Gay patient says Catholic chaplain refused him last rites

Correction: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Ronald Plishka “celebrated” Mass, a term reserved for the clergy. He attends Mass weekly. This version has been corrected.

A Catholic chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital Center stopped delivering a 63-year-old heart attack patient Communion prayers and last rites after the man said he was gay, the patient said Wednesday, describing a dramatic bedside scene starting with him citing Pope Francis and ending with him swearing at the cleric.

Details of the exchange this month between the Rev. Brian Coelho and retired travel agent Ronald Plishka couldn’t be confirmed with the priest, who did not respond to a direct e-mail or to requests left with the hospital and the archdiocese. The Archdiocese of Washington, for which he works, declined to comment and said Coelho “is not doing interviews.” The bedside discussion was first reported Monday in the Washington Blade.

In a statement, Washington Hospital Center emphasized its support of gay and lesbian patients and said it expects staff members and others working with patients to “adhere to our values.”

The question of how members of the clergy minister to gays and lesbians is becoming more explosive in traditional religion as society becomes more accepting of them. This is true in Catholicism, which is why the pope made worldwide news soon after taking office when he told reporters asking about gay people: “Who am I to judge?”

A priest in the archdiocese was chided and then placed on administrative leave in 2012 after he denied Communion to a lesbian in public, at her mother’s funeral. Although the church teaches that gay relationships are “disordered,” many Catholics — including clergy — believe that it’s up to individual Catholics to decide based on conscience how they should approach sexuality in light of church teaching and that there are many details that can make it difficult to answer whether someone is living in sin.

According to the Blade, Coelho was born and educated in India before being ordained in 2007 in Washington. He has worked at two Washington area parishes, the Blade reported.

Plishka, who lives in Northeast Washington, said Wednesday that he had been in the hospital 24 hours on Feb. 7 and became concerned that he might not make it. An altar boy until he was 18 and a weekly attendee at Mass, Plishka asked to see a priest.

According to Plishka, he asked Coelho for Communion and last rites, more commonly called the Anointing of the Sick. Coelho asked whether he would like to say confession first, and Plishka said he began to talk about his history, including his lifelong struggle with his sexuality. Plishka didn’t come out as gay until he was in his 50s.

“Then we started talking about the pope, and I said I was so excited about him, because of what he said about gays. I said, ‘Does that bother you, that I’m gay?’ And he said ‘no,’ ” Plishka said.

The conversation was interrupted by someone coming into the room, which he shared with another patient, Plishka recalled. After that, Coelho “would not continue” with the specific prayers and acts of Communion and anointing, Plishka said. “He said, ‘I will pray with you,’ but that’s all he’d do. That was it.

“I just saw red. I cursed at a priest. I called him a hypocrite. As he was leaving — I can’t repeat what I said, but it was bad. . . . I’m thinking I’m going to rot in hell now,” he said. “But after that, I became scared — fear settled in. I don’t have the rites, I didn’t get Communion. I believed in the sacraments; this is something we’re taught we need before we die.

“I’ve tried to be a decent person all my life. I’m not perfect, believe me. And I wouldn’t wish [being gay] on anyone. But you can’t be somebody you’re not. Otherwise you’ll end up 63 and alone,” he said.

In its statement, Washington Hospital Center said officials there have “taken our patient’s concerns very seriously. While the priest is not an employee but rather is assigned by the Archdiocese to provide spiritual care at our hospital, it is our expectation that all who support our patients adhere to our values. This includes offering pastoral and spiritual support to all patients, regardless of their faith traditions. Our hospital was recognized last year as a ‘Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality’ by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. We want to hold true to this important commitment to the LGBT community and to all of our patients. Our Department of Spiritual Care has reinforced our expectations with this particular priest and his superiors.”

Coelho has been at the hospital since autumn.

A few days after the incident, Plishka said, he called the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he has attended Sunday noon Mass for at least a decade. He didn’t know any priests but asked for one on duty to call him back, Plishka said. The priest agreed with the chaplain, Plishka said.

“He said he can’t give you [Communion] if you continue that lifestyle, if you’re an active participant,” he said.

“When I go [to the basilica] I’m a loner, I sit in the very last pew,” he said. But Mass “is a psychological lift. I come out of there, it serves its purpose. I feel better. I love the church. I love the Mass.”

A spokeswoman for the basilica declined to comment Wednesday.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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