ignored during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

According to CNA’s source in the Pontifical Household, “this declaration is simply misleading, as any of the faithful can access general audiences: they can simply ask the prefecture for the tickets, which are free.”

“If a Catholic nun asks for a series of tickets in the ‘reparto speciale,’ it is likely that she is given the tickets,” the source in the Pontifical Household stressed.

The source also emphasized that the procedure would be different for the “baciamano” custom in which people are able to greet the Pope personally for a short time and kiss his hand. In such cases, the prefecture decides whether to grant a request to attend.

A list of the groups that take part in the general audience is customarily read at the audience’s conclusion and published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. The official list for Wednesday names the group accompanied by Sr. Gramick only as “a group of lay people accompanied by a Sister of Loretto,” not mentioning New Ways Ministry by name.

“If a group simply asks to be mentioned in the list of groups, the procedure is more informal,” CNA’s source in the Pontifical Household explained.

The Vatican source said that “when a group makes a request (to be included in the list) usually the name is included in the list of pilgrim groups present. It's not clear if she presented herself as written or in another way.”

Media reports also said that the request was forwarded by the apostolic nuncio in the U.S. and by the Archbishop of San Francisco. The Archdiocese of San Francisco did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

In a July 2014 interview, DiBernardo discussed New Ways Ministry’s February journey to Rome to take part in a general audience and to try to meet with Pope Francis.

The interview was published on the website of the “Ways of Love” conference, which was held in Rome in October 2014 at the start of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. The conference featured several speakers who rejected Catholic teaching. It was sponsored by the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups with the financial support of the government of the Netherlands.

The conference organizers included DeBernardo and Marianne Duddy-Burke of the U.S.-based group Dignity USA.

New Ways Ministry and Dignity USA are part of the Equally Blessed Coalition, a group that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S.-based Arcus Foundation, which spends millions to support LGBT activism every year. In 2014 the foundation gave Dignity USA a $200,000 grant to support the Equally Blessed Coalition’s work to “influence and counter the narrative of the Catholic Church and its ultra-conservative affiliates.”

“The effort will build advocacy and visibility in connection with two special events, the Synod of the Family and World Youth Day,” the foundation said in the grant listing on its website.

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