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Gay Calif. priest ousted for marriage stance

Refused to back Catholic view on ballot proposition

The Rev. Geoffrey Farrow expected an uproar. The Rev. Geoffrey Farrow expected an uproar.
By Duke Helfand and Catherine Saillant
Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Two Sundays ago, the Rev. Geoffrey Farrow stood before his Roman Catholic parishioners in Fresno, Calif., and delivered a sermon that placed him squarely at odds with his church over gay marriage.

With California Proposition 8 on the state's November ballot, and his own bishop urging priests to support the church definition of traditional marriage, Farrow told congregants he felt obligated to break "a numbing silence" about church prejudice against homosexuals.

"How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives?" he asked parishioners of the St. Paul Newman Center. "I am morally compelled to vote no on Proposition 8."

Then Farrow - who had revealed that he was gay during a television interview immediately before church services - added a coda to his sermon.

"I know these words of truth will cost me dearly," he said. "But to withhold them . . . I would become an accomplice to a moral evil that strips gay and lesbian people not only of their civil rights but of their human dignity as well."

Last Thursday, Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock removed Farrow, 50, as pastor of the St. Paul Newman Center, which primarily serves students and faculty at California State University, Fresno.

"Your statement contradicted the teaching of the Catholic Church and has brought scandal to your parish community as well as the whole Church," Steinbock wrote in a disciplinary letter that also admonished Farrow against "using the Internet as a means of continuing your conflict with the Church's teaching."

The priest was stripped of his salary and benefits and ordered to stay away from all church communities he served in the Central Valley.

Farrow's comments at the end of the Oct. 5 Mass have left his congregation bitterly divided.

Over the weekend, some parishioners praised Farrow's courage for defending the rights of gays and lesbians, while others condemned him for challenging church doctrine without giving warning.

"It upsets me that we are allowing a ballot proposition to come into our church and divide us," Teresa Huerta, who teaches at Cal State Fresno, said Sunday. "We are going through changes right now in society, and the church needs to recognize that."

Frank Gallegos, a parishioner for 24 years, said he was dismayed that Farrow used the pulpit to deliver his message.

"He ambushed us," Gallegos, 44, said while leaving the white concrete-block church with his wife and two children. "I don't wish him ill. I just wish he hadn't done it during Mass."

Parish leaders concluded two morning Masses on Sunday with an apology to parishioners.

Farrow's statements, they said, were not in accord with church teachings. Also, the priest did not inform church elders about his plans before delivering his sermon, said Deacon John Supino, who read a letter from Steinbock reaffirming the Catholic Church's support for Proposition 8.

Several parishioners inside the church applauded when Supino finished Steinbock's statement Sunday. A few rose and left as he was reading it.

Farrow became a priest 23 years ago and has worked in several California parishes. A graduate of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, he served as an Air Force chaplain, stationed during the early 1990s at Edwards Air Force Base.

Farrow, who said he realized he was gay in boyhood, never revealed his sexual orientation to anyone. He told his parents only four years ago.

"This was the secret I was going to take to my grave," he said.

That changed when he received a June 30 "pastoral letter" from Steinbock's office in which the bishop condemned the California Supreme Court's ruling in May legalizing same-sex marriage, and supported the passage of Proposition 8. The bishop compared the court's action to efforts by Nazi Germany and the Communist regimes in Russia and China to alter family arrangements.

Farrow said he knew his comments would cause an uproar. He started to pack up his office the night before he was scheduled to give his address.

Steinbock said in his disciplinary letter that he had no choice but to suspend Farrow, and he hinted that other penalties could follow, including defrocking him.

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