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Comfortable in the center of the action, bishop’s again stirring controversy

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has ramped up his criticism of same-sex marriage this year.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has ramped up his criticism of same-sex marriage this year. (Gretchen Ertl for the Boston Globe/File 2013)

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PROVIDENCE — When Bishop Thomas J. Tobin announced he was leaving Twitter last summer, he called the social media platform a “major distraction for me, on good days and bad, an obstacle to my spiritual life, an occasion for sin for me and others.”

His absence from Twitter didn’t last. Tobin returned to it in January, mostly using his feed to promote Catholicism while occasionally weighing in on the day’s pressing issues. Last month, for example, he urged a Rhode Island Senate panel to vote down abortion-rights legislation. (It did.)

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Tobin’s weekend tweet reminding Catholics they “should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June” was his most provocative yet, generating more than 15,000 likes and 70,000 replies, many of which denounced the message as divisive.

Now the 71-year-old finds himself in a position with which he’s become familiar, even comfortable, in the 14 years since becoming Providence’s bishop: He’s the center of attention in a state that remains one of the most Catholic in the country, even as residents have embraced policies – including same-sex marriage – that don’t necessarily align with the church’s teachings.

Tobin released a statement Sunday afternoon acknowledging his tweet about Pride Month was “offensive to some” and expressed regret, but he stopped short of issuing an apology. He also said he appreciates the “widespread support I have received on this matter.”

That attempt to walk a tightrope between a passionate subset of churchgoers who appreciate his willingness to take a stand on polarizing issues and a state that is increasingly liberal on social matters has come to define Tobin since he arrived in Rhode Island in 2005 to replace Bishop Robert E. Mulvee, who retired.

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Tobin had served nine years as bishop in Youngstown, Ohio, and three years as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh. A graduate of St. Francis University in Pennsylvania, he was appointed Providence’s bishop just days before Pope John Paul II died.

Since moving to Rhode Island, Tobin has never shied away from the spotlight — especially when it involves politics.

In 2009, he famously told then-US representative Patrick J. Kennedy he should not accept communion based on his support for abortion rights, drawing an outpouring of criticism from pro-choice groups. Tobin later said his message to Kennedy was never meant to be shared in public.

When Rhode Island lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, he fiercely opposed the bill. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Catholic Democrat who was House majority leader at the time of the vote, later acknowledged he was removed as a lector at his church following his support of the bill, a sign of Tobin’s influence.

Tobin also faced criticism for his role as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh after a grand jury report released last year showed there were at least 1,000 victims of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania over the course of decades.

In a television interview last year, Tobin said he “personally was not involved in clergy issues.”

More recently, Tobin has taken to Twitter to oppose legislation that would codify the right to an abortion in state law. He has argued that a proposal approved by the House but voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee would expand late-term abortions. The Senate is still considering an abortion-rights bill.

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He has also ramped up his criticism of same-sex marriage this year. In February, he tweeted: “Is sexual abuse caused by gay currents in the Church, or rampant clericalism, or episcopal malfeasance, or poor seminary formation, or the sinful condition of fallen mankind”

Last month, he directed criticism toward Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, suggesting the gay South Bend, Ind., mayor is “hardly a role model for anyone, and he provides an awful example for a ‘new generation of leadership.”

Tobin has long brushed off critics of his views on same-sex marriage and abortion, arguing he has been just as supportive of issues that conservatives dislike, such as immigration reform and gun control.

“Funny how some folks attack the church and want to revoke its tax exempt status when we speak out against the evil of abortion or gay marriage,” he tweeted earlier this year. “The same people recruit us as allies though on issues like immigration, gun control, and the environment.”

But Carol McEntee, a Democratic state representative who is seeking to pass legislation that would expand the statute of limitation on civil suits for those who have been sexually abused, said Tobin has shown no compassion for victims of clergy sexual abuse or the gay community.

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“He owes the whole state an apology,” she said. “This is a definite sin. He ought to go to confession.”

Still, Tobin’s supporters remain loyal.

Tyler Rowley, the president of Servants of Christ for Life, defended Tobin for his weekend comments, arguing that many priests have the same view on same-sex marriage but are afraid to be attacked for sharing it.

“Bishop Tobin is a Catholic priest teaching Catholicism to Catholics,” Rowley said. “People are free to disagree with Catholicism, but they don’t have the ability to rewrite the 5,000-year-old teaching that the nature of sex is designed by God to be between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship for the purpose of creating and raising children.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at Dan.McGowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.