Mass Confusion

Bishop's guarded statement of support for embattled pastor further inflames critics

For years, Bishop Thomas O'Brien has stood solidly behind the Reverend Saúl Madrid in the face of escalating complaints from parishioners. Last week, the bishop took the rare step of publicly criticizing Madrid, but he only succeeded in further angering and frustrating Madrid's detractors, who considered the bishop's statement nothing more than a verbal slap on the wrist.

In the September 7 issue of the Catholic Sun, the newsletter of the Phoenix Diocese, O'Brien responded to widespread allegations that Madrid -- pastor of both St. Anthony and Immaculate Heart of Mary churches -- has failed to provide financial accountability to parishioners, driven two priests out of his parishes in the last year, engaged in questionable personal conduct and allowed St. Anthony to be used for a graphic independent film in which he also had a small acting role ("Immaculate Heartbreak," Gilbert Garcia and Laura Laughlin, July 27).

For the most part, O'Brien defended Madrid, dismissing criticisms of the pastor as "unfair attack by rumor and innuendo." He brushed off suggestions that Madrid may have played a role in the April fire that devastated Immaculate Heart, and vaguely alluded to questions about financial impropriety and sexual misconduct by saying that the diocese "will continue to review Madrid's ministry," but has yet to uncover any wrongdoing on his part.

He made no specific references to Madrid's January dismissal of his entire Immaculate Heart finance council, his removal of statues from his churches, a 1999 brawl in the St. Anthony rectory between Madrid's close friend Martin Piña and then-associate pastor, the Reverend Francisco Hernandez, or Madrid's apparent financial interest -- with Piña -- in a hair salon.

O'Brien's only concession to Madrid's critics concerned the pastor's involvement in the 1998 independent film, 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick. O'Brien said that Madrid "made a serious mistake when he appeared in the role of a priest in this movie. He also violated diocesan policy when he permitted use of the interior of St. Anthony Church as a setting for a movie scene. Quite frankly, Fr. Madrid exercised incredibly poor judgement in this instance."

This may have been uncharacteristically tough language from the bishop with regard to Madrid, long regarded as one of his favorite pastors, but Madrid's opponents -- who on August 11 had demonstrated outside the diocese office and called for both Madrid and O'Brien to resign -- considered it empty rhetoric.

"I'm totally upset, because he kept Saúl," says Julian Sodari, a South Phoenix neighborhood activist and a member of the anti-Madrid group the Christian Faithful. "If the bishop thought he violated Phoenix Diocese policy, why wasn't he reprimanded? The bishop just wanted to sweep things under the carpet and be done with it."

O'Brien's statement put an ambiguous punctuation mark on a volatile month of attacks and counterattacks between Madrid's critics and supporters. Four days after the August 11 anti-Madrid demonstration, approximately 200 Madrid loyalists, dressed in white, marched from St. Anthony to the diocese office for a vigil. At the gathering, Madrid advocate Stella Paolini, a St. Anthony parishioner and host of a Saturday morning show on Radio Unica (740 AM), called for an end to divisiveness in the church. Less than a week later, Paolini and Christian Faithful members engaged in a rancorous radio debate about Madrid.

The ensuing weeks have also seen a series of reports on local television and an exposé on Telemundo's national news-magazine show, Occurio Asi. But aside from an uncomfortable parking-lot exchange with Channel 12 reporter Dean Acosta and a mea culpa interview with the local Spanish-language paper Prensa Hispana, in which he admitted he'd blundered by appearing in the film, Madrid has not spoken to the press.

One of Madrid's strongest defenders has been Daniel Pace, director of 14 Ways.The 40-year-old Scottsdale filmmaker even took part in last month's march in support of Madrid and O'Brien. So it's more than a little ironic that the bishop, in the Catholic Sun, denounced Pace's film as "offensive and of low moral quality."

"Judging morality seems to be a favorite for those in the business of faith," Pace says, "so I understand why the bishop would say that about my film. But the ultimate judge is God, and even the bishop will have to respond to some questions."

The recent brouhaha surrounding Madrid has inspired Pace and his production partner, Richard Trujillo Jr. -- son of Madrid's lawyer, Richard Trujillo -- to begin work on a documentary about Latinos in the Catholic church. Pace says the film will deal with some of the specifics of the Madrid controversy, but primarily it will address larger rifts that are tearing at the fabric of the church.

"We're looking at what's happening within the Catholic community in the Hispanic world," Pace says. "We're using this diocese as the focus, or the base, of a more universal problem. Obviously there is a problem, and we're trying to find out what the problem is."

In the Catholic Sun,O'Brien's answer was to urge local parishioners to put aside their bitterness: "For the unity and spiritual growth of the parishes, it is time to heal and come together in the spirit of Christ."

But Sodari says the battle has only begun for the Christian Faithful.

"Since we know the way that [O'Brien] feels," he says, "we'll probably have to go to an archbishop -- or maybe even Rome."

 
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