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‘Covenant’ provokes dispute in Fargo

NCR Staff

A decision to impose a code of forbidden conduct on church employees has triggered a crisis in a Catholic social services agency in the Fargo, N.D., diocese, where eight employees have either resigned or been fired, 18 have hired a lawyer to represent them and 14 diocesan priests have created a legal defense fund to support the employees.

The agency, Catholic Family Services, has a total staff of 33. The eight who have left include three of the four senior managers.

Bishop James Sullivan’s “Covenant of Responsible Service,” announced in mid-May as obligatory for all diocesan personnel, lists behaviors contrary to Catholic teaching, requires employees to promise they have not engaged in those behaviors and directs them to indicate exceptions in writing on the back of the form.

The document offered a “non-exhaustive or non-taxative list of examples” of forbidden conduct, including: “Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, rape, pederasty, exhibitionism, voyeurism, homosexuality, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, impregnation of a woman or being impregnated outside wedlock whether a consenting adult or not, sexual harassment, embezzlement of funds and the like.”

Among the employees who say they were forced out is a Democratic state senator with a 100 percent pro-life voting record in the North Dakota legislature, known to local media as a close ally of the state’s Catholic conference. Diocesan officials say the senator, Tim Mathern, a 27-year veteran of the agency, resigned; Mathern told NCR he was fired.

Sullivan announced in late June a plan to mediate the dispute by bringing in “reconciliation specialists” from the Catholic Charities office in the Lincoln, Neb., diocese.

While sources say widespread reluctance to sign the covenant precipitated the crisis at Catholic Family Services, two other factors also played a role: the impact of a new executive director and a more aggressive effort on the part of Sullivan to assert the Catholic identity of institutions within the diocese.

Sources told NCR that Sullivan thought Catholic Family Services, because it provided reproductive counseling and because it was governed by an independent board, was insufficiently “Catholic.”

“That’s what’s implied,” said Fr. David Pillon of Wild Rice, N.D., one of the 14 priests supporting the employees. “You get the sense the bishop felt they’re not tied in closely enough to the chancery.”

Because of the controversy, the covenant -- designed to insulate the diocese from liability for employee misconduct -- has been “tabled” pending review.

A four-page opinion from the chair of the canon law department at The Catholic University of America, meanwhile, concluded that the covenant was useless in terms of civil law and was itself a clear violation of canon law.

The 18 employees are also protesting what their lawyer calls the “intolerable working conditions” created by new executive director Bill Kurpius-Brock, who took office April 1. Those conditions include, according to attorney Mark Schneider, a lack of attention to the professional requirements of social work and a demeaning attitude toward coworkers.

A diocesan spokesperson denied that anyone was fired or threatened at Catholic Family Services. “The employees were encouraged to provide suggestions and feedback [about the covenant] to the bishop, and no one has done that,” the spokesperson told NCR.

Catholic Family Services offers programs including adoption services, foster care, guardianship and day care on Indian reservations. Most funding comes from the state; during a two-year period ending June 30, a contract for guardianship services generated $991,425 in public money for the agency.

The controversy seems to be taking a toll. Another employee who left Catholic Family Services has said he may create a rival agency to bid for state business. A contract previously held by Catholic Family Services, for special needs adoption services, has already been transferred to the Lutheran social services agency. Though state officials would not comment, some observers see a connection between the decision to shift the contract and the current turmoil.

Adding to an already bitter dispute, an attorney for the diocese threatened in a June 29 letter to Schneider to pursue legal action against former employees who “competed unfairly” by subverting Catholic Family Services in order to steal its contracts.

The attorney for the diocese, John Boulger of Fargo, did not return calls seeking comment.

In a document described as a “rationale” that accompanied the covenant, Sullivan said the church should not be held accountable if an employee commits acts it opposes. “Persons should not be allowed to collect prodigious sums simply because there is a church or corporation somewhere in the background to be sued,” Sullivan wrote.

Fr. John Beal of Catholic University, however, called the covenant “useless” in protecting the church from liability in a review written at Mathern’s request.

In cases where dioceses have been hit with judgments for employee misconduct, Beal said it is not because courts believed they approved of the misconduct but because church officials were negligent in preventing it. The covenant, Beal said, “does nothing to enhance protection from liability ... because of negligent hiring, retention or supervision.”

Beal especially objected to the requirement that employees admit past wrongdoing on the form. “Canon law prohibits ecclesiastical superiors from requiring manifestations of conscience from their subjects,” he said.

Pillon said this was a major concern in Fargo, “even for priests one would normally think of as the bishop’s men. ... They saw this as a backdoor way around the sanctity of the confessional.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999