Holy War

For months, disgruntled parishioners of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church had been trying to get someone from the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to respond to their concerns. On Friday, August 11, about 20 minutes into an impassioned protest outside the diocese office in downtown Phoenix, the diocese finally spoke -- albeit briefly, and in muted tones.

The Reverend Dale Fushek, vicar general for the diocese, stepped outside to brave the crush of protesters and television cameras. "Bishop [Thomas] O'Brien is out of the state," Fushek said. "Is there a respectful message I can send to the Bishop?"

For the assembled group of about 70 demonstrators, maintaining a respectful tone seemed to require all the discipline they could muster. They were angry at what they consider to be the misconduct of the Reverend Saúl Madrid, embattled pastor of both the Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony parishes ("Immaculate Heartbreak," Gilbert Garcia and Laura Laughlin, July 27). They were equally irate about Bishop O'Brien's apparent unwillingness to take action against Madrid.

Protesters called for the immediate resignation of both O'Brien and Madrid, and announced that a lawsuit will be filed against the diocese on behalf of the Reverend Francisco "Paco" Hernandez, a former associate pastor under Madrid, who was dismissed by O'Brien five months ago. They also called for Valley parishioners to boycott church collection boxes until these issues are resolved.

"People sense that [Madrid] is talking down to them," said Frank Lujan, an Immaculate Heart parishioner. "People don't want to donate to that church anymore."

"It's a very sad day for our community, especially for the Hispanic community," Juanita Encinas, a Chandler activist, told the gathering. "We are asking both Bishop Thomas O'Brien and Father Saúl Madrid to resign. They have brought disgrace to our community and to our church. [O'Brien] chooses to ignore us. Nobody wants to talk with us and they give us the runaround."

Among other concerns, Encinas and other protesters cited Madrid's lack of financial accountability at Immaculate Heart, his removal of traditional statues from the church and what they believe to be his role in the dismissal of Hernandez and another pastor, the Reverend Andrzej Hejdak, from the parish. They also disapprove of his decision to appear in the graphic independent film, 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick, and to allow the interior of St. Anthony to be used for a controversial scene.

Demonstrators intermittently responded to Encinas' statement with emphatic chants of "Renuncie!" or "Resign." They carried placards with messages such as "Victims of Immaculate Heartbreak! O'Brien Must Go" and "O'Brien: Thou Shalt Not Ignore Us." One poster depicted Madrid with red devil horns and lipstick.

"The Bishop knows about everything and he won't do anything," Encinas said. "We will not tolerate that. His staff has to go, too; all of them have to go."

Ramon Gomez, president of the Arizona Civil Rights Movement, announced that his organization plans to file a lawsuit against the diocese, in response to what he considers to be the unfair treatment of Hernandez, a priest who came to Phoenix from Mexico in 1997 and briefly served as Madrid's associate pastor at both Immaculate Heart and St. Anthony in 1999. Gomez said Hernandez will be represented by Mesa attorney Keith Knowlton. Knowlton could not be reached for comment.

After a fight with Madrid's close friend Martin Pina -- whom Hernandez contends attacked him -- at the St. Anthony rectory in July, 1999, Hernandez received a reprimand from the diocese and was eventually forced to return to Mexico.

"Father Paco was dismissed from his duties here for false issues that weren't making any sense," Gomez said. "So we decided to take the case on. In order to bring justice after what they did to him, we had to do something."

Gomez added that Hernandez has received threatening phone calls from his current diocese in Chihuahua, Mexico, warning him that he is in danger if he files suit against the Phoenix diocese. Gomez said that he believes the calls were instigated by someone in the Phoenix diocesan office.

"We have to notify the Mexican government of this issue, to let them know if anything happens to him who should be held accountable," Gomez said. "This is the issue that concerns us really seriously."

Gomez has tangled with O'Brien before. In 1994, he filed suit against the diocese, arguing that therapy had revived memories of sexual assaults he had suffered as a child by three diocesan priests (the case was settled out of court under a confidentiality agreement).

Aside from Fushek's brief appearance, the diocese chose not to respond to the gathering. Marge Injasoulian, director of communications for the diocese, would only say that both O'Brien and Madrid were out of town and unavailable for comment.

As demonstrators and news cameras dispersed, Encinas shouted out a final message of encouragement to critics of the diocese: "Keep praying, keep going to your church," she advised the crowd. "But no money. Don't give any money."

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia