Funeral Fight

News: Investigations
by Christine Niles  •  •  March 23, 2016   

Priests battle each other over acceptance of homosexuality in parish

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LEWISTOWN, Mont. ( - Two Montana priests got into a heated confrontation before a funeral Mass over whether a dissident Catholic could sing in the choir — the underlying issue ultimately being their understanding and application of Church teaching on homosexuality.

Fr. Samuel Spiering

The incident highlights the growing confusion at Catholic parishes over the issue, particularly when the parish priest with knowledge allows parishioners to live lives in contradiction to Church teaching without taking action to correct them. Young new priests who then attempt to correct the situation inevitably face backlash. The case of Fr. Samuel Spiering serves as an example.

Two years ago, Fr. Spiering denied Holy Communion to two parishioners who were in a same-sex "marriage." He announced the decision only four days after he was installed as pastor at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown in August 2014, meeting privately with Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick — a former Catholic priest for nine years — who had "married" in a civil ceremony the year before.

Father Spiering informed them that, because of the nature of their relationship, which contradicts Church teaching, neither man could present himself for Holy Communion, nor could they continue singing in the choir.

The Catholic Church teaches that same-sex acts are "intrinsically disordered" and "acts of grave depravity," and that "respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions."

Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick

After further private meetings with the Great Falls diocese, in which the homosexual couple were told they could only be re-admitted to Holy Communion if they lived lives in conformity to Church teaching, the men chose to leave the parish. Janie Shupe, the choir director, also left the parish in protest.

"I basically said, if this is the way it is then I'm done," Huff remarked. The couple considered taking canonical action against the priest.

Parishioners reacted, with about half supporting the gay couple and the other half backing the priest. Bishop Michael Warfel, head of the diocese, met with parishioners in September of that year to listen to what the faithful had to say.

"Certainly, what I want to do is effect some healing," Warfel commented afterwards. "In the immediate timeframe I just have to take some time to really ponder it, think about it and reflect on what I heard." Warfel ultimately backed the priest, upholding Church teaching and denying Communion to the gay couple.

"Either I uphold what Catholic teachings are or, by ignoring it or permitting it, I'm saying I disagree with what I'm ordained to uphold," Warfel told the Billings Gazette.

The issue has come back to the parish after Fr. Spiering denied permission to the former choir director Janie Shupe to sing at the funeral Mass March 8 for Pearl Valach.

Pearl Valach

Valach had been a longtime parishioner at St. Leo the Great and was among parishioners who objected to Fr. Spiering's actions taken against Huff and Wojtowick. While she remained in the parish, the rest of her family — including her homosexual son — left.

Shupe arrived to the church before the funeral Mass to practice singing, when Fr. Spiering informed her she would not be allowed to sing in the choir.

"He said, 'I'm going to ask you not to sing today,'" Shupe complained. "I said, 'This is not about you today, this is not about me today. This is about Pearl Valach and her family.' He told me I could sing from my pew. It was mortifying."

The former pastor at St. Leo, Fr. Dan O'Rourke, whom the family had invited to offer the funeral, defied Fr. Spiering, arguing for Shupe's right to sing in the choir. Both Spiering and O'Rourke engaged in a heated discussion, which ended in O'Rourke's walking out of the parish.

Father O'Rourke had been parish priest at St. Leo for a number of years, apparently aware of Huff and Wojtowick's gay relationship, but he had never denied them Holy Communion. According to parishioners, there were other longtime active homosexual couples in the parish as well who were never told their lifestyle was wrong, presumably also admitted to Holy Communion.

After Fr. O'Rourke walked out, Fr. Spiering offered to preside at the funeral Mass, but the Valach family objected.

"We immediately said, 'Absolutely, no,'" said Susan Valach, daughter-in-law of the deceased. "I went up to the choir and said we would cancel. Our family was so upset and finally [Fr. Spiering] agreed to leave."

The vicar general, Fr. Jay Peterson, a friend of the Valach family in attendance, stepped in to take over the role. Shupe was permitted to sing in the choir.

Father Peterson later told the Great Falls Tribune, "I think Father Spiering exercised his canonical rights. At the same time I would add it was not the right pastoral decision. The bishop is very concerned about this."

A few days later on March 12, Spiering apologized for how he handled the funeral, and said he would implement a new policy at the parish so that such incidents don't happen again.

I had tried to resolve the issue in the days leading up to the funeral, but my multiple phone calls to the persons involved were not returned. On Tuesday morning I told the persons involved of my decision. Father Dan O’Rourke, who was visiting to celebrate the funeral Mass, contradicted me and went against my pastoral decision.

This genuinely shocked me that he would do this. I then informed him that either he would have to correct what he did or he would not be allowed to celebrate the funeral Mass, since it is very wrong for a visiting priest to contradict the pastor, especially on important pastoral decisions. While I won’t go into the specifics of the issue, I assure you that it was not merely any trifle or matter of preference. He chose to not celebrate the Mass, and Father Jay Peterson celebrated the Mass instead. Now, I can honestly say that at the time I was sure that what I was doing was the right thing. However, having thought and prayed about it all week, I realize that I pushed it too far.

He continued,

I do not regret the pastoral decision I had to make. I also do not regret confronting Father Dan. What I do regret, and what I do apologize for, is trying to make Father Dan correct his action that morning at the cost of him choosing to leave and not celebrate the Mass. I now realize that I should have let the funeral go on, and then after the fact issue a funeral policy that would prevent such problems, a policy I will issue in the near future.

He then apologized to the Valach family, and asked for forgiveness from the parish.

Father O'Rourke also offered his account of the events, gloating in the last line about Shupe: "The singer/musician sang her heart out."

Bishop Warfel has not commented on the incident.


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