July 20, 2006 Archdiocese, Father Altier supporters clash - Renew America

- By Matt C. Abbott
- A Catholic columnist with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Management from Triton College in River Grove, Ill. He has worked in the right-to-life movement and is a published writer focused on Catholic and social issues.

Dennis McGrath, communications director for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, recently sent the following (slightly edited) e-mail to Kenneth M. Fisher, a supporter of the silenced Father Robert Altier.

I presume I'm directing this to Kenneth M. Fisher, whose name and email address is listed on the story I'm responding to.

This story is replete with errors and major exaggerations. As the communications director for The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, let me strive to correct the record and, hopefully, get your Christian Newswire to do the same if you're at all concerned about journalistic ethics and truth.

Father Robert Altier is not 'embattled' nor has he been 'unfairly silenced.' These are comparable to 'urban myths' that have been promulgated on certain Web sites and blogs.

Here are the facts: Late last year, Father Altier wrote a letter to Archbishop Flynn, as he is required to do by canon law, upon the completion of one year of doing a column on the Desert Voice site and voicing his views weekly on a Relevant Radio program.

Father had indeed frequently and inappropriately (if not disobediently) criticized the archbishop and archdiocesan leaders (and not simply on the VIRTUS child protection/education program). The archbishop responded to that request by Father Altier with a kind and non-confrontational letter directing him to take a break from his radio and web site commentaries to concentrate on his pastoral work. There was no 'silencing' or 'censuring' involved.

Kenneth Fisher's charges about the archdiocese's children and youth safe environment program are uninformed and misleading. First of all, the VIRTUS program is used in almost one hundred dioceses and has received support and praise from bishops, priests, parent and educators. And it is far from any kind of 'sex ed program.' This archdiocese chose to use only the adult component. Over 1200 adults, from the archbishop to the volunteer youth leaders, have participated. Early on it was decided not to use the VIRTUS children's program for the simple reason that it was considered too challenging to use on an occasional basis.

The programs that are recommended were chosen after careful research and consultation. All are age appropriate and all reflect the Church's teachings. No program will be implanted with children without the parents' participation first. Parents can have their children opt out of the programs. Pastors were given the opportunity to request permission to use an alternative program and those have been granted. All of which respects the rights of parents. Also, each option responds to the bishops' mandate to provide educational programs.

The fourth paragraph in that July 10 story, quoting Mr. Fisher's statement that 'Archbishop Flynn has removed Father Altier from his duties at St. Agnes Parish and made him assistant to an elderly priest at a rest home' is absolutely false. Father Altier has been at St. Agnes as associate pastor for 17 years. The average time that an associate pastor stays at a parish is just a few years; and even pastors normally move on to another assignment after 12 years. Further, Father Altier was not 'made an assistant to an elderly priest at a rest home.' He is now the chaplain at an important health center (name??) near the Twin Cities that provides everything from a birthing center to a residence for senior citizens and Alzheimer patients.

That 'elderly priest' who had been the chaplain, a Columban father, has retired. There were, in fact, so many pastoral duties for that older priest that he did not have a single day off in five years. This chaplaincy should prove to be an ideal assignment for Father Altier since he will encounter so many ways to minister to Catholics and their families in a time of need, to use his spiritual zeal to bring lapsed Catholics back to the Faith and perhaps to bring non-Catholics into the Faith. He has, in fact, expressed a good deal of happiness about his new assignment and he is serving as a sacramental minister every weekend at nearby St. Augustine parish.

The accompanying claim about the 'reassignment of clergy defenders including St. Agnes' longtime pastor' is an absolute fabrication. The pastor in question, Father George Wellsbacher (spelling?) had been at St. Agnes for XX years, is XX years old and asked for a less demanding role because St. Agnes is about to launch a major capital campaign that, at his age, would be much too taxing. The new pastor at St. Agnes is a very traditional young priest, who just returned from his studies in Rome and the new associate is a recently ordained young man whose formation began as a parishioner at St. Agnes.

Archbishop Flynn is devoted to his priests and has not and never will 'punish these good priests,' as Mr. Fisher charges. The principle of offering as many options and alternatives as the Charter or the Protection of Children and Youth would allow, were considered long before any opposition to the programs surfaced, not as any kind of compromise. To let Mr. Fisher use your news service as a communications medium to trumpet a campaign based on false and distorted information is almost unimaginable to me, a trained journalist.

And in that regard, I have no memory or record of ever being contacted by Christian Newswire for balance and a chance to respond to these untrue charges.

I fear your July 10 report has done its damage and has added to the web of untruths and ill founded conspiracy theories about Father Altier and Archbishop Flynn that already exist. My hope is that this won't happen on your newswire again. I am copying the editor of The Catholic Spirit, our award-winning archdiocesan newspaper, because he received your publication. Unlike [Christian Newswire], however, the Spirit, while not perfect, always strives for truth and accuracy.

Dennis B. McGrath
Director of Communications
Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis


A few missing pieces of information in the email message I just sent you.

Father George Welzbacher, the pastor of St. Agnes, who just took another pastor ship, had been pastor there for five years; however, he had been a weekend Mass celebrant for many years prior to taking over. During those years, he taught at St. Thomas University in St. Paul. He is now 80 years of age. 'Welzbacher' is the correct spelling of his name. The new pastor at St. Agnes, whom I referred to in my email, is Father John Ubel.

Sorry for the gaps in the earlier email, but I wrote this late Friday and forgot to proofread it this morning before sending it.

Elizabeth Schwab, who operates the Desert Voice Web site, had this (slightly edited) response to McGrath's e-mail:

Bravo! It looks like your article has the folks at the chancery office a wee bit nervous because you actually got a direct response! This is good.

I want to fill you in on a few details as you have McGrath engaged in a sort of 'dialogue' right now. I'll just run through the points he makes and address issues as needed.

He accuses your story of being 'replete with errors,' while his story is the one guilty of that.

Concerning his first point: Father Altier had been broadcasting on the Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio for three years, both as guest and substituting as host when Drew was out of town. Things went very well and Relevant Radio offered him his own daily show. He wrote asking permission from Archbishop Flynn to do this as he would be spending more time on the radio ministry. There is no requirement that he would have to write Flynn after doing a 'column' on Desert Voice for one year. We had already been posting his homilies for five years and he never asked permission for that because it had absolutely zero impact on his time.

The Archbishop answered Father's letter by saying he wanted him to stop Internet and radio completely. (They keep saying there is no 'silencing or censuring' because they like to play word games. It's not canonical censure, but it is a silencing, although not 'canonical silence.') McGrath's accusation of inappropriate and disobedient criticism is ungrounded and not backed up by proof. The extent of what he is referring to is in the October 30 homily.

Concerning McGrath's second point: The sex education programs may be 'age appropriate' depending on who you ask (Planned Parenthood?) but they are definitely not reflective of Church teaching. We all know they go against Vatican directives. The programs were already piloted at some archdiocesan schools this spring, although they refused to identify which schools were hosting the pilot programs. McGrath bolded this entire paragraph, but I assume you know very well the nature of the programs and that they are underhandedly pushing this thing through.

It has taken much hard work on the part of parents to get 34 parishes in this archdiocese to petition for the 'Formation in Christian Chastity' program, which is less corruptive than the others. But there should be no mandate for these programs in the first place. What about all those poor children who are at the mercy of disinterested parents and liberal pastors? They will get a full dose of 'Talking About Touching.' And opting out on an individual basis is just about useless on the practical level. In a radio interview, Sister Fran Donnelly, the director of the Protection of Children and Youth Initiative for our archdiocese, said that the programs weren't Catholic but they were real — whatever that means.

Concerning McGrath's third point: Father Altier has served as associate at St. Agnes for 14 years, not 17 as he stated. If the average time of an associate's assignment is just a few years, why did they keep Father Altier stuck as associate so long and not promote him to a pastor ship? What they have done to him in that accord is a persecution in itself. And if the health center is so important, why can't McGrath remember the name of it? They would like to write it up as comparable to the Mayo Clinic, but it is nothing like that.

Father Altier's letter from Archbishop Flynn in early May regarding his transfer to Hastings stated that he would serve as assistant chaplain and report to the then-current chaplain, Father John Marley, a Columban order priest. This is where things get real interesting. Regina Medical Center, which is composed mainly of the nursing home and assisted living units, has a small hospital where births and a small number of very routine operations are done, anything with extremely low risk. Everything else gets sent out to other hospitals in the area. No trauma cases, nothing critical in nature. This center was originally operated by Catholic nuns who then gave it to the city of Hastings with the stipulation that it would continue to be operated as a Catholic institution.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis does not have control over it and has never assigned a priest there before Father Altier. I do not know which Catholic religious orders sent priests there in the past, but Father Marley was there approximately five years, assigned there by the Columban order.

McGrath himself had stated Father Marley intended to stay and confirmed to Father Altier that he would be serving in the capacity of assistant. Father Marley, far from being overworked, was very happy there and wondered what in the world Father Altier would do as there was hardly enough to keep one priest occupied. In other words, Father Marley wanted to stay. The chancery must have realized their mistake when the people sent many angry letters concerning the situation, because they talked to Father Marley's order and asked that he be removed from Hastings.

Father Marley was not pleased with this because the nursing home position was well suited to his needs. It was with great reluctance that he left. Is he retired now? Far from it. The Columban order has reassigned him to an inner city parish in downtown Chicago working with Hispanics. A far cry from the quiet and slow paced position he had at Regina. But you see how it doesn't matter who gets hurt, as long as they can take their vengeance on Father Altier. So now he gets to be chaplain, and that should be a bit more palatable to the people.

Is Father Altier happy? He is a holy man and tries his best to accept what is God's will for himself. If he were dying a martyr's death, about to be beheaded, he would say the same thing. Don't these people get it? Would that make it okay for them to take his life?

In the final paragraphs, McGrath brings up the situation at St. Agnes. We lost three priests in one month. Totally unprecedented. Not a word of this had been breathed before all the trouble started with Father Altier's silencing, meaning no one had a clue that anybody was planning on retiring, etc. It looks pretty suspicious, especially when the newly assigned pastor, Father Ubel, was just sent to Rome last fall to begin his first year of studies to prepare him to teach at the local seminary.

He has written in our church bulletin how surprised he was to receive a letter from Archbishop Flynn assigning him as pastor of St. Agnes. It was a total departure from what had been planned for him previously. The semester had not yet finished in Rome when they yanked him back here only to have him wait around with nothing to do until the final plans were made for the moving of Father Altier, Father Welzbacher and Msgr. Schuler.

Father Ubel wanted to be a teacher, not an administrator, and had no desire to be a pastor, especially pastor of a church like St. Agnes. How do they expect Father Ubel to run a major capital campaign when he has never been a pastor before? And his associate pastor who also joined us at the end of June has only been ordained one year.

Father Welzbacher publicly provided the explanation that being pastor of St. Agnes became too much for him and so he needed a replacement. Well, why not send Father Welzbacher to the nursing home? Is he going to retire? No, he's on his way to become pastor of another inner city parish which has experienced some troubles. That sounds relaxing.

Monsignor Schuler, our pastor emeritus who was still in residence here at St. Agnes, and who by a great miracle was able to preserve St. Agnes from all the havoc of the 60s and beyond (our church is the only one in the diocese without a free standing altar), was scooted out and put into a nursing home himself last month. We always wondered how he was able to keep St. Agnes so traditional without intervention from the archbishop.

At the beginning of this year, his health started to deteriorate noticeably. We all knew this was dangerous as now he would not have the strength to keep up the fight to preserve the church. And sure enough, whether by God's providence or not, he was declared to be incompetent to continue living at St. Agnes and was rushed off to a nursing home in June. Now he dwells in an assisted living apartment and will not be coming back to St. Agnes ever again.

The vicar general, Father McDonough, told the Pioneer Press in May that the chancery was committed to keeping St. Agnes strong. Is that how you keep something strong? By getting rid of all the priests? If what happened with Monsignor was purely the course of nature, then keeping things stable for a while so the parish has a good foundation would seem to make the most sense.

But the one thing they can never get away from is Sister Fran Donnelly's statement about the vicar general's 2x4 for the priests speaking out in opposition to the 'safe-environment' initiative. How can he ever explain that one away? But they may attempt to, via their 'award winning' Catholic Spirit newspaper.

Thanks so much for all you are doing and for copying us on these latest developments. God bless your efforts. We noticed the numbers have grown on the petition.

In Our Lady of Mount Carmel,
Elizabeth Schwab

© Matt C. Abbott

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