CHURCH PLEADS THE FIRST
In legal matters involving disgruntled former teachers, the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver has won one and lost one. And the victory came when a judge ruled that the federal government couldn't intervene on a fired Machebeuf Catholic High School instructor's behalf without infringing on the Church's First Amendment religious freedoms.
The loser in that case was Dennis Powell, 65, who was fired by Machebeuf in 1993, reportedly because declining enrollment dictated a reduction in the size of the teaching staff ("Experience Not Needed," February 16). Powell sued Archbishop J. Francis Stafford and the Archdiocese in U.S. District Court, claiming that he and two other dismissed Machebeuf teachers (who chose not to join the suit) were victims of age discrimination. But on August 8, Judge Lewis T. Babcock dismissed Powell's complaint on the grounds that the court could not interfere in the dispute because of the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Babcock ruled that the case veered too close to religious matters because Powell was a former priest who was teaching theology.
Powell is incensed by the ruling, in large part because he feels his termination had nothing to do with religion. "The Church has evaded its responsibility to its employees by taking refuge in the First Amendment," he contends. "It's continuing blissfully on its merry way while its disillusioned employees do not have a leg on which to stand."
Colleen Smith, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese, applauds Babcock's decision: "We obviously were pleased that the court saw fit to uphold our First Amendment rights," she says.
Smith, however, refused to comment on the case the Archdiocese lost: a suit filed in 1992 by former educator Steve O'Bryan in Boulder County District Court.
In his suit, O'Bryan charged that his 1990 contract as a teacher at Boulder's Sacred Heart of Jesus School was not renewed in retaliation for charges he levied against Father Tom Woerth, a Sacred Heart priest later reassigned by the Archdiocese after criticism by colleagues and parishioners. (Woerth could not be reached for comment.)
In January 1993 the Archdiocese asked the court to dismiss the suit on First Amendment grounds. Judge Morris Sandstead responded in August by tossing out eight of O'Bryan's claims, but he let two others specifically dealing with the teaching contract stand. A trial date subsequently was set for March 1995, but this past May, a week before two Archdiocese employees were to be deposed, a settlement offer was made--neither side will say by whom--and accepted. The specific dollar amount of the agreement, finalized on June 27, is confidential. But O'Bryan does say, "I'm happy it's been resolved. It's been a long, difficult and painful process."
Indeed, the case has roots that stretch back to 1987, when O'Bryan was hired to teach junior high social studies at Sacred Heart. He later was named director of adult, family growth and campus ministry programs at the school. In early 1990, however, O'Bryan and a handful of his peers accused Woerth of "bouts of unjustified rage and anger" and other abusive behavior toward employees, staff and parishioners, according to court papers. Woerth had been in the news before: In 1983, while assigned to St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Fort Collins, he resigned after being charged with assaulting an eighteen-year-old parishioner, allegedly because he didn't like the way she played the tambourine. (In 1984 Woerth was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the matter.) And in January 1990 Sacred Heart teacher Jan Cooper said she was fired after complaining that Woerth's dog was running loose on the school's playground.
According to the lawsuit, O'Bryan and three other Sacred Heart employees--including priests Tom Sherlock and Greg Ames--met in February 1990 with Reverend R. Walter Nickless, the vicar general and secretary for priests and seminarians for the Archdiocese, to voice concerns about Woerth. In his complaint, O'Bryan says he was worried about what his future would be at Sacred Heart if it became known that he had blown the whistle on Woerth. Nickless, the suit claims, reassured O'Bryan that his job was safe. But in early March, Woerth informed O'Bryan that he was eliminating his campus ministry position; O'Bryan could stay at Sacred Heart, the lawsuit claims Woerth said, if he took an elementary-level teaching job with an $8,000 pay cut. O'Bryan says he went to Nickless but received no tangible help. During the same period, Woerth fired Sherlock, as well as the school's cook.
A few months later an organization of parishioners called Concerned Catholics of Sacred Heart of Jesus threatened to stop donating money to the church until Woerth was removed. In August 1990 Woerth was reassigned. But that didn't save O'Bryan. Woerth's successor, Reverend Edward Madden, terminated O'Bryan for "insubordination" on September 20, eight days after taking over the parish.
"I didn't feel from the beginning that I was going to get any cooperation from the Archdiocese," O'Bryan says, but he adds that he wanted to resolve the situation without going to court. As a result, he wrote a letter to Stafford asking for his intervention. When that went unanswered, O'Bryan retained the services of Reverend William Logar, a Stockton, California, priest who was also a lawyer versed in canon law, the Church's internal legal system. In June 1991, the lawsuit claims, Logar asked J. Anthony McDaid, the Archdiocese's judicial vicar, to judge O'Bryan's complaint. According to the suit, McDaid rejected this petition because it allegedly was not in the proper form--and because a due process procedure stated that a plaintiff had to accept an advocate chosen by the Archdiocese, rather than picking one himself.
O'Bryan says he made repeated attempts to mediate the matter out of court even after this setback, but was met by tactics he felt were specifically intended to delay the matter beyond September 1992, when the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit ran out. Finally, on the advice of Logar, O'Bryan retained a lawyer and filed suit two days before the deadline. Eighteen months of legal motions and wrangling later, the case was settled.
The long battle with the Archdiocese has left O'Bryan feeling some bitterness. Because the Archdiocese does not pay unemployment benefits to dismissed employees--the exemption is tied into the First Amendment's language involving the separation of church and state--he received no compensation following his dismissal. "And finding a teaching job in September, after everyone had already hired who they needed for the year, was just about impossible," he notes. His wife, a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, was forced to work overtime and double shifts to support the couple's three children. In spite of these efforts, O'Bryan says, they came within two days of losing their house. The family did not start getting back on its feet until January 1992, when O'Bryan was hired to teach at Front Range Community College. He now teaches a pair of classes at Metropolitan State College and two more at Front Range. One involves a subject with which he feels he's become very familiar of late: ethics.
O'Bryan says he was willing to keep quiet about his case until he saw a column written by Archbishop Stafford that appeared in the August 10 issue of the Denver Catholic Register, the official publication of the Archdiocese. The article concerned the Church's position on sexual misconduct of Archdiocese employees, but also dealt with protection of those who levy charges of abuse against priests. "I want to assure the people of this Archdiocese," Stafford wrote, "that I am committed to making the Church a place of comfort and security for all the faithful."
"That's hypocritical," O'Bryan says. "He didn't do that in this case. It's dishonest. The institution did not live up to the message of the gospels or to the ideals that it's trying to hold the rest of the world to." He adds, "I'm still a Catholic--they're not going to take that away from me. But I'm a lot more wary."
So, too, is ex-teacher Dennis Powell, who recently found work as a counselor with an Aurora firm that works with the developmentally disabled. Even though his financial situation is not strong (and was made worse by Judge Babcock's order to pay $700 in court costs), he has decided to appeal the dismissal of his lawsuit. "The nonrenewal of my contract was allegedly a reduction in force--it had nothing to do with the Church's rights under the First Amendment," he says. "Whether we win this appeal or not, we want the public to know that an injustice has been done by the Church, and that justice will be rendered by God in time, for an eternity.
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