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Fr. Bernard Lynch | Profile

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Biography

Bernárd Lynch was born in Ireland in 1947. His father worked for the local railway making deliveries by horse and cart of goods from the train station around the market town of Ennis capital of County Clare. Clare is on Europe’s most western Atlantic coast. The land there is rocky and not arable, where Oliver Cromwell famously said, “there is no earth to bury a man, no water to drown a man and no tree to hang a man.”  Bernárd was educated at the Christian Brothers' School and developed an interest in the Catholic priesthood at a very early age.  He began serving as an altar boy in the local parish Church when only eight years old.

In his teens he sought admission to the Redemptorist Fathers' secondary school in Limerick to pursue a religious vocation. He was rejected because his family could not afford the fees. After graduating from the Christian Brothers school in 1965 he joined the Society of African Missions (SMA). After one year studying ascetical theology at the SMA novitiate in Cloughballymore County Galway, he was admitted to major seminary in Northern Ireland twenty-six miles from Belfast. He was there during ‘The Troubles’ and participated in his first act of civil disobedience to protest the unlawful killing of fellow Catholics by H.M. forces in Derry: Unarmed civilians seeking co-equality in voting, jobs, and housing in the land of his birth. This was his first taste of what his future prophetic priesthood would be.  

During Bernárd’s first year in seminary, he became friends with Alex; a relationship that became physically affectionate the following year. The two of them went to Liverpool during the third summer of their studies, where they worked in a factory to earn pocket money.  They took lodgings together in a boarding house.  Bernárd felt guilty about the growing intimacy of the relationship and so confessed his concerns to the local priest. The priest insisted he cease all physical relations and report the fact that he had engaged in in-appropriate behavior with Alex to the seminary authorities. Returning to seminary, Bernárd chose to speak with Fr. Jeremy Mullins a professor of Christology.  Although he would later learn of Mullin's conflict over his own sexuality, the priest ordered Bernárd to cease all studies for the priesthood. A week later, Father Mullins relented and offered Bernárd and Alex a ‘second chance.’ Alex eventually grew so conflicted over his sexuality that he left the seminary.  Bernárd was broken-hearted but also saw that this new situation made it possible for him to commit anew to celibacy.

In June 1971, Bernárd was ordained to the Deaconate and on December 20, 1971, he was ordained a priest at Saint Coleman's Cathedral Newry. After ordination he was sent to Ndola, Zambia. Bernárd immersed himself into the life of the mission but grew increasingly concerned over the attitude of some priests toward the people. After two years he shared his dissatisfaction with his Superiors and returned to Ireland to reconsider his ministry and vocation.

In the following months, Bernárd came out as gay to one of his confreres at the National Seminary, Maynooth. His confrere together with his Superior suggested he go to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies and reflect on his vocation rather than return to Africa. Although Bernárd had worked in upstate New York as a singing waiter in 1969, he had little experience of New York City. In August of 1975 he was assigned to Saint Gabriel's parish in the Bronx and enrolled at Fordham University in the master’s program in counselling psychology. He completed this degree in 1977.

During this time Bernárd was invited to celebrate Mass for a fellow student who had died at his own hand. At the Requiem Mass Bernárd met members of Dignity New York, an organization for LGBTQIA+ Catholics and their friends. He learned that the deceased student was gay and could not accept himself. Bernárd agreed to celebrate Mass for Dignity at the Church of the Good Shepherd, behind Lincoln Centre. Dignity was meeting in this non-Catholic Church because the Catholic Archdiocese of New York would not allow the organization in a Catholic church.  Bernárd joined Dignity and together with Fr. John McNeill S.J. and Fr. Robert Carter SJ, became deeply involved in the pastoral care of the membership.

In 1978, his superiors agreed, under pressure from Bernárd, to allow him stay in the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in Ministry at New York Theological Seminary. To do this, Bernárd had to pay his own tuition fees and living expenses. He secured a position as Campus Minister and teacher at Mount Saint Michael's Academy in the Northeast Bronx. He graduated as a Doctor of Ministry from NYTS in 1980.

L to R: Dan McCarthy, Bernard Lynch, John McNeill & Robert Carter in New York's Gay Pride March in early 1980s.On a trip home to Ireland in 1978 he met again with Fr. Jeremy Mullins who confided that he was struggling with his sexuality. Even with Bernárd’s  counsel, Fr. Mullins became increasingly conflicted and unhappy and finally took a leave of absence from his Religious Order. He moved to New York in the summer of 1981. Bernárd helped Jeremy find an apartment and got him a position as Freshman Counsellor at Mount Saint Michal’s Academy. By 1983 it was evident that Jeremy was having health problems. He moved to Boston to teach in the SMA seminary but was soon hospitalized and grew more seriously ill. Jeremy went to Florida Christmas 1983 to be with his brother Bruce, also a priest. After the holidays, Bernárd was told by Father Bruce that he was to have no further contact with Jeremy. Jeremy subsequently died and Bernárd was refused permission to attend his funeral by the family. Bruce threatened to ‘have the police evict him if he as much showed his face’ at the funeral of his former mentor, confessor, and dear friend. Bruce blamed Bernárd for Jeremy’s death from AIDS.  

1984 was a tumultuous year for gay people in New York City. AIDS was sweeping through the community with hundreds of people sick and dying.  Bernárd was amid the pandemic and had founded the city’s first AIDS Ministry program in Dignity New York in 1982. He was subsequently drafted onto the mayor of New York’s – Edward Koch’s – task force on AIDS. Six hundred of Dignity’s own membership died at this time. The conflict between Dignity and the Archdiocese of New York was exacerbated when Cardinal Ratzinger issued his famous ‘Halloween letter’ in 1986. Gay people were labeled ‘disordered in their nature’ and ‘evil’ in their love. To add insult to injury people with AIDS were blamed for bringing the disease on themselves. Cardinal O’Connor expelled Dignity from all Church property. 

Fr. Bruce Mullins, Jeremy’s brother mounted a witch-hunt outside Bernárd’s school, Mount St. Michael’s Academy. He arrived in New York with a placard stating, ‘Father Lynch pervert’ and distributed flyers to students and teachers condemning Bernárd ministry. Three of the faculty out of a total of sixty-five, formed a group called S.A.F.E. This is an aphorism for Students Against Faggots in Education. Aided and abetted by the Archdiocesan authorities they harassed Bernárd and pressurized the school administration to force his resignation.  

Bernárd became more visible and vocal as the AIDS pandemic worsened. In 1986 he testified before New York City Council for the passage of Intro 2. This bill was designed to guarantee LGBTQIA+ people the right to employment and housing without regard to sexual orientation. It was designed particularly to protect those most vulnerable with HIV/AIDS from losing their jobs and being evicted onto the streets. At this time Channel 4 U.K. made a TV documentary on his AIDS Ministry and that of Dignity. After the infamous Ratzinger letter was released by the Vatican, Bernárd was denied canonical rights by the Archdiocese for refusing to give up his ministry to the sick and dying. This effectively banned him from serving as a priest in the U.S. and left him without any source of income.  In June 1987 he was ordered to Rome for sabbatical leave and to reflect on his future.    

While still in Europe he received word that criminal charges were being filed against him in New York for the alleged sexual abuse of a former 14-year-old student at Mount Saint Michael's. The media coverage that followed was widespread and salacious in the U.S. and in Ireland. Bernárd and those closest to him immediately smelt a rat. They knew that the Archdiocese was out to get him. The Archdiocese had tried unsuccessfully to have him deported and sent back to Africa.  Bernárd secured legal counsel and prepared to return to New York City to face the charges. His advisors warned him that he was up against the two most formidable institutions in the world: The Catholic Church and the F.B.I. They said, that he had little hope of getting justice. He arrived in the city on June 28, 1988, to find strong support among his many friends and colleagues. It was evident that officials in the Archdiocese supported the prosecution and were highly instrumental in bringing it about.

Bernard Lynch & Billy Desmond at Dublin Gay PrideThe trial opened in the South Bronx on April 18, 1989. A full account of the trial is given in the book, "A Priest on Trial" which  Father Lynch wrote and published in the U.K. (Bloomsbury 1993). Channel 4 U.K. also made a documentary of the Trial in 1989 which can be found on YouTube. The case against him hinged solely on the testimony of one student, John Schaefer, who admitted under cross examination that he had been forced to testify against his will by the F.B.I. He produced a letter showing how he was lied to by the police authorities and told that he would never have to take the stand if he made the false allegations against Father Lynch. He also had a civil suit for five million dollars against his former priest. The case collapsed. The judge – the Honorable Justice Burton Robert’s—refused to simply dismiss the case. Considering the evidence before him the judge took the unusual step of exonerating Father Lynch finding him not guilty and totally innocent of all the charges.

In 1986, Ireland honored Bernárd with the Magnus Hirschfeld Award at a ceremony in  Dublin. In 1990 Father Lynch received the U.S. AIDS National Interfaith Network Award for Outstanding Contribution to HIV/AIDS Ministries.  In 1992 Bernárd took leave of New York and moved to London to work with an ecumenical AIDS counselling group. There he became the first minister of any religion to march in the LGBTQIA+ parade in July of that same year. He founded the first support group for Catholic gay priests in the Archdiocese of Westminster London.  This group celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2022. In 2008 he was honored with the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement reward for "Longstanding Work and Witness" to LGBT persons and people with HIV/AIDS in the U.K. In 1995 he was amongst the first ever openly gay priests to be welcomed to the Palace of the President by Her Excellency Mary Robinson, President of Ireland. In 1996 Father Lynch was canonized outside Westminster Cathedral London by the sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. His book If It Wasn't Love: Sex, Death and God was published by Circle Books U.K. in 2012. In 2008 he was honored by his own home County Clare by being listed in the top twenty most famous people of all time. In 2014 Bernárd co-founded the London Irish LGBT Network leading the first LGBTQIA+ participation in St. Patrick’s Day Parade in London. He remains on the Mayor of London’s Community Advisory Board.  

In 1998, he and his life partner, Billy Desmond, had their relationship publicly blessed. In 2006, Father Lynch became the first Catholic priest in the world to have a civil partnership. In 2017, Billy and Bernárd were legally married in Ireland. They were the first gay couple to do so in County Clare. New York City Council honored Bernárd’s life work by presenting him with a Proclamation on the same day as his wedding. The Proclamation was signed by Councilor Danny Drumm and presented by former Human Rights Commissioner Andy Humm. In November 2019 Bernárd received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad from the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. In October 2020 Bernárd  was made an Icon of the Equality Forum’s U.S.A. history month. In November 2022, Bernárd together with his archivist Matias Wibowo donated his Archive of over forty years of activism to the National Library of Ireland. Father Lynch continues his work, writings and ministry in the LGBTQIA+ and HIV/AIDS community to the present day. 

For additional information and references please visit Bernárd’s website: www.frbernardlynch.com  

(This biographical statement drafted from information in the book, "A Priest on Trial," with additional info provided by Bernárd Lynch.)

Biography Date: June, 2011; rev. Nov 2022

Additional Resources

AIDS: A Priest's Testament: http://ow.ly/Dnle7
This compelling documentary shot for Channel 4 in the summer of 1987 tells the story of Fr. BernárdLynch and his ministry to people with AIDS in New York. The Irish born priest and psychotherapist was closely involved with the LGBT community and founded the first pastoral outreach to people with AIDS in the city. He was subsequently drafted onto the Mayor of New York's Task Force on AIDS. His ministry and his commitment to civil rights for LGBT people led him into conflict with the Catholic Church authorities as well as bringing him into the most harrowing situations; preparing young people for their untimely deaths. The documentary profiles the man, his ministry and the pressures that brought him close to the edge of his physical and spiritual limits. (Conor McAnally, Director.)

A Priest on Trial: http://ow.ly/DnkZr   
This documentary film was made in 1992 and charts the savage attempt to silence the ministry of Fr. Bernárd Lynch. An openly gay priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Fr. Lynch was given an ultimatum by the Vatican and falsely accused of paedophilia. The accuser, John Schaefer admitted at Trial in the Bronx Supreme Court, that he had been forced against his will to bring the charges.The judge, Justice Burton Roberts, not only dismissed the charges and berated the politically motivated prosecutors from the District Attorney's office, but dramatically and fiercely declared Lynch wholly innocent.This film -- with live footage from the Trial -- is a vital testimony to the lengths that some will go to silence truth, love and compassion, with lies, hate and the abuse of power. (Conor McAnally, Director.)

Soul Survivor: http://youtu.be/P8kG9kGQ8CE 
In 1986, Father Bernárd Lynch was immersed in the AIDS pandemic in New York City. During an interview about his ministry on World AIDS Day of that same year, in Ireland, he denied he was gay. This he later described as "the greatest sin I ever committed". This documentary made by Channel 4 in 1989 'to correct the lie', traces the personal struggle of this remarkable priest to come out at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Ireland. The truth cost him his job. He was never allowed licence to earn his living by the Catholic Church. With outstanding courage and dignity his father stands with him in the third of three personal profiles by Channell 4. (Conor McAnally, Director.)

Lynch was interviewed for this April 27, 2022 In Profile podcast from Clare County about his LGBTQ & HIV/AIDS activism:  https://www.facebook.com/watch/?extid=NS-UNK-UNK-UNK-AN_GK0T-GK1C&v=769101041135887

Tags

Catholic (Roman) | Carter, Robert | McNeill, John J. | Dignity | AIDS | Clergy Activist | Ordination/clergy | Ireland | New York | New York City

Citation

“Fr. Bernard Lynch | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed December 09, 2022, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/bernard-lynch.

Remembrances

“I was serving as a young altar boy here in Zambia Ndola Kabushi Parish.   Bernard taught a lot of good manners and behaviour. He was Parish assistant Priest. Very good--young and handsome priest, I should say.”
 – as remembered by Zaccheus Phiri on January 4, 2022

“Although I do not know Fr. Bernard personally, I commend him for his brave and often heartbreaking book/memoir.  His story is the story of many of us who were raised in the ultra-conservative environment of the Roman Catholic Church and who, for whatever reason, always felt ourselves to be on the fringes of damnation because of our sexuality.  As pastor of an independent Catholic parish that reaches out--largely unsuccessfully--to gay and lesbian persons trapped in the shame, guilt and darkness of the Roman Church, I hear his story (and my own) again and again, ad infinitum.  For those of us in the priesthood, we have a special mandate to serve the marginalized over the powerful, and although my parish is now five years old, I can sleep better at night knowing that I am living according to my conscience, while bringing open commensality to the Eucharistic table.  There are less worthy ways to spend one's life and vocation.  Thank you, Fr. Bernard, for helping me to weep for myself and my brothers and sisters.”
 – as remembered by Fr. Michel Holland on March 7, 2013

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