An online petition aims to remove a pro-LGBTQ pastor from his appointed role with the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta advising survivors of sexual abuse.
The petition — which had garnered more than 1,400 signatures as of Friday on Change.org — targets Monsignor Henry Gracz, who has been pastor for 17 years at Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception across from the Georgia State Capitol.
“The concern is centered around his well-known reputation for advocating issues that are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic faith,” Kate Sell, spokeswoman for the group that started the effort, Concerned Catholics of Atlanta, said in an email. “Because there is an overall lack of trust in his fidelity to uphold Church teaching, many are concerned about his fitness to be a ‘spiritual director’ to abuse victims.”
Gracz is one of three spiritual advisers the archdiocese has to help sexual abuse survivors. He has served as an adviser since 2011.
In a statement, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory called Gracz one of the “most compassionate and understanding priests who does not hesitate to respond to anyone in need of help.”
The two-week-old petition comes after an explosive grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailed decades of abuse by predator priests and a cover-up operation by American church authorities. The tumult continued when the Vatican’s former top diplomat in the U.S. wrote an 11-page letter claiming that Pope Francis knew of the abuses and ignored them. The letter called for the pope’s resignation.
The report has drawn outrage from Catholics nationwide and in metro Atlanta, which has an archdiocese of 1.2 million Catholics.
Gracz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he feels the recently revealed abuse claims and the petition are connected.
“When there’s great pain and there’s hurt, people are always looking for someone to blame, and the gay person could be the scapegoat,” Gracz said.
The statement from Gregory said, “there are no plans” to remove Gracz from the adviser role at this time. “… Msgr. Gracz is following the admonition of Pope Francis to accompany people on the periphery of society. His priestly heart is not closed to those who find themselves misunderstood or rejected.”
Sell said her Concerned Catholics of Atlanta group, the size of which is unknown, has not met with Gracz nor Gregory.
“To have any member of the clergy or Church leadership not support or uphold the teachings of the Church, or who acts or speaks in contradiction to these teachings, causes great confusion and chaos among the faithful,” she said.
Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, cautions that more conservative elements of the Church conflate homosexuality with sexual abuse. By focusing on the issue of homosexuality, it “deflects from the real issue of the sexual abuse of children, minors and vulnerable adults,” he said.
Of the network’s “tens of thousands” of survivors, said Lennon, about 53 percent are female. Lennon, who was abused by a Catholic priest in Iowa when he was 12 years old, said the man who abused him, also abused girls.
“The suggestion linking child sex abuse and homosexuality merely serves to foster anti-gay bigotry and does not protect children,” Lennon said.
Sell said her coalition agrees that there should be counseling for survivors of sexual abuse, just not by someone they feel preaches a false Catholicism.
“The ability to authentically minister to people as a representative of the Catholic Church requires fidelity to what the Church espouses to be true … no one believes or follows a hypocrite; authentic leadership does not say one thing and do another,” Sell said.
The Rev. Diane Dougherty has known Gracz for 37 years. She worked with him on issues such as racial equality.
“It isn’t Henry Gracz who needs to be dealt with, it’s this false notion of who we are as human beings,” said Dougherty, vice president of the Federation of Christian Ministries - Southern Region. “This has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s totally different than pedophilia.”
Gracz said he’d just like to go back to helping people who need him without this distraction.
“When you’re in the cause of doing good in the name of the God who you believe in, and people attack you for it, it’s painful.”
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