BRANDON, Manitoba, Canada (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Canadian Catholic has been banned from the sacraments at her parish, and the archdiocese of Winnipeg is offering no explanations. In spite of Church Militant's repeated calls for comment, the archdiocese is refusing transparency.
"I cannot receive any services from St. Augustine's parish, which includes receiving Communion if I'm in hospital, receiving last rites, and I am not even permitted to call the parish if someone is in need of last rites," said Gwen Gumieny, longtime parishioner at St. Augustine of Canterbury Church in Brandon, Manitoba in Canada, whose pastor, Fr. Michael Savarimuthu, has banned her from the parish for more than a year.
The situation has escalated to the point that the papal nuncio's office has gotten involved. Although the nunciature contacted the archdiocese months ago, the archdiocese has yet to respond.
Speaking with Msgr. Fermin Emilio Sosa Rodriguez, Counselor to the Apostolic Nunciature, Gumieny said, "We spoke for about an hour on the phone regarding the situation and the details of what happened. He has never heard of anyone being banned from a church and was very sympathetic to my situation."
Canon 843 of the Code of Canon Law declares the right of Catholic faithful to receive the sacraments: "Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them."
Canon 912 explicitly protects the right of Catholics in good standing to receive Holy Communion: "Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion." A Catholic may not be deprived of the sacraments without due process.
On May 20, 2016, Gumieny was informed by Laura Cumming, director of human resources for the archdiocese of Winnipeg, that she was temporarily suspended from the parish, claiming that she had been "harassing staff, including two priests, and other parishioners at the church, as well as other hostile behavior."
Gumieny claims, however, that the claims of "hostile behavior" were concocted without basis, and other parishioners confirm it is the pastor who is hostile towards Gumieny. The parish secretary, Pam Szmon, allegedly began a campaign of rumors and gossip about Gumieny that influenced the priest's attitude with regard to Gumieny. When Church Militant contacted Szmon to corroborate the allegations, Szmon refused to comment, instead directing us to speak to the archdiocese — which has remained silent.
Additionally, Gumieny's more traditionalist sensibilities — requesting that the priest inform the faithful they may kneel after receiving Holy Communion — were opposed, met with anger and derision from Fr. Savarimuthu.
The initial suspension forbade Gumieny from entering church property except to go to Mass and confession. It also set forth a number of rules, including forbidding her from calling, emailing or writing letters to the parish office, priest or archdiocese "more than once per month," or asking others to call on her behalf.
On August 15, 2016, Gumieny was stunned to find a letter from Fr. Savarimuthu informing her she was permanently banned from the sacraments and forbidden from entering the property for any reason. He used as the basis of his ban an alleged anonymous letter sent by an unidentified source (a letter Gumieny was never shown), as well as the false claim that a fellow parishioner, Anna Kowalczyk, had gone to the priest at Gumieny's direction.
Gumieny categorically denies ever having asked Kowalczyk to speak to the priest for her, and Kowalczyk herself signed an affidavit swearing that Gumieny never asked her to speak to the priest. Both Kowalczyk and Gumieny went to the police to inform them of the priest's false reasons for banning her from church property.
"He banned me on a lie," Gumieny told Church Militant. In spite of this, the priest refuses to lift the ban, which remains in place indefinitely.
Church Militant contacted the archdiocese of Winnipeg multiple times to clarify the situation, but was met with silence. Church Militant also spoke with Fr. Savarimuthu, who refused to comment, citing the Privacy Act. The priest urged us to contact the archdiocese instead — but the archdiocese remains silent.
"I have never verbally or physically threatened anyone at the church nor have I damaged any church property or ever been disruptive during Mass or anything else," Gumieny wrote in an August 2016 letter to Abp. Richard Gagnon, "and yet I have a complete ban and am not allowed in this Year of Mercy to walk through the doors of St. Augustine's parish without being arrested."
When Gumieny spoke to Cumming at the archdiocese once again pleading to be allowed to receive the sacraments at her parish, Cumming again rejected her requests, going so far as to threaten retaliation if Gumieny were to go public with her treatment at the hands of the archdiocese.
"If you go to the media," Cumming warned, "we have every right to tell our side as well, as well as to sue you for defamation."
Gumieny has been allowed only once on church property, and that was for a longtime friend's recent funeral. Savarimuthu had initially refused to allow her entry, and he only reversed course after the deceased's family complained.
Neither Savarimuthu nor the archdiocese, however, have given any indication they will lift the ban on her return to weekly Mass or confession.
Church Militant spoke with the deceased before his passing. Longtime parishioner Jim Ray said this is a clear case of persecution by a priest.
"The ban is a bunch of nonsense," he told Church Militant, "and the archbishop is doing nothing to help."
"Gwen is a moral person," he said. "Gwen is a really good person; she never tells a lie."
John Villers, another parishioner, told Church Militant he believes the ban on Gumieny is "unjust" and expressed surprise by any complaints.
"I was floored by the ban," he remarked. "I can vouch for her character."
The archdiocese claims to have a 17-page document full of complaints about Gumieny and is using that as the basis for upholding the ban. Due process requires that the accused have the right to defend herself against her accusers; but in spite of repeated requests to see the alleged complaints, the archdiocese has refused to allow Gumieny the chance to see them or defend herself against them. Church Militant also requested access to the documents (with names redacted for privacy), but the archdiocese offered no response.
Canon lawyers have offered contradictory opinions about Gumieny's situation. The Centre for Canonical Services, after viewing the 17-page document, concluded Gumieny's rights have not been violated and she was afforded due process when she was issued the sanctions, but also stated that determining the veracity of statements made by others is not within the Centre's scope of practice. It also stated it could not comment on the permanent ban and it was a local issue that had to be addressed with the archdiocese.
Another canon lawyer based in the United States came to the opposite conclusion that her rights were violated because it is not permissible to permanently ban someone from a church without due process.
The Winnipeg archdiocese has been either silent in the face of the ban or has given misinformation. For example, Church Militant spoke with James Buchok, director of communications for the archdiocese, who falsely claimed he had "no knowledge of the case" — later backtracking after admitting he had read a detailed email Church Militant had sent to him several months prior detailing Gumieny's ban.
Buchok then asked that Gumieny give him a call — during which he gave her false information that she had no canonical recourse, and needed instead to take her case to the human rights commission— a secular group with no jurisdiction over church matters. The human rights commission itself confirmed with Gumieny that the archdiocese was wrong, and that the commission had no jurisdiction over the case. Throughout Church Militant's conversation with Buchok, his demeanor was dismissive and unconcerned.
Gumieny has no other real options for the sacraments. Unlike St. Augustine parish, which is directly across the street from her apartment and the reason she moved to the area, the only other Catholic church nearby is a Spanish Mass, where Gumieny cannot understand the responses or the homilies. When she is able to get a ride (she has no car), she attends a Ukrainian Catholic church for Sunday Mass, which offers the Eastern liturgy. It is not within walking distance, however, therefore she's unable to attend daily Mass — available at St. Augustine church.
"Saint Augustine's is the only English-speaking Roman Catholic Church in my city," she explained.
Abp. Richard Gagnon's office:
Phone: (204) 452-2227