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Rockford Music Director Fired by Catholic Church
by TRACY BAIM
2003-07-02

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The news spread quickly through Rockford, Ill., when the popular music director at the town's largest Catholic church was fired because he is gay and would not promise to live a celibate life.

Bill Stein's supporters rallied to his defense, sending protest letters to Holy Family church officials. While church officials are not talking, Stein is not remaining silent. Never an activist, the Rockford-area native is more than happy to speak out against what he views as an injustice—especially in light of recent progress on gay rights.

More than 2,700 families are part of Holy Family. Stein has worked there five years, but three months ago his sexuality became public only because he mentioned to colleagues that he and his partner of 10 years were going to adopt. While his co-workers were supportive, some families found out and took their concerns to the church's leaders, saying they couldn't believe a gay person could be allowed to work in church and be close to children. Stein did not know these parents, but both had daughters in his junior high school choir associated with the parish. One family went right to Bishop Thomas Doran.

Stein's supporters rose in support, sending letters to the Bishop. 'So that fizzled out because of the backlash of people standing up for me,' Stein told Windy City Times. Stein said his pastor, Msgr. Thomas Bales, was supportive and said this is 'just wrong.' Things changed when Msgr. David Kagan came in as parochial administrator at Holy Family when Bales went on leave for health reasons.

On June 17, Stein went to what he thought was a routine budget meeting. Kagan (who is the Vicar General—right under the Rockford Bishop) was there with the diocese attorney and one of the church's new priests. Kagan said he had a letter written by Bales, dated the beginning of May, saying while he thinks Stein is a good guy, he was also aware he is in a relationship with another man, they plan to adopt a child, and 'I think this will cause the church scandal and he should be terminated.'

Stein questions the validity of the letter, and said he will not believe it until he has a chance to verify it with Bales. Was there a conspiracy to oust Stein while Bales was away at the Mayo Clinic? Even during the termination, Stein said he was told his work was 'impeccable.' 'I built the music program substantially,' Stein said. < p>'Two of the adult choirs toured Austria and Italy last year.' They performed at Pope John Paul II's canonization of a saint. Kagan told Stein if he promised to live a chaste life, 'Then you can keep your job.'

'I know church teaching,' Stein said. 'I was raised Catholic and have worked for a long time in the church, which calls this the 'homosexual condition.' It says we accept homosexuals as brothers and sisters in Christ, but according to the Catholic religion, sex is only allowed within marriage between a man and a woman. Kagan is a canon lawyer, so I know chaste meant get on your knees and pray for forgiveness, or lose your job.'

'I said I am comfortable with my sexuality, I have accepted who I am, and I have never once flaunted anything at work. It is my job—I am a professional. I told Kagan yes, I have had a partner for 10 years, and our integrity and dignity as children of god are not worth losing for a job,' Stein said.

Kagan 'thanked me for being honest and told me I was fired. The lawyer, she said 'you need to understand we are not firing you because you are homosexual, but because you engaged in homosexual activity.' I did not even respond. You can't argue with these people,' Stein said. 'I wanted to walk out with every ounce of dignity.'

'Word got out—to my choir members,' Stein said. Parishioners were 'very supportive. People were outraged—much angrier than I ever was, or my partner. Anger, yes. Hurt, yes. But these people were livid. ... The church had pedophile priests it moved around from parish to parish and allowed them to continue. And they fired me. I have done nothing illegal and I was fired. We're at a point after all the things, as lay people, of saying, 'this is our church.' We need to speak up. A lot of people are sick to death of doing 'whatever you say father' ... god gave us all an intellect and a mind and he expects us to use them.'

Prior to moving back to Rockford, Stein worked for more than four years at St. Priscilla Church at Harlem and Addison in Chicago. His sexuality was not an issue there, he said. Prior to St. Priscilla he was an undergrad at Illinois Wesleyan. During his post at St. Priscilla, he did graduate work at Northwestern, where he received a degree in Church Music and Organ Performance. At Holy Family, Stein was in charge of adult and children's choirs, and music for funerals and weddings. He was the director and organist, and he oversaw a three-year, million-dollar project to find a pipe organ builder and raise funds for its installation. Stein and his partner, Manny Ahorrio, who works as a part-time waiter while he is a full-time culinary student, may have to delay plans to adopt until Stein finds another job. The couple knew this incident would create a big story—they wanted to get their story out to raise public awareness, but Stein said he does not plan to sue the church.

Both of their families have been '100 percent supportive.' Ahorrio's parents are in Chicago, Stein's are in the Rockford area. 'Both parents told us they have never been so proud of us for what we are doing.'

Rockford, in Northwest Illinois, is generally conservative, but Stein said the initial response has been 'overwhelmingly in our favor—it's just incredible. ... With what just happened in the Supreme Court, I have become the unofficial gay spokesman in Rockford. I believe all things happen for a reason. I lost my job, it's horrible. A lot of people lose jobs. But fruit will be born out of this. We have received letters from gays in the community that say thank you for being a positive voice.'


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