With the papal firing of Bishop Robert Finn, at least two significant diocesan issues have been left swaying in the wind.
They revolve around Finn’s recent reassignment of some priests. Two of those reassignments were immediately controversial, and they probably will be one of the first orders of business taken up by the diocese’s interim administrator, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Kansas City, Kansas, archdiocese.
Every year, the bishop reshuffles some priests, usually those who have been at their existing parishes at least six years. This year, Finn announced the reassignments several weeks earlier than usual, which, in itself, raised eyebrows.
Under Finn, the reassignments have always been heavily tinged with diocesan politics; it can be a nasty business for those not in Finn’s good graces.
Listen to the assessment of Rev. John Wandless, a retired priest who lives in the South Plaza area. (For the record, Father John and I are friends and have worked on a couple of political campaigns together.)
“I thought something was going on two weeks ago when Bishop Finn made some scorched-earth pastor assignments sending ultra-conservative pastors to moderate parishes and pastors from moderate/liberal parishes to the boondocks… In other words he was putting his boys into choice assignments — just before he was called to Rome — without regard, it seems to me, for the best interests of the parishes.”
One of the controversial reassignments was the proposed transfer of Rev. Don Farnan from heavily populated St. Thomas More Church in south Kansas City to parishes in Gallatin and Hamilton, Missouri. (Hamilton is directly east of Cameron; Gallatin is northeast.)
Farnan, regarded as part of the diocese’s liberal contingent, is a jewel of a priest. He has a remarkable pastoral touch, combining compassion and eloquence with common sense and terrific leadership ability. (Indicative of his giving nature, not long ago he donated one of his kidneys to a young boy he had never met.) To dispatch him to the hinterlands — while it would have been a godsend for Catholics in Gallatin and Hamilton — would have been a tremendous under-usage of his talents.
This morning, Farnan graciously granted me a telephone interview and laid out the details of the brouhaha over his reassignment.
Here’s how it went:
On March 12, Farnan and Finn spoke briefly at the diocese, where Farnan had gone on other business. Finn told Farnan he was thinking about transferring him but didn’t say where. Farnan, who is in his ninth year at St. Thomas More, said that he had been thinking for a couple of years about what he might want to do next as a priest.
He told Finn he’d prefer to stay at St. Thomas More but that he was open to anything else, except that he’d like to take a sabbatical before accepting a new assignment.
Finn told him that wasn’t possible, that the diocese could not pay his salary while he was on sabbatical. Farnan dismissed the financial consideration, saying that wasn’t a problem for him.
On March 28, diocesan vicar general Rev. Charles Rowe called Farnan and informed him he would be transferred to Gallatin-Hamilton. Farnan told Rowe, as he had told Finn, that he intended to take a leave of absence before accepting any transfer.
Finn called Farnan on Holy Thursday, April 2, and they had what turned out to be a testy conversation.
They talked again about Gallatin-Hamilton, and Farnan repeated that he was not prepared to accept the transfer at that time.
“He sort of went off,” Farnan said, referring to the bishop. Finn ended the ensuing conversation by saying, “We can communicate through the vicar.”
That was Farnan’s last communication with Finn.
Farnan said he believes his situation is one of several issues that Naumann will address before Pope Francis names a permanent successor to Finn.
My guess — and this is strictly my speculation — is that Farnan will end up staying at St. Thomas More for another year to allow the dust to settle. After that, it’s anybody’s guess, but I would think that Naumann and the next bishop will be more solicitous and considerate of Farnan’s wishes.
Another priest-transfer controversy pertains to Visitation Church, 52nd and Main, where the Rev. Pat Rush, a widely admired priest and a former vicar general, is getting set to retire. Rush is also in the liberal contingent.
As Rush’s successor, Finn had appointed a priest named Vincent Rogers, whose unfortunate claim to fame, publicly at least, was getting arrested in a prostitution sting operation in 2003. His attorney at the time, John P. O’Connor, told me today that Rogers was not convicted. O’Connor said he didn’t remember any other details of the resolution, such as whether Rogers was ordered to take part in a diversion program.
Rogers has been pastor at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Gladstone for several years. The announcement of his transfer to Visitation has thrown that parish — one of the diocese’s most prosperous parishes, along with St. Thomas More — into an uproar.
Another unsettling factor to Visitation parishioners, besides the prostitution sting, is that Rogers is one of a handful of priests who, as Farnan put it, “most reflect Finn’s style and personality.” That is, they are ultra-conservative.
The sting operation involved 20 law enforcement agencies in Kansas and Missouri. About 100 people were arrested after answering Internet and newspaper ads from what appeared to be escort services.
An archived Kansas City Star story from 2003 about the operation says that Rogers, then pastor at a St. Joseph parish, told then-Bishop Raymond J. Boland that he had been arrested on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute.
The story goes on to say, “Rogers reportedly told Boland that he made telephone calls to arrange for a massage and he was taken into police custody when he arrived for the appointment.”
Boland placed Rogers on administrative leave but said he had not received any complaints of “similar misconduct” during his decade as a priest.
My personal feeling about Rogers is that even if he was convicted, it should not bar him from serving at Visitation, assuming he has had no subsequent legal problems. If he has cleaned up his act — and remember, that was a dozen years ago — I applaud him. It goes without saying that celibacy is a difficult way of life for most people.
Still, I can understand how the arrest would be unsettling to Visitation parishioners. And I can understand, even more, parishioners’ reservation about drawing an ultra-conservative pastor.
To the best of my knowledge, the parish has never had an ultra-conservative pastor since its founding in 1909. It has been home to such great pastors as the late Msgr. Arthur Tighe, the late Richard Carney and former priest Tom Minges, who is now a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Overall, a conservative priest is not a good fit for Visitation. It is a progressive congregation with many young families, a goodly number of whom are drawn to the parish because of its excellent school.
I suspect Vincent Rogers will not be going to Visitation. If I had to guess, I’d say he, like Farnan, will be staying at his current parish for another year or two.
Let’s hope Naumann rescinds these two transfer orders soon.
Note: If you’re waiting for an explanation from the Vatican as to why the pope “accepted Finn’s resignation,” don’t hold your breath. the announcement was made yesterday in a one-sentence news-of-the-day-type roundup. It was written in Latin…A story in today’s KC Star quotes Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, as saying: “This is typical of the way the Vatican works. It doesn’t like to explain things. It hopes that people will just be satisfied with the fact that they got rid of him.” I don’t know about you, but it’s certainly satisfactory for me!