Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Forbidden Couple: Gabriella's Story

This is the story of Gabriella Loser Friedli, a Swiss woman who became involved with a Dominican priest. She went on to found the Swiss support organization for women companions of priests, ZÖFRA.

Plein Jour
August 2009

In love with a priest, Gabriella Loser Friedli has paid dearly for feelings condemned by the Vatican!

From hiding in broad daylight to scandal. Confessions.

Twenty-two long years of silence to bear the seal of forbidden feelings. Yes, when they met, Gabriella and Richard had no right to love each other: He was a Dominican priest.

She sees herself again at 22, with her fresh draftsman's diploma. A rough period, though. "I was really bad off," she said simply. Between the lines, it included anorexia, family problems, deep malaise.

So she spent a few days of rest in a convent. She was introduced to a priest to help her. It was Richard who lent her an ear. Not love at first sight, no. But a quality of exchange that quickly causes her turmoil. "We spent the day together walking in the mountains. And it was so nice, so normal that I told him my whole life." In him, she just saw the man of the cloth, the only one whom she can trust. "It was protection, security for me who at that time had problems with men."

The relationship could have stopped there. Like an invigorating sunny spell. But Richard continued to send postcards, to support her through small signs of affection. Bonds of friendship were formed. They intensified. "Love had nothing to do with it. He was really a friend." Richard taught at the University of Freiburg at that time. He offered her a job in his department. She accepted and moved. "Slowly, very slowly, I felt that my feelings changed." His did too. "We both knew we had no right to love, so we did not say the words."

And yet, love is what it was. Broader, more visceral feelings, less platonic too. For Richard, the internal conflicts that could have arisen from his vows of chastity did not really take place. "I was not pierced by contradictions. I had no guilty conscience because I do not preach on this dimension of the Gospel," he says readily.

The Weight of Guilt

Still. For Gabriella, daily life weighed heavy. "It was harder for me. He had all his work, his colleagues, the monastery of which he was prior; I had my job and otherwise I waited." With the weight of guilt. Solitude. The inability to share with others what was at the center of her life.

They never went to movies together, you never saw them in each other's arms or just hand in hand. They could never catch themselves dreaming together of raising a family. Only her sister was aware of this relationship that was incompatible with the priesthood. "It made us sick, physically. How could Richard manage this gap? And then he was terrified of being discovered and losing the job he loved."

Yes, how could one not feel stifled by such a strong love, enclosed in a shroud of silence? After six years, Gabriella Loser Friedli decided to distance herself. Take a fork in the road. Give herself another opportunity. Such as the desire to start a family, to live openly, try conformity. She met someone else. Another man, Michael, who will always remain the "second" man. "Richard was very happy for me, very understanding. But when he saw that I actually moved in with this person, he exploded. He started yelling that he loved me, that I was his whole life. "

At that moment, he was ready to break his vows to find a way for his love relationship.

The arrival of a son

A twist of fate, one of life's ironies. Gabriella was then expecting Michael's child. As "a gift from this other relationship that she struggled to break." "Yes, I found myself pregnant with two men who loved me. But I continued to live alone." Richard remained at her side.

In the photos, he is the father who carries Jonathan, takes him to the park in the cradle of his arm. "We could never walk all three together. When Jonathan started talking, we had to pay even more attention lest he betray the intimacy of the ties that bound us." Richard began to look for work. And finally left his religious community to take an apartment in town.

Until one day, suddenly, the secret flies apart. An aide denounced their situation to the bishops. "The Church was willing to let bygones be bygones if I moved to Berne with my son. Richard has refused." Exclusion proceedings. "From one day to another, he lost everything: he was forbidden to teach at the university, say Mass, direct a choir. After thirty years of commitment, he left with 3000 francs! A defrocked priest becomes nonexistent. Where is the forgiveness and understanding so preached by the Church?"

Not to mention the scandal, anonymous threats, insults, outraged colleagues. And friends who crossed to the other side of the street. "Who looked at the suffering we have endured? People turned their backs on me, they slammed the door on me, the offending one." They were married, in a civil ceremony of course, in 1994 "to confirm their love and so that Richard could adopt Jonathan." The same year he found a position at the University on another faculty. Now a new challenge remained: learning to live together openly.

Today, they have turned the page. Obviously they moved away from the parish. They rarely go to these churches "that do not have the answers you need." Under the greying hair, the serenity, there is an element of rebellion. Something that still grumbles, "against the system, not against God who had nothing to do with it." "Yes, I am resentful of the Church. But not only because of our history. We still had lots of luck, others never get ahead, they don't find any work because the bishop puts in his veto. You starve if you're honest!"


She still keeps the faith. Since she finds her strength in a small isolated chapel, in front of her house on a hill. Gabriella is silent. For a long time. She speaks again to reemphasize "the scandal of this system that does not see that priests are humans with needs, emotions like other men. This is not just about sexuality but also about exchange, sharing and friendship." Like this palpable link, this rich complicity that has nourished her and Richard for so long.

Appeased, and indestructible. They are a couple who only have a vocation to love. Off the highways of dogma. "If God gave us this space to create this love, it is not for nothing. It's absolutely crazy what we lived through. But I probably would do the same thing again." The evidence that behind some acts of disobedience, great professions of faith are sometimes hidden.

A place to speak out

How many priests are stifled by this law that forces them to amputate themselves from human love? There are no official statistics on this hidden reality. According to Gabriella Loser Friedli, almost 50% of priests are living in a similar situation. To assist women affected by the celibacy of priests, Gabrielle Loser Friedli participated in the creation of an association in 1992: ZÖFRA, of which she is now president. Bi-monthly discussion workshops, confidential advice or prompt support, this association provides a forum for people in need. In all, some 420 women have already contacted it.

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