(WASHINGTON) — A priest who denied communion to a gay woman at her mother’s funeral mass has been put on leave by the Washington D.C.-area archdiocese, but the archdiocese said the suspension is not related to the communion controversy.
In a statement, the archdiocese said Father Marcel Guarnizo was placed on administrative leave because of “credible allegation that Father Guarnizo had engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others.”
The statement did not elaborate on what that behavior might have been.
Guarnizo, a suburban Maryland priest, had been criticized by Barbara Johnson and her family for his behavior at the funeral of Johnson’s mother. Johnson, who is a lesbian, said Guarnizo denied her communion at her mother’s funeral mass.
“He covered the bowl with the Eucharist with his hand and looked at me, and said I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin in the eyes of the church,” Johnson told ABC News affiliate WLJA in Washington.
“She was clearly distraught,” her older brother Larry Johnson told ABC News.
Both Barbara and Larry Johnson wrote letters to the Archdiocese of Washington, saying they believe that Guarnizo’s actions then and during the rest of the funeral were unacceptable. The Johnsons say the priest walked out of the service while Barbara Johnson was delivering her eulogy.
Family members also say the priest failed to come to the grave site, and the burial was attended by a substitute priest found by the funeral director.
As for the decision to suspend Guarnizo, Larry Johnson told ABC News: “I think the actions of the diocese speak for themselves. Whatever the ultimate reasons were, as far as I’m concerned, this individual, for the time being, will not be in parish life.”
“I think this is a pretty significant action that they took,” he said. “I don’t think they would have taken it lightly.”
The Johnson family issued a statement Monday saying that they “pray for the Archdiocese of Washington, Father Guarnizo, and all Catholics during this time of upheaval.”
“While we understand this letter does not pertain to the events that occurred at our mother’s funeral, we are hopeful that Bishop Knestout’s decision will ensure that no others will have to undergo the traumatic experiences brought upon our family,” the statement said. “We urge all Catholics to put aside political points of view, and pray that our Church will remain in Christ’s love.”
But the head of DignityUSA, a group that focuses on gay and lesbian rights and the Catholic Church, said the incident is part of a wider problem.
“The reality is in some ways it is very emblematic of the hierarchy’s approach to gay people, transgender people,” Marianne Duddy-Burke said. “There are little messages of rejection that happen all the time.”
Guarnizo did not return an email asking for a comment about the communion incident.
The Archdiocese of Washington issued a statement that indicated Guarnizo should have taken up the matter of whether Johnson could receive communion in private.
“When questions arise about whether or not an individual should present themselves for communion it is not the policy of the Archdiocese to Washington to publicly reprimand the person,” the statement said.
Duddy-Burke said the archdiocese’s response misses the point.
“I would hope that it provides a wake-up call to church leaders to make them see where the extremes of their policy are leading,” she said. “My concern is they will just see this as an isolated incident and fail to see the context.”
Larry and Barbara Johnson both received letters from the archdiocese apologizing “that what should have been a celebration of your mother’s life…was overshadowed by a lack of pastoral sensitivity.”
Guarnizo has been in the Washington area for a year, after serving as a priest in Russia. The Archdiocese of Washington has launched an inquiry into his alleged intimidating behavior toward staff and others. In its statement, the archdiocese said, Guarnizo will remain on leave “until all matters can be appropriately resolved with the hope that he might return to the priestly ministry.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Rob McLean and Joshua Berlinger, CNN