Judge Declines to Sentence 3 Catholic Gay Activists

By Arthur Santana
Washington Post
January 31, 2003

Three Catholic gay activists were convicted of unlawful entry yesterday in D.C. Superior Court by a judge who then declined to sentence them, told them she was sympathetic and went on to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church.

Judge Mildred M. Edwards, who is Catholic, told the activists that she had to convict them but that she would do something she had not done in 15 years on the bench -- dispense with a sentence.

"Tremendous violence was done to you . . . when the Body of Christ was denied to you," Edwards said, referring to the contention of the three that refusal of Holy Communion had prompted their actions. "As a member of your church, I ask you to forgive the church."

Edwards declined to comment after the trial. Chief Judge Rufus King III said that judges have the latitude to voice their opinions from the bench.

The activists, Ken Einhaus of Arlington, Mike Perez of Seattle and Kara Speltz of Oakland, Calif., told Edwards in the nonjury trial that they went to the Hyatt Regency on New Jersey Avenue NW on Nov. 12, seeking someone from the clergy to give them Holy Communion. They also wanted an explanation of why they were refused Communion the day before during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Mass was held during the annual Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said a member of the shrine staff misidentified the three as members of the Rainbow Sash movement and told the priest. The priest declined to give them Communion at the Nov. 11 service, Gibbs said, because the Rainbow Sash group had informed the church that members planned to receive Communion as a form of protest.

"The Eucharist is the core of our faith and a sign of our unity," Gibbs said. "It is very rare to deny Communion, but since it was publicly announced it would be a protest and not a sign of faith, the Rainbow Sash group was denied the sacrament.

"But the three were not members of that group," Gibbs said. "This was a case of mistaken identity." The priest, Michael Bugarin, was unavailable for comment, Gibbs said.

But lead defense attorney Mark L. Goldstone said the three believed they were denied Holy Communion either because the church believed they were gay or because officials thought they were going to protest on behalf of gay issues.

Einhaus said withholding Communion was an abuse of power, but Gibbs said canon lawyers have established a right to deny the Eucharist when priests think someone might use it as a political tool. Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton flew in to testify on behalf of the activists.

All three testified that they were emotionally shattered by the refusal of Communion at the basilica and went to the hotel to "find healing among the people who caused me so much suffering," Einhaus said yesterday.

Prosecutors said the three, members of the gay activist group Soulforce, carefully choreographed a protest in the hotel, where they knew a crowd of reporters was there to cover the bishops conference.

The prosecutors said the reason for the activists' refusal to leave was irrelevant; they broke the law when, after repeated requests by police and hotel officials to move, they remained in the lobby of a private building, hands outstretched, waiting for someone to give them Communion.

The judge agreed, saying they were in a private area, had no right to be there and were given sufficient warning to leave.

Goldstone asked the judge to sentence the defendants to time served -- 30 hours they spent in jail after they were arrested. But Edwards said even that was too harsh.

"I'm not sure it was necessary to lock up these people for 30 hours for what they did," she said. Each paid a $50 fine to the Victims of Violent Crime Compensation Fund for being convicted; that fine that is not considered a sentence.

At the end of sentencing, Edwards offered the activists the words priests use at the end of a Catholic Mass: "Go in peace."

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