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Ouster of lay administrator in Seattle prompts dismay, fear of policy shift

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In a distinct departure from past practice in the Seattle archdiocese, the recently appointed archbishop has dismissed, without warning, a lay administrator for two parishes on Vashon Island.

The dismissal has set off a brush fire of rumor and speculation accompanied by charges that diocesan leaders acted without consultation and in a heavy- handed and condescending way toward the laity.

It has also raised fears among some that the archdiocese is in the process of dismantling all nontraditional parish leadership and of overturning procedures formerly used when appointing priests to new posts in the archdiocese.

Similar fears surfaced in Sacramento, Calif., when the diocese abruptly canceled a “commissioning” ceremony that traditionally had been part of the ritual for those graduating from the diocesan lay ministry training program.

Archdiocesan officials in Seattle, however, noted in a statement denying such intent, that two pastoral life directors were recently reappointed to three-year terms, and a third was given a one-year placement.

David M. Giusti, a 42-year-old, pastoral life director for St. Patrick and St. John Vianney Parishes, was informed during a May 29 meeting with Archbishop Alex J. Brunett and Fr. George L. Thomas, vicar general for the archdiocese, that his appointment would not be renewed.

Since 1994, Giusti has been the director of the two parishes on the island, a 20-minute ferry ride from West Seattle.

“I was shocked,” said the father of five, ages two to 16. He said no advance warning had been given and that he has written Brunett asking the archbishop to “reconsider and suspend” the decision.

As a result of Brunett’s action, outgoing and incoming members of one of the Vashon Island parish councils wrote a letter June 8 seeking a session with the archbishop “as soon as possible” to “understand your reasons for making this change.”

In addition, nearly two dozen persons present at the regularly scheduled June 12 meeting of the South Seattle Deanery that includes Vashon agreed to have the dean write the archbishop seeking clarification of the process and his intent in the matter. Attending the meeting were priests and lay people. Some of those attending head special ministries while others represent parish councils.

Giusti’s dismissal is one of the latest in a recent spate of firings and demotions across the country involving lay parish leaders and theologians. In January, a couple serving as pastoral associates in Wisconsin were abruptly fired, although their work seemed to be highly successful (NCR, April 24). The trend has caused some to question whether laity trained for ministry or as educators can find job security in church institutions. Others wonder if church leaders who favor replacing lay leadership have received encouragement from a recent Rome document emphasizing the distinction between the lay and clerical states.

According to Seattle’s archdiocesan public affairs office, Giusti was released because a priest became available. “The archdiocese remains committed to providing resident priests in as many parishes as possible,” said an archdiocesan release.

“Archbishop Brunett is pleased that a priest is available to assume leadership in the Vashon Island parishes ... and is grateful to Mr. David Giusti for his years of service,” the news release said.

Giusti called his removal deeply painful. “It’s not so much like losing a job, but more like being fired from your family.” While the loss of income will be felt, he said, “We are not going to be out on the street. We are blessed in that my wife has a good job” as a cable television advertising executive.

Jesuit Fr. Richard R. Roach was appointed priest administrator of the parishes effective July 1, according to an announcement in the archdiocesan newspaper.

It is widely known that a small group of parishioners, most from St. Patrick Parish, had campaigned against the lay administrator. In addition, persons interviewed mentioned last November’s much-publicized Vatican document that emphasized distinctions between lay and ordained functions. Some felt it might have led to the release of Giusti, the only lay male among the archdiocese’s six pastoral directors.

In its statement, the archdiocese denied that neither parishioner pressure or the Vatican document played a part in Giusti’s dismissal.

“Because we were not aware that an additional priest would be available until late May, the Vashon Island decision left room for speculation and rumor,” said the statement.

After serving three one-year appointments, Giusti said his 1997 contract negotiations were clearly predicated on being granted a three-year term. He insists he was assured by the director of the Priests’ Personnel Office, Fr. Paul Magnano, that the appointment was for three years.

“I asked him if I could publish that,” Giusti said, “and Paul told me yes.” The St. John Vianney Parish annual report issued last fall notes Giusti’s “reappointment for an additional three-year term.”

The archdiocese’s statement said, “The archbishop has indicated ... that if Mr. Giusti produces official documentation” substantiating a three-year appointment “he would be willing to revisit the decision.”

Giusti said he had requested written confirmation “several times” but received none.

Giusti said the archbishop and vicar general instructed him to deal directly with Magnano’s office during the remainder of his tenure as director of the Vashon parishes. Magnano, has not returned repeated phone calls, said Giusti, who added that he fears “the archdiocese might be wanting to make Paul a scapegoat.”

NCR calls to Magnano, Brunett and Thomas were referred to the public affairs office.

Whatever Giusti’s ultimate fate, it is clear that Brunett’s action is a departure from ground rules that previously were in operation in the archdiocese. Under former Archbishops Raymond Hunthausen, who is retired, and Thomas Murphy, who died in June 1997, the long-standing operative principles were due process, collaboration and consultation, local observers said.

But Brunett has made it clear, via his public affairs office, that he does not plan to meet with the St. John Vianney Parish Council members. Such a meeting “is very unlikely,” said the archdiocese’s statement. “As a matter of course, the archbishop doesn’t meet with individual parish pastoral councils.”

St. John Vianney Parish Council President Paul J. Wallrof, whose term ended June 30, said he has talked to the archbishop’s secretary at least three times trying to set up an appointment. “She confirms he does have our letter, but to date we have received no response.”

What if no consultation is scheduled?

“What do you do?” Wallrof responded. “I am pretty sure we are not going to chain ourselves to the door or anything. We will just know we are inconsequential -- that we really do not matter if [the archbishop] does not allow us at least a hearing or an appointment.”

In recent years the archdiocese has posted in advance scheduled pastoral openings. Priests and pastoral life directors could submit their names for open positions. Gatherings were held during which a parish spokesperson would present a synopsis of the parish and its needs.

The Vashon parishes were never notified of the impending move nor was the position posted in the usual fashion.

Giusti receives high marks for his spiritual leadership and administrative skills from members of the St. John Vianney Parish Council, who enumerated his accomplishments in a letter to the archdiocese. They praised his ability to revitalize the parish through renovation projects and with the involvement of younger married couples.

Parish Council member Jo Ann Bardeen called the dismissal a “scandal. There is much concern,” she said, “about whether this means the archdiocese might be planning to replace pastoral life directors. ... They give us all these weighty tomes to read that all talk about lay people being involved. And here on Vashon we had one of the best situations -- strong pastoral leadership by a layman, yet still a priest here for our sacramental lives.”

The teaming of priests, who have other full-time duties, with a pastoral life director as was the case on Vashon is similar to the situation at eight other parishes of the archdiocese headed by its other five pastoral life directors.

John McCoy, an incoming parish council member at St. John Vianney and director of the archdiocese’s public affairs office from 1989 to 1995 called the parish “a stunning place now” and said Giusti’s “sacking” has implications beyond Vashon Island.

“I guess what it says is that the laity are second-class citizens and continue to be, even people of talent and obvious leadership ability -- as long as any priest from anywhere can be substituted for them.”

McCoy and others are skeptical of the claim that sufficient ordained personnel can be recruited to fill parish leadership roles.

The archdiocese’s 1994 document, “Pastoral Care of Parish Communities: A Pastoral Challenge,” states: “The norm for the church in Western Washington has been and is the appointment of a qualified resident priest pastor for each local community. This norm cannot be achieved at this time, nor in the foreseeable future.” The document outlines the archdiocese’s blueprint for providing parishes with ongoing “quality pastoral care,” notably in light of projected declines in numbers of priests.

In its statement, however, the archdiocese said the situation “is better than some earlier projections would lead one to believe. Our latest projections show that we are not looking at a precipitous loss of ordained clergy.”

The statement added that the office of pastoral life director is a “provision role” in which the director “collaborates with the archbishop and priests in their responsibility of providing pastoral care.”

The release noted that the current Catholic population growth “has outpaced our current ability” to provide resident priests to every parish. Among the “strategies” being employed to provide “relief over time” are “redoubling religious vocation efforts”; recruiting religious order and extern priests; “identifying qualified women and men who can collaborate” in pastoral ministry; and “innovative sharing of facilities and personnel to provide pastoral care to several parishes.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998