A Washington Blade story this week reported that a Catholic gay man in the District of Columbia was refused the anointing by a Catholic hospital chaplain after the patient experienced a heart attack. This story is made more complex, though, by the fact that the priest and the Archdiocese of Washington who supervises him are refusing to make any comment on the story.
Here’s the facts of the story, according to the Washington Blade:
“D.C. resident Ronald Plishka, 63, a retired travel agent and lifelong Catholic, said he asked a nurse to arrange for a priest to see him on Feb. 7, one day after he was admitted by ambulance to the hospital emergency room for a heart attack. He said that at the time he wasn’t sure he would survive.
“A short time later, Plishka said, Father Brian Coelho, a priest assigned to the hospital’s Department of Spiritual Care, arrived at his bedside. He said Coelho offered to take his confession before proceeding with communion and last rites, which the church now calls the sacrament of anointing of the sick.
“ ‘We started talking and I told him I was so happy with this new Pope because of his comments about the gays and his accepting the gays,’ Plishka said. ‘And I mentioned that I was gay. I said it and then I asked him does that bother you? And he said, “Oh, no, that does not bother me,’” said Plishka.
“ ‘But then he would not proceed with administering the last rites or communion. He couldn’t do it.’
According to Plishka, Coelho, who brought a supply of holy water to his hospital room, never said in so many words that he was refusing to administer communion and last rites.
“Asked what Coelho told him, Plishka said, ‘Well, I mean he stopped. He would not do it. By him not doing it I assumed he would not do it because why was he getting ready to do it and all of a sudden when I say I’m gay he stops?’
“Plishka said Coelho gave no reason for not giving him the sacraments he requested but offered instead to pray with him.
“ ‘He said what he wanted to do,’ said Plishka. ‘He wanted to pray. That’s what he wanted to do. He said well I could pray with you.”
Plishka refused the offer of prayer, angry at what he felt was discrimination.
The news story reports that both Coelho and the Archdiocese of Washington have refused to comment on the story. This silence is very unfortunate. If Coelho had a legitimate pastoral reason not to administer the anointing of the sick, he should state what it was. Without such a statement, his actions can easily be interpreted as homophobic. Their silence opens the way for great speculation.
A person with pastoral experience was quoted in the Blade story, commenting on the unusual reaction by the priest:
“Henry Huot, a retired Catholic priest who serves as chair of Dignity Washington’s Pastoral Ministry Committee, said longstanding Catholic practice calls for priests to provide the sacraments to people in situations similar to Plishka.
“ ‘Any baptized Christian ought not to be denied the sacraments at his or her request,’ Huot said. ‘And that is a cardinal rule of pastoral care. So I don’t know what was going through the mind of this hospital chaplain to deny this man the sacraments,’ he said. ‘It violates this cardinal rule.’ “
DignityUSA also commented on the strange pastoral response:
“ ‘The fact that conditions existed for a priest to make this call is upsetting,’ said Dignity USA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke. ‘There should be very clear standards. You minister to the person in need without judgment and without conditions,” she said. “It is not the role of the priest to cause the person in distress additional hardship.’
‘Duddy-Burke said it’s the responsibility of the Archdiocese to set pastoral care standards for priests under its jurisdiction.
“ ‘And I would hope that if this case is brought to the attention of Archdiocesan officials, as it should be, that they would respond appropriately and discipline this priest and make it known to every priest and every person that’s providing pastoral care in the Archdiocese that people should be treated as children of God first.’ “
The Archdiocese of Washington already has had one terrible occasion of pastoral care violation directed toward an LGBT person when in 2012, Barbara Johnson, a lesbian woman was denied communion at her mother’s funeral. In that case, the Archdiocese apologized, the priest involved was disciplined and eventually removed from pastoral work. The Archdiocese should move swiftly to explain this situation more fully, and if the priest involved had committed a homophobic error, some public correction should be made.
There is no reason that an LGBT person should be denied pastoral care, especially in a city with as many LGBT Catholics as Washington, DC. This whole episode illustrates why so much education of priests and pastoral staff in regards to LGBT people is still sorely needed. And the Archdiocese needs to be swift in making some public statement either that an error was committed by the priest or that the Archdiocese is committed to fairness and equality in administering the sacraments.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Washington Post: Gay patient says Catholic chaplain refused him last rites