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  Priests Say They Were Forced out of Ministry
They Believe Bishop Ousted Gay Supporters

By Michael Clancy
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
July 10, 2005

Five of the nine Catholic priests who signed the pro-gay Phoenix Declaration no longer are on active duty in the Phoenix Diocese.

Three of those who have left active duty say they were forced out by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. One other is seriously ill, and the fifth resigned on his own, in part because of philosophical differences with the bishop. They all signed a 2003 declaration endorsing civil rights for gays and lesbians that was endorsed by clergy members from several Christian denominations.

The ousted men are among at least 11 Catholic priests who have left active ministry since Olmsted became bishop in late 2003. Their departures further exacerbate a shortage of priests in the diocese, which has several parish vacancies.

The Rev. Fred Adamson, vicar general and second in command of the diocese, said the departures were not related to the Phoenix Declaration or any other single reason. "Each one of these is a different, individual case," he said.

But some church insiders believe the recent ousters are an indication that Olmsted is cracking down on liberal-minded priests, and possibly all of the Phoenix Declaration signers. Olmsted is known for his orthodox ways. He has put a stop to what he considers liturgical violations, has brought back Mass in Latin and has written three articles about church teachings against homosexuality.

"I believe he wants to purify the church," said the Rev. Ken Van de Ven, a declaration signer who was forced to resign as pastor of Glendale's St. James in March.

He said he believes the bishop is looking into the backgrounds of all liberal priests. "The diocese simply wants to get rid of us."

The Phoenix Declaration had 169 signers, including the nine Catholics, and was put out in January 2003 by an organization called No Longer Silent, which includes as members several Catholic priests and Protestant clergy.

The bishop at the time, Thomas J. O'Brien, took no position on the matter. But when Olmsted took over, he asked the priests who signed the document to remove their names in late April 2004, four months after he arrived.

He said he was concerned that the declaration was ambiguous in light of the "clear teaching" of the church that gay sexual activity is sinful and that, to be good Catholics, gay people must practice sexual abstinence.

The Rev. Andre Boulanger, the only one of the nine who is retired, refused to remove his name. He was prohibited from working publicly as a Catholic priest.

Next to go was the Rev. John Cunningham, who was suspended in April 2004 and fired from his job as pastor of St. Mary Magdalene in Gilbert nine months later. He has spent more than 30 years as a priest.

The diocese gave two reasons for Cunningham's situation: that he concelebrated a wedding Mass in April 2004 with a clergyman from another denomination, and that he commingled church and private funds. The priest denies the former and said he had no criminal intent in the latter.

The first is subject of an internal tribunal; the second is under investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Cunningham recently filed a libel suit against two women at nearby St. Anne's Catholic Church who leveled the allegations about the wedding Mass. Neither the civil investigation of his finances nor a diocesan review of the Mass has been completed. Cunningham said the bishop has not replied to his request for a church trial on the Mass case.

"It appears this bishop is punishing some priests for conduct that his predecessor, Bishop O'Brien, felt did not warrant any remedial action," Cunningham said. "Expressions of independent thought or progressive writing seems to be a capital offense."

He said he never was sanctioned before and merely wants to return to his job as a priest.

Van de Ven's resignation, one he says was forced, came next.

Olmsted, in letters to St. James parishioners, said the priest's resignation followed receipt of "confidential information and an allegation of sexual harassment toward an adult."

"This was not done rashly," Adamson said.

Van de Ven denied the charges and said he has not been given a chance to defend himself. "We're guilty until proven innocent," said Van de Ven, a priest for 35 years. "The bishop has abrogated all my rights."

Another priest who signed the declaration, the Rev. Hugo Gonzalez, resigned voluntarily as pastor of St. Charles Borromeo in Peoria. Gonzalez, the last to remove his name from the declaration, declined to give any particular reason for his decision.

Instead, he said he had experienced a lack of "genuine concern" from the bishop.

"This concern translates into an inability to listen, to demonstrate compassion, and to welcome the disenfranchised with the very mercy and forgiveness found at the heart of the Gospel," he said.

The fifth signer who is no longer active is the Rev. Matthew Mampara, Cunningham's associate at St. Mary Magdalene. Mampara fell ill with a brain tumor in March 2004 and returned to his native India.

The other signers -- the Revs. Vernon Meyer, Scott Brubaker, Ray Ritari and Chris Carpenter -- remain in ministry.

"We don't feel that we former signers have been singled out for delayed punishment, but it is still unnerving to think about," Carpenter said.

Carpenter, pastor of Christ the King in Mesa, said it appears that support for the Phoenix Declaration was not enough, by itself, to earn a suspension.

"I've heard that the signers who are no longer active had other, more immediate or significant issues or concerns that led to their suspension or resignation," he said.

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Gay rights declaration

The Phoenix Declaration was drafted by a group of clergy, primarily from Protestant denominations.

It was published in January 2003. It reads, in part:

* "We affirm that Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgendered (GLBT) persons are distinctive, holy and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God."

* "We stand in solidarity as those who are committed to work and pray for full acceptance and inclusion of GLBT persons in our churches and in our world."

* "We stand with the countless Christian ministers, scholars, and laity who ... find no rational biblical or theological basis to condemn or deny the rights of any person based on sexual orientation."

* "We call for an end to all religious and civil discrimination against any person based on sexual orientation. All laws must protect the freedoms, rights and equal legal standing of all persons."

To read the entire document, go to www.nolongersilent.org /phoenixdeclaration .html.

Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, in response, said he was concerned that the declaration was ambiguous in light of the "clear teaching" of the church that gay sexual activity is sinful and that, to be good Catholics, gay people must practice sexual abstinence.

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11 PRIESTS HAVE QUIT, BEEN REMOVED SINCE '04

Since Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted took over the Phoenix Diocese in December 2003, at least 11 priests have been removed from their posts or resigned. Besides the five who signed the Phoenix Declaration, the priests include:

* The Rev. Michael Minogue, who resigned in June. The diocese said health reasons were behind his departure from the Sun City West parish, Our Lady of Lourdes/Prince of Peace.

A subsequent letter from Olmsted to parishioners said that when Minogue returned from sick leave, "he needs to resolve another serious matter ... an allegation of sexual harassment." The accuser is the same individual who accused the Rev. Ken Van de Ven, a declaration signer, of sexual harassment. Minogue, who is close friends with Van de Ven, denied the allegations.

"This is kind of a serious misunderstanding by the diocese, and I hope when their investigation is complete, I will be exonerated," Minogue said.

* The Rev. Robert Voss, who was placed on administrative leave in April. Parishioners at St. Bernard of Clairvaux, where Voss had been pastor, originally were told the leave was due to personal issues. A June letter said Voss has undergone a "thorough evaluation of his physical, mental and spiritual health" and that he resigned as pastor rather than addressing the recommendations made as a result. No specifics were provided. Voss' phone has been disconnected, and neither the diocese nor the parish could provide contact information for him.

* The Revs. Dennis Riccitelli and Blase Meyer are both suspended and scheduled to stand trial in February. They were indicted in December on charges of theft and fraud at Holy Cross Parish in Mesa, where Riccitelli was pastor. Meyer was working at St. Clement of Rome in Sun City.

* The Rev. Tomasz Wesolowski, an associate pastor at St. Mary's in Chandler, was suspended pending investigation of sexual misconduct in February 2004. No criminal or civil charges have been filed. Church officials say an internal investigation is continuing.

* Monsignor Dale Fushek was suspended in late December after he was accused in a civil lawsuit of watching another priest abuse a child in 1985. He subsequently resigned as pastor of St. Timothy in Mesa. He previously had settled a claim of sexual misconduct. His case remains under investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

 
 

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