Editor’s Note: The following submission is from Michael LaRocca. Have an LGBTQ+ related experience or story to share? Having your article published on this site will automatically enrol you into a raffle to win a $50 Amazon Gift Card. Submit an article today via queerdeermedia.com.
[amazon_link asins=’B0742GKQZZ’ template=’ProductAdRight’ store=’ourqueerstories-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’bb865047-8caa-11e7-a8a9-99b1755a4082′]It was August 5, 2010. I had just finished one of the most important Masses of the year at the Las Vegas Cathedral with the Bishop of Las Vegas. After Mass, the Vicar General of the Diocese asked me to join him and the Bishop in the Bishop’s Conference Room in the Chancery office building directly across the parking lot from the Cathedral where my office was also. I entered the Conference Room, and there sat the Bishop, the Vicar General, and the Diocesan Attorney. I was informed by the Diocesan Attorney that I was being suspended based on charges of racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and age discrimination. I was absolutely stunned! What?! Me of all people being accused of discrimination? I was in shock! The letter of suspension was given to me, my keys were taken from me, and the investigation began.
Earlier that summer the Bishop told me privately in his office that people were talking about me and the man I was living with who was my Partner. His comment to me that day was, “Be prudent.” I told him very honestly that we were not involved in a sexual relationship, and living by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which in layman’s terms means: You can be gay, just suffer through it, don’t fall in love, and don’t have sex.
Since 2004 I had been Master of Ceremonies to the Bishop, Director of Liturgical Ministries for the Cathedral, Executive Producer of the Telly Award-Winning Christmas Midnight Mass LIVE telecast, and creator of many events and programs for the Las Vegas Cathedral. I executed and organized liturgies for the Bishop that rivaled those of the Vatican. I brought the Bishop to such a level of liturgical respect that even when the American Cardinals concelebrated Mass with the Bishop in 2007, the Bishop was praised by the Cardinals for my coordination and execution of the Mass.
In July of 2010, one month before my suspension, as well as continuing my duties with the Bishop and the Cathedral, I was promoted and put in charge of the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, the largest Catholic Church in Nevada. I was replacing a priest who had been suspended earlier in the year. I was spending half my day at the Chancery and the Cathedral, and half my day at the Shrine. In the evenings I gave workshops and held rehearsals for upcoming Masses. I was the most visible lay person in the Diocese of Las Vegas.
Now, I am being suspended and facing possible termination. I told the Bishop that first evening of my suspension that if I was guilty of any of the charges I would resign immediately to save him any embarrassment, or the Diocese any scandal. I actually would have taken a bullet for that man. That is how much I cared for him.
When I got home, I called the Bishop at his home in tears. He did not answer, but I left a message on his voice mail saying, “I need my friend, I need my Bishop, please call me back.” Now, one year later, I have not heard from the Bishop. I realize that he was probably advised not to speak to me, but is he not a priest first, and as a Bishop is he not the visible image of Christ to his flock? Well, I guess not to me.
This was a man who considered me a friend, a man who came to my home for dinner and parties, a man who I traveled with, and a man who I shared wonderful conversations with. All I needed was a 30-second call for him to say that he cared about me and that he was praying for me. But no, complete and utter silence and rejection.
Over the next couple of weeks I was interrogated by the Diocesan Attorney regarding the charges I was facing, about friends sleeping on my couch and about my relationship with my Partner, including our sexual relationship. I found out during the interrogation process that there were additional things I was suspended for, all of which had reasonable and logical explanations. I came to find out that all of the accusations were coming from individuals at the Shrine and not one of my 200 volunteers, staff members or priests from the Cathedral.
About two weeks into the investigation I found out from a Diocesan staff member, who is also a dear friend, that the Vicar General of the Diocese blatantly lied about a decision that he and I had made together regarding the music program at the Shrine. Things were becoming more suspicious, and I was advised by my friend, Partner and family to retain an attorney.
When I was asked to come in to the Chancery for additional questioning, I told the Diocesan Attorney that based on the lie of the Vicar General I was not comfortable being questioned any longer without my legal council present. I was informed that this was an internal investigation and I was not permitted to have my attorney present. I asked if I could have one of the priests I knew present, and again I was told, “No.”
On September 15, 2010, I received my letter of termination from the Vicar General of the Diocese, hand delivered by personal messenger. The letter was six pages long, and included sections about my home life, get-togethers I had at my home and sex with my Partner. I think I was more shocked with the termination letter than I was with the initial suspension. I could not believe this was happening! I could not believe the Bishop had not said a word to me. I could not believe that not one individual or priest from the Cathedral was allowed to testify on my behalf. I could not believe that the Rector of the Cathedral was never given a copy of my letter of termination.
In the opening paragraph letter of termination it stated that I was, “Engaged in unsatisfactory work performance; engaged in conduct which may: reflect unfavorably upon the Diocesan reputation, goodwill or standing in the community (and/or) render (you) less effective, credible or desirable as a representative of the Diocese coming in contact with others.” I could not believe that someone who had dedicated so much of his life to the Diocese of Las Vegas was being treated like a leper of ancient times.
The emotional devastation to me, my partner, my family, my friends, and the volunteers and parishioners from the Cathedral was enormous. The outrage was incredible. The ripple effect was tremendous and affected so many people, but there did not seem to be any remorse or explanation from the Bishop or the Vicar General to any of these people. The hierarchy of the Diocese of Las Vegas was treating this as if I had never existed.
The Guardian Angel Cathedral is at the North end of the Las Vegas Strip, and the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer is at the South end. When I traveled back and forth between the two churches, did I transform into a different person during my drive? Was I Dr. Jekyll at the Cathedral and Mr. Hyde at the Shrine?
To clarify my side of some of the charges: My three assistants at the Cathedral were over 70 years of age and two of them were women. Two of my five assistants with the Bishop were women, both of whom were over 60 years of age, and one of them, who is a very close and dear friend, is black. Two of my three Godchildren are half-Hispanic, and I have many, many close friends who are of different nationalities, backgrounds, religions, races, and ages. On top of that…Oh yeah, I am gay! Why would a person from one minority group discriminate against a person from another minority group?
The Diocese of Las Vegas continued my salary during the suspension period. Upon my termination I was entitled to pay from vacation days that I had coming, and pension money. I did not receive any severance pay, a note of thanks, or even a pat on the back for my years of service. My heart was broken.
Since those days in late summer and early fall of 2010, my Partner and I have ended our relationship, and the emails and letters of support continue to come in from the Cathedral volunteers. The priest who is the housemate of the Vicar General is now in charge of the Shrine. The music director from the local parish where the Vicar General is pastor was put in charge of music at the Shrine. The Cathedral continues minus all of the programs I started. Others from the Cathedral have been terminated, and on October 7, 2011, the Vicar General responsible for all of this pled guilty to stealing $650,000 from his parish. On January 13, 2012 he was sentenced to three years and one month in federal prison and ordered to repay $650,000.
This story is not meant to condemn the Roman Catholic Church. A great many wonderful priests, bishops, staff, volunteers, and parishioners are part of this worldwide organization. I just want people to know what happened to me. I want the Church to open wide the closet doors and tell the truth. There are more gay men serving as priests than I could have ever imagined. And, anyone with even remotely good “Gaydar” can look at the current pope and tell that he is not of the heterosexual orientation. In my opinion, it does not matter whether a priest is gay or straight as long as he is living up to his promise of celibacy, or vow of chastity.
I remember attending a National Cathedral Conference in Seattle in 2006. I walked into the opening reception where none of the clergy were wearing clerics. Most people were wearing jeans and sweaters. It was cold that January in Seattle. I turned to the priest I was with and said, “What gay bar are we in?” I was absolutely amazed! I remember thinking that if there are this many gay men who are priests in the United States, it has to be the same in other countries and even in the Vatican.
I want the Church to care more about people than doctrine. I want the Church to be honest about who and what they are in spite of their flaws and indiscretions. I want the hierarchy to welcome the opportunity to teach the laity how to stop the prejudice and discrimination against gay people by keeping individuals like me in the forefront of the Church as a positive example.
From this story I may be criticized, threatened, excommunicated, or I could even be burned at the stake like Joan of Arc, and like Joan, 400 years from now the Church will say, “Oops, we made a mistake,” and canonize me a saint!
I firmly believe that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church needs to practice that famous saying, “What would Jesus do?” When that day comes, the Church will be a much better place for all the people of God.
UPDATE: On November 17, 2011, I officially renounced my Catholicism with the following letter to the Bishop of Las Vegas, the Archbishop of New York who is also the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Archbishop of San Francisco (head of the region which includes Las Vegas), and my Church of Baptism so that my renunciation could be officially recorded in my records. All religious titles were omitted in my letter. I have no respect for these men as religious leaders; therefore, they do not deserve to be called by the title that the Roman Catholic Church bestowed upon them. I still consider myself a Christian, but no longer follow this hypocritical institution.
Joseph A. Pepe
Diocese of Las Vegas
336 Cathedral Way
Las Vegas, NV 89109
November 17, 2011
Dear Mr. Pepe:
I Michael La Rocca as of the writing of this letter, and with absolutely no reservations, RENOUNCE MY CATHOLICISM completely.
As your former Master of Ceremonies, I can no longer consider myself Roman Catholic when it is run by people like you, Timothy Dolan, and those who refer to themselves as Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. You are a prejudice and ignorant group of men. To me you are neither a representation nor an example of the message of Jesus. I am no longer angry. I am completely and unequivocally disgusted with the hierarchy Roman Catholic Church.
This letter is also being sent to the church of my baptism in Buffalo, New York so that my renunciation will be posted to my records.
I do not wish to be contacted by you, any person whom I have sent a copy of this letter, nor any representative from the church that you call Roman Catholic. I only wish to receive verification from my church of baptism that my renunciation has been posted to my records.