BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts Catholic bishops would support extending certain benefits to same-sex couples, but remain adamantly opposed to the legalization of gay marriage or civil unions, Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly said Thursday.

Speaking on behalf of the leaders of the four Massachusetts dioceses, including Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston, Reilly told a legislative committee that the issue of benefits should be dealt with separately, without involving the institution of marriage.

“If the goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses, then we will join the discussion,” Reilly told the Judiciary Committee.

Reilly later told reporters that the gay-marriage bill under consideration by the Legislature is an easy – but harmful – solution to a problem that could be solved through simply extending certain benefits, such as hospital visitation, bereavements rights, and health insurance, to gay couples.

“There should be a way for the state to provide the benefits they have a right to, like other citizens,” Reilly said. “But just to put the title of marriage on it, I think that’s a wrong way to go.”

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, endorsed Reilly’s statement at the hearing, but said any comments made afterward were not on behalf of all four bishops.

Coyne said the church is specifically concerned about addressing benefits that affect children, education and health in gay families with children. Extending these benefits would not in any way contradict the Catholic Church’s commitment to matrimony, he said.

“I think what’s actually being said is that the benefits that are necessary for the protection of children and families don’t necessarily involve any kind of a redefinition of relationship or marital status,” Coyne said.

Catholic Bishops in New Zealand and Switzerland have issued similar statements, articulating firm opposition to gay marriage but a strong interest in protecting the rights of children in gay families, according to Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College.

There have been cases in which gay couples with children have run into trouble at schools, which will not let one of the parents pick up the student or sign off on documents because the parental relationship is not legally recognized.

The groups in New Zealand and Switzerland were not criticized by the Vatican, Pope said, but came under fire from conservative Catholic groups.

“They are clearly concerned about the negative impact of gay civil unions and gay marriage on the institution,” Pope said. “But they’ve also said that the best interest of the child has to be at the forefront of all these discussions in lesbian or gay families.”

Supporters of gay marriage said they welcomed the opportunity to discuss the issue with church leaders, but said that equality will only happen in gay couples are given the full rights of marriage.

“It’s the first time I’ve heard them say something like this,” said Sen. Cheryl Jacques, D-Needham, a gay lawmaker who has two children with her partner. “But I also heard someone who said his church’s doctrine should control civil law. We’re not trading in our civil rights for some civil benefits.”

The Judiciary Committee held the state’s first-ever hearing on the legalization of gay marriage Thursday, as well as bills that would require a 24-hour wait for abortion and eliminate the statute of limitations in certain rape cases.

A separate measure, which would define marriage as a union between one man and woman, could come up for a vote Nov. 12, when the House and Senate convene in a Constitutional Convention. The Supreme Judicial Court is also expected to soon issue a decision in a gay rights case that many predict could make Massachusetts the first state in the country to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Thursday’s public hearing delved into some of the most controversial social issues facing the Legislature, with one defining gay marriage as a civil right and the other describing it as an abomination that promotes immoral, unhealthy behavior.

“It would encourage relationships that are harmful to individuals and society as a whole,” said Larry Houston, 47, of Somerville, a self-described “former homosexual”.

Jacques and others, however, argued that gay rights is the new frontier in the civil rights movements that once integrated the schools and extended the vote to all citizens.

“The time has come for us to give full equality to gay couples in Massachusetts,” said Rep. Paul C. Demakis, D-Boston. “They’re just like many other heterosexual couples. They pay their taxes. They work hard. They raise their family.”

AP-ES-10-23-03 1639EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.