Somebody Up There Doesn't Like Him

Speaking calmly, as a humble martyr should, Archbishop Steven Thomas, whose "university" once granted a degree in Christian counseling to a Denver newscaster's dog, insists that he's a victim of religious persecution spearheaded by the attorney general's office.

In the latest twist to a long-running battle between Thomas and Colorado authorities, his critics in the secular world say they are "praying" to find evidence against him. And the archbishop has now launched a counterattack in court. Late last month, Arapahoe County Sheriff Patrick Sullivan was served by a summons in a civil suit filed by Thomas, former head of the Mercian Orthodox Church in Aurora. The suit alleges that Thomas suffered medical negligence while he was an inmate of the Arapahoe County jail last spring.

Thomas also has opened a second front against the government. The brothers of St. Mark's Seminary in Motley, Minnesota, have filed a federal suit in Denver against Attorney General Gale Norton's office, claiming that prosecutors have harassed and intimidated Thomas in an attempt to destroy his credibility and his church.

"There's absolutely no validity to their claims," says Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Weishauple. The archbishop, however, says these suits are only the beginning.

Thomas is carrying on this crusade against Colorado officials mostly by long distance--he works as a telemarketer in Minnesota. But the archbishop may end up back in jail before these suits even get to court. He faces trial in Colorado this summer on theft charges related to the disappearance of office equipment from his now-closed Notre Dame de Lafayette University, which some officials contend was little more than a diploma mill.

Accusations like that wound Anthony Santerano, one of the Mercian brothers at the church's St. Mark's Seminary. Santerano describes himself as "tarnished and rough around the edges, kind of a punk"--at least he did before he met the archbishop.

"Father Steve is an understanding, generous, educated and warm-hearted man," says Santerano. "He took an insecure person like myself and made me a strong-minded, decent member of society. Father Steve helped me find something in myself that I wouldn't have found without him. I really don't see why everybody is against Father Steve, because he'll give you a chance. He'll walk with you and give you the tools and positive reinforcement to resolve whatever you need to. He has never even had a traffic ticket, and now people are trying to make him look like a criminal. I'll do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn't happen."

Thomas, 45, has been called a "flimflam man," but he denies it. He ascribes his problems to a conspiracy of disgruntled ex-church members, dietitians, journalists and prosecutors.

The ringleader, according to Thomas, is Anthony Dyl, an assistant attorney general in Colorado. Dyl says the state's interest in Thomas was piqued in the early Nineties when students of Thomas's Notre Dame de Lafayette University, primarily a correspondence school, began complaining of alleged irregularities. When Dyl, who represented state education officials at the time, expressed concern to the school's administrators, he recalls, the school started putting the word "pastoral" on its diplomas. "Students were confused when they thought they were studying psychology," says Dyl, "and then got a diploma that said 'pastoral psychology.'"

The school also stirred opposition from dietitians who objected to its granting of degrees in their field. The final straw came in 1993, when KUSA-TV reporter Paula Woodward enrolled her golden retriever, Samantha, in the school. Samantha received a degree in Christian counseling.

Thomas claims the Samantha affair was "a form of entrapment" carefully timed by his critics to coincide with the archbishop's hospitalization for thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura. "It happened one time because it was not checked," he said of the dog's diploma. "It's almost like they knew when I was going to be in the hospital."

Thomas's thrombosis would flare up again--and so would more trouble for the archbishop. Last year, just before the Mercians packed up for Minnesota, one of the school's employees ordered nearly $25,000 worth of computer and office supplies. After the equipment was delivered to the school, it was reported stolen, and church officials filed an insurance claim for the lost equipment.

Arapahoe County DA Ted McElroy says police became suspicious that a theft had even taken place. It turned out, authorities say, that the missing equipment had been shipped to Minnesota. Thomas was charged with theft and jailed last spring in Arapahoe County. He and another church member are scheduled for trial in July on those charges.

The archbishop insists he's innocent. He blames an ex-member for the equipment scam and says the wrongdoer has been "excommunicated."

But Thomas's future is even further clouded by an ongoing investigation by postal inspectors. George Andrews of the U.S. Postal Service says a ten-month probe of possible mail fraud remains open because authorities still lack testimony from a church insider. Officials hope the pressure of the upcoming theft trial will prompt somebody to talk. "We're praying for that one element to put the case together," he says. "What makes this case difficult is that some people actually did work for their degrees both in the classroom and through the mail. Those who didn't do any work at all just don't want to come forward."

Thomas, in his counterattack, is not reticent to press his own case against various government officials. He claims his pleas for medical care for his thrombotic condition were ignored by jail officials last year; that's why he's seeking $15,000 in damages. And his church members want more than $4 million for the state government's alleged harassment.

Sadly, Thomas says he's the victim of people "who have an ax to grind." Assistant Attorney General Dyl says Thomas is nothing of the kind. "He has really personalized everything thaR>tR>'R>sR> going on as some sort of crusade," notes Dyl.

But Thomas insists on taking the high road. The conspirators against him, he says, include former church members whom he excommunicated because they were involved in situations that were "morally or ethically unsound."

The archbishop adds, "We're up here trying to save what's left of our church--thanks to Mr. Dyl.

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Elana Ashanti Jefferson