Strife With Father

Under fire for charges of behavior unbecoming a priest, controversial pastor Saúl Madrid takes a self-imposed sabbatical

The moral behind the Sunday, November 12, Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary church was self-sacrifice.

The Reverend Saúl Madrid, pastor at both Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony parishes, told his congregation the parable of a destitute woman who gave of her time and won greater favor with Jesus Christ than wealthy people who had merely given of their money.

But at the end of Mass, Madrid revealed that he had been under a great strain in recent months, and could no longer sacrifice his own health. Trying to run two parishes was brutally hard work, he said, and he was "mentally and physically fatigued." So Madrid announced that in early January he will leave both parishes, and spend the next six months resting and recuperating. He will be replaced by George Highberger, pastor emeritus at St. Mary's in Chandler, and a former pastor at Immaculate Heart.

The Reverend Saúl Madrid (right) has been a polarizing figure in the Latino community.
The Reverend Saúl Madrid (right) has been a polarizing figure in the Latino community.

Madrid insisted that he was not leaving the priesthood, but simply taking a sabbatical. He left unanswered the question of where he will serve in the future. Neither Madrid nor the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix returned New Times' calls about Madrid's departure.

"What good would it be if everyone said, 'Father Saúl was a good priest and he worked very hard,'" Madrid said to Immaculate Heart parishioners, "but I ended up dead? So I need time off to recuperate."

Madrid's weariness was surely accelerated by the torrent of controversy that has engulfed him since taking over Immaculate Heart, the Valley's oldest Latino Catholic church, in July 1999 ("Immaculate Heart Break," Gilbert Garcia and Laura Laughlin, July 27). Even before he assumed the post, 6,000 parishioners signed petitions opposing Madrid coming to Immaculate Heart. In recent months, irate parishioners have questioned his dismissal of the parish's finance council, his role in driving away two associate pastors, his personal and business relationship with a man who allegedly provoked a fistfight with a priest in the St. Anthony rectory, his acting role in the sexually explicit film 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick, his decision to remove traditional statues from Immaculate Heart, and the fact that first St. Anthony and then Immaculate Heart suffered devastating fires within months of his arrival.

The anti-Madrid fervor reached a crescendo on August 11, when more than 60 demonstrators gathered outside the diocese office, carrying placards and calling for both Madrid and Bishop Thomas O'Brien to resign.

On September 7, in an effort to end the firestorm, O'Brien released a statement in The Catholic Sun, the diocese's official publication, acknowledging that Madrid had made a "serious mistake" by appearing in the film. The bishop dismissed most of the other complaints against Madrid, including suggestions that Madrid is gay, which he branded as an "unfair attack by rumor and innuendo."

If O'Brien thought his statement would quell the Madrid controversy, it achieved exactly the opposite of its intended effect. Only three weeks later, the bishop received an anonymous letter (although the writer did provide an e-mail address where O'Brien could reach him) by "a person trying their very best to do what is right."

The writer, the son of a couple that has long attended St. Henry's Church in Buckeye, details a string of incidents including, he claims, that he frequently saw Madrid at a popular gay bar in Scottsdale. The writer, who says he himself is homosexual, demonstrates a great deal of inner torment about critiquing Madrid, beginning his letter by telling the bishop, "I am grudgingly writing you this letter after many hours, days, and weeks of soul searching, deliberating on what God would want me to do. I must admit I'd rather not be writing you this letter. It would be so much easier to just ignore the whole issue."

New Times could not reach the letter writer for comment, and could not verify his claims. His father, however, said his son received a phone call from an attorney for the diocese, requesting that the letter writer meet with the attorney. But, according to his father, the son responded that he wanted to meet with Bishop O'Brien, but that the bishop has never directly answered his letter.

In recent weeks, Madrid's opponents at Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony widely distributed the letter to parishioners, intensifying the sense of anxiety that surrounded Madrid's embattled priesthood.

Madrid is the latest in a line of priests to leave the diocese under a cloud during O'Brien's 18-year tenure as bishop. In each case, as with the allegations surrounding Madrid, O'Brien has said very little publicly, fueling criticism that he ignores serious problems, particularly those involving sexual misconduct, within his parishes.

In the early '80s, Father John Maurice Giandelone of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler admittedly carried on a two-year sexual relationship with the adolescent son of his favorite parishioners. In 1985, Father Joseph Marcel Lessard of St. Jerome's was arrested for sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy. In 1988, Father George Bredemann of St. Catherine's was arrested for sexually abusing three boys, ranging in ages from 8 to 13. In 1994, Father Lan Sherwood of St. Benedict's in Chandler was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molesting 22 underage boys. Eight years earlier, he'd been arrested for masturbating in an adult bookstore, but the diocese took no action against him.

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