HELENA, Mont. (ChurchMilitant.com) - The diocese of Helena, Montana is being slammed by faithful Catholics for what they see as hypocrisy.
On Tuesday, Msgr. Kevin O'Neill, administrator for the diocese, issued a public letter apologizing for the "pain" caused by four priests who attended a July 5 rally for Matt Rosendale, a pro-life Catholic running against pro-abortion Democrat Jon Tester for a seat in the U.S. Senate. President Trump appeared at the rally in support of Rosendale.
"Let me clearly state that I sincerely regret any and all confusion or hurt this incident has caused," O'Neill stated.
"I am troubled that they were assigned such a prominent place in the arena particularly since they were dressed in clerical attire," he continued. "My disappointment is underscored by their attire being associated with that of an official presence of the Diocese or as if they were acting as its official representatives, which they were not."
The priests — Fathers Kevin Christofferson and Christopher Lebsock from the Helena diocese, and Fathers Ryan Erlenbush and Garrett Nelson from the Great Falls-Billings diocese — were invited to sit in the front row at the rally by a Catholic organizer. False reports by the Washington Post and other media outlets claimed the priests clapped at allegedly racist, sexist remarks made by Trump, but video footage contradicts the reports, revealing they only clapped after the president made clear he'd crack down on the MS-13 gang, known for raping and torturing its victims.
After anti-Trump Catholics complained loudly of the priests' presence, both dioceses issued public apologies distancing themselves from the event and expressing disapproval of the priests' presence.
"I have received apologies from the two priests for any misunderstanding or any hurt their presence caused," wrote Bp. Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings. Lebsock and Christofferson were also forced to apologize, although Christofferson expressed sorrow not for his actions but for the subsequent media distortion.
On July 11, an image surfaced of O'Neill smiling on stage as a VIP guest at the 2013 inauguration of Catholic Steve Bullock as governor of Montana — a Democrat who ran on a radically pro-abortion plank. Other officials, including the lieutenant governor, attorney general and a state supreme court justice, were also sworn in, but the main event focused on Bullock. The Helena diocese has confirmed O'Neill's attendance.
Since Bullock has taken office, he has voted consistently to advance abortion and the LGBT agenda. According to a source, Bullock is a parishioner at St. Helena's Cathedral, where O'Neill is rector. According to tax returns, Bullock has made charitable contributions to the cathedral.
Locals also say O'Neill allows Bullock to regularly receive Holy Communion, causing scandal to Catholics — in spite of Canon 915's prohibition on pro-abortion politicians receiving the Eucharist.
In 2017, he vetoed a bill that would require medical care for a baby born alive after a late-term abortion. Bullock justified his vote to deny life-saving care for babies by claiming he did not want to interfere in "deeply personal medical decisions."
He also opposed the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, when evidence shows the unborn child feels pain. The abortion procedure used in the vast majority of second-trimester abortions is dilation and evacuation, which involves grabbing a baby's limbs and ripping them from his body piece by piece. The child is alive and feels everything.
In 2015, Bullock voted to keep abortion covered in all health insurance plans.
And in 2016, Bullock signed an executive order advancing gay rights in the workplace, the Human Rights Campaign applauding him for "doing everything in his administrative power to fight for the rights of LGBT Montanans."
Church Militant repeatedly asked the diocese to provide links to any statements publicly opposing the governor for his pro-abortion, pro-LGBT positions, but the diocese refused to answer.
After the image circulated of O'Neill in clerics seated prominently at Bullock's inauguration, Catholics went on social media to blast him for the perceived double standard.
"How is it you can sit front row center at a Democratic governor's speech, but priests in your area are not permitted to do the same for a Republican president?" asked Stacey Sefcik, in comments beneath a post that has since been deleted on the Helena diocese's Facebook page.
"It's a shame when you become a tool of a political party and then use your position to enforce hypocritical actions on others that you yourself won't observe," said Randy Barileau.
"The only time it is acceptable to hold others to a standard different from the one we apply to ourselves is when we apply the stricter standard to ourselves. That is clearly not the case here; quite the contrary," noted Ed Cobb. "I see double standards, and hear doublespeak. Shame."
"Msgr. O'Neill is the winner of the hypocrite of the year award," said Lynn Kramer.
"Msgr. Kevin O'Neill showing support for pro-abortion Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana is what we should be reading an apology over," said Josh Schultz. "Maybe he forgot the Church's stance on murdering children?"
In response, the Helena diocese is justifying O'Neill's prominent presence at the 2013 event.
"Attending a campaign event and attending a civic event are two different public activities," the diocese stated. "An inauguration is characterized by a gathering to formalize the close of the democratic process and acknowledge that the important dialogue between civic and church leaders is now appropriate and helpful in our pluralistic society."
But Catholics were dissatisfied with the response.
"Well the 'civic event' you speak of included the inauguration of a pro-abort and pro-same-sex marriage governor," said Tom Grunhard in the comments. "Is it asking too much that a priest or bishop take a firm stand against the support of sin by skipping such an event? Throwing in terms like 'pluralistic society' does not justify a shepherd attending."
"The official responses from the Diocese would be less hypocritical if they would simply acknowledge that the official sanction was based on political differences of opinion, rather than on the phantom spectre of 'separation of church and state,'" said Nanette Parratto-Wagner. "The Monsignor simply should acknowledge his political bias publicly, as these priests have done. Simply be honest. That's all Catholics are asking for."
Church Militant also asked the diocese to clarify its position. "Campaigning by a church official is forbidden due to the separation of church and state," the diocese responded. "Once campaigning has concluded, church officials, can begin to work with elected officials on civic matter."
After Church Militant asked for proof that the priests were "campaigning," which involves lobbying and canvassing for votes, the diocese backtracked.
"The issue arose as priests were very visible and in priestly garb," the representative responded. "Not an issue of intention, but one of perception, which is an important consideration for church leaders."
Church Militant asked how this same reasoning could not also apply to O'Neill's prominent, visible presence in clerics at a pro-abortion governor's event. "Fair point," responded the representative, going on to reiterate the distinction between "campaign events and civic events."
But the vast majority of Catholic commenters are refusing to accept the diocese's answer, with even priests weighing in.
"Sheer hypocrisy!" said Fr. Michael Barry. "God bless the priests who attended the rally headlined by President Trump."
Many others are also expressing support for the four priests, whom they claim are being thrown under the bus by dioceses more concerned with pleasing leftist critics than supporting their clergy.
"I don't see how it is offensive for priests or anyone else to go and hear what the president or other candidates have to say," said Diane Landers. "To the priests who went to the rally — 'I applaud you.'"
"Leave these poor priests alone," commented Suzanne Graf Slupesky Beck. "Their intentions were good and completely blown out of proportion. Many many worse priests than this!!"
"Proud to see the priests in the front row at the Trump rally!" said Sheila Nelson Dodd.
Church Militant reached out to two of the priests, who said they were unable to make any public comments at this time.
The diocese of Helena can be contacted here, or by phone: (406) 442-5820
*This article was updated with new information on 7/13/2018