Did Oregon parish's petition effort drive wedge between bishop and pastor?

This story appears in the Bend controversy feature series. View the full series.
Lupita Wesseler (Dan Morris-Young)

Lupita Wesseler (Dan Morris-Young)

by Dan Morris-Young

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Editor’s note: This is Part 2 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 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

Signs of Bishop Liam Cary’s disfavor with Fr. James Radloff surfaced in April 2013 – about three months before the bishop asked for the pastor's resignation -- when petitions were circulated asking Cary to back down on plans to transfer popular Spanish-speaking priest Fr. Juan Carlos Chiarinoti.

A petition effort in Spanish was followed by one in English.

While it seems clear Radloff would have liked to have his associate priest remain in the parish as a primary liaison with its Hispanic community of more than 400, parishioners say Cary incorrectly assumed Radloff had instigated the move to preserve Chiarinoti’s assignment.

In a May 7, 2013 open letter, however, Cary admonished parishioners and Radloff. The petition was “out of place,” he wrote, and “thrust into public view matters that must be dealt with in private and whetted the appetite for an explanation that could not be forthcoming."

"From the start," the bishop stated, "such an organized protest was guaranteed to stir up confusion and division, and it did. And it set a bad example for other parishes as well."

Cary 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."

"I personally initiated the (English language) petition on behalf of members of the Hispanic community who were distraught with the prospect of losing Fr. Juan Carlos," Lupita Wesseler told NCR in a Nov. 1 email, adding, "Out of respect for the church authorities I contacted the bishop's office beforehand. I was within my rights and I felt that it was my duty to speak on behalf of the Hispanic community. I have been in the parish for 24 years and as a Hispanic, I have a special attachment to the community. I wanted to be a voice for them, and am concerned that this growing population does not have a Spanish-speaking priest at this time. Fr. Juan Carlos was a popular dedicated anchor to these people.”

During a Feb. 7 interview in Bend, Wesseler wept as she blamed herself for perhaps unknowingly playing a part in Radloff's removal because the bishop blamed the petition on the pastor.

Last April Wesseler delivered the signed English-language petition to the chancery herself after being told by a parish staff member to “cease and desist” in further work on it.  Wesseler said the staffer was not allowed to disclose the source of that insistence, but Wesseler said it was “kind of my understanding” that it originated from the bishop's office.  Wesseler is “confident” Radloff was not the source for quashing the petition.

Wesseler did not meet with Cary when she passed on the English petition.  However, Laura Gonzalez made an afternoon appointment for April 17, 2013 to meet with him and hand over the Spanish-language version with about 345 signatures.

A native of Mexico City who worked as a cook at the parish rectory for 23 years prior to Radloff's arrival, Gonzalez was accompanied by about three dozen Hispanic parishioners, including Rosalba Fields. Well-known in the parish, Fields is a native of the Sinaloa state of Mexico and has been a member of St. Francis for 35 years.

In November, Wesseler and parishioner Pam DiDente were invited by Fields and Gonzalez to hear their story of the meeting with Cary. Wesseler and DiDente felt it important to write a summary of the conversation, they said. In one section of that narrative, Wesseler and DiDente report:

On delivery of the petition letter with signatures, Bishop Liam Cary came out into the parking lot to meet them. Rosalba Fields said that the bishop was angry and told the people gathered to leave. He additionally stated 'he would not answer any letters.' Rosalba said that the bishop talked to them roughly and they were surprised at his behavior toward them. She stated, 'We were not expecting him to be that rude.' Rosalba attempted to go with Laura to meet with the bishop, but he said he would only see the person who made the appointment and would not allow anyone else in the meeting. Laura went inside the office with Bishop Cary.

When Bishop Liam Cary and Laura were inside his office, they stood just by the door. Laura was not invited to sit down. He asked her why she was there. Laura asked the bishop if he was going to take Fr. Juan Carlos away. He did not answer and she explained that Fr. Juan Carlos was needed for all he does for the people. She asked him, 'Why do you not love Fr. Juan Carlos, he is your brother?' Bishop Cary told her, 'Not to worry that there will soon be another priest coming that speaks Spanish.'

However, in truth and fact, both petition efforts arose from the people in response to their intentions to state their case in support of, and love for, Fr. Juan Carlos, from both the Hispanic and English members. Both petitions arose from the people and Fr. Radloff had not actively recruited anyone to stand against the bishop.

The narrative records that June 30, 2013 “was the last day in the parish for Fr. Juan Carlos. There was not a proper goodbye for him, breaking with a cultural tradition of joy and festivity for those they appreciate deeply. For many, it was especially sad and unfitting for a priest leaving in good standing.”

Through Wesseler as interpreter, Gonzalez told NCR that since the departure of Radloff and Chiarinoti, participation in parish Spanish-speaking celebrations has waned, that the mood in that community “is poor,” and that some families have begun worshiping in other congregations.

A native of Argentina, Chiarinoti currently resides in the Diocese of Santa Rosa “while continuing to serve on Marriage Encounter weekends in the northern California area and even in Oregon,” confirmed Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa in a Feb. 22 email. “He also substitutes in our parishes as available but he has not yet received an assignment here pending further review.”

Vasa preceded Cary as bishop of Baker.

The Baker diocese encompasses 18 counties of eastern Oregon — 66,826 square miles or about one-and-a-half times the size of Tennessee.

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

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