Suit Charges Seminary with Pro-Gay Teachings

By Carol Eisenberg
January 21, 2003

A former seminary student has filed a $2 million lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, Bishop William Murphy and top officials of its seminary, charging they promoted what he called "pro-homosexual” teachings in contradiction to authentic Roman Catholic doctrine.

William Downey, a 57-year-old retired Manhasset businessmen, said he was expelled from the master's in theology program for lay men and women at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington after threatening to publicize his complaints that the seminary was teaching now-discredited moral ideas. He also complained that professors distributed what he described as "lewd and pro-homosexual materials,” including a pamphlet advertising books that affirmed gay and lesbian Christians.

"For our seminary to teach notions that run contrary to authentic Catholic theology, in fact to teach a condemned heresy that permits one who molests children to sleep at night, has created the conditions under which the sex scandal is a natural byproduct,” Downey said yesterday in the office of his attorney, John Picciano of Garden City. The suit, which alleges fraud and breach of contract, was filed Friday in State Supreme Court in Mineola.

Diocesan spokeswoman Joanne Novarro said Monday she could not comment on the lawsuit's allegations because she had not seen the papers. But she defended the seminary, saying it was given a high rating last year after an inspection by a team from the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. "We stand behind the seminary,” Novarro said. "It's a fine place.”

Downey's allegations give legal voice to an increasingly popular conservative critique of the sex abuse scandal as a byproduct of the social upheaval of the 1960s, which fostered a culture of dissent and sexual experimentation in American seminaries. The Vatican, too, pressed that link with American prelates when they met with the pope last April. The pope ordered an inspection of all American seminaries with an eye toward the proper moral formation of seminarians.

But even advocates of the conservative viewpoint suggested that it was highly unlikely Downey would get a hearing in a civil court. "If he's right that that's what was taught, then I might agree with his argument, but I don't think you're going to have a court prying into the interstices of a rather complicated theological discussion,” said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of Manhattan, a prominent conservative Catholic writer who edits the Catholic journal, First Things.

But a liberal theologian, the Rev. Richard McBrien at the University of Notre Dame, said he found Downey's arguments lacking in credibility.

"The fact that it's taught doesn't mean the program was in violation of church teachings,” McBrien said. "Based on my experience, when a student complains about being thrown out because of his orthodox views, it's almost always for other reasons.”

Liberals in general believe the origin of the sex abuse scandal lies in the church's repressive attitude towards sexuality, including the requirement that priests be celibate, as well as a closed clerical culture.

Downey, who described himself as having been a B-plus student, said he brought his lawsuit reluctantly, after he was unsuccessful for 18 months in getting anyone at the seminary or the diocesan chancery to discuss the curriculum. He wrote Murphy several times, but was unable to get a meeting with him. "They're teaching something that's obviously wrong and they won't fix it, and then they threw me out because I kept bringing it up,” he said.

Novarro denied that he was expelled for his complaints, or for threatening to go public with them.

Downey does acknowledge that he complained regularly about the teaching of the doctrine of Fundamental Option, developed by a European theologian in the 1960s, which held that an isolated behavior might not be a mortal sin if a person led an otherwise exemplary life. Even though that doctrine was subsequently condemned by Pope John Paul II in a 1993 encyclical, Downey said that Msgr. Dennis Regan taught it as Catholic doctrine, with no reference to the pope's criticisms.

The pope's condemnation "was not on his reading list, and the words were never uttered from his mouth,” Downey said. "The only person to bring it up was me.”

Downey said that some priests have used such teachings to rationalize the consequences of breaking their vows of celibacy. Neither Regan, nor seminary rector Msgr. Frank Schneider, could be reached yesterday for comment.


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