Questioning Tradition Leads to Priest's Exile
Former Fremont Pastor Wants Church to Change Its Ways
By Jonathan Jones
Inside Bay Area [Fremont CA]
November 28, 2005
The Rev. Tim Stier, former pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Fremont, spent more than 25 years ministering to local parishioners as a priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland.
Now, Stier is in exile.
He's still a priest, and he insists he is not leaving the church. But now he is living with his parents in Oakland, is no longer active in the diocese and is openly challenging the church on celibacy, the ordination of women and the lack of responsibility of bishops for their roles during the abuse scandal.
Stier said he hopes to send a signal of public solidarity with "those who have no voice in the church," including victims of clergy abuse, gays and lesbians, and divorced Catholics.
The decision to no longer represent the Diocese of Oakland was precipitated by diocese officials' failure to address — or discuss — the underlying causes of the priest shortage, including the celibacy issue and the ordination of female priests, he said.
Despite reconciliation and apology services, as well as millions of dollars in financial settlements with victims, Stier said the diocese has yet to hold its leaders accountable for their actions of hiding or ignoring the child sex abuse scandal that occurred in Alameda and Contra Costa counties under their watch.
"I've given my whole life to the Catholic Church," he said. "It's not as if I'm a perfect person and I don't have weaknesses and sin. But there is a level of dishonesty and arrogance in this that just tells me we need systemic, radical change."
The Rev. Mark Wiesner, director of communications for the Oakland Diocese, described Stier as a "very good priest" and a man of integrity. He said the diocese respected Stier's decision to leave active ministry. "Tim is a very good man, and we will miss him in the diocese," Wiesner said. "I'm hopeful his issues will be resolved and he can again serve in the diocese as he has done so well for so many years."
Although Wiesner did not dispute Stier's allegations, he emphasized that decisions on celibacy and the ordination of women are made in the Vatican, not in Oakland.
Failure to act
Born in Berkeley, Stier was ordained as a priest in 1978. After two years at Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City, he was assigned to St. Bede Parish in Hayward, where he served as associate pastor under the late Monsignor George Francis.
Francis, who died in 1998, was accused of sexually abusing at least six minors in a span of 30 years as the church's founding pastor. In 2004, the diocese paid $3 million to Jennifer Chapin, one of Francis' victims, who now works as psychiatric nurse and lives in Oakdale.
Stier said he knew her father.
"When I think about that now, and what that did to her life, and that was going on while I was there, it helps you understand the degree of alienation I feel," Stier said. "(Our leaders) failed to act."
While at St. Bede, Stier conducted hundreds of baptisms, weddings and funerals, along with Masses in Spanish and English, which he said eventually left him feeling overworked and lonely.
"It was very exhausting," he said. "At night, I'd sit down to dinner with (Francis), a pastor from another era. I didn't know at the time that he was also a child molester."
After stints as an associate pastor at St. John Vianney Parish in Walnut Creek and St. Raymond Parish in Dublin, Stier was assigned as pastor of Corpus Christi Church in 1992.
Overseeing a church of some 800 families in Fremont, Stier, then 42, had a proven track record of working with a bilingual congregation. As the pastor of the church, Stier conducted four weekend Masses and 27 funerals a year.
Stier said his relations with the diocese began to sour in the mid-1990s when he was elected to the personnel board. He said he became more concerned that the church was lowering the standards for priests — by requiring less experience, inadequately investigating backgrounds and failing to address complaints — in order to fill vacancies.
"We have a lot more guys living alone and a lot more guys overworked," he said. "The demands on a pastor were greater at the same time we were assigning guys with less experience or guys who just weren't qualified."
Stier said his attempts to discuss celibacy, the ordination of women and other solutions to the priest shortage at official church meetings were rebuked.
"We're a burned-out, disillusioned, low-morale group of people," said Stier about the priesthood. "As a group, some of us are working too hard, and some of us aren't working at all."
Locally, as the scope of sex abuse in Alameda and Contra Costa counties expanded to more than 70 victims involving 24 priests in the Oakland Diocese, Stier said he was saddened but not surprised.
"I'd say these problems are systemic. It's not just about weak human beings. We all have our struggles," he recalled. "But when you have a system like the Catholic Church has had for thousands of years of mandatory celibacy, you're going to have problems."
Tom Wohlmut, a member of the Pastoral Council at Corpus Christi, said he was impressed with Stier's willingness to address the child abuse directly despite reservations by some congregation members who felt the scandal was not a subject to be brought up during Mass.
"He wasn't afraid of the issue," Wohlmut said, adding that Stier took down the name of the late Rev. James Clark, who has been accused of abuse, from the parish hall. "He has all the qualities of a great pastor."
In 2004, after 12 years at Corpus Christi and years of mounting frustration with the Catholic Church, Stier went on sabbatical at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. It was there, he said, that he realized he could not go back to working for the diocese.
"When I listened to my head, I had so many reasons I loved being a priest," he said. "But when I listened to my heart, all I heard was anger and frustration.
"My spiritual director, a Jesuit, said to me: 'If you go back and be a pastor again, can you live at that level? Are you going to be effective?'"
Ultimately, Stier decided he could not.
"Since 1997, I have felt alienated from the institutional church," Stier wrote in a March letter to Oakland Bishop Allen H. Vigneron.
"After having served on the priest assignments board for four years in the mid-'90s, I realized how my diocese was lowering its standards for pastors in order to fill vacancies in parishes without pastors."
Now 56, Stier said he hasn't ruled out returning to active priesthood. But after much prayer and discernment, it's becoming less likely he'll return, he said.
Although many priest sociologists such as Andrew Greeley argue that there is no connection between celibacy and the sexual abuse scandal, Stier disagrees.
"I know there's a connection," Stier said. "It's a setup for trouble when you try to mandate something that can only be a gift from God."
Stier confessed he's struggled with living a celibate life and questions whether his responsibilities as a priest would be compromised if he had a spouse or children.
Until he makes a final decision, Stier said he intends to challenge the church to elevate the role of unordained Catholics to give laypeople more authority within the church.
He has joined Voice of Faithful, an independent reform group with 30,000 lay members, who have criticized the church for the lack of accountability of its leaders.
And he protested the appointment of San Francisco Archbishop William Levada to be the head of the church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, joining victims' groups in charging that Levada failed to rigorously pursue allegations of clergy molestation of children.
"I've always believed that a church is like a family, and I've tried to do that," he said. "If we don't understand these problems and change, the problems will only continue."
Slow to change
Wiesner said the diocese continues to work on addressing important issues facing the church, including increasing the number of laypeople involved in advisory roles and enacting a probationary period for new pastors at parishes.
Some changes do appear to be taking place. Earlier this month in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops approved pay guidelines for the 30,000 paid laypeople, who are now doing much of the work once done by priests.
But the president of America's Roman Catholic Bishops, Bishop William Skylad of Spokane, Wash., also said that a handful of priests who had sexually abused minors have forced the clergy "to endure an avalanche of negative public attention."
Wiesner said that some officials within the church remain unwilling to discuss such controversial issues. But he said discussions of celibacy and the ordination of women occur informally at all levels of the diocese.
"The church has experienced more change in the last 40 years than it did in the previous 40 years," Wiesner said. "So while Tim may not be wrong about the church, I don't think the situation is as hopeless or static as Father Tim thinks it is. ... The church moves very, very slowly. It's a 2,000-year-old institution."
Stier said a turning point for him came in the spring 2004 after meeting Dan McNevin, a former altar boy who alleged he had been sexually abused in the 1970s by Clark, the former pastor of Corpus Christi Church.
They talked for two hours, first about the sexual molestation, then about the church and current issues faced by Catholics.
"He treated me as fairly as I could have asked," said McNevin, now a
46-year-old Emeryville resident and a member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "He took me at face value and listened. For me, it was a very validating experience. He was just the type of person you would want as a pastor."
Stier said abuse survivors such as McNevin, who has since become a close friend, have taught him a lot about speaking out about policies and procedures that continue to hurt the church.
"The only thing I can do is lament and continue to tell the truth about the people that are being stepped on — women, gays, divorced people, abuse survivors — identify with them, and throw in my solidarity with them," he said.
"Dan McNevin — the guy's a hero to me. He's taught me so much about not backing down from the truth. I want to see people like Dan McNevin be able to believe in Jesus again."
McNevin, who was awarded an undisclosed financial settlement as part of a $56.4 million payout to 56 childhood sexual abuse survivors in August, said he has mixed feelings about Stier's decision.
"On the one hand, we need strong people in a position to influence the system and make an impact from within," McNevin said. "On the other hand, he's showing tremendous courage by what he's doing. It takes a lot of guts, and it means a lot to victims of abuse to see he's standing side by side in solidarity with us."
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