Priests Complain of Unfair Treatment by Winona Diocese
Veterans Say Official Stirs Fear, Is Vindictive

By Clark Morphew
Saint Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)
April 19, 1995

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Winona is embroiled in a dispute with veteran priests who say they are being ignored, ridiculed and sometimes punished for complaining about favoritism and the handling of sex abuse charges, a national Catholic publication says.

An article in this week's National Catholic Reporter airs complaints by a number of priests that the vicar general of the diocese, the Rev. Gerald Mahon, is vindictive, has too much authority and has created fear among certain priests.

The independent Catholic weekly newspaper said priests fear that Mahon's alleged vindictiveness will eventually reach into their parishes.

Trying to deal with the controversy is Bishop John Vlazny, who came to head the 128,000-member diocese in southern Minnesota in 1987.

Four years later, Vlazny and the diocese were facing $1 million in punitive damages that stemmed from sex abuse lawsuits against the Rev. Thomas Adamson, who was accused of molesting boys in the Twin Cities and Winona dating back to 1960.

That may have been the beginning of unrest that now encircles not only the bishop but also Mahon and most of the 93 priests in the 20-county diocese.

"One thing you can say about this diocese - about the priests - they all live in fear," the Rev. William Kulas, pastor of the Church of St. Joseph, Rushford, told the Pioneer Press. "They never say anything publicly, and when they do they look around to see if any of the spies are listening. They worry that things will get back to the bishop or the vicar general."

"There's an unwillingness to listen," Kulas said. "What we need is a unity of respect for the older priests for the wisdom they have and respect for the younger priests for their energy and enthusiasm. I say it is the in-group against the rest of us.

"On the one side there are those who are supportive and loyal to Bishop Vlazny and Father Mahon and on the other, those who are critical of them and those priests are either ignored, criticized, or receive some kind of punishment," Kulas said.

Vlazny, 58, said during a telephone interview Tuesday that only a few priests and "certainly not a majority" are stirring the pot of trouble.

The paranoia, some priests told the weekly newspaper, can be traced to Vlazny and Mahon who, they say, give younger and more loyal priests preferred assignments. They also claim that older priests are punished when they complain about diocesan decisions. Priests say Mahon has an inordinate amount of power.

Further, they complain about the way two sex abuse complaints against Mahon were dealt with by Vlazny.

The claims were brought against Mahon, who was the rector of the Immaculate Heart of Mary College Seminary before becoming the vicar general. One case was dropped by an accuser. But Vlazny said he agreed in 1993 to a "small sum" payment to the second accuser to protect the diocese from scandal and allow priests to concentrate on ministry.

But now Vlazny says Mahon is innocent of all charges and that he was falsely accused.

"Father Mahon did not agree with me (about the settlement) and he was upset," Vlazny said. "It was the first case I handled. It was a mistake and I admit it. I wish I had known then what I know now. We deal with these things in a completely different way now."

Priests complain that even after the charges and the diocese's payment to the accuser, Mahon continued to be in charge of investigating charges of sexual abuse against priests. But Vlazny said that is one of the duties of the vicar general.

"He was falsely accused," Vlazny said. "He didn't do anything wrong. Father Mahon is very helpful to people in these situations. He does it so darn good. And Father Mahon doesn't do it personally, there are other people involved."

Contributing to these disputes, some priests say, is a discontent, not only in Winona, but also across the nation in dioceses where professionals are strained by an increasing shortage of priests.

"I know that's a piece of the challenge," Vlazny said. "I think we are in an era of purification of the priesthood. We've been in charge but now we're involved in a shift. But in this diocese, by and large, most priests are cooperative."

In Winona, 93 priests are available to serve 128,000 Catholics in a diocese that stretches across southern Minnesota. That means each priest is responsible for more that 1,300 parishioners. As a result, 49 of 123 parishes are without full-time priests.

One priest who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution, told the Pioneer Press that older priests are afraid of being removed from parish ministry. He said special audits are sometimes sprung on unsuspecting priests or diocesan authorities use anonymous complaints about the priest's sexual lifestyle or drinking habits to discredit contentious priests.

Mahon did not respond to Pioneer Press requests for an interview. Vlazny defended him staunchly.

"He's just a generous, capable priest," Vlazny said. "He's direct, strong, so that if he were working with you, and he disagreed, you would know it. He's as straight as an arrow and that's what is both delightful and painful about working with Father Mahon. But he doesn't hold a grudge. I never would have let him continue if he had been anything but a positive force for the diocese."

In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Mahon said he is a demanding administrator but that in most cases there is mutual respect.

"And I have a combination of strength and compassion, sensitivity and confrontational skills and presence that often make people jealous," Mahon told the weekly. "I've learned to experience that and even as I've learned those things, I've also learned to tame some of that energy."


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