Bernard Lynch was born in Ireland in 1947. His father worked for the local railway making deliveries by horse and cart of goods from the train station around the market town of Ennis capital of County Clare. Clare is on Europe’s most western Atlantic coast. The land there is rocky and not arable, where Oliver Cromwell famously said, “there is no earth to bury a man, no water to drown a man and no tree to hang a man.” Bernard was educated at the Christian Brothers' School and developed an interest in the Catholic priesthood at a very early age. He began serving as an altar boy in the local parish Church when only eight years old.
In his teens he sought admission to the Redemptorist Fathers' secondary school in Limerick to pursue a religious vocation. He was rejected because his family could not afford the fees. After graduating from the Christian Brothers school in 1965 he joined the Society of African Missions (SMA). After one year studying ascetical theology at the SMA novitiate in Cloughballymore County Galway, he was admitted to major seminary in Northern Ireland twenty six miles from Belfast. There he spent six years studying philosophy and theology.
During his first year of seminary he became friends with Alex; a relationship that became physically affectionate the following year. The two of them went to Liverpool during their third summer, where they worked in a factory to earn money to support their studies. They took lodgings together in a boarding house. Bernard felt some guilt about the growing intimacy of the relationship and so confessed his concerns to the local priest. The priest insisted he cease all physical relations and report the fact that he had engaged in mutual masturbation with Alex to the seminary authorities. Returning to seminary, Bernard chose to speak with Fr. Jeremy Mullins a professor of Christology. Although he would later learn of Mullin's conflict over his own sexuality, the priest ordered Lynch to cease all studies for the priesthood. A week later, Mullins relented and offered Bernard and Alex a second chance. Alex eventually grew so conflicted over his relationship with Bernard that he left the seminary in the spring of 1971. Bernard was broken-hearted but also saw that this new situation made it possible for him to commit anew to celibacy.
In June 1971, Lynch was ordained deacon and on December 20, 1971, he was ordained priest at Saint Coleman's Cathedral Newry. After completing his theological studies, he was sent to Ndola, Zambia. Lynch immersed himself into the life of the mission, but grew increasingly concerned over the attitude of some of the priests toward the Africans. After two years he shared his dissatisfaction with his Superiors and returned to Ireland to reconsider his ministry and vocation.
In the following months, Lynch came out as gay to another priest. His Superior suggested he go to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies and reflect on his vocation rather than return to Africa. Lynch arrived in New York City in August 1975. He was assigned to Saint Gabriel's parish in the Bronx and enrolled at Fordham University in the Master's program in counselling Psychology. He completed this degree in 1977.
During this time Lynch was invited to celebrate Mass for a fellow student who had committed suicide. After the Requiem he met members of Dignity New York and learned that the deceased student was gay. He agreed to come and say mass for Dignity at the Church of the Good Shepherd, behind Lincoln Centre. Dignity was meeting in this non Catholic Church because the Archdiocese would not allow them in Catholic facilities. Lynch met and soon became good friends with Fr. John McNeill and Robert Carter, SJ, and with them became leaders of Dignity.
His superiors agreed to allow Bernard to stay in the U.S. to pursue a doctorate on the condition that he pay his own tuition fees and expenses. He secured a position as Campus Minister and teacher at Mount Saint Michael's Academy in the North East Bronx. At the same time he enrolled at New York Theological Seminary in lower Manhattan to study in the Doctor of Ministry programme; he completed the degree in 1980.
On a trip home to Ireland in 1978 he met again with Fr. Jeremy Mullins who confided that he was struggling with his sexuality. Even with Lynch's counsel, Mullins became increasingly conflicted and unhappy and finally took a leave of absence from his Religious Order and moved to New York in the summer of 1981. Lynch helped Jeremy find an apartment and got him a position as Freshman Counsellor at Mount Saint Michal Academy. By 1983 it was evident that Mullins was having health problems. He moved to Boston to teach in the SMA seminary but was soon hospitalized and grew more seriously ill. Mullins went to Florida Christmas 1983 to be with his brother Bruce, also a priest. After the holidays, Lynch out of the blues was told by Father Bruce that he was to have no further contact with Jeremy. Jeremy subsequently died and Bernard was refused permission to attend his funeral by Bruce who threatened to ‘have the police evict him if he as much showed his face’ at the funeral of his former mentor, confessor and dear friend. Bruce blamed Bernard for Jeremy’s death from AIDS.
1984 was a tumultuous year for gay people in New York City. AIDS was sweeping through the community with hundreds of people sick and dying. Bernard was in the midst of the holocaust and had founded the city’s first AIDS Ministry programme at Dignity New York in 1982. Soon he was drafted onto the mayor of New York’s – Edward Koch – task force on AIDS. Six hundred of Dignity’s own membership died at this time. Conflict between Dignity and the Archdiocese of New York was exacerbated especially when Cardinal Ratzinger issued his famous ‘Halloween letter’ in 1986 calling gay people ‘disordered in their nature’ and ‘evil’ in their love. Cardinal O’Connor expelled Dignity from all Church property and to add to the crisis Fr. Bruce Mullins, Jeremy’s brother, came on a crusade to New York from his diocese in Florida distributing flyers outside Mount Saint Michael's Academy condemning Lynch’s ministry. Three of the faculty out of a total of sixty-five, formed a group called S.A.F.E. This is an aphorism for Students Against Faggotts in Education. Aided and abetted by the Archdiocesan authorities they harassed Lynch and eventually pressurised the school administration to force Father Lynch’s resignation on December 20, 1984.
However, Lynch became more visible and vocal as the AIDS pandemic worsened. He testified in New York City Council on a bill granting rights on employment and housing without regard to sexual orientation to protect those most vulnerable with the virus from losing their jobs and being evicted onto the streets. He made a TV documentary on his AIDS Ministry with Channel Four from the United Kingdom. After the infamous Ratzinger letter was released by the Vatican, Lynch was denied canonical rights by the Archdiocese for refusing to give up his ministry to the sick and dying. This effectively banned him from serving as a priest in the U.S. and left him without any source of income. In June 1987 he was ordered to Rome for sabbatical leave and to reflect on his future.
While still in Europe he received word that criminal charges were being filed against him in New York for the alleged sexual abuse of a former 14-year-old student at Mount Saint Michael's. The media coverage that followed was widespread and salacious in the U.S. and in Ireland. Lynch and those closest to him immediately smelt a rat. They already knew that the Archdiocese was out to get him. The Archdiocese had tried unsuccessfully to have him deported and sent back to Africa. Lynch secured legal counsel and prepared against the advice of his legal counsel to return to New York City to face the charges. His advisors warned him that he was up against the two most formidable institutions in the world: The Catholic Church and the F.B.I. He arrived in the city on June 28, 1988, to find strong support among his many friends and colleagues. It was evident that officials in the archdiocese supported the prosecution and were highly instrumental in bringing it about.
The trial opened in the South Bronx on April 18, 1989. A full account of the trial is given in "A Priest on Trial" which Lynch wrote and published in the U.K. (Bloomsbury 1993). The case against him hinged solely on the testimony of one student, John Schaefer, who admitted under cross examination that he had been forced to testify against his will by the F.B.I. He produced a letter showing how he was lied to by the police authorities and told that he would never have to take the stand if he made the false allegation against Father Lynch. He also had a civil suit for five million dollars against his former priest. The case collapsed. The judge – the Honourable Burton Robert’s—refused to simply dismiss the case. In light of the evidence before him the judge took the unusual step of exonerating Lynch finding him not guilty of all the charges.
In 1990 Father Lynch received the AIDS National Interfaith Network Award for Outstanding Contribution to HIV/AIDS Ministries. Lynch subsequently took a leave of New York and moved to London to work with an ecumenical AIDS counselling group in 1992. There he became the first minister of any religion to march in the LGBT parade in July of that same year. He founded the first support group for Catholic gay priests in the Archdiocese of Westminster London. This group celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2012. In 1996 the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence canonized Lynch outside Westminster Cathedral. In 2008 he was honoured with the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement reward for "Longstanding Work and Witness" to LGBT persons and people with HIV/AIDS. Ireland the land of his birth honoured him with the Magnus Hirchfeld Award in Dublin in 1986. Again in 1995 he was amongst the first ever openly gay priest to be welcomed to the Palace of the President by Her Excellency Mary Robinson, President of Ireland. In 2008 he was honoured by his own home County Clare by being listed in the top twenty most famous people of all time. Over the years Fr. Lynch has conducted numerous blessings and weddings of same-gender couples.
In 1998, he and his life partner, Billy Desmond, had their relationship publicly blessed. In 2007, they became legally married as the first Catholic priest and partner in a civil partnership. Father Lynch continues his work, writings and ministry in the LGBT and HIV/AIDS community to the present day. His book If It Wasn't Love: Sex, Death and God was published by Circle Books in 2012.
(This biographical statement drafted from information in the book, "A Priest on Trial," with additional info provided by Bernard Lynch.)