Catholicism in NJ: A Day of Reckoning

Today the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee debates A3648, a bill to remove and relax the statute of limitations for sexual abuse.

How do you think the Catholic Church feels about that? How do you feel about that?

Here’s something to read while you’re making up your mind.

Milwaukee 2009

Moments before my father-in-law’s funeral mass, I noticed several dozen anti-gay leaflets in the church vestibule.

One was called “Love the Sinner.” There was something about gay marriage and another about conversion therapy. As if praying away the gay actually worked.

I chucked them all.

My partner was mourning. He deserved love and unconditional support and not messages of actual damnation.

That anecdote encapsulates my complicated, life-long relationship with the Catholic Church. I never got raped by a priest. But I was precocious enough to know that supposedly I was going to hell.

If you’re ever curious what it’s like to be queer and Catholic, there’s a little peek.

Washington DC 2019

Cardinal Joseph Tobin was in Washington DC for the #ChamberTrain event earlier this month. I’ve noticed Tobin, who leads Newark’s Catholic Archdiocese, onboard before, always holding court. But with Catholicism ensnared by a dizzying series of pedophilia scandals, you’d think church leaders might take a lower profile this year.

I mean, why aren’t they home, saying thousands of Hail Marys, and begging for some absolution?

Cardinal Tobin was probably in DC to lobby against legislation that empowers those harmed by his church. This legislation basically gives survivors more time to sue for sex crimes. There’s currently a 24 month window to file charges, but two years is not enough! Survivors often need years- and sometimes decades to come to terms with their trauma.

NJ Senator Joe Vitale is prime sponsor of S477, the senate version of the legislation being debated today. He’s been trying to pass some version of this bill for over 20 years.

Publicly, the church claims it stands with victims. Privately, the NJ Catholic Conference paid a blue chip lobbying firm $54,000 last year for “Government Relations Services” to promote the Catholic Church’s version of things.

“It is unfortunate that Catholic Church leaders continue to mislead my colleagues,” Vitale said. “In spite of their public support of my legislation, they and their high paid lobbyists continue to oppose it in private meetings and calls with legislators. They oppose holding their institution and others accountable for the rape of children even when it may be proven that they conspired in past abuse. That is inconceivable.”

The Senate judiciary committee advanced S477 last week by a vote of 7-1, an ominous sign for a church more committed to self-preservation than to protecting children from sexual assault.

Gay Marriage in NJ

When marriage equality got a senate vote back on Jan 7, 2010 the ‘Nays’ prevailed, 20-14.  There were 6 abstentions. GOP Senator Diane Allen was undergoing cancer therapy and several South Jersey democrats took a pass and chose not to vote. It was a regrettable outcome for LGBT activists whose immediate marching orders included shoring up those South Jersey Dems for next time.

It was emotional process. There was bloodletting. And finally, reconciliation on this issue.

Not long after, I ran into one of the abstainers, Senator James Beach (D-Camden) who was genuinely contrite and eager for a do-ever, a chance to vote yes on marriage equality. He described immense pressure from Catholic leaders to thwart marriage equality first time around.

Marriage equality got another senate vote 2 years later. This time it passed with most South Jersey Democrats voting YES,  joining a cancer-free Diane Allen to advance the bill.

Senator Beach invited me onto the Senate floor to cast a “yes” vote on his behalf. I’ll never forget pressing that tiny green button on Sen Beach’s desk. And then immediately craning my neck to watch the big score board as votes trickled in .

The final tally; 24-16. Zero abstentions this time. Jeff Van Drew was the only South Jersey Democrat who cast a “NO” vote.

Gay marriage finally happened in NJ in October 2013 despite the Catholic Conference who, along with every diocese in NJ, fought until the last possible nanosecond to keep gays at the back of the bus.

Today. A reckoning.

As I glance up from the kitchen table in the pre-dawn hours to see my partner fast asleep on the couch, our kitty curled up like a fat furry ball at his feet, I’m reminded what the NJ Catholic Conference tried to steal from every gay couple in this state. Can you imagine going to work each day and it’s literally your job to deny gay couples moments like these? If you work for the NJ Catholic Conference, you won’t have to imagine because it’s your actual life.

How truly pitiful and un-Christlike.

When Assembly judiciary chairwoman Annette Quijano gavels her committee into session today, dozens of rape survivors will recount their story and show us their scars. It’ll be a long, gut-wrenching day for everyone in the room. Survivors will describe how the Catholic Church harmed them.

And we’ll learn how the church worked to keep these transgressions under wraps.

Survivors deserve justice for the crimes and trauma they endured.

They’ll get some today.

Jay Lassiter was baptized at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, SC in 1972. He took his first holy communion at St Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg, SC. He currently an atheist who’s eagerly awaiting an app that makes it easy to excommunicate oneself. 


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  • Thank you, Mr. Lassiter, for this honest, if searing, indictment of the Church’s response to two key issues of our times: lgbtq rights and sexual assault (pedophilia in the Church and #MeToo everywhere.) There are clearly good people doing excellent ministry in the Catholic Church…but the hierarchy and several key “traditional teachings” (Why can’t priests marry? Be women? Be openly, honestly gay/lesbian/trans?) will continue to overshadow and tarnish the many good works of the Church until it changes its ways.
    In the meantime, for those unable to find a home in the Catholic Church anymore, the Episcopalians do it similarly but with more openness to glbt people (and slightly less hierarchy.) . And an open invitation to you, Jay, and others who struggle with the patriarchal God of the Bible (or any god of any sort)–you’ve got an ethical and theological home in Unitarian Universalism which has been openly affirming glb (and later, trans people as well) since the 1970s. My partner and I were married in the tradition in 2003, and I serve as an openly gay, agnostic minister in our state’s social justice ministry, UU FaithAction NJ. Not everyone’s path–but a good one nonetheless. Keep on reporting and telling us truths it’s often very hard to hear.
    Rev. R. Gregson

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