Norton Priest Won't Return
Diocese Calls Alleged Marijuana Cultivation a 'Breach of Judgment'

By Colette M. Jenkins
Akron Beacon Journal [Ohio]
January 26, 2004

Diocesan officials are calling the actions of a Norton priest arrested last week on a charge of illegal cultivation of marijuana in a church rectory a "serious breach of judgment."

And church officials announced Sunday that the Rev. Richard A. Arko will not be permitted to return to his pastoral duties at the Summit County parish once the criminal case is resolved.

"Perhaps Bishop Pilla put it best when he said we are confused and concerned that this man who has done so much good could allow marijuana to be growing in his church residence and allow someone to live at the rectory without permission," said Bishop Martin J. Amos, auxiliary bishop for the southern portion of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, after leading Mass on Sunday at the Norton church.

Arko, pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church, was arrested by Norton police after a search of the rectory turned up 35 marijuana plants, grow lights, electric transformers, air purifiers and books about opium and marijuana, including Marijuana Growers Guide.

A second man, Jensen J. Powell, 24, who listed the rectory as his address, was charged with trafficking in marijuana. Police said Powell was selling marijuana from the rectory.

Both are fifth-degree felonies, which carry prison sentences of six months to a year.

Arko and Powell appeared in court on Thursday. Arko was released on a signature bond. Both men are due in court Wednesday.

In a letter read this weekend to parishioners at Prince of Peace, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla wrote that the tremendous ministry that Arko has done "cannot allow me to overlook this dreadful judgment that led to his arrest."

The letter informed parishioners that Arko, 40, has been placed on paid leave and that he would not be returning to Prince of Peace. The letter also stated that the parish should not anticipate a new pastor until June.

Pilla named Lawrence Lauter, a certified pastoral minister on staff at Prince of Peace, as parish life coordinator. Lauter and Robert Chevalier, the parish business manager, will take care of the day-to-day pastoral needs of the parish under the direction of Amos, who will celebrate at least one Mass each weekend.

Prince of Peace, which is made up of more than 500 families, is located on the Barberton-Norton line.

"Because Mr. Lauter and Mr. Chevalier know the people and the parish, they can keep things consistent," said the Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, diocesan secretary and vicar for clergy and religious. "We are encouraging Father Arko to work with his civilian attorney to take care of the legal issues, and we are encouraging him to get any assistance that he might need."

Jurcak, who celebrated three Masses over the weekend, said he will coordinate priests to conduct services for the parish. He said a decision on Arko's permanent status will not be made until after the legal proceedings.

Arko was ordained in 1990 and came to St. Mary Church in Barberton in 1994 as administrator. In 2001, he was assigned as administrator of Sacred Heart in Barberton and served both parishes, which merged July 1, 2002. The merged parish was named Prince of Peace and Arko became pastor in March 2003.

Parishioners — many of whom describe Arko as a dear friend — continue to struggle to come to grips with what has happened.

This weekend, they came together for a special prayer service, regularly scheduled Mass services and two special meetings, in search of ways to resolve their distress and disbelief.

During Sunday's 8 a.m. Mass, Amos encouraged parishioners to support one another.

"For most of you, Father Arko has been your pastor. Some of you call him friend," Amos said. "I can only imagine some of the feelings, some of the confusion, a mixture of emotions within — anger, hurt, disappointment, frustration, sadness. You may not even be sure where or at whom to direct these emotions.

"We want answers to questions like, 'Why? How come? What now?' ... At this point in the road, what do we do? We talk with charity, with love. We listen with open minds and open hearts," Amos said. "We support each other. We console each other. We walk with each other. It is found in our faith."


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