Nicholas Coppola, right, and his husband David Crespo, left, in...

Nicholas Coppola, right, and his husband David Crespo, left, in their Oceanside home. (April 4, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Roman Catholic Church has removed a married gay man from his public ministries at an Oceanside parish where he assists at Mass, teaches a fifth-grade religion class and visits the sick.

Nicholas Coppola said he has been openly gay at St. Anthony's Catholic Church for years and was shocked by the action taken in January.

"I've always been out, and out to my parishioners and to the clergy," Coppola, 47, of Oceanside, a retired construction electrician, said Thursday. "When this came down . . . there was an emptiness. I'm very, very sad."

The parish priest, the Rev. Nicholas Lombardi, did not return messages seeking comment.

But the Diocese of Rockville Centre said Lombardi acted appropriately by removing from public ministry a person who was openly violating church teachings.

Coppola married David Crespo, 47, in October under New York State's same-sex marriage law. They went on a honeymoon in January.

"Because of his role in those public ministerial positions in the church, that person has to take a public position that is consistent with Catholic teachings," said Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the diocese. "We are not singling out any particular group."

Reports of Coppola's removal come days after statements by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York that the church, while not abandoning its teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, should be more welcoming of gays and lesbians.

"We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people," he said Sunday.

Coppola said he attended a Mass on Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and was called to Lombardi's office. The priest told him the diocese had forwarded an anonymous letter stating that Coppola was gay and married, and demanding his removal from the ministries, Coppola said.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Brennan, the vicar general, or No. 2 person in the diocese, also faxed a message to Lombardi. "While not on a witch hunt, I know it would be of concern to you if a catechist were, in fact, 'married,' as described," the note said.

Coppola said Lombardi told him he couldn't continue his parish duties, which included helping relatives of the deceased prepare funeral Masses.

Lombardi "had such a heavy, heavy heart with this," Coppola said. "He did not want to do it."

Coppola said he has met twice with Brennan, who in the end told him: "My hands are tied. You made a very public statement against church teachings."

Sean Dolan said he did not have knowledge of the letters or meetings with Brennan.

Coppola said he plans to continue speaking out on the issue and fight for equality of gays inside and outside the church.

He said the episode has left him heartbroken but he will still attend Mass at the parish, where until now his experience "has always been one of love, acceptance, compassion and respect."

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