Little Catholic Gifts: The Vatican Says Allowing Gays and Lesbians to Adopt Is Doing "Violence" against Children. So Why Are Some Catholic Agencies Placing Foster Kids with Same-Sex Couples?

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After coming out in 1986, Johnny Symons became an AIDS activist taking to the streets with San Francisco's ACT UP chapter. Then he settled down in Oakland, Calif., with his partner, William Rogers. No one thought twice about their interracial relationship. It turned out that their most controversial act was what Rogers and Symons saw as their most traditional: starting a family.

"That shook people up more than it did to be picketing in the streets," Symons says. "It wasn't controversial only in mainstream society; it was also controversial in gay society." But where Symons, 39, and Rogers, 40, found help adopting their two sons might be the most controversial part of their story--the social service agency of the Roman Catholic Church.

Despite official Vatican policy denouncing adoption by gays as "violence" against children, several Catholic Charities offices are helping same-sex couples to adopt. The social service agencies of the Boston archdiocese and the San Francisco archdiocese have placed children with several gay couples. "I think it is fantastic that they are so open to changing the perception that Catholic Charities is an organization that would not support gay family building," Symons says. "The fact that they are willing to take a stance that is in such direct contrast to the pope and church doctrine as a whole really shows they have some guts."

Indeed, Catholic opposition to gay parenting is strong in the United States. In two examples from last year, a lesbian couple in Oregon sued a Catholic school, alleging that their daughter was rejected simply because of the couple's sexual orientation; also, in Costa Mesa, Calif., a gay male couple who enrolled their twin 5-year-old sons in Catholic school are barred from school functions. And the rifles of some Catholic Charities branches would seem to exclude gay couples by requiring that adopters be married. For example, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis places children only with couples who have been married at least three years.

But Catholic Charities CYO, which serves the Northern California counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin, has placed three children out of 136 with same-sex couples since 2000. The Boston Globe reported that in the past 18 years Catholic Charities in Boston has let 13 foster children out of 720 be adopted by gay or lesbian couples. In both cases the placements tend to involve children with special needs. But that's far different from religious fundamentalist adoption agencies that turn away all gay applicants.

Because policies vary from one Catholic social service agency to another, gay activists can't predict that same-sex couples will be welcomed at their local office. "We'd love to be able to recommend Catholic social services as much as possible," says Debra Weill, executive director of gay Catholic group Dignity USA. "We know they do excellent work. We just don't know how much they discriminate against our community."

More than 13% of adoption agencies affiliated with Catholicism accept adoption applications from same-sex couples, according to research by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a not-for-profit organization based in New York City. "Not all Catholics are homophobic," explains the institute's executive director, Adam Pertman. "And some states have laws that mandate nondiscrimination. The agencies set their own policies according to local laws and standards and not just the edicts of the Vatican."

The Boston and San Francisco Catholic Charities programs receive government funding, so they must obey state and local laws that forbid discrimination against potential adopters because of their sexual orientation. …