October 16, 2013

His Holiness
The Pope
The Apostolic Palace

A Call to Condemn Violence and Discrimination Against Sexual and Gender Minorities

Your Holiness:

In the past months you have made clear that you envisage a Church of and for the poor, and you have chosen your name accordingly. Your actions bring to mind the words of Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”[1]

I write today concerning the grief and anguish of one such afflicted group of people—sexual and gender minorities – who continue to face severe mistreatment, even in Catholic communities. I write in my capacity as the Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.

I understand that the Catholic Church and Human Rights Watch might approach the rights of sexual and gender minorities from different perspectives, and there are many areas on which we do not agree. But I believe we also have common ground to build on.

In the past, the Holy See has made clear that it considers homosexuality a moral disorder that orients individuals toward sin.[2] Additionally, the Holy See has historically questioned the categories of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” that are essential to our work.[3]

While we understand that the Catholic Church has a right to advance its doctrines on these issues in the public sphere, we ask you to join us in ensuring that no one uses these views to condone violent or degrading abuse of sexual and gender minorities. The Church, we believe, could reaffirm its belief in the basic humanity of all people by speaking out with a strong voice against the abuse and mistreatment of all vulnerable people.

The Holy See has already taken a stance in opposing violence, unjust discrimination, and criminal penalties against sexual and gender minorities. In its teachings as well as in several public statements at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly, the Church has voiced the need to protect everyone’s human dignity. Based on prior Church teachings and statements, this respect for human dignity requires concrete actions to create an environment in which people in sexual and gender minorities can live peacefully as full members of society.

In your own ministry, you have called for a Catholic position that respects the civil rights of people in sexual and gender minorities, while upholding the Church’s moral teaching on sexual ethics. We support your recent statements concerning the need to avoid religious harassment and to address the needs of those who are marginalized.[4] Recently, you posed a rhetorical question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”[5] Unfortunately, many Catholic communities have not adopted this approach.

We are concerned that the Holy See’s message is not always consistently conveyed to local religious communities around the world. While some Church leaders have acted in accordance with a message of peace and tolerance, many others have failed to do so. In recent years, both religious and lay Catholics, through their actions and words, have actively promoted policies and practices so dehumanizing that they contribute to a climate in which violence against people in sexual and gender minorities occurs with impunity.

Because we share a commitment to end all violence, discrimination, and unjust criminal penalties, we respectfully call on you to ensure that the Church speaks with one voice on these matters. Specifically, we ask you to:

  • Clearly and publicly condemn violence against people in sexual and gender minorities whether by the state or private actors;
  • Call for the decriminalization of consensual, sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties that discriminate against people in sexual and gender minorities;
  • Help moderate the public tone of local Church leaders on sexuality; and
  • Call for greater legal protections for people in sexual and gender minorities.

In the following passages, we describe further the abuses we have documented against people in sexual and gender minorities, articulate relevant Church teachings that promote everyone’s dignity, cite cases in which Catholic leaders have endorsed the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people, and ask you to strongly reiterate a public message of tolerance.

We fear that, without a clear message from you and the Holy See on these questions, some members of the Church might continue to use Catholic teachings to legitimatize attacks on people who are vulnerable because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We have confidence that your leadership could prevent the unnecessary and ongoing suffering of millions of marginalized and persecuted people around the world.

Evidence of Abuse

Human Rights Watch research has shown thatmany Catholic leaders and communities have ignored or actively contravened the Church’s stated position toward sexual and gender minorities.

In Cameroon, for example, Archbishop Samuel Kléda and other Catholic leaders have endorsed unjust criminal penalties against people in sexual and gender minorities, while failing to denounce the violence these vulnerable populations routinely face. Cameroon has the worst record in Africa regarding the persecution of homosexuals.[6] In Cameroon, people are often arrested and prosecuted simply for “being gay” -- ostensibly indicated by the way they dress, their mannerisms, or their personal tastes. Organizations that work to defend LGBT rights face horrific attacks. Recently, a LGBT human rights activist, Eric Lembembe, was brutally tortured and murdered.[7]

Sadly, Archbishop Kléda has not only failed to denounce these deplorable acts, he has actively contributed to an environment of hostility toward sexual and gender minorities. In February, for instance, Archbishop Kléda joined a group of Catholic legal professionals, the Association of Cameroonian Roman Catholic Jurists, to publicly endorse criminalizing homosexuality. In so doing, during a panel discussion, he cited a passage from Leviticus 20:13, which calls for the death penalty for sexual relations between two men.[8] In Cameroon, under section 347 bis, a person who engages in "sexual relations with a person of the same sex" can already face a prison term of up to five years. Archbishop Kléda has appeared to imply that the law is too lenient.

We believe that Catholic leaders should openly condemn these kinds of statements. They belie the Holy See’s position and contribute to a very real climate of hatred, harassment, violence, and death.

In Nigeria, politicians since 2006 have debated a series of statutory measures that would criminalize same-sex civil marriage, impose harsh penalties on same-sex couples, and even criminalize participation in a group that advocates the rights of people in sexual and gender minorities.[9] A bill to this effect was recently passed in the Nigerian House of Representatives, bringing it one step closer to becoming law.

The Church has endorsed these proposed punitive policies. In 2009, Reverend Patrick Alumake, speaking on behalf of the Nigerian Catholic Church at the Nigerian National Assembly, said the Church supported the bill “wholeheartedly.”[10] This past May, when the House of Representatives approved the bill, the Nigerian Church failed to denounce provisions in the bill that seriously limit the civil rights of sexual and gender minorities. On the contrary, in the months preceding the final vote on the bill, Cardinal John Olorunfemi gave a homily condemning same-sex marriage and seemingly supporting the legislation.[11]

We recognize that the Nigerian Catholic Church has the same right to advocate for or against same-sex marriage as any other entity in Nigeria. However, the bill in question goes well beyond a position on marriage and criminalizes anyone who registers, operates or participates in clubs, societies, and organizations for sexual and gender minorities, as well as public shows of affection between people of the same-sex.[12] The bill seeks to deny the very freedom of expression that the Church is exercising. The Church, we strongly believe, should publicly declare its opposition to laws and leaders that convey a message of hate and condone the persecution of vulnerable minority groups.

In Uganda the Catholic Church has wavered in its position on the fundamental civil rights of vulnerable sexual and gender minorities. In December 2009, Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga opposed the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which proposed sentences of life in prison or even death for same-sex sexual acts. Archbishop Lwanga called the bill “at odds with Christian values” such as “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”[13] At the time the Holy See also condemned the bill as unjust discrimination.[14] In June 2012, however, a coalition of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches asked the Ugandan parliament to speed up the process of enacting a version of this bill.[15] By joining this coalition, the Ugandan Catholic Church has seemed to accept a proposed bill that would not only increase existing penalties for consensual same-sex sexual acts to life in prison, or even death, but would also require all Ugandans to inform authorities if they are aware that someone is a homosexual, or else face criminal sanctions.[16]

In the Caribbean, the Archbishop of Kingston, Jamaica, Charles Dufour, has also refused to condemn both the endemic violence faced by people in sexual and gender minorities in Jamaica, and the Jamaican government’s criminalization of private sexual acts between consenting adults.[17] In recent years, Human Rights Watch, the Organization of American States, the U.S. State Department, and other governments and organizations have criticized the pervasive violence sexual and gender minorities face in Jamaica.[18] Beatings, police brutality, torture, and murder of people in sexual and gender minorities are commonplace.[19]

As in other parts of the Caribbean, such as Belize, local advocacy groups are challenging Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law. When asked by advocates to clarify the Catholic Church position on the criminalization of consensual acts between same-sex partners, Archbishop Dufour said he felt no “need to make any special declaration” regarding the debate in Jamaica.[20] Archbishop Dufour, however, did call attention to the vilification and persecution of religious groups advocating against rights for sexual and gender minorities.[21]

We find this statement disheartening. Archbishop Dufour and other leaders in the Jamaican Church missed an important opportunity to give substance to the Holy See’s position, and have contributed to the vicious climate many Jamaicans face.

In the Dominican Republic, Cardinal Nicolás López Rodríguez recently harshly opposed the appointment of James Brewster, an openly gay man, to the post of U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Cardinal López Rodríguez referred to Brewster on national television as a “faggot” (maricón).[22] Subsequently, the Catholic Church of the Dominican Republic called on Dominican Catholics to organize a “Black Monday” protest to object to the appointment.[23]

Cardinal López Rodríguez’s words and actions are deeply troubling and offensive, promoting a climate of disrespect and intolerance. Sadly, this type of dehumanizing language is too often used by Church leaders around the world.

Church Teachings Promoting Tolerance

From our reading, the Holy See has repeatedly emphasized the need to uphold the human dignity of “homosexual persons” by treating these individuals with respect and caring. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, calls believers to treat homosexual persons with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.[24] The letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Personscalls for the respect of the intrinsic dignity of each person in word, in action, and in law.[25] Subsequent teachings by the Holy See and local bishops’ conferences likewise note the need to treat homosexual persons with respect,[26] which requires both refraining from violence toward such people and actively creating a safe place for them in society.

The letter On the Pastoral Careconsiders it “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or action.”[27] The letter further calls for the Church to condemn such violence when it does occur, for this type of violence “endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.”[28]

The Holy See has opposed unjust discrimination against homosexuals and has repeatedly spoken out against this abuse at the U.N. General Assembly and side events.[29] Although Human Rights Watch and the Catholic Church might have different understandings of what constitutes unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, it seems that at the very minimum, a non-discriminatory approach requires letting homosexual people take part in public discussions of sexual rights and sexual morality without suffering harassment or persecution from governmental or religious authorities.[30] In addition, homosexual people should be entitled to the same basic social services as anyone else, including health care, housing, and police protection. You have suggested as much in recent writings where you stress the need for all of us to voice our respective moral positions, while actively respecting and caring for one another’s wellbeing.[31]

The Holy See has also publicly opposed unjust criminal penalties for homosexualpeople. In 2008,at the U.N. General Assembly, the Holy See publicly stated that it “continues to advocate that every sign of unjust discrimination towards homosexual persons should be avoided and urges States to do away with criminal penalties against them. Governments should do away with unjust criminal penalties.”[32]

Although the statement did not give examples of what constitute unjust criminal penalties, Vatican spokespeople have pointed out that unjust penalties include “not only the death penalty, but all violent or discriminatory penal legislations in relation to homosexuals.”[33] At a United Nations side event in New York in 2009, the Holy See reiterated its opposition to “all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.”[34]

Positive Examples

In your own ministry, you have called for a Catholic position that engages society in a critical dialogue, while avoiding religious harassment and respecting civil rights. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, you publicly condemned the “spiritual harassment” that takes place when ministers impose demands “in such a way that takes away the freedom of the other person.”[35] You have noted that while religious leaders have the right to advocate specific moral positions, this does not mean forcing others to adopt these positions. Similarly, during the Argentine same-sex marriage debates, you defended the Church’s moral position, while proposing an alternative that would recognize civil unions.[36] More recently, you have made public statements concerning the need to reserve judgment of homosexual people.[37] We are heartened to hear these statements and to know that, despite our different moral positions, we agree on the need to ensure everyone’s fundamental freedom and to honor and protect human dignity.

The Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, Archbishop Charles Daniel Balvo, recently stressed that while the Church does not approve of homosexual conduct, it recognizes and respects everyone’s individual dignity. He said that homosexuals “should be defended against violation of their dignity and human rights, they are human beings like any one of us.”[38]

In the Caribbean island of Dominica, the Bishop of Roseau, Gabriel Malzaire, has also publicly opposed the criminalization of sexual acts between consenting adults. In April, Bishop Malzaire made a public statement to that effect, approvingly citing the Holy See’s 2008 statement at the U.N. General Assembly. Bishop Malzaire stated that “free sexual acts between adult persons must not be treated as crimes to be punished by civil authorities.”[39] He went on to say that the Church’s role in these debates is primarily a moral one. Statements like Bishop Malzaire’s are important in protecting the civil rights of sexual and gender minorities in countries that, like Dominica, criminalize consensual sexual acts between people of the same-sex.

In the midst of the same-sex debate in Colombia this past April, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez, president of the Colombian Episcopal Conference, spoke to the local newspaper El Tiempo. Cardinal Salazar explained that although the Church did not support same-sex marriage, it supported legal recognition for same-sex unions.[40] Cardinal Salazar noted that legal same-sex unions “have a right to exist, no one can ask them to not exist.”[41]

We commend these actions by Church leaders. We find that these types of statements are critical in creating societies that defend the civil rights of people in sexual and gender minorities, and protecting these vulnerable populations from abuse and harassment. We call on you and local Catholic communities around the world to help disseminate, and encourage these types of examples.

The Need for Papal Leadership

As we have noted, we believe we share a fundamental commitment of respect and justice for everyone. The statements and actions of Church leaders mentioned above have had a profound impact on the social climate that people in sexual and gender minorities face in communities around the world. We ask you and the Church to help us in exercising your influence to improve these conditions, and protect people in sexual and gender minorities from further abuse. Specifically, we call on you to ensure local Church leaders and communities:

  • Publicly condemn violence against people in sexual and gender minorities.
  • Call for the decriminalization of consensual, sexual relationships and support the repeal of other unjust criminal penalties for people in sexual and gender minorities.
  • Emphasize your opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances.
  • Moderate the tone of the Church’s public discourse on sexuality.
  • Call for greater legal protections for people in sexual and gender minorities.

We believe that we share common ground with the Holy See on the fundamental need to respect everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In light of that shared commitment, we call on you to help us create a more compassionate, more caring, and more just world.

Yours sincerely,

Graeme Reid
Director
LGBT Rights Program
Human Rights Watch


[1] Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World— Gaudium et Spes, December, 7, 1965, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html (accessed September 29, 2011).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM (accessed September 30, 2013); Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, October 1, 1986, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[3] In this letter we refer to “sexual and gender minorities” to include all persons that do not fit traditional categories of sex and gender, such as people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. We understand that these categories do not align directly with what the Holy See has identified as “homosexual persons.” See Statement of the Holy See Delegation at the 63rdSession of the General Assembly of the United Nations on the Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, December 18, 2008, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2008/documents/rc_seg-st_20081218_statement-sexual-orientation_en.html (accessed October 8, 2013).

[4] Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth(New York: Random House, 2013), p 114; and Rachel Donadio, “On Gay Priests, Pope Asks, ‘Who Am I to Judge?’ New York Times, July 29, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/world/europe/pope-francis-gay-priests.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[5] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America, September 30, 2013, http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview (accessed September 30, 2013).

[6] Human Rights Watch, Cameroon – Guilty by Association, Human Rights Violations in the Enforcement of Cameroon’s Anti-Homosexuality Law, March 2013, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/03/21/guilty-association

[7] See example “Cameroon: LGBTI Rights Activists Found Dead, Tortured,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 16, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/node/117231.

[8] Steve Libam, “Cameroun: Les juristes catholiques disent non à l’homosexualité, ” AllAfrica.com, February 24, 2013, http://fr.allafrica.com/stories/201302250523.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[9] “Nigerian lawmakers pass anti-gay bill,” Reuters, May 31, 2013, http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/05/30/nigeria-gay-law-idINDEE94T0EW20130530 (accessed September 30, 2013).

[10] “Nigeria Gay Activists Speak Out,” BBC News, March 11, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7937700.stm (accessed September 30, 2013).

[11] “Same Sex Marriage is a change to God’s Order,” Citizen’s Platform, February 17, 2013, http://citizensplatform.net/2013/02/same-sex-marriage-is-a-change-to-gods-order-cardinal-onaiyekan/ (accessed September 30, 2013).

[12] “Nigerian lawmakers pass anti-gay bill,” Reuters, May 31, 2013, http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/05/30/nigeria-gay-law-idINDEE94T0EW20130530 (accessed September 30, 2013).

[13] Rodney Muhumuza, “Catholic bishops oppose gays Bill,” Daily Monitor, January 12, 2013, http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/-/688334/840276/-/wh9b6q/-/index.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[14] Paddy Maguire, “Vatican speaks out against Uganda anti-gay laws,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, December 17, 2009, http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/vatican-speaks-out-against-uganda-anti-gay-laws (accessed September 30, 2013).

[15] John Tugume, “Bishops wanted shelved anti-gay Bill dusted,” Daily Monitor, June 10, 2012, http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Bishops+want+shelved+anti+gay+Bill+dusted/-/688334/1424158/-/item/0/-/erfgenz/-/index.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[16] Gregory Warner, “Activists Fight Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill,” National Public Radio, August 4, 2013, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=208825148 (accessed September 30, 2013).

[17] Letter from Rev. Charles H. Dufour, Archbishop of Kingston, Jamaica, to Maurice Tomlinson, June 17, 2013, http://76crimes.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/dufour-to-tomlinson-062013.pdf (accessed September 30, 2013).

[18] Human Rights Watch, Jamaica – Hated to Death: Homophobia, Violence, and Jamaica’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic, Volume 16, No. 6 (B), November 2004, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/11/15/hated-death-0; and Michael Lavers, “Jamaica LGBT advocates condemn cross-dressing teenager’s murder,” Washington Blade, http://www.washingtonblade.com/2013/07/23/jamaican-lgbt-advocates-condemn-murder-of-cross-dressing-teenager/ (accessed September 30, 2013).

[19] Human Rights Watch, Jamaica – Hated to Death.

[20] Letter from Rev. Charles H. Dufour, Archbishop of Kingston, Jamaica, to Maurice Tomlinson.

[21] Id.

[22] David Martosko, “Dominican cardinal greets news of gay U.S. ambassador with anti-homosexual slur,” Daily Mail, July 1, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2353094/Dominican-cardinal-greets-news-gay-U-S-ambassador-anti-homosexual-slur.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[23] Sunnivie Brydum, “Dominican Catholics Organize ‘Black Monday’ Protest of Gay U.S. Ambassador,’ Advocate, July 18, 2013, http://www.advocate.com/politics/religion/2013/07/18/dominican-catholics-organize-black-monday-protest-gay-us-ambassador (accessed September 30, 2013).

[24] Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2358.

[25] Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, paragraph 10.

[26] See, e.g. (3) Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies, section 2, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_20051104_istruzione_en.html (accessed September 30, 2013); and “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministries,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops” http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/homosexuality/always-our-children.cfm (accessed September 30, 2013).

[27] Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, paragraph 10.

[28] Id.

[29] Statement of the Holy See Delegation at the 63rdSession of the General Assembly on the United Nations on the Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, December 18, 2008, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2008/documents/rc_seg-st_20081218_statement-sexual-orientation_en.html (accessed September 30, 2013); and Statement by the Holy See to the UN General Assembly, December 10, 2009, http://arc-international.net/global-advocacy/sogi-statements/holy-see-statement-at-ga-2009 (accessed September 30, 2013).

[30] Bergoglio, On Heaven and Earth, p. 114

[31] Id.

[32] Statement of the Holy See Delegation at the 63rdSession of the General Assembly on the United Nations on the Declaration on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, December 18, 2008.

[33] “Vatican Opposes Discrimination Against Homosexuals,” Zenit, December 2, 2008, http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/vatican-opposes-discrimination-against-homosexuals (accessed September 30, 2013).

[34] Statement by the Holy See to the UN General Assembly, December 10, 2009, http://arc-international.net/global-advocacy/sogi-statements/holy-see-statement-at-ga-2009 (accessed September 30, 2013).

[35] Bergoglio, On Heaven and Earth, p. 114.

[36] Simon Romero, “On Gay Unions, a Pragmatists Before He Was a Pope,” New York Times, March 19, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/world/americas/pope-francis-old-colleagues-recall-pragmatic-streak.html (accessed September 30, 2013).

[37] Rachel Donadio, “On Gay Priests, Pope Asks, ‘Who Am I to Judge?’ New York Times, July 29, 2013.

[38] Reuben Githinji, “Pope’s envoy champions gays and lesbians rights,” The Star, July 1, 2013, http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/article-126259/popes-envoy-champions-gays-and-lebians-rights (accessed September 30, 2013).

[39] Rev. Gabriel Mazaire, “Decriminalization of homosexuality – what it means for the Catholic Church in Dominica,” Dominica News Online, May 21, 2013, http://dominicanewsonline.com/news/homepage/features/commentary/commentary-decriminalization-of-homosexuality-what-it-means-for-the-catholic-church-in-dominica/ (accessed September 30, 2013).

[40] “‘Las parejas homosexuales no pueden ser familia’: Iglesia, El Tiempo.com, April 4, 2013, http://www.eltiempo.com/vida-de-hoy/religion/opinion-del-cardenal-ruben-salazar-sobre-matrimonio-homosexual_12726071-4 (accessed September 30, 2013)

[41] Id.

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