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Challenge to bishop's authority viewed as a key to controversy

  • Bishop Liam S. Cary of Baker, Ore., prays June 13, 2013 during the mid-year meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta. (CNS/Georgia Bulletin/Michael Alexander)
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Bend, Ore.

This story was updated Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 at 7:38 a.m. central time.

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a five-part series on the dispute between a pastor and his bishop in  St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Bend, Ore. Removed from his post last October, Fr. James Radloff filed an appeal, but his request was denied by the Vatican, as the Congregation for Clergy sided with Baker, Ore., Bishop Liam Cary. The Jan. 31 decision allows Cary to keep secret the reason for the ouster and permits a continued bar on Radloff’s public ministry. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Baker, Ore. Bishop Liam Cary's emphasis on the vow of obedience in his May 7, 2013 open letter to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Bend, Ore. is viewed by many as a key to Fr. James Radloff's removal as pastor.

Petitions were circulated asking the bishop to back down on plans to transfer popular Spanish-speaking priest Fr. Juan Carlos Chiarinoti, a native Argentinian. In the letter, Cary admonished parishioners and Radloff for the petition effort.  He called it “out of place” and said it “thrust into public view matters that must be dealt with in private and whetted the appetite for an explanation that could not be forthcoming."

Cary also directly rebuked Radloff: "In launching this movement to pressure me to do what he wanted, your pastor made a very serious error of judgment. He actively recruited you to stand with him against your bishop. ... On the day of his ordination, a priest places his hands between those of the bishop and publicly promises 'respect and obedience' to him and his successors. ... To build up the unity of the Church, priests must be willing to walk the way of obedience; and a bishop must be able to count on his priests to be true to their promise."

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In a 2007 interview then-Fr. Cary expanded on how critical it had been for him as a diocesan priest to be obedient to his ordinary. 

One priest who has known the bishop “for many years” and worked with him, said Cary and Radloff's understandings of obedience and priestly ministry “are about 179 degrees apart.”

The priest — who asked not to be named — feels Cary views a diocesan cleric's core work should be carrying out the bishop's vision of ministry and parish, and that a priest is first accountable to his ordinary. Radloff operates from a mandate of “serving the people of God to the best of his ability” and that is his “first line of allegiance.”

Fr. Leo Weckerle strikes a middle ground. “I know Fr. Radloff extremely well,” he said Feb. 21. “He is an extremely hard-working priest, a great priest, although he can be somewhat precocious at times and can think with his mouth, and that can get him into trouble.”

“It would be a great shame if his talent were to be wasted,” said the retired priest who resides in the small community of Terrebonne, Ore. and who has had his own run-ins with bishops in the past.  

“The bishop really is the pastor of all the people in the diocese,” added Weckerle, a former chancellor and judicial vicar of the diocese.  “It is up to the priest using his knowledge gained in the seminary and in private study to put all his talents toward … carrying out the vision of the bishop.  A priest cannot do his own thing outside the bishop's vision for the diocese. It is up to each one of us priests to adapt ourselves to the bishop. ….”

The bishop has spoken

In letters to the editor of Bend's major newspaper, The Bulletin, and in reader posts following NCR reports, some accuse Radloff of episcopal disobedience. 

Summarizing some of these views, one parishioner told NCR: “So many Catholics here do not understand that the church is not a democracy and they certainly don't understand that we accept whatever comes our way cheerfully and with humble obedience. My comment will fall on deaf ears of those who want their way no matter what. … I would hope that they will receive the grace to forgive and just let go. That is what I am praying for. Those who have already accepted what has happened want to move on and make our parish a positive, welcoming, loving, and helpful place.”

Mentioned multiple times as “a major actor in the present drama,” in the words of one parishioner, John Henchman might echo those thoughts.

A parish council member and “longtime pillar of the parish,” in the words of another parishioner, Henchman told NCR on Feb. 8 that he did not want to comment, but he did say, “The bishop had every right to make his decision,” and indicated it should be accepted and respected.

Thirty-year parishioner Ken Roberts seems to agree: “We have no idea what prompted the decision but believe it had been brewing for quite some time and not done rashly. My take is that a lot of the people are still upset, not so much about Radloff’s removal but the manner in which it was done and the bishop’s seeming unwillingness for any kind of reconciliation or any public explanation of his decision.”

Many do not accept at face value Cary's insistence that he refuses to divulge the reasons for Radloff's removal to protect “the right to privacy of all involved parties,” as he wrote in his letter to parishioners attending Feb. 15-16 Masses.

Some say the language rings reminiscent of statements used by church officials to cover up clergy sexual abuse. 

Said one parishioner, “I understand the bishop is the bishop and all that, but my generation is not going to just follow blindly.”

While Radloff did take a vow of obedience, the priest did not break that vow by appealing the bishop's decision “to a higher authority because the priest believes the order to be wrong,” wrote Radloff's canonical adviser, Fr. Thomas Faucher, in a 2,300-word statement on the case released in early January. Written in a question-and-answer format, the narrative was later published as a full-page advertisement The Bulletin, paid for by a group of Radloff supporters

In a portion of the statement on the vow of obedience, Faucher wrote: “That promise has to understood in the full context of the church. No priest can be disobedient to the bishop if he appeals what the bishop has ordered to a higher authority because the priest believes the order to be wrong. The priest cannot just ignore the order, he has to appeal the order to Rome.

So, no, Fr. Radloff has not been disobedient. Fr. Radloff has done every single thing the bishop ordered him to do except resign as pastor. He has correctly appealed that order, using the official law of the church. Fr. Radloff has been totally obedient. He has not disclosed the reasons for his removal even though there are canon lawyers who say he could. But out of obedience to Bishop Cary he has not done so. He has not exercised public ministry, even though there are canon lawyers who say he could. Again out of obedience to Bishop Cary he has not done so. He was willing to go to Merrill, and then out of obedience did not go to Merrill. Fr. Radloff has never spoken to a reporter or given any type of interview since he was removed on Oct. 1, 2013.”

Faucher issued the document, he explained at the time, to combat the “destruction” of his priest-client's “good name and reputation” as well as to call attention to the “large amount of erroneous information” swirling around that priest's removal.”

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast Correspondent.]

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