January 3, 2022
By John Keilman
A curious trio of billboards went up across Rockford in November. They showed five men in Roman collars bracketed by angry red type: “Not one more penny! Until you reinstate our priests.”
The appeal to withhold contributions from the collection plate was the latest in-your-face gesture from the Coalition for Canceled Priests, a group that formed in the Chicago suburbs last year to advocate for clerics it says have been unfairly removed from the Roman Catholic ministry by bishops.
Its provocative tactics, which have also included a Lincoln Park rally and a viral endorsement from Mel Gibson, reflect its belief that public and financial pressure are more likely to get results than working through the church hierarchy.
“I’m not saying that all bishops are bad, far from it, but there’s a lot of corruption going on,” said co-founder the Rev. John Lovell, who has been sidelined for nine years. ” … There are priests being victimized who have done nothing wrong, and who don’t deserve the treatment they’re getting from church officials.”
Lovell said none of the 20 or so priests the coalition supports has been charged with a crime, and some have received no explanation for their exile.
Others, though, have been aggressively defiant toward their superiors. The conservative tilt of those priests, along with the group’s entry into battles over the Latin Mass and COVID-19 vaccines, has convinced some that the coalition exists primarily as an extension of America’s culture war.
“I am stunned by the level of audacity,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at the social justice advocacy group Faith in Public Life. “There’s almost this parallel magisterium, sort of a shadow culture within the church where clergy and bishops declare what is orthodox, and have no obedience or deference to church authorities.”
Focus on Rockford
Though the coalition has taken up the cause of priests around the country, its focus has been the Rockford Diocese, which includes some of Chicago’s western suburbs. Lovell said he is one of a dozen priests there who have been removed from ministry despite no finding of wrongdoing.
That equates to cancellation, he said, though diocese spokeswoman Penny Wiegert said priests can be “unassigned” for many reasons, including health issues. She declined to provide the number of unassigned priests in the diocese.
Lovell’s problems began in 2010, three years after he was ordained. According to a case summary prepared by his attorney, Lovell’s suitability for the priesthood was questioned after he was the subject of several complaints, though none constituted criminal behavior.
The attorney, canon law specialist the Rev. Pius Pietrzyk, told the Tribune that some incidents — buying a cassock for a seminarian who couldn’t afford one, or reserving a hotel conference room where alumni of a Catholic high school club could play cards — were viewed as boundary violations.
Lovell denied doing anything improper, and said he thinks the complaints were payback for reporting a fellow teacher for inappropriate contact with a student.
He was ordered to get a psychological evaluation at a counseling center that serves Catholic clergy. In a letter following the evaluation, former Rockford Bishop Thomas Doran wrote: “I regard the present case of Father Lovell as concluded and no further action on the allegations therein is warranted.”
But Pietrzyk said that when Bishop David Malloy was appointed to lead the diocese in 2012, he took a different view of the case, issuing decrees that restricted Lovell’s ability to perform his clerical duties.
Lovell remains a priest but can’t celebrate Mass or hear confession. He said his pay and benefits were reduced, and after he was banned from diocesan housing, he had to move into his father’s house in the south suburbs and take odd jobs. (Wiegert said pay and housing depends on a priest’s status.)
Pietrzyk said appeals to Rome have been fruitless, and that Malloy has declined to outline his concerns or how Lovell can address them.
“I just simply do not understand why, legally speaking, John has been shunted out of ministry like this,” he said. “It boggles my mind.”
Wiegert declined to address Lovell’s allegations, saying the diocese doesn’t comment on personnel matters.
Kelly O’Donnell, a California-based canon lawyer who is not involved in Lovell’s case, said the hierarchy can remove priests permanently — a process known as laicizing or defrocking — only if they have committed a crime or a serious offense against the church, such as preaching heresy.
It can be a long and convoluted process, she said, and some bishops have found it easier to deal with troublesome priests by leaving them unassigned.
“They just think they can toss them,” she said. “It’s really sad.”
‘State of limbo’
While Lovell’s case has lingered for nearly a decade, a more recent removal prompted the formation of the Coalition for Canceled Priests.
In May, the Rockford Diocese announced that the Rev. James Parker, pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Batavia, would leave after a seven-year run but would not get a new assignment. The diocese said that was due to Parker’s refusal to discuss “various concerns that have arisen regarding his service as pastor.”
Wiegert would not specify those concerns and Parker declined to comment. But in an interview with LifeSiteNews, Parker said he’d been warned about infringements such as celebrating Mass with his back to the congregation — an old-school practice known as ad orientem — as well as his failure to adhere to all of the diocese’s COVID rules.
Former parishioner Dan Wurtz, who moved to another church because of Parker’s removal, said diocesan officials haven’t clarified the situation, angering the congregation.
“The bishop has never taken time to speak with parishioners who are so wounded by his decision,” he said.
Another parishioner, Craig Holuj, said Parker’s removal was the last straw. He is a friend of Lovell, and together they founded the coalition to raise awareness and financial support for priests they deem canceled, he said.
“You have these priests living in a state of limbo, just kind of there,” he said. “And this is at a time when the Catholic Church is in dire need of priests. So it just makes no sense.”
The coalition’s first order of business was to put on a fundraiser for Parker, which Holuj said brought in $20,500. Since then, the organization, which is seeking nonprofit status, has raised several hundred thousand dollars more, he said.
Parker’s fundraiser was followed by a September rally in Chicago’s Lincoln Park that included a video message from Mel Gibson, the movie star known for following a stringent form of Catholicism. He suggested the priests’ removal had an ideological motive.
“(Bishops) passively sit by and tolerate any kind of nonsense, but if one of their priests utters something that resembles orthodoxy, well, then they spring into action,” he said. “They reprimand him and they bully him and do their best to cancel him.”
Clerical culture warriors
Lovell said the views of the coalition’s priests are rooted in tradition, not politics — “The church makes it quite clear in the catechism and canon law what her teachings are,” he said — but that line is sometimes hard to discern.
One of the priests featured on the coalition’s billboards, the Rev. James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was removed in July after making numerous inflammatory statements. In one video, he bashed Democrats and progressive organizations, called climate change a hoax and ridiculed fellow clergy as “gutless cowards.”
Another priest, the Rev. Paul Kalchik, lost his post at Chicago’s Resurrection Catholic Church in 2018 after he burned a rainbow banner that had hung in the parish, calling it sacrilegious. In November, speaking at a Baltimore rally organized by conservative media outlet Church Militant, he condemned tolerant views of homosexuality as “one of the worst evils” to befall the church and society.
Neither priest could be reached for comment.
Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, said while politics have always influenced the inner workings of the church, the situation has become especially volatile in recent years.
He attributes that to the sexual abuse crisis that chipped away at the church’s moral standing and the rise of norm-shredding politicians like former President Donald Trump who serve as inspiration to dissatisfied priests and laypeople.
“They have received encouragement from what they’ve seen happening,” he said. “There’s a whole climate in which authority is very easily confronted and challenged and attacked publicly.”
But the Rev. Mark White, a suspended Virginia priest who received $11,500 from the coalition to hire a canon lawyer, said he is not in ideological lockstep with other priests in the group.
He ran afoul of Bishop Barry Knestout of the Richmond Diocese by writing a blog that discusses, sometimes angrily, the church’s abuse crisis (Knestout has accused him of fomenting disunity and making “inflammatory and contemptuous comments”).
What the coalition’s priests do agree on, White said, is that they should be able to speak their minds without punishment.
“We’re human beings who have ideas,” he said. “It seems like we should be allowed to express them.”
Unlikely role model
The coalition has dipped into matters beyond the reinstatement of priests. It has highlighted the views of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines. It has also resisted efforts by Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase Cupich and other leaders to curb the Latin Mass in the name of church unity, enlisting mobile billboards to circle Chicago churches with the message, “Defend the traditional Latin Mass.”
Even so, Lovell said one of his role models is the very liberal Rev. Michael Pfleger, who has led St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side since 1981. Pfleger has tangled with the Chicago Archdiocese over his activism, and last year was investigated on decades-old allegations of child sex abuse.
As they have before, his parishioners rallied around him, flooding a church sexual abuse hotline with so many calls that Cupich threatened to move the investigation to another diocese. In the end, a review board concluded there was insufficient reason to suspect Pfleger’s guilt and Cupich reinstated the priest.
“A lot of us don’t have the popularity that Father Pfleger does … so what the coalition is trying to do is try to be the voice for these priests that have no one, or very few people, to defend them,” Lovell said.
He acknowledged, though, that only one of the priests the coalition has supported has returned to the ministry. As for the group’s billboards, Wiegert said they have had no effect on the Rockford Diocese’s contributions.
Charles Reid Jr., a canon lawyer and law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said discontent within the ranks has been part of Catholicism for centuries. While the conflict might be particularly hot at the moment, he predicted that the coalition, like other fractious groups before it, will ultimately fade away.
“I just don’t see that apocalyptic explosion,” he said. “I think this will peter out and people will be reconciled.”
John Keilman is a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, based in the suburbs. He writes about sports, education, health, drug abuse and many other subjects. Before joining the Tribune in 2001, he worked as a reporter in Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. Tips about strange occurrences, public outrages and inspiring people always welcome.