Socorro Priest Says He Was Fired for Eye Disease

By S.J. Ludescher
Albuquerque Tribune (New Mexico)
October 4, 2001

An ousted Episcopal priest is suing his diocese, saying he was fired because he has a disease that may eventually result in his blindness.

The Rev. John R. Russell, 62, of Albuquerque said he was fired from his position as vicar of the Episcopal Church in Socorro after telling his bishop he had been diagnosed with macular degeneration, a progressive eye disease that can lead to blindness.

The lawsuit, filed late last month in U.S. District Court, is seeking lost wages, attorney fees and punitive damages from his former employer, the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande.

According to the lawsuit, Russell worked for the diocese for a total of 11 years before he was diagnosed in August 2000 with the eye condition.

Russell said he told his superiors about his diagnosis in early September 2000 and reassured them that it would not affect his ability to perform his duties. But the lawsuit claims that the superiors "began a campaign of pressuring Russell to take a disability retirement," finally ordering him to resign by June 2001.

The campaign included a number of letters and phone calls, including one phone call in which Canon Jeffrey Steenson said, "The bishop and I are willing to state that you are having blurred vision traveling to Socorro . . . you can finagle this, you know insurance," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also said Russell was told he would be replaced by a younger pastor. Russell was terminated March 2001, the lawsuit states.

Last April, Russell filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age and disability discrimination.

"In response to that charge, the employers retaliated against Russell by denying him severance pay, refusing to re-assign him to a different parish and causing him to lose another position he had obtained after he was terminated," the lawsuit claims.

Steenson declined comment, saying the matter was a personnel issue and in litigation. Bishop Terence Kelshaw, who Steenson serves under, could not be reached for comment.

Russell had never been disciplined, reprimanded or received anything but excellent performance appraisals before his disclosure about his eye condition, the lawsuit states.

Macular degeneration is the slow deterioration of cells in the macula, a tiny area in the center of the retina. It is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and is expected to affect an estimated 7.5 million Americans by 2020.

"Macular degeneration is projected to double as the population ages, said Gregg Trapp, executive director for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. "It will be a significant issue. There will be a staggering number of cases in the work force and society in general."



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