Controversy puts local priest in unwelcome spotlight
Other local newspapers had already published stories about the mass being offered for gays, lesbians, bi- and transsexuals at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Parish in Park City. But last week, as Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack began to interview Father Robert "Bob" Bussen, he said, it became clear the angle of her story was not about the Mass but about the priest who led them.
"What was real clear was that this was about outing me," he said.
Stack’s article ran on the front page of Monday’s Tribune and quoted members of St. Mary’s, who said Bussen’s position on homosexuality was not in synch with church doctrine.
Bussen acknowledges that, earlier this year, a small group from his parish confronted him about his stand on gay issues and told him they had taken their complaints to the diocese and the Vatican.
Bussen believes they also contacted the Tribune.
"I realized the Tribune was coming to me to confirm a story they already had," he said.
In addition to accusing Bussen of delivering a sermon that celebrated homosexuality, they allege he maintained an anonymous blog about gay and Catholic issues. Bussen declined to say whether he was the blogger but described it as a "respectful, edgy, honest journal that conveys a sense of real sadness that this chasm between gays and the church exists." The controversy about the blog was revealed in Stack’s story.
"I don’t take exception to Peggy’s article. I respect her as a writer. She just did what she had to do. But I do object to it being front-page news. Where is the moral compass of the Tribune? People are very offended by what was done in that article," Bussen said two days after it appeared.
The Tribune article and excerpts from the original blog, which has been shut down, has been attracting attracting attention far beyond of Utah. A quick search of the Web revealed that the story about Park City’s gay mass, and the controversy it evoked, has become a flashpoint for both Catholic conservatives and gay advocates.
Bussen said the publicity forced him to end the monthly gay Mass.
"The media spotlight on the parish, on the gay community and on me made it an uncomfortable place to be. It was no longer tenable," he said, adding that he did not receive any pressure from the parish or the diocese to close the gay ministry.
"If it was about me, I realized we couldn’t have this Mass."
In an email, Stack insists "The purpose of the story was to explore Father Bussen’s motivation for starting the special Mass The story would have been incomplete and confusing without a discussion of the blog and its role in the controversy. It was never my intention to hurt or embarrass Father Bussen."
Bussen’s concern for the gay community intensified in the wake of the pedophilia scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.
"The sexual abuse scandal really laid a trip on every Catholic as that story unfolded it was blamed on gay priests. The message was clear, get back in the closet and behave," he said.
But according to Bussen, asking priests, or anyone, to deny their sexuality, ultimately causes deeper problems. "It plays out in sexual predation and other unhealthy ways. You have to own up to who you are."
So, in 2005, when the leadership of the Catholic Church officially called on priests to reach out to the gay community, Bussen was happy to comply. Last December he presented a proposal for a gay Mass to the parish council and received its approval. He met with them again in January and got a go ahead to advertise the event. The first mass was held in January and a second one took place in February, but the March one may be the last.
Tuesday, Bussen met again with members of his parish to talk about the origin of the gay mass and the decision to suspend it. It was a good meeting with all sides of the issue represented, he said.
Though saddened that his effort to embrace the gay community caused a rift in the congregation, Bussen said he hopes there may be some positive fallout too.
"There seemed a strong consensus that an outreach to the gay community was not inconsistent with the mission of St. Mary’s. It also became clear that a Mass for the gay community, their family and friends, was not the way to go."
The church member who, according to the Tribune, was one of those who confronted Bussen about his sermons and the blog, declined an interview with The Park Record.
On Friday, though, Parish Council President Andy Cier, reaffirmed the council’s support for Bussen. Prior to the first gay Mass, Cier said the council discussed it at length. "We all gave our support on this We felt it was a good way to reach out to a group that sometimes doesn’t feel welcome." Since the Tribune article, Cier said the feedback has remained positive. "From what I’ve heard we have the support of 98 percent of the community."
As of Thursday, Bussen said he had received an overwhelming amount of support from the community and from the diocese. "It has been a little bit like attending your own funeral," he joked.
He is holding out hope that his parish will continue to be "a big tent" with room for everyone, including homosexuals, whether they are in or out of the closet.
But he admits the future is uncertain.
Bussen is facing a personal challenge, too. He is scheduled to undergo surgery for prostate cancer later this month.
"As we came into Lent, I knew God was planning on carving into my body. I just didn’t know it would be into my soul, too," he said.
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Park City Fire District Chief Paul Hewitt died Friday from injuries sustained in an off-duty accident earlier in the week, the agency announced.