Egan, Pomerleau, McDonnell and Why the "Ministerial Exception" Matters

Many of you know that a significant case about church/state relations (the retaliatory dismissal of a Lutheran lay teacher) is under consideration by the Supreme Count. A verdict is not expected anytime soon. Nevertheless, the so-called "ministerial exception" at the heart of the case is important. It's never been ruled on by the high court, though lower courts, especially appeal courts, have built a small mountain of citations and case law around it.

We start by asking "what is the relevance of this mega-case to everyday life in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts?" It's relevant because it directly implicates the so-called "church autonomy" doctrine. Under this rule of law (or, lawlessness, take your pick) local bishops and other church officials gain a pass from the neutral laws which bind the rest of us. Child abuse, sexual harassment of seminarians, and arbitrary dismissals are just a few of the outrages that have been defended under the ministerial exception. 

The "rights" of our bishops to make decisions about employing dozens of troubled clergy (or, former troubled clergy such as Mr. Richard Lavigne) have also been defended by our lawyer, Mr. John Egan, under this doctrine, particularly in his citations of Gibson v. Brewer (Missouri). But, Egan did this years ago, and in any case most parishioners are unaware of Gibson v. Brewer, and how it relates to anything. 

The difficulties that Bishop McDonnell is encountering at Mater Dolorosa are the flip side: these issues are in-your-face, ripped from the headlines, and vital. But, their greatest importance may be that they point toward a solution to the malaise that grips the Diocese. The fact that an objective observer (Judge Kinder) simply does not believe Bishop McDonnell's story is highly significant. It reminds us of the common-sense limitations that could and should be placed on a bishop's power. It could be a blueprint for a fresher, more authentic vision of what the Catholic church can yet become. 

And, a change in focus is desperately needed. The viability of the Diocese continues to crumble away in several areas: in communication, in finances, in the assertion of moral authority, and in how chancery officials conceive, carry out and enforce parish closings. These are inter-related, and bear some examination.

In the first place, the Diocese of Springfield has been under a cloud for such a long time that we tend to forget the significance of what happened in February, 2004. From the moment that Dupre fled, leaving Mark Dupont with nothing but a half-cocked, easily disproved tale about "health problems" to report, the gloom in the chancery has been pervasive, and the posture defensive. When church officials were not defending themselves in court, they were dreaming up more and more creative justifications for initiating suits against others. But, it's not only the pit bull legal tactics of Egan, Flanagan and Cohen that disgrace the parishioners of the Diocese. The communications component has a lot to answer for as well.

From 2004-2010, the usual grade-school level of the Catholic Observer went into hyperdrive when they reported about abuse in general or about the Diocesan role in abuse in particular. The Observer has since been subsumed into the Catholic Mirror, a glossy and relentlessly cheerful robo-magazine which seems unlikely to run nasty editorials against the Voice of the Faithful, SNAP and other forward-thinking groups, more is the pity. Say what you will about the Observer, but at least you knew where it stood — in the gutter. See here, and here.

In this period, the bylined articles of Fr. Bill Pomerleau stood out. He showed such remarkable bias and reckless disregard for the truth that he distinguished himself in a most unfavorable way. Pomerleau used his position at the Observer to mount an attack on the deposition of Maurice E. DeMontigny, which revealed complacency and corruption within the chancery. Nor did Pomerleau hesitate to smear Fr. James Scahill, daring to suggest that Scahill did not do all he should have to prevent the sexual abuse of children. Let us pause here and remember that Fr. Scahill was awarded the Priest of Integrity Award from the national VOTF in 2004.

For the record, on April 23, 2010, Pomerleau implied on pg. 8 in the Observer that Scahill is blameworthy for not reporting arch-predator Lavigne's activities sooner, though Pomerleau knows full well that Scahill was the only one who spoke out, and that all other clergy in the diocese, including the bishops, and including Fr. Bill Pomerleau, were silent about the matter. That particular article was character assassination of the first order.

The headlines over his stories about the 8.5 million dollar insurance settlement (always taking the side of the Diocese without regard to where the truth lay, thus abandoning journalistic ethics) were so slanted that they seemed almost a parody of real newspaper reporting — like a Catholic version of the Onion. It can be no accident that the publisher of the Observer is none other than Bishop McDonnell. Is it not clear that the concentration of judicial, legislative and executive functions (and throw in publishing, too) are another large clue to the problems of the church?

This is all a part of the public record and easy to look up, though most won't. But, what makes it especially important is that this cloud has not lifted. It has spread like a cancer from the chancery to the Diocese at large. So-called pastoral planning is not the only evidence of the sickness, but it is one of the most visible, and has enraged the most people.

All the while, Pomerleau continues to churn out slanted copy, but now as a liaison to the various Bishop-approved Catholic news services that connect the globe. His latest effort claimed that the MD parishioners had "heckled" the Bishop during the closing Mass, a rash overstatement if not an outright lie. It is so much like the remarks made by Mark Dupont the day after the Bishop's closing Mass at St. Stan's in Adams in 2008. On that occasion, Dupont claimed that parishioners had shouted down the celebrant, Fr. Boyle. On the contrary, as an eye witness, I can attest that it was Fr. Boyle who put on the most belligerent and disrespectful display toward the congregation that I have seen in a lifetime of church-going.

And so, yesterday or today, the cloud, and the excuses, and the defenses, and the spinning all continue, often predictable, never abating, while the Bishop's moral authority continues to crumble away.

On the legal front, Egan, Flanagan and Cohen have not finished fighting the many enemies of the chancery. Indeed, they have made an art form of the mean and vindictive suit. Consider that the counts against the MD congregation for daring to stand up to the Bishop's will amount to no less than 102 counts. 

One Hundred And Two Counts!

This is law as weapon. It is not enough to win, but Jack Egan and cohorts must also humiliate people. The message to parishioners is not just "why are you taking on the Bishop?" but "HOW DARE you take on the Bishop?"

The lawsuits against the City of Springfield (Our Lady of Hope), the City of Northampton (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton), and the Diocese's own insurance companies (the 8.5 million abuse settlement) are different only in the details. They all seem mean-spirited, arrogant and full of self-righteous rage. Significantly, they are all authorized from the chancery, with no meaningful lay input. 

Now that Bishop McDonnell's preliminary injunction has been shot down, he's between a rock and a hard place. He's announced through Dupont that he will pursue a speedy court trial. But, a trial offers little hope. Can you imagine parishioner witnesses parading through the courtroom to testify how flawed and unfair the pastoral planning process has been? Can you imagine how likely it is that the discovery and the testimony will prove beyond a reasonable doubt how the MD parishioners, like so many others, were lied to? How the trial will inevitably lead (for the first time ever) to a close examination of the financial records of the Diocese?  

I can imagine all these things, but I cannot imagine the Bishop being pleased with any of them. On the other hand, having brought the civil suit in the first place, how can he sue for peace without losing face? Or, will it be yet another settlement for Egan, Flanagan, and Cohen, with more spin to follow?

Is there any way out of this deplorable situation?

I think, in their own way, the parishioners of MD have pointed the way. It is simply this: stand up for your rights, get them, and carry on. It is common sense that no man, even a bishop, gets all he wants. It is common sense that no church, even the Catholic church, is entitled to deference from civil law that allows for a Taliban-like merging of canonical and civil law, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse, but also, when it comes to the property rights, the rights to be free from discrimination, and the civil rights of all people. Perhaps most importantly, this fairness should extend to equal rights within the Body of Christ, between clergy and lay people. It is incredible that this is even in doubt, and it may not be, in other dioceses, where the sun is shining. But, this diocese is not like other dioceses. 

Civil law should not be a club for the Bishop to wield and the state courts should not be a refuge for the Bishop where he can run and hide when he does not get his way and cannot prevail among his own people with sound moral arguments. 

These are the lessons of the MD occupation and emergency injunction decision (some of them anyway) and these lessons may yet be reinforced by the judges of the Supreme Court in a ruling with much broader application.