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An even bigger church scandal

This essay is a bit of a sequel to an article I posted over a year ago. To better understand where I'm coming from in this post, you should first read Inside a church scandal.

I once knew a priest (former, last I checked) who blew the whistle on what had been an ongoing theft of over $300,000 worth of church offering money by a fellow priest who suffered from a serious gambling addiction. The story ended sadly for the whistle blower priest, as he left the priesthood over the situation, very bitter over the way he felt he'd been treated. I do not know this for sure, but I suspect he also left the Catholic Church altogether.

Suppose this embattled former priest went on to start his own nondenominational church. What might that church's perception of its own history be like at the beginning, and then later in fifty years or so when all the original members including the founder were gone?

It just so happens that a different former priest, himself once embroiled in his own church scandal, actually went on to do just that. The former priest is Dale Fushek, the original founder of the LifeTeen Catholic youth movement. The nondenominational church he went on to found is the Praise and Worship Center.

So what happened?

Back in the summer of 1994 I spent some time with a good friend who was living in Mesa, Arizona at the time. That was the summer I spent in Hermosillo, Sonora, and I passed through Tucson quite a bit both before and during this internship. My friend and I visited each other a couple times that summer, and he had to take me to St. Tim's parish, where they had this awesome teen Mass. My friend couldn't stop raving about the celebrant priest or the teen Mass.

And so it happened that I got to attend some of the early LifeTeen Masses and listen to Father Dale's dynamic preaching, and feel some much needed spiritual uplifting from going to Mass. Having grown up in the Catholic charismatic movement I felt right at home with the upbeat and spontaneous worship music which still managed to fit in seamlessly with the order of the Mass. It was at St. Tim's parish that I bought my very first “New Catechism,” within months of it first coming out. I would go on to become a leader in LifeTeen a few years later when the movement spread to my own parish.

Fast forward to about fifteen or so years later. By then I'd moved to Colorado, gotten married and started my family. One very ordinary Saturday evening I walked outside of my current small town church after Mass when a couple I'd never seen approached me. They recognized me as the song leader or cantor.

“It was great to sing that song again,” she exclaimed. The song was I will choose Christ by Tom Booth. It had been a LifeTeen standard and made its way into my church's hymnal.

“Yeah, I learned it from LifeTeen–I was a leader back in graduate school,” I replied.

“Oh were you? That's wonderful,” she said. “We used to attend St. Tim's parish, where it all started. We couldn't get enough of Father Dale and his amazing preaching.”

“I visited there a couple times. I know what you mean,” I replied.

Then she dropped the bomb. “Did you hear what happened to him?”

I hadn't.

She proceeded to tell me that a few years ago there were some allegations of sexual misconduct. That part didn't surprise me. In the thick of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal allegations were flying all over the place.

“So Father Dale was put on administrative leave while they were investigating, and he couldn't preach or celebrate Mass…”

Sounded reasonable to me.

”…But Father Dale just couldn't stop preaching. I mean, he just had to preach. So when he kept preaching anyway, then he got laicized and excommunicated.”

The paid leave came about as a result of the allegations of misconduct. The excommunication came about after Fushek founded his own nondenominational church.

The couple explained that the bishop who excommunicated Fushek was the type who was set in his ways and not open to working with others, including Father Dale. I had heard about Bishop Olmsted before through a colleague of my husband who used to live in his diocese. This colleague described Bishop Olmsted as a “My way or the highway” type of bishop.

After this encounter when I had some spare moments I looked up Dale Fushek to see what I could learn. This involved reading through some pages of the Praise and Worship website, which struck me as a fairly typical nondenominational faith community site, though with a lot more emphasis on unconditional love and acceptance than what you'd expect from a more conventional nondenominational community. It also involved reading through some stories of the allegations themselves.

It appears that out of ten allegations of misconduct only one of them got even close to a conviction–it sounds like it was some sort of deal to accept one count in exchange for the others being dropped.

The impression I got from what I read was that the most believable scenario is that at least some of the stories are true and Fushek had some serious problems while he was a priest. It certainly would not have been unreasonable for Bishop Olmsted to have believed they might be true and relieve him of his priestly duties during the investigation. In fact, that's standard procedure. I have a church job. If someone accused me of anything like that I believe I would be suspended until my name was cleared. Humiliating and all but understandable. Those bishops who did not take those precautions would be forcefully accused, tried, and sentenced for covering up for sexual predators by the media.

However poorly knowledge of sexual misconduct by priests may have been handled by bishops in the past, even the hint of such allegations is taken very seriously today. Bishop Olmsted didn't do anything unreasonable in temporarily suspending Fushek.

But anyway, Fushek got through the legal proceedings, kept running his church, and wrote a book all about his experience and how the Catholic Church, especially Bishop Olmsted, who he claimed represents all that's wrong about the Catholic Church, treated him horribly and was out to get him all along. His church is well attended and seems to be thriving. Dale Fushek is still a dynamic preacher and the music is fabulous.

I personally will never know the entire story, and I don't really care to. One thing I am absolutely certain of, though, is that Fushek and those who followed him to his new church and their spiritual descendants are going to hold to a different version of what happened than Bishop Olmsted and all those who played some part in dealing with the difficult situation resulting from one of the stars of the diocese being accused multiple times of sexual misconduct and then not following their directions.

Fifty to a hundred years from now individuals will be able to decide for themselves what kind of person Dale Fushek was and they can shore up their position by choosing the version of history which best suits them. Some will believe that he was a renegade and rebel and eventual heretic who got exactly what he deserved (or rather, got let off easy compared to what might have happened, say 500 years ago), and that the Catholic authorities in his life did the right thing, especially the part about how they made repeated attempts to work with him on a resolution before taking the nuclear option. Others will believe that the power hungry Catholic Church (as usual in bed with the local authorities) once again couldn't handle a maverick and very effective pastor and they attempted to stifle his calling as preacher by censoring him and sending the police to bully him, that he was mercilessly excommunicated and that much like the prophet Jeremiah who couldn't hold the words of God inside he simply had no alternative but to (reluctantly) found his own church so he could preach freely once again. After all, one of Fushek's more famous quotes is: “I feel like I never left the Catholic Church. They left me.”

Catholicism


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