NEW YORK — A new podcast explores the complicated relationship between former Cardinal John O’Connor and the gay community at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
As archbishop of New York, O’Connor was one of the most powerful Catholic prelates in the nation at a time when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the city’s gay population. His opposition to the distribution of condoms to prevent HIV transmission sparked numerous conflicts between the two camps, yet as the disease wreaked havoc throughout the city, he also quietly spent many of his evenings tending to victims on their deathbed.
Those tensions — of an archbishop who was public enemy number one for many gay New Yorkers, yet privately devoted hours to caring for people with AIDS — are explored in detail in Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church, a six-episode podcast with a December 1 release date: World AIDS Day.
The podcast is released by America Media and hosted by national correspondent for America, Michael O’Loughlin.
(O’Loughlin is a former journalist for Crux).
O’Connor was appointed as archbishop of New York in 1984 just three years after the New York Times first published reports of the newly discovered disease.
The podcast features audio footage of O’Connor discussing the escalating crisis, where he both insists “homosexual behavior is illicit. That’s the teaching of the Catholic Church. I am a Catholic bishop,” while at the same time discussing his desire to “understand firsthand what this [AIDS] really is.”
“So I set myself a goal of visiting, washing the bedsores of, emptying the bedpans of, talking with, a minimum of 1,000 persons with AIDS, their families or others. I got to 1100. I learned a great deal. I tried my very best to help. Many of those were homosexual,” he continued.
O’Loughlin told Crux that what he aimed to capture in highlighting O’Connor’s role in this period was “the complexity of the Catholic response to the epidemic.”
“It’s true that some church leaders, including O’Connor, used their clout to fight against gay rights at a time when the LGBT community felt besieged,” said O’Loughlin. “But away from the spotlight, there were many priests, nuns and laypeople quietly ministering to those in need, and those are the stories we tried to capture in Plague.”
He added that O’Connor’s own story, his visits to people with AIDS at a Catholic hospital in Manhattan versus his public stances on condoms and LGBT rights, encapsulates the wider societal tension of the 1980s.
O’Connor’s actions and inaction during the 1980s ignited outrage and occasional praise from those on the frontlines of the crisis.
While he was responsible for opening up a special unit at St. Clare’s Hospital to care for dying AIDS patients, he was also appointed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan to serve on his HIV commission, which drew the ire of the gay community nationwide due to his positions on condoms and sex education.
Most memorably, in December 1989, while O’Connor was celebrating Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an estimated 4,500 ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) protesters were on hand, some disrupting Mass, and one of whom desecrated the Eucharist during communion, marking a breaking point for many Catholics and the gay community.
The St. Patrick’s protest remains one of the largest against the Catholic Church in the history of the United States.
Plague chronicles that memorable day with firsthand testimonials of gay Catholics and their family members — some of whom permanently left the Church afterward and others who have since found their way back.
Along with exploring O’Connor’s legacy, Plague includes interviews with Catholic nuns on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis, priests who lost brother priests to the disease, and an inside look at how the Church continues to respond to one of the most devastating health crises of our time.
At the outset of the podcast, O’Loughlin states that he wanted to chronicle the stories of those “that inspire and those that infuriate, so we can remember what happens when society turns its back on those in need.”
“There are lessons for us today. There are names we should remember, and unless we make an effort to learn these stories, they might be lost to history,” he states. “The more I listened, the more complicated the story became.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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