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By Rev. Roman Manchester
Read the previous installment: "War on the Priesthood: Father 'Gay'"
The end of the road came for me the day after Veteran's Day, 2015, almost three years ago. The purpose of this article is not to smear my bishop. I am sure that he has his side of the story as well. Rather, the purpose of this article is to present a first-person account of the struggle that good priests in today's Church must suffer as a result of their attempts to be faithful servants. Perhaps the bishops do not even realize how their priests suffer. I hope that they would at least care, however.
The end of the road came for me the day after Veteran' Day, 2015. That was the day the proverbial camel's back snapped in two. The bishop broke my spirit that day, and I never fully recovered. I had attended a meeting at Pawtucket City Hall that Monday of Veteran's Day week. The fire marshal, who was and still is a friend of mine, called a meeting of all the Catholic pastors in the city to address fire code issues. The bishop had sent his newly hired diocesan facilities manager to the meeting as well.
As it turned out, the meeting did not go well at all. It was a disaster right from the beginning when my friend, the fire marshal, entered the room and immediately charged one of us with being a "Judas." He had been upset because word was going around the city that he was targeting the Catholic Church for persecution, and it could have been only one of us in the room that was responsible for those rumors. He then threatened all of us with prison if we did not come up to code, and that was how the meeting began. My friend was not his normal self that day. So I decided not to say anything during the meeting. I would just sit there and then talk to him privately after the meeting. As it so happened, however, the facilities manager from the diocese (I will call him "Duke") did most of the talking throughout the meeting, which went on for about an hour and a half.
It got to the point where it seemed like it was his meeting and not the fire marshal's. During the time that he spoke, it became more and more apparent that he was there to represent the state fire commission and not the diocese. I was confused up until the moment that he told us that he was the retired fire marshal in East Greenwich. That was when everything began to make sense for me.
Duke had only been working for the diocese for a few months, and apparently his old loyalty to the fire department was conflicting with his new loyalty to the Church. After being threatened with prison a further time, one of the other pastors in the room asked how the fire commission expected the parishes to pay for the expensive upgrades that they would need. Pawtucket was the poorest city in the state with the poorest parishes, and having to deal with the cost of asbestos abatement alone would bankrupt most of the parishes that would be unable to raise that kind of money even with capital campaigns.
Duke's response to this pastor's concern was, and I quote verbatim, "They don't care if you're too poor. They are of the opinion that you're a business, and if you can afford to be in business, then you can afford to stay in business."
Duke's words came across like those of Vito Corleone. So that was when I piped up. It was about 45 minutes into the meeting at this point, and I had sat there quietly the whole time; but I could remain silent no longer. I raised my hand and said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a second! Do you mean to tell us that the fire commission doesn't care that we are too poor to afford these million dollar upgrades?"
Duke responded, "Yes, that's right."
To which I then responded, "And that they are of the opinion that we are a business, and if we can afford to be in business, then we can afford to stay in business?"
I said the words very deliberately, using the same mafioso inflection that Duke had used himself, and he replied to me, "Yes, that's right."
He said, "What?" And that is when I used a couple of expletives to describe my feelings at that moment. I basically said that the fire commission could go "make love" to themselves. I then said that we are not a business; we are the Catholic Church. I also asked if we would be allowed to shop around for the best prices, or if we would be required to use the contractors that have the special licenses for doing such work.
The fire commissioner took my question as an insinuation that kickbacks were involved, and he took offense, to which I said, "But that's how it works, isn't it? You give special licenses to your friends who are usually retired firefighters, and they can charge whatever they want because they're the only ones with the license."
Then one of the other priests reached out for my hand and said, "Father, you must calm down." So I looked him squarely in the eyes and said, "Do you think there is something wrong with me because I'm upset? I think there's something wrong with you if you're not upset! Since this meeting began, one of us has been accused of being a Judas, all of us have been threatened with prison twice and now we're being shaken down mafia-style. What the Hell does it take to light a fire under you?"
Well, needless to say, word made it back to the bishop. I never got to tell the bishop my side of the story though. Who knows what he heard from whoever it was that reported me to him? Oh, I forgot to mention, when we were threatened with prison at the meeting, all of the other pastors told the fire marshal that they were not the presidents of the parish corporations, but that the bishop was the president. So if anyone was to go to jail, it should be him. Both times they threw the bishop under the bus, but I bet they didn't tell him that part of the story when they informed on me.
I was called into a meeting with the bishop the day after Veteran's Day, and I was put on suspension without due process under canon law. I was deprived of my canonical rights and was not allowed to speak on my behalf. I had no canon lawyer present and was not informed that I had the right to have a canon lawyer present. The bishop demanded that I resign my pastorate and request a leave of absence due to health reasons, and he threatened canonical action against me if I did not do so.
He made it sound like he was doing me a favor by allowing me to resign and request a leave of absence, but I now know that he was only covering his own backside. He used my ignorance of canon law against me and effectively suspended me without canonical grounds while depriving me of my right to a defense. He was smart, though. By doing what he did, he left me with no avenue to appeal and no grounds to file a complaint against him with the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome.
He put me on an indefinite leave of absence, which is also non-canonical. There is no such thing as an indefinite leave of absence. That's like a judge sentencing someone to an indefinite time in prison. It could be a day, or it could be the rest of your life. You will never know, however, until the bishop calls you someday in the indefinite future to call you back to ministry. How does a person go on with his life under such unjust and uncertain circumstances?
One further point of note is that my mother was living with me at the rectory at the time of my suspension. She was there with the bishop's knowledge and permission. Nevertheless, she factored not into his consideration of his actions toward me. She was given the same two weeks to move out of the rectory as I was. She then spent the next year bouncing from one friend's house to the next until she finally ended up in senior housing in a stable, if not optimal, living situation.
The bishop did eventually call me back to ministry, but only because he had to. I'll let you in on another dirty little secret. Canon law protects priests from precisely this kind of episcopal abuse, but the bishops do it anyway. I was forced to see a psychologist while on leave of absence, and to speak with the diocesan psychologist who reports back to the bishop with a recommendation to return a particular priest to ministry or not. It is a very Nazi thing they do. If the bishop has no crime with which to charge a priest, he will try to have the psychologists declare him mentally unfit for ministry.
As it turned out, the psychologist was an old friend of mine and he knew that I was a good priest, so he recommended that I return to ministry. The bishop was left with no other option, so he called me back — to the worst assignment in the diocese. I was sent not only to hospital chaplaincy, but to a hospital that had no work for priests. The chaplains had 24-hour shifts, with 48 hours off between shifts. During a typical 24-hour shift, I had enough work to keep me busy for about two hours. The rest of the time I was confined to my room to watch Netflix. Some people may have thought it a wonderful opportunity for me to pray. To that, I just have to shake my head. I was not called to the monastic life. If I had been called to pray for 12 hours a day, then I would have become a monk. Even monks don't pray that much. It was the ecclesiastical equivalent of solitary confinement, and I found myself withering on the vine.
After 10 months at the hospital, I had a meeting with the auxiliary bishop to see if there was a chance for me to return to parish ministry. Long story short, he responded in the negative. As long as the current bishop was bishop, I was told, hospital "ministry" would be the only thing open to me. I told the auxiliary bishop at that point, "That is unacceptable. I'll leave the priesthood before I let that happen to me."
He was shocked, to say the least. Nobody ever speaks so plainly with bishops, after all. Bishops will lie directly to your face, knowing that you know that they are lying, because they fully expect that you will not challenge them. Well, I challenged him in that meeting and reduced him to silence. The first time was when I told him that my problems began when the bishop had suspended me. When I said the word "suspended," the auxiliary bishop cut me off immediately and said, "Now wait. That was not a suspension. I believe that you requested a leave of absence due to health reasons, and the bishop graciously granted it to you."
To that, I responded incredulously, "Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? You were sitting right next to him in that meeting when he suspended me! Do you really believe that I voluntarily resigned? You know the truth!"
He simply lowered his head and said not a word. He must have thought that I was still going to be a company man, but I was off the reservation by that point and there was no bringing me back. He also told me that the reason I would not be sent back to a parish was because I had "caused grave scandal with my foul mouth."
I did hold my tongue at that moment, but if I had said what I wanted to, it would have gone something like this:
Scandal? Scandal? You don't know what scandal is! Who did I lead into sin when I swore at that meeting? I may have shocked a few people. Maybe I offended those firefighters' virgin ears, but I most certainly did not lead them into sin! I was defending the Church! Maybe I got a little carried away and said a couple of words that I should not have used, but I did what I did out of love for the Church!
On the other hand, you and that bishop in the other room have just accepted a homosexual priest back into the diocese after a 15-year absence. He left the priesthood because he wanted to live an openly gay lifestyle, then he got gay married when it became legal. Then he got gay divorced and wants back into the ministry and you send him to two parishes in Little Compton and Tiverton! You make him a pastor right away!
Tell me, how does a priest like that jump right to the front of the line for a pastorate when you've got other priests in this diocese who have been waiting years for their first pastorate or a step up to a better pastorate? If there was anyone who was a candidate for a probationary period in, oh, I don't know, let's say hospital ministry, it's this guy! But no, you send him right back to being a pastor. Boy, the gay mafia really takes care of themselves, don't they? And you call my actions scandalous? You are leading people into sin by your tolerance of sodomy!
That's what I would have said, but I held my tongue, and all of it was true. I could give you the priest's name, but I won't. I don't know if he has truly repented of his lifestyle or not. Regardless of his repentance or lack of it, however, a priest with his recent history should not have been restored to ministry as a pastor. Assuming his repentance and reformation, he should have been given a probationary assignment under careful scrutiny. Instead, he was given the steering wheel and the keys to if not a Rolls Royce parish, then at least a Cadillac parish.
It was a month later that I tendered my letter requesting a leave of absence for personal reasons. The bishop was quite pleased to approve my request. Our final meeting was actually a pleasant one. It took the tone and feel of a mutual parting of ways, and when the doors closed behind me as I left his office I felt a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders, and I could finally breathe freely again — but now I am free to speak freely again as well.