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Dissidents call for accounting at two Phoenix Hispanic churches

NCR Staff

Three months after some 70 parishioners from two Phoenix churches marched on diocesan offices in Phoenix, calling for Bishop Thomas O’Brien and their pastor, Fr. Saul Madrid, to resign, Madrid said he will step down in January.

Madrid, pastor of two predominantly Hispanic parishes, Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Anthony, told reporters Nov. 12 that fatigue and the parishes’ unwillingness to share their pastor were the real issues that led to his resignation.

The protracted controversy over the priest has divided Hispanics and pitted some longtime prominent members of the city’s deeply rooted Hispanic community against the bishop.

Christian Faithful, the dissident group that organized the protest, has cited, among reasons Madrid should resign, financial irregularities at both parishes, the priest’s decision to fire the finance council at Immaculate Heart, and his removal of pews and statues from St. Anthony. Particularly disturbing, they said, was Madrid’s decision to take a small role in a sexually explicit R-rated movie. One scene, in which vulgarities are spoken before a statue of Jesus, was filmed inside St. Anthony Church. Attendance and donations, they say, are dramatically down at both parishes.

Julian Sodari, a member of Christian Faithful, parishioner at St. Anthony and community organizer, told NCR that the bishop should resign because, “he doesn’t have the leadership to be where he is.” Numerous letters to the bishop have gone unanswered, he said. The diocese and Madrid did not return phone messages to NCR regarding this story.

During the mile-long march from Immaculate Heart to the diocesan center on Aug. 11, some people carried signs that said, “O’Brien: Thou Shalt Not Ignore Us!” and “Victims of Immaculate Heartbreak!”

Now, though Madrid has resigned, Sodari says his group’s mission is incomplete. “We want an accounting of all that’s happened,” he said.

Public protest about Madrid began in summer 1999 when Madrid, pastor at St. Anthony since 1994, was also assigned to Immaculate Heart.

“Fr. Saul has charisma,” Sodari said, explaining how Madrid became pastor at both parishes. A Mexican native who speaks fluent Spanish, he is well regarded in the diocese and holds the good will of many parishioners and others in the Hispanic community. In many cases, “Saul could make changes without complaint,” Sodari said.

But Catholics in the Hispanic community became alarmed at changes made after a fire in December 1994 that caused an estimated $150,000 in damage to St. Anthony’s interior. Madrid oversaw renovations to the church in consultation with liturgical experts. A few of the changes are incomplete more than five years after the fire. Chairs replaced pews, the number of confessionals and statues near the altar was reduced, and the stations of the cross are gone.

Pediatrician Manuel Seda, a longtime Immaculate Heart parishioner whose office is located between the parishes, told NCR, “Walking into St. Anthony now is like walking into a Baptist church.”

Furthermore, Madrid has not accounted to parishioners for how large sums of money intended for restoration were spent. Insurance compensated the parish for the fire and Sodari, who was on the parish council, said $500,000 was raised for more extensive repairs. If $150,000 was spent on restoration, where did the rest of the money go? he asked.

According to Sodari, Madrid’s changes to the church went beyond architecture. Before the fire, “there were festivities at every traditional feast day and in Lent, and we celebrated in great tradition the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said. “But since St. Anthony burnt, everything is totally different.”

When O’Brien had announced Madrid’s appointment in summer 1999 as pastor of Immaculate Heart, Sodari and others formed Christian Faithful to oppose the appointment. Madrid became pastor in July 1999, even though a petition with 6,000 signatures was presented to the diocese asking for a different priest.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, finished in 1928 and known as the “cathedral of Hispanics,” was built as Phoenix’s first Hispanic parish. Previously, Spanish Masses were held only in the basement of St. Mary’s, the only church in downtown Phoenix at the time. Many Hispanics still travel across the large metropolitan area to attend Mass at Immaculate Heart.

Among other complaints cited by Madrid’s opponents:

  • One of his first actions at Immaculate Heart, according to the Phoenix New Times, was to tell staff members to reapply for their jobs. The New Times is an alternative paper that published an extensive report on the situation at the two parishes in its Aug. 12 issue.
  • Before Madrid, the finance council at Immaculate Heart had been allowed to see all records. Under him, financial records have been withheld.
  • Madrid took the unusual step of creating two separate groups to count donations from Sunday Masses, with the result that only he would know the weekly total.
  • Two popular associate priests were successively removed from work at St. Anthony and Immaculate Heart after clashing with Madrid and one of his friends, Martin Piña. According to the New Times, Piña, a friend of Madrid’s, was involved in a business venture with him in 1999, as part owner of a hair salon.

Piña was provided keys to both parishes, even though he didn’t work in either, and was involved in conflicts with parishioners as well as associate priests.

O’Brien has continued to back Madrid. In fall 1999, after finance council members wrote O’Brien expressing their concerns, the bishop set up a meeting between Madrid and the council. The council asked Madrid to bring financial records to the meeting. He brought only a statement of the previous month’s collections and denied the finance council access to other records. When finance council members complained to O’Brien, he suggested in a return letter that they resign. Less than a month later, Madrid fired the five-member finance council in a letter of his own. Quoting from their letter to the bishop, he said, their “deep mistrust” of him would make them incapable of fulfilling their ministry.

In the early morning hours after Palm Sunday April 17, in what Sodari said is still hard to accept as coincidence, a fire broke out at Immaculate Heart, similar to the fire that damaged St. Anthony more than five years ago. The fire caused $2 million in damage to the interior of the church. Because the church fire is being investigated as a possible hate crime, the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were brought in. Madrid, among the last people in the building before the fire started, was questioned, and reportedly passed a lie detector test about whether he played a part in starting the fire.

While full insurance claims have been paid, and investigators think it likely that the fire was accidental, no cause has been determined.

Once again, following a fire, Madrid was in charge of an extensive renovation project of what had been an ornate Hispanic Catholic church. Again some parishioners raised questions about financial accountability regarding restoration funds.

Earlier this year, parishioners learned that Madrid had taken an acting part in the R-rated “14 Ways to Wear Lipstick.” Madrid accepted a small role in the film as a priest who counsels a crime boss about his relationship with his son. The movie, the New Times reported, includes “full-frontal male nudity, graphic sodomy, and numerous displays of extreme violence.” Madrid allowed a scene to be shot inside St. Anthony Church in which a character uses vulgarities in front of a statue of Jesus.

Some three weeks after the long report of all Madrid’s troubles in New Times, the priest offered an apology from the pulpit at both churches about his role in the film. He told parishioners, “I, like you, stand in God’s mercy.”

Less than three weeks later, Bishop O’Brien in the Sept. 7 edition of The Catholic Sun, the diocesan paper, called for a halt to the “unrelenting stream of criticism and suspicion regarding Fr. Saul Madrid.” O’Brien acknowledged that Madrid had used “incredibly poor judgment” in regard to the film.

O’Brien further noted in the statement that the diocese periodically audits parish finances. O’Brien wrote that an audit was underway at Madrid’s two parishes. So far, O’Brien has said nothing publicly about results.

He did, however, issue a statement Nov. 12 saying he had accepted Madrid’s resignation. He noted that Madrid had made mistakes “for which he has apologized.”

A TV news crew from the NBC affiliate KPNX in Phoenix spoke on camera with Madrid outside one of the churches following his resignation announcement. The interviewer asked Madrid if he regretted appearing in “14 Ways to Wear Lipstick.”

“No,” he responded.

The diocese’s communications director, Marge Injasoulian, then interrupted the interview. In an exchange with the reporter, Injasoulian threatened to file FCC charges against the station for “character assassination.”

Sodari told NCR that several local news outlets had left him messages inquiring about the resignation. He said, “It’s embarrassing that a priest from our congregation had to leave in these circumstances.” But, he said, “we have to talk to [the diocese] through the media because they won’t communicate with us.”

Gill Donovan’s e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000