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Gay Rights, Gender Equality, and Child Abuse: Reflections of a Former Catholic Priest

For the past nine years, Tim Stier has spent his Sunday mornings outside the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, holding up signs and protesting injustices against survivors of sexual abuse, women, and members of the LGBTQ community in the Catholic Church.

While the majority of people walking by the church ignore him, he said he gets around ten honks a day from passing cars. “Yes, I do count my honks!” he told us. “I say, ‘thank you, Jesus, I needed that.”’

Occasionally, passersby will talk to him. In his early years of protesting, for example, he was holding a sign that said “hold priests accountable,” when a man came up to him and said, “They gotta just close the whole effing church down!” Stier responded, “you may have a point!”

It might be surprising, then, to learn that Stier used to be a Catholic priest. Fourteen years ago his life changed when he left the church and began devoting his time to advocating for reform.

When he was ordained 40 years ago, he was entirely ignorant of the Church’s abuses. When he was sent to his first parish in Union City, he explains he was “so naive and so in awe of the whole thing that I had to pinch myself…but time passed,” and he discovered some problems within the church. 

The first issue that got his attention was the shortage of priests in the mid-1990s. In the years following 1970, the number of Catholic priests in the US dropped rapidly; in fact, in the past fifty years the number of diocesan priests has dropped by a third

Stier was elected to serve on a personnel board where he would advise the bishop about priest/parish placings. “It was torture because we would have to decide who would replace dead priests, and we rarely came up with somebody we thought was a good fit,” Stier remembered. “So I used to say things like, ‘is there really a shortage of priests, or do we need to expand the pool to include married men and women?’”

Pretty soon, Stier was telling “anyone who would listen” that they needed to expand the pool. When he finally brought the matter up with the bishop, he explained, he gave Stier a “withering look of disapproval,” and quickly changed the subject. When his opinions continued to be ignored, “disillusionment began to set in.”

Stier’s disillusionment deepened in May of 1997, during the annual convocation, a meeting of all the priests. The group of priests who were running the meeting asked for input on the agenda, so Stier sent in his ideas. He wanted to discuss three questions: How is your morale? What could be done to improve your morale? And–the most controversial–what changes would you recommend regarding the priest shortage and improving priest morale?

Although these questions might lead the discussion “into areas that are verboten,” the committee ended up adopting them. “I was so flattered and impressed by their courage,” Stier said. “I thought, ‘Oh finally we’re gonna talk honestly amongst ourselves about the quality of our lives, and what could be done…to have better leaders.’”

However, when Stier arrived at the meeting, he discovered that the agenda had been changed–his questions were no longer on it. When Stier asked why, the moderator reportedly just said, “We’re sorry, we had to change the questions a little bit because we thought it would bring up too [many] strong feelings.” When Stier countered, explaining that strong feelings needed to come up in order for the topic to be dealt with rationally, the moderator yet again changed the subject. Steir drove home that day and thought to himself, ‘my relationship with the Church and this diocese will never be the same.’”

Stier’s final turning point came in the early 2000s, in the midst of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis. By 2002, most of the priests were aware of the problem–not from their bishops or superiors–but from the press and court cases. When the church finally addressed the priests directly, Stier explained, they were motivated only by insurance companies that were paying vast sums in liability insurance. In fact, since the 1980s, the Catholic Church and insurance companies have paid over $3.8 billion in lawsuits and claims, according to a nonprofit monitoring group. 

In the one and only meeting on the topic, priests were taught about boundaries with minors, and Stier guesses that even that was only a requirement of the insurance companies. When priests were required to be fingerprinted in 2004 (which Stier agreed with), many Catholic priests were “really obnoxious about it.” According to Stier, “a lot of Catholic priests have a sense of entitlement because everyone treats them like little princes…. they don’t think that they should have to be subject to the laws of mere mortals.”

In that same year, Stier got another shock. He received a call from a Sister Barbara Flannery, who was the go-to person for abuse cases in the diocese. “She calls me and she says, ‘A man and his brother who were molested by one of your predecessors at Corpus Christi Fremont [are] gonna be coming out in the local newspaper… and [they’re] gonna tell [their] story.” 

In the article, which came out a few weeks later, Dan McNevin accused former priest James Clark of sexual, mental, and emotional abuse in the 1970s when McNevin was a 12-year-old altar boy at the parish. In fact, McNevin was one of three men who sued the Oakland Diocese over Clark’s abuse. One of the other plaintiffs, McNevin’s brother, reportedly “suffered a mental breakdown, and, using a fishing knife, sawed his hand off above the thumb,” according to the article. 

In fact, the Oakland Diocese even knew Clark was on probation for a felony sex crime when he became a priest at the parish. McNevin is quoted as saying, “It appears that virtually since the inception of the diocese [in 1962], church leadership has had a policy of not removing priests guilty of sexual offenses from the ministry.”

“Talk about a moment of truth for me,” says Stier, who briefly knew Clark, a devoted member of the Church for twenty years. Clark’s name was even on a sign to the parish hall–he had clearly left a strong impression on the parish.

So, when a reporter came up to Stier after the story came out to ask him about his parishioners’ response, Stier told him, “I’d like to meet this Dan McNevan if he’d be willing to talk to me, and tell him I believe him.”

And a week or two later McNevin showed up at Stier’s door on a Friday morning and told him his story. “This is the first time I’d heard an abuse survivor tell their story, and it just shook me to the depths of my soul,” Stier remembered, “and as he was telling me the story, sometimes he’d just break down in tears, other times he’d just pound his fist on the table in anger, just furious, and I believed every word he [said].”

When they were finished talking, McNevin asked him if they could go upstairs to Stier’s rooms, where McNevin was molested when he was a boy. As they walked around, Stier told us, McNevin told him where the furniture was thirty years before. “ I knew why he was doing it,” Stier said; “part of his therapeutic recovery was going back to where he had been harmed as a child when he was helpless, now coming as an empowered adult.”

When McNevin asked Stier to take down Father Clark’s sign in the parish hall, Stier had it down in three weeks. Stier’s experience with McNevin, he told us, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

On March 15, 2005, Stier told the bishop about his process of discernment: “I told him, ‘I can’t take another parish assignment unless you’re willing to publicly discuss three issues: abuse, the refusal to treat women as equals, and the refusal to treat sexual minorities [as equal].” When Stier demanded he acknowledge the injustice they had dealt with in the Catholic world, the bishop told him those topics were “closed,” and reportedly said, “Tim, I think we’ve dealt with the abuse thing enough at the Dallas meeting in 2002. And you know it’s firm teaching that gay people aren’t allowed to act out sexually. And as far as women, it’s not discrimination against women, it’s a solid tradition of 2000 years that women aren’t allowed to be priests.” Stier said he could tell he was a “company man.”

“So that was it,” Stier said. He went home to his parents and tried to decide what to do with the rest of his life. “I was pretty unhappy as a priest but I loved it; at the same time, I felt called. I loved Jesus, preaching, teaching, community building, working for justice. And I was pretty effective!”

Stier also had to consider the fact that losing his priesthood meant losing his livelihood, paycheck, and health insurance. He was fifty-five years old; he knew his job prospects would be slim. 

After months of consideration, he finally decided to abandon priesthood. However, he was still a devout Catholic (“You know they say you can take the Catholic out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of a Catholic”) and still went to church every Sunday. The priests at his church were good speakers and fairly progressive, but he still couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t discuss any of the plights of the church’s marginalized groups. “And you know why they didn’t?” He asked us; “they didn’t want to upset people. I’d say, ‘come on, I used to speak out on these issues at my parish, and people would applaud!’ The priests would just respond, “‘More bishops should be like you, Tim.’”

His decision to stop going to church entirely came in 2010. He was working at a YMCA in Pleasanton, and one of his tasks was to find a quote for the Y’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. day. He remembered reading King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which King discusses his experience of being criticized by white clergy. In the letter, King argues that to him, the “moderate white” is more harmful to his cause than the Ku Klux Klan. King says he doesn’t understand those who agree with him but disagree with his methods of protesting. “Lukewarm acceptance,” King wrote, “is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

As a follower of Jesus, and as someone who believed a group in society was not being treated fairly, Stier realized that he couldn’t be moderate, and have only “lukewarm” efforts; he had a duty to do something publicly in solidarity with them. “So that’s why I started the protests. So at the same time I thought, I can’t go and receive communion in a Catholic church every Sunday if those three groups of people aren’t fully welcome in their full human dignity, in the truth of their lives… So I stopped going to church for the first time in my life.”

He told us he still misses it and still loves the ritual and community. “But I decided I’m fasting from the eucharist until those three groups of people are welcome.” Instead, he works with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and he has protested every Sunday for the last nine years. 

His protests have led to some eye-opening experiences. One man, he told us, sent him an email saying he’d come close to talking to Stier about his abuse but was afraid because no one has ever believed him. When he’d gone to priests before, they told him he was a liar and it was his fault. “And he’s in his sixties,” Stier said.

Another time, he was holding his “Hold Bishops Accountable” sign and a woman came up to him and said, “You’re a patient man, I’ve seen you here for a long time, you’re a patient man.” Stier told us she kept repeating that phrase, and “it seemed like a message from God.” He explained: “I don’t feel like a patient man, I’m impatient! I want to see change, but I do keep coming back for more every Sunday. It was a very mystical experience, just the way she said that: ‘you’re a patient man.’”

Stier doesn’t think he’s lost the church community. To him, “church basically is community, community built around a faith and some cause.” He thinks he still has that–the community he’s created for himself on the sidewalk every Sunday. 

Virginia, his girlfriend of nine years and another fierce advocate of church reform, agreed: “he’s doing the ministry that the church should be doing. His parish is on the street, and he’s actually ministering by [means of his protests].” 

Tim still has no doubts in his religion, and he’s optimistic: “I haven’t lost any faith in God, or Jesus, [but] I know the Church can be better than this, and I think the Spirit’s working to reform it. And sometimes the Spirit takes us in the most unexpected directions when we’re refusing to hear God or the truth. The courts, the press, the women, the gay people, and the abuse survivors are gonna change the Catholic Church,” he assured us. “Those five groups, that’s how it’s gonna happen.”

Photo credit (smaller photo; featured photo my own).

Tim just also wrote a book about his experience, which I encourage everyone to check out! 

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