National Catholic Register


In San Francisco, Church Deploys Charity In Fight With Male ‘Sisters’

BY Cyril Jones-Kellett

April 18-24, 1999 Issue | Posted 4/18/99 at 1:00 PM


SAN FRANCISCO—When more than 7,000 revelers turned out in San Francisco's Castro district Easter Sunday to join in a celebration that included the mocking of the Catholic Church, onlookers had good reason to see it as another public slap at a docile giant.

But those close to the controversy say it may have signaled a new era for Catholics in the public square.

The 20th anniversary party put on by the “transsexual” group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence followed several weeks of political struggle between the Archdiocese of San Francisco against the city, which granted a permit to close a downtown street on Easter Sunday for the event.

The “Sisters” are men who dress as nuns and refer to themselves as an “order.” Most members are homosexuals. The group calls itself a charitable organization but is most famous for bits that satirize and ridicule Catholic ritual.

When Pope John Paul II visited San Francisco in 1987, for example, the group performed a “raunchy and offensive” mock exorcism and coronation, said arch-diocesan spokesman Maurice Healy.

This year marked the first time the group applied for a permit to close a street for its annual bash — and the first time it met serious opposition. The application was initially denied, but city supervisors voted unanimously to overturn that decision and issue the permit.

Then the Church responded.

Archbishop William Levada was in Rome at the time, but the new diocesan newspaper he started was on top of the story.

“I had always dreamed of Catholic San Francisco making a mark,” said Healy, associate publisher of the paper. “I never thought it would be done in eight weeks.”

His March 12 editorial denouncing the decision was sent to 100,000 Catholic homes, and ignited a media firestorm. Several editorials in the San Francisco papers asked why Catholics couldn't simply ignore the sisters.

On his return, Archbishop Levada answered the question.

“I think the reason for the Catholic community's vocal reaction to this case,” he wrote in the diocesan paper, “is that years of ‘ignoring’ the ridicule from the ‘Sisters’ … has now escalated into focusing this ridicule onto the most holy day of the Christian year — Easter! That's what seems to come from ‘ignoring them.’”/p>

The issue quickly became a political — and media — battle. NBC's Today show to The New York Times weighed in on the supervisors’ unanimous vote, and the ire of the Bay Area's 1.5 million Catholics.

In the face of such an outpouring of Catholic sentiment, Mayor Willie Brown asked that the supervisors reconsider their vote.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights took out a half-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 29, the day the city vote, and threatened a Catholic boycott of the city if the supervisors refused to rescind the permit.

The final vote came in 9-2, with only two supervisors willing to change their stand. But Rick Hinshaw, director of communications for the Catholic League, dismissed the political loss as trivial compared with the other gains Catholics have made.

“We felt that [the effort] was very effective,” he said. “We were able to use this to expose anti-Catholic bias. What hopefully has happened is that Catholics have become sensitized to just how vile this kind of anti-Catholic bigotry becomes.”

Catholic Response: Charity

Adding fuel to the already heated situation was Tom Ammiano, president of the city council. Identifying himself as both Catholic and gay, he told The New York Times that the archdiocese was on a “jihad against gays and lesbians.” Ammiano did not return calls from the Register.

… years of ‘ignoring’ the ridicule from the ‘Sisters’ … has now escalated into focusing this ridicule onto the most holy day of the Christian year — Easter!

Healy remembers the situation differently. He said that despite the supervisors’ refusal to rescind the permit, the portion of the March 29 meeting which was devoted to public comment was “very civil,” and offered some hopeful signs.

“Both sides were able to talk things through with very heartfelt sentiments,” he said. “It was the kind of a dialogue we haven't seen here in San Francisco.”

“Sister Phyllis” Stein of the Perpetual Indulgence group concurred. A five-year member, he asked to be identified only by his taken name.

He told the Register that amid the swirl of controversy, three “sisters” and three members of the archdiocesan staff, including Healy, sat down for a conversation “over tea.”

“I can't tell you how much I appreciated that meeting,” Stein said. “I think it is very important that a dialogue happen.”

“The archbishop has called us and he has said he'd like to have a sit-down meeting with us,” said Stein, who said he was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. Archbishop Levada also offered to meet with city supervisors to discuss the fall-out from the controversy.

The Impact

The Catholic League's Hinshaw said the fact that such a dialogue is beginning to take place is evidence of the success of the more forceful public opposition of Catholics to attacks on the Church.

“The fact that they even feel the need to do that is evidence that the Church has begun to assert itself,” he said. “This group has pretty much had free rein out there.”

Healy agreed.

“The longer-term effect in San Francisco is that the supervisors who did not respect the feelings of Catholics are now being held accountable in the public press,” he said, pointing out that at least two area newspapers ran editorials in the days following Easter sharply questioning the leadership of Ammiano and other supervisors.

Press reports also focused on the willingness of Archbishop Levada to enter into dialogue with the “Sisters” and with city officials.

No one in the archdiocese is saying that such dialogue will be easy, however. “What we learned is how deep the divide is,” said Healy. The kind of “bridge-building” it will take, he said, is enormous.

—Cyril Jones-Kellett writes from San Diego.