Archbishop of New Orleans apologises for Church’s silence on fatal gay bar arson

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The Archbishop of New Orleans has broken the Catholic Church’s silence on the gay bar arson that claimed 32 lives in 1973.

On 24 June 1973 the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter, was the scene of a flash fire started by arson that killed 29 people in 16 minutes. Three more later died from injuries. 30 people were evacuated from the building, 15 of whom were injured.

At the time the Archbishop of New Orleans, Paul Hannan, did not make a statement of support for the victims.

Speaking to TIME Magazine on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, Archbishop of New Orleans Gregory Aymond said: “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families.

“The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”

A Mass was also held on Saturday in St George’s Episcopal Church to remember those who died. The Church was one of just two to have allowed a service to be held for the victims in 1973.

The Catholic Church was not alone in falling silent on the tragedy. Local authorities, and even the families of victims, failed to acknowledge that it had happened. Some relatives of the deceased refused to collect their ashes, not wanting to be associated with homosexuality.

Neither the man who was Mayor at the time, Moon Landrieu, or any other government official made a statement about the deaths. Mitch Landrieu, the current Mayor of New Orleans and Moon Landrieu’s son, recently changed that by acknowledging the arson with an official certificate.

The perpetrator of the arson was never known for certain, although a prime suspect was bar patron Rodger Dale Nunez. Nunez had been removed from the bar earlier on the day of the arson for being unruly.

After the fire he was questioned by police while in hospital, but escaped. He killed himself a year later. A friend revealed that on four occasions Nunez had claimed to have started the fire. His autopsy also showed he had been suffering from a brain tumour.

New Orleans will not be silent about the Upstairs Lounge on the 40th anniversary of the fire. A lecture, jazz funeral procession, documentary and musical are all planned to remember the event.