The Conundrum of Father Richard Ginder

Posted by Censor Librorum on Feb 20, 2020 | Categories: Arts & Letters, Faith, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

So I turned to the Garden of Love.  That so many sweet flowers bore.  And I saw it was filled with graves,  And tombstones where flowers should be;  And priests with black gowns were walking their rounds,  And binding with briars my joys and desires.  William Blake (1737-1827)

“Binding with Briars—Sex and Sin in the Catholic Church,” a book by the Rev. Richard Ginder, was published in the United States by Prentice-Hall, Inc. in 1975.  It was seven years after the first Dignity convention in 1968 and six years after the Stonewall Riots.  In other words, very early in the period of gay and lesbian liberation in church and American society.  He begins his book by identifying himself: “I am a Roman Catholic priest.  My diocese is Pittsburgh. I am in good standing and celebrate the Holy Sacrifice every day.”  This statement, like much about Fr. Ginder, poses a conundrum.  It’s true.  But it’s also true that at that time he was on “sick leave” from pastoral assignments, and mid-point in a 10-year probation negotiated by the Pittsburgh Archdiocese. 

In 1969, after an intensive investigation, police raided his apartment in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh and found photographs of teenage boys performing sex acts with Fr. Ginder and possibly other priests from the diocese.  The police also found his diaries, where Ginder detailed his and other clerics homosexual activities with young men over the previous three years.  Fifty-two charges were filed against him and he pleaded guilty to several. The Diocese interceded for Ginder and got him out of jail.

Fr. Ginder was among the priests identified in the now famous August 14, 2019 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on sexually abusive clergy. While not a pedophile, Ginder certainly approached or had sex with high school and possibly junior high school-aged boys.

“Writing this book has forced me to rethink the whole subject of morality—rather, not to rethink it but for the first time in my life to think it all the way through,” he writes in the Forward. “I have been working on this book for twenty-five years: reading, taking notes analyzing my own inner experience and comparing it to that of others. The seed was planted in 1949 when I first realized my sexual identity.”

Why did Fr. Ginder write this book?  He must have known going public with his opinions was a permanent career-killer.

I think three things happened.  The new Gay Liberation movement inspired him to speak out. He saw people, especially young people, leaving the church in droves because the institution did not address their real-life concerns and questions. That bothered him, because he loved the church and the Catholic faith. Lastly, Ginder was a writer as well as a priest.  He wrote about other controversial subjects but was banned from doing so on homosexuality. The need to express himself blew up the blockade.

The evolution of the book surprised him.  “But once I started writing, I felt the book taking on a life of its own. It began to unfold and grow almost of itself as I thought through this whole matter of sexuality in its relationship to religion. I began the book a conservative and ended a liberal.”

The evolution of this blog post surprised me. I have mixed feelings about Fr. Ginder. I began by despising Ginder as a priestly predator, and ended up admiring him as a complex, prophetic, creative, and flawed man.  He never acknowledged any remorse for the teenage boys he used sexually, or the emotional and psychic damage at least some of them experienced. I wonder if that is who he was as a person, or as a member of a schizophrenic clerical culture where such behavior was widespread and tacitly accepted? There’s no way of knowing.

However, how many heterosexual men ogle, fantasize and bed, if they can, 16 and 17-year-old girls? Growing up female, we learn at an early age how to deflect male sexual interest. It’s just homophobia tinged with misogyny that males become hysterical over sexual interest by other males.

Since Ginder emphasizes his evolution, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to timeline his life, and overlay his writing, arrests, and sexual abuse accusations to see when they occurred and what he was doing at the time.

1914:  Charles Richard Ginder is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

June 11, 1940:   He was ordained a priest of the Pittsburgh Diocese at the age of 26 by Bishop Hugh Boyle.

8/1940 – 9/1942:   St. Gregory, Zelienople, PA and St. Mathias, Evans City, PA

9/1942 – 2/1946:   Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice (NFI)

Ginder was a Basselin Fellow and held a master’s degree in philosophy and a Licentiate in theology from The Catholic University of America.

2/1946 – 6/1950:  Saint Simon & Jude, Blairstown, PA.

1949 – Ginder discovers his homosexual identity when he was 35-nine years after his ordination. He regretted that over the next 25 years he was never permitted to express himself on the subject of homosexuality in either Our Sunday Visitor or The Priest. 

 In 2007, a 69-year-old male called the Pittsburgh Diocese to report he had been molested by Ginder in the late 1940s. He said that Ginder, who was assigned to a neighboring parish, would wait outside his school to offer him rides. He did not provide specific details.  After a few occasions, he no longer accepted rides from Ginder. He stated that the abuse he had suffered caused his marriage to fail; that he had feelings of guilt, and that he had attempted suicide.

 Late 1940s – Early 1960s:  Fr. Ginder was a widely read priest-columnist. His byline appeared in such prominent Catholic publications as Our Sunday Visitor where he wrote the controversial syndicated column “Right or Wrong.” At that time OSV was the most widely circulated Catholic periodical in the world with close to a million subscribers.  He founded and edited for 11 years My Daily Visitor for shut ins.  He also founded and edited The Priest, a journal for Catholic clergy which he edited for 24 years and The Catholic Choirmaster which he edited for 13 years. Ginder was also an accomplished organist and composer of sacred music. “I have written altogether one hundred twenty-four pamphlets with a total sale of twenty-six million copies. I have spoken and my musical compositions have been performed on all four of the major radio networks and on CBS-TV.” 

6/1950 – 12/1953:  St. George, Pittsburgh, PA (South Side)

12/1953 – 6/1959:  St. Joseph, Pittsburgh, PA (North Side)

12/1954 – 7/1962:  Censor Librorum for the Diocese of Pittsburgh

A male residing in Seattle, WA contacted the Pittsburgh Diocese on a number of occasions. He never provided details of his abuse but threatened to sue the Diocese. The male was advised in 1999 that the records pertaining to Father Charles R. Ginder were destroyed as Ginder had died in 1984. The male subsequently sent a letter wherein he stated that he was taken to New York, NY and Philadelphia, PA by Ginder. He estimated the trips occurred between 1958 and 1961. He said details would be provided in a book he planned to write. The male also advised that he was abused by another priest in Pittsburgh who now lived in Florida. He refused to name the other priest, however, in order to maintain “the element of surprise.”

 Fr. Ginder described himself as an open-minded conservative. His article on “Leftism in the Church” appeared in the March 27, 1960 edition of Our Sunday Visitor: “Right now in America, relativism is what might be called the ‘established’ system of thought. It is supported by the moneyed classes, the secular universities, even—insofar as that is possible—by the Government: which means that it has lavish rewards to confer on its own disciples…Confronted with such a situation, we Catholics can either convert them or join them. But if we join them, we will no longer be Catholic. We have to convert them, for by God’s own definition we are “the salt of the earth.”

6/1959 – 2/1961:  St. Mary, New Castle, PA

In 2013, an adult male reported that he was befriended by Ginder following the death of his brother in 1960. He stated that they often made trips from New Castle to Pittsburgh and had dinner together. The male recalled that on one occasion; he fell asleep in the front seat of the car following dinner with Ginder. He woke to find Ginder putting his hand up his pant leg, touching his thigh. When he asked what he was doing, Ginder explained that he was checking to see if the boy was cold. After this incident, he did not accompany Ginder anywhere else.

 12/1961 – 8/1962:  School Sisters of St. Francis, Bellevue, PA

7/1962 – 7/1963:  Health related leave of absence

8/1963 – 5/1964:  Our Lady of Mercy Academy (NFI)

5/1964 – 6/1964:  St. Januarius, Pittsburgh, PA

5/1964 – 6/1964:  St. John the Baptist, Pittsburgh, PA

6/1964 – 1/1967:  Sick Leave

1/1967 -?         :   St. John the Baptist, Baden, PA

In 2002, a 50-year-old male living in New Jersey reported that he had been abused by Ginder when he was between the ages of 15 and 17. He stated that he and a boy from Denmark would gather at the residence of the Bishop on many occasions. He stated that they would drink alcohol with Ginder and ‘sexual activity would occur there.’ According to the male, the sexual activity occurred with Ginder and the Bishop was aware of it. The male further stated that he lived with Ginder on Murray Avenue for a short time. He stated that the relationship with Ginder and others was ‘out of control.” He described Ginder as a ‘physically abusive monster.’”

 See my recent post on Pittsburgh’s Bishop Wright: “Lip Service: John Cardinal Wright Gives Himself a Celibacy Dispensation.”  Pittsburgh must have been a congenial posting if you were a sexually active homosexual priest in the 1960s.

1969:  Fr. Ginder’s apartment is raided by police.  They discover photos of Ginder and others in homosexual sex acts.  The Diocese negotiates Ginder’s release from jail and he is put on ten years’ probation.

1969:  Bishop John Wright is promoted or “kicked upstairs” to a Vatican appointment.

1970-1984:  Sick Leave.  Ginder lives in church facilities under psychiatric care.  For a time he lived in a Vincentian facility in McCandless, PA.

1975:  Ginder’s semi-autobiographic book, “Binding with Briars—Sex and Sin in the Catholic Church,” is published.

The book argued against Catholic positions on birth control, divorce, premarital sex and homosexuality.  Ginder also clearly came out against abortion, pedophilia, and legalizing homosexual relationships— “…the analogy with matrimony is all wrong. For one thing, it reeks of sacrilege, blasphemy, and bad taste.”

In the book Ginder addressed the nastiness and hostility of some religious people to homosexuals:  “The latent gay is sexually attracted by others of the same sex, but he refuses to admit it to himself and in fighting the tendency he often overreacts by lashing out at overt gays and harassing them as best he can.”  Ginder quoted Winston Leyland, a “priestly dropout” and editor of the Bay area publication, Gay Sunshine, who estimated that 40% of Catholic clergy was gay.

Ginder did touch briefly on Dignity, a newly formed organization for gay and lesbian Catholics.  He was mildly supportive. I think Ginder was less enthusiastic than he might have been, because he believed so strongly that gay people needed to stay in the Church, not go off or segregate themselves in other groups. In Chapter 13, “The Other Love,” he writes: “Now surely this book, especially this present chapter, has given the gay arguments and principles enough to form his conscience on gay sex and still receive the sacraments—so, Mr. and Ms. Gay, spread the word: Gays can be just as good Catholics as the rest and still have their sex. Don’t let them quit the Church, for their own good and ours—because, you see, we need their help in forming a consensus. We need them on the team.”

Fr. Ginder also offers a solution to gay and lesbian Catholics trying to keep the faith: “Keep trying to develop a personal religion, an immediate relationship with our Lord,” he says.  “Use the Church for the Holy Sacrifice, the sacraments, inspiration, and moral instruction; but keep your life centered on Christ. What matters is His, not the churchmen’s opinion of you.  Keep deepening your fundamental option with an intense and unshakeable loyalty to our Lord.”

As a Catholic lesbian who continues to identity herself as such 40 years after coming out, Fr. Ginder’s advice on how to remain in the church is true:  follow your conscience and keep your eyes on Christ.

 In 1975, Ginder was asked if he was sorry about his homosexual activities.  I don’t approve of it but sometimes you’re weak,” he said.

1976:  One year after the publication of “Binding with Briars,” Bishop Vincent M. Leonard, Wright’s successor, stripped Ginder of his priestly facilities.

1978:  Ginder was arrested in the Southside of Pittsburgh and convicted of sodomizing two 16-year-old boys and sentenced up to four years in prison. There was also a report that he attempted suicide.

1980:  Fr. Ginder lived at the One Hundred Acres Trappist Monastery in New Hampshire, not far from Boston, MA.

In 2011, an adult male reported sexual abuse through the Diocese of Manchester in New Hampshire. He stated that in 1980, when he was approximately 15 or 16 years old, he attended an overnight retreat at Hundred Acres in New Boston. Another man, possibly a priest, attempted to assault him in his room. When he screamed loudly, Ginder came into the room. Ginder then offered to drive him home. During the car ride, Ginder pulled over by a river. He then fondled the young man on top of his clothes. The young man got out of the vehicle before it went any further and took a bus home.

 June 7, 1984:  Killed in a car accident. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published his obituary on Wednesday, June 13, 1984. The headline reads: “Priest touched by scandal is quietly buried in city.” 

“The Rev. Richard Ginder, once one of the most influential priests in the Catholic Church in the United States, was quietly buried here Monday.  Father Ginder, 70, removed from his priestly duties in the Pittsburgh diocese in 1976 following a sex scandal and a controversial book, was killed Thursday in a car accident in New Hampshire. At the time he was driving from his brother’s funeral. His brother, the Rev. Edwin S. Ginder, was a priest in Fort Tobacco, MD. Father Ginder’s funeral, was at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon, PA.  Its pastor, Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, called Father Ginder – prominent editor, author and columnist – “the Andrew Greeley of his day.”

In the Forward to the book he acknowledges, “My opinions may have to travel underground in the Church until popular sentiment is ready to accept them.” That shift of opinion occurred 40 years after the publishing of the book.  It was made possible by the loss of respect and moral authority of the Church for how it handled clerical sexual abuse. Ginder was a part of that chain of abuse, shuffled around from parish to parish, his behavior tolerated and covered up with “sick leave” stays in various institutions and places.  Once the church ceased to protect him, the civil authorities were able to reach him for punishment.

Fr. Ginder did not acknowledge himself as a gay man in his writing, although he may have done so with other gay clergy.  What he did do in “Binding with Briars” was to assert that gay sex—sodomy– is normal to gay people and stated that the Church was out of touch with the sexual morality and lives of many of the faithful, gay and straight. This stance was leading to the marginalization of the Church and the loss of believers.  This loss was very painful to Ginder, and he wanted to stop the hemorrhaging.

“For several years I was the official censor of books for the Diocese of Pittsburgh,” he wrote. “It is with prayer and no little trepidation that I submit my analysis, hoping that it may bring some degree of comfort, however slight, to the reader.  All my life has been a preparation for the writing of this book.”

I wish I had known of Fr. Ginder’s book many years ago.  It would have been a great help to me in negotiating the agonies of faith and desire.  It would have been a great comfort, and is still a comfort today.  Thank you, Fr. Ginder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “The Conundrum of Father Richard Ginder”

  1. Póló Says:

    It’s amazing how complex the world is and yet how simple. The Church is still treading water in a sea of complexity, refusing to “love your neighbour” if that conflicts with some pernicious/silly dogma.

    Your journey in writing this post, as Fr. Ginder’s with his book, is interesting. I used to think that authors who said their characters took them down surprising paths were just being dramatic. But there is something about writing, if you are being sincere, that does that and sometimes the character even turns out to be yourself.

    That’s why I like your posts and hope you keep them up.

  2. Karen Says:

    Polo, it can be difficult to sort out your feelings for a complicated person. I know, I’m one of them. It is also hard to accept the whole package of a person with such stark contrasts; and hard to admit you like or admire a deeply flawed person. What does that say about me if I do? Well, that I see that people can be likable, or lovable, or respected and appreciated for their achievements and contributions even though I don’t agree with everything they do or say. In one way, I’m rebelling against the political correctness of the age. We are not pure. Including people who pump political correctness all the time.

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