Atlantis Alumni

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Catholic Priest's Bigotry Exposed For All To See

My husband's brother Bill has a partner, Bob, who has worked as a music director for the same Catholic Church in NJ for 22 years. But when a new priest took over in July, Bob refused to tolerate the priest's anti-gay bigotry. I admire Bob for not going quietly and instead fighting against the unacceptable bigotry of this priest, and by extension, the official bigotry of the Catholic Church.

EAST RUTHERFORD – A gay Catholic church musician on Wednesday said he will voluntarily leave his post in two weeks because his pastor allegedly created a hostile work environment after preaching against homosexuality.

“Marriage between two men is a lie,” Robert Russell, who has been a music minister at St. Joseph Parish for 22 years, said the newly appointed pastor preached to the congregation July 10.

The Rev. Joseph Astarita, who became pastor of the church in July, declined to comment.

Jim Goodness, Archdiocese of Newark spokesman, also declined to comment on the resignation. But he did say, “Catholic churches are allowed to employ people based on [the church’s] belief.”

The Vatican does not condone homosexuality.

“My feeling at that point was to walk out,” Russell, 58, of Hackensack said of the alleged comments made during the sermon. “But I didn’t because I have a responsibility to the choir and church.”

He said he met with Astarita in August to discuss the remarks and to reveal he was gay and had a partner of 15 years.

“His comments against gay marriage were insensitive and uncomfortable,” said Russell, who admitted he felt pressured to leave his job. He has retained attorney David L. Wikstrom.

Wikstrom said that Russell “couldn't properly perform his work because of his sexuality, thus creating a hostile and adverse work environment.”

According to Russell, the pastor expressed concern about his involvement in a yet-to-be created children’s choir and allegedly told him he would be a “poor example.”

Russell said he taught drama and English at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington between 1989 and 1997 when he was laid off due to budget cuts, and has remained involved with the school since his departure. The high school, which is under the auspices of the archdiocese, listed Russell on its website as co-director of its school musicals for 26 years.

Astarita asked the musician whether homosexuality was inherent or a choice, Russell said, adding that he responded “it’s inherent.”

“The pastor told me I could change my sexuality through therapy,” the musician said.

Longtime church member Pam Lakefield was in the congregation when Astarita preached the sermon and said his comments were “offensive,” and that the priest is teaching horrible thoughts.

“He’s losing parishioners,” said Lakefield, a member since 1970, who is strongly considering leaving the church.

St. Joseph members say the church has traditionally been liberal, but the pastor is “ultra-conservative.”

The parish was once led by the Rev. Mychal Judge, chaplain of the New York Fire Department who was the first confirmed death of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In the years since his death, it has been widely reported that Judge was a celibate gay priest.

Russell said the church has been run by the Franciscan order for the past 99 years. But the order gave up the church in July due to low staffing numbers and the archdiocese took over in July, he said. Astarita joined the church after the change.

Russell said his last day will be Sept. 30.

“I felt his words were an attack on my integrity and I felt it was hostile and it was harassment.”

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