|Ex-priest Dale Fushek Tells All in New Book on His Life
By Michael Clancy
March 25, 2011
Dale Fushek, the once-popular Catholic pastor who lost his position and ultimately was excommunicated and defrocked in the church-abuse scandal, finally is speaking out in his own defense.
In a new book, The Unexpected Life, and in an interview with The Arizona Republic - his first since he was arrested in late 2005 – Fushek details a hell-and-back story in which he denies ever having done anything that might have led to the accusations he faced.
Charged with several misdemeanors, he ultimately was convicted of one – for what he calls accidental contact. He maintains that any legal settlements made on his behalf were made not out of guilt but a desire to hold down costs.
The former priest also attacks Bishop Thomas Olmsted, the man who moved to throw Fushek out of the priesthood, calling him a “symbol of all that is wrong with the institution of the Catholic Church.”
The diocese declined to comment.
At the time of Fushek’s excommunication, Olmsted said the diocese wanted to discourage Catholics from following Fushek to his new church, the Praise and Worship Center in Chandler.
When Fushek was laicized (reduced to lay status), a diocese spokesman said, “When a trust is violated, we have to restore the credibility of the church.”
Vernon Meyer, another former priest who has been teaching at Praise and Worship, says the people attending his classes are engaged and involved, and he gives Fushek credit for attracting people to his ministry.
Meyer said he believes the diocese had a particular problem with Fushek’s starting his own church rather than leaving the ministry altogether or joining another Christian denomination.
Started church in ’07
Fushek is the only local priest to be caught in the abuse scandal who emerged with an intact ministry. He began his own church in 2007.
Fushek was an important and well-liked figure in the local church. As pastor of St. Timothy in Mesa from 1985 until 2005, he built the parish into one of the largest and most prosperous in the city.
He began Life Teen, an international ministry for teens, and he oversaw the Phoenix Diocese’s largest events, including the visits of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa to Arizona. He was appointed vicar general and assigned the task of getting a new diocesan headquarters built.
He even won the prestigious title of monsignor, given through the Vatican to the most distinguished priests.
Fushek became a close, trusted confidant to former Bishop Thomas O’Brien, standing by him throughout the abuse crisis and the fatal auto accident that ended O’Brien’s career in 2003.
Of the accident, which resulted in dramatic headlines and a long trial, Fushek writes, “I believe in my heart of hearts that Bishop O’Brien truly believed that somebody was out after him. There had been death threats against him, and I think his instinct was to get home where he would be safe.”
Fushek calls the incident a “senseless tragedy,” says that the bishop had been operating in a “state of siege mentality,” and that he “wasn’t thinking clearly.” The result, he says, is that “a good man had been destroyed as a human being.”
Beginning of the end
Although an earlier settlement of a sexual-harassment allegation was a crack in the armor, Fushek’s downfall began with the arrival of Olmsted in late 2003 to replace O’Brien. Fushek says that he believes Olmsted was determined to get rid of him but that to this day, Fushek does not fully understand why.
“I don’t know what is in his heart, but I know he treated me badly,” he said.
It started with an allegation that Fushek witnessed sexual abuse at St. Timothy involving a seminarian who later, as a priest, served 10 years in prison for abuse. Fushek vigorously denies that any such thing happened. No criminal charges were filed, and a civil suit later was settled out of court without any admission of wrongdoing.
But it cost Fushek his career as a Catholic priest. He was suspended and forced to resign as pastor.
Fushek now says he believes there are people in diocesan leadership who hoped the allegations were true.
“I am still in a state of disbelief that I could go from making decisions that helped guide the Diocese of Phoenix for years and years to being someone who is so expendable to the Catholic hierarchy and the church,” Fushek writes.
While he was on leave awaiting closure in that case, things got worse. In 2005, Fushek was arrested and charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of indecent exposure, contributing to the delinquency of minors and other charges. The case took five years to resolve; all but one of the charges were dropped in exchange for a single guilty plea.
Tried too hard
In the interview with The Republic, Fushek acknowledges that in his efforts to “break the mold” of the parish priest who does not interact with church members, he may have been misunderstood. In the book, he says he may have tried too hard to be “one of the guys.”
He agrees that he perhaps became too close to those active in the Life Teen movement, but he continues to deny he intended to harm anyone.
He believes diocese leaders, however, intended to harm him.
“I have been told the diocese worked directly with the county attorney to destroy me,” he said.
Fushek says he does not understand why the bishop took a stand against him. The closest he can come is that the two have quite different views of what the Catholic Church ought to be.
Olmsted, he said, is a teacher, focused on what’s right and what’s wrong. Fushek said he is a pastor, ready to teach right from wrong but helping those in the wrong back into the church’s good graces.
“I believed in a big tent,” Fushek said. “He wanted to purify the church.”
In the book, Fushek writes about Olmsted, “He excommunicates, not reconciles. He evaluates rules and rubrics, and cares little about spirituality.”
Fushek says he had but three conversations with Olmsted, and in one of them, the bishop told him church lawyers were looking for ways to excommunicate him.
Olmsted and his vicar for priests at the time, the Rev. Jim Wall (now bishop of Gallup, N.M.), even ignored information that Fushek was suicidal, Fushek writes in the book.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that Tom Olmsted hoped I would end my own life,” Fushek writes.
Fushek came out of his depression and now leads a 400-member congregation in Chandler. Fushek says that he is not trying to lure Catholics away from their faith, but that his Praise and Worship Center is a place where a growing number of alienated Catholics will feel at home.
He believes he, his associates and his members at the center are on the right track spiritually, with the possibility “that this could blossom into something huge.”
But he misses the Catholic Church.
“I feel I never left the Catholic Church,” he said. “They left me. I have a lot of gratitude and respect for the church. I also know I need to move on.”
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