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Traditional priest removed by Cdl. Cupich: I’m ‘innocent of accusations’

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CHICAGO, Illinois, July 5, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – While inconsistencies and questions persist in the removal from ministry of Father Frank Phillips, CR, by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, the traditional priest has publicly declared that he is innocent of all accusations.

Last week statements made by a representative of the Archdiocese of Chicago as to why Cupich is withholding Phillips’ faculties did not square with the findings of a review board directed by Cupich to investigate the priest for alleged misconduct - the review board reportedly concluding that Phillips had not violated any secular criminal, civil or canon law. 

Then on Friday the superior for Phillips’ religious congregation issued an odd letter stating reports of Phillips’ exoneration by the review board were “without foundation,” despite his having written an opinion in May after the review board’s findings that Philips should be restored to full canonical faculties and also restored as superior of his local religious community. 

Then later the same day Phillips released a statement announcing that he would “be returning to serve God in any capacity under the direction of the Provincial of the Congregation of the Resurrection to build up the Kingdom of God.” 

“My prayers were answered when the review board returned its finding of no criminal violation, civil violation, or canonical violation in my case,” he stated. “The review board found me innocent of the accusations which I have vehemently denied.”

Phillips also said there was a misunderstanding on his status, and that his faculties were suspended by Cupich only in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Cupich removed Phillips in March as pastor for St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago and superior of the associated order, the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, allegedly for “credible accusations of improper conduct involving adult males."

Because Phillips is a member of the Resurrectionist Congregation, the investigation was assigned to his religious community, which appointed the independent review board to hear and consider evidence. 

The review board was then to prepare written findings for the appropriate canonical authority, in this case, Cupich, with any recommendation for action coming from Father Gene Szarek, the Resurrectionists’ superior.

A June 20 press statement from Protect Our Priests, the independent group of parishioners and supporters of Phillips,’ announced that Phillips had been exonerated, referencing both the review board’s findings and Szarek’s written opinion on the matter.

“The Review Board has concluded that Fr. Phillips has not violated any secular criminal, civil or canon law,” the group’s June 20 statement said.

“Fr. Phillips, having been exonerated thusly, and this in turn confirmed by the votum of The Rt. Rev. Gene Szarek, C.R., Ph.D. Provincial Superior of the Congregation of the Resurrection upon receipt of the Review Board Report. We now prayerfully await the response of His Eminence, Blase Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, for the return of our pastor,” the group stated.

Cupich, however, declined to return Phillips’ faculties, the announcement of which came via a one-sentence statement in a June 24 letter signed by Father Szarek included in St. John Cantius bulletins.

“We accept the Archdiocese’s decision that Fr. Phillips’ faculties for public ministry will remain withdrawn and that he not return as pastor of St John Cantius and as Superior of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius,” was all parishioners were given in the way of an explanation.

Comments from archdiocesan spokeswoman Paula Waters then appeared in the June 25 Chicago Tribune and are shown below:

Although Phillips was not found to have violated any church or secular law, archdiocese spokeswoman Paula Waters said there was other information that warranted his removal and a continued ban on his administering sacraments in public within the archdiocese. Waters declined to detail the findings against Phillips.

“There are standards for behavior,” Waters said. The review board “did not recommend that he be returned as the pastor of St. John Cantius. And so, based on their recommendation that he not return and on other factors, the cardinal decided that his faculties to minister would remain withdrawn.”

The comments by the archdiocesan spokeswoman “were extremely misleading and arguably constituted outright falsehood,” Catholic blogger Oakes Spalding, a member of the parish, wrote on his blog. “The archdiocese has all along appeared selectively unforthcoming about the entire matter. A blunt observer might be excused for concluding that it is now lying.”

Spalding posted the text of the recommendation or votum (opinion) written by Father Szarek in its entirety. The votum is the cover letter for the 22-page document of conclusions of the three-person review board - a judge, an attorney, and a psychologist – compiled after two days of testimony on misconduct allegations against Phillips.

Spalding has had proximity to the Father Phillips case as it has unfolded and been an exclusive source for some of the pertaining information in the case. He said as well the Protect our Priests press statement would have been written by someone who’s read the review board findings. 

Along with the votum text, Spalding remarked on the review board’s findings, presumably having seen them himself, indicating that they support Phillips’ exoneration and suggest the likelihood the charges against him were at least in part politically motivated.

Spalding then went on in his blog to detail inaccuracies in Waters’ statements on the findings and Father Szarek’s May 21 votum.

Waters said that the review board “did not recommend” that Phillips be returned as pastor of St. John Cantius, and that “based on their recommendation that he not return and on other factors, the cardinal decided that his faculties to minister would remain withdrawn.” 

“Actually, the Review Board made no recommendation either way. It was not their role to do so,” Spalding said. “But it did claim as part of the findings that the original accusations were not credible. Waters did not mention that.”

Additionally, said Spalding, “If you read the Votum carefully, Father Szarek’s recommendation that Father Phillips not return was based only on two things; "the Cardinal's own preference," and Phillips' age. 

The former was a misleading basis for the archdiocesan spokeswoman to independently justify the cardinal’s recent decision to keep Phillips withdrawn from ministry, he said, and Phillips being 68 years old means he is less than two years away from mandatory retirement as a pastor. 

“Because of a certain amount of ambiguity between the allegations of the accusers and the testimony of witnesses, including Fr. Phillips himself, I will be instructing Fr. Phillips to undertake a psychological assessment and possible sensitivity training in the very near future,” Father Szarek stated in the votum.

Spalding noted that if the behavior implied in that statement were serious enough, it presumably would have been cited by the archdiocese in the cardinal’s reasoning for maintaining his withdrawal of Phillips.

The findings do show that Phillips arguably exhibited imprudence and/or bad judgment in a number of areas, Spalding said, though he did not include them in his post.

“As for the original charges made by the accusers, the findings were quite clear that they were not credible,” said Spalding.

“I think a fair reading of the findings exonerates Fr. Phillips from the sort of sexual activity or wrongdoing, including homosexual relationships and homosexual advances or behavior, that people have imagined might constitute ‘inappropriate conduct,’ he said. “In addition, to put it more bluntly for these charged times, the findings do not establish or even indicate that Fr. Phillips is or might be homosexual.”

The Protect Our Priests press release had also cited the "mendacity, falsehoods, spitefulness and malevolent connivance" of the accusers. 

Two things were not mentioned by Waters in her comments on why Cupich was keeping Phillips from ministry: One was that Father Szarek had recommended both that Phillips be restored to full canonical faculties and the other was that Phillips remain as superior of the Canons Regular.

“One might argue that Ms. Waters had no obligation to mention those points, though, obviously, using only one part of the votum to support a decision that contradicted the recommendations of most of the votum is misleading spin of the highest level,” Spalding stated. “Is this how the Archdiocese would publicly conduct itself?”

Spalding had also reported that a source inside the religious hierarchy confirmed for him that it was Cupich - and not Fr. Szarek - who wrote the June 24 letter to St. John Cantius parishioners, calling it a terse note, announcing that Phillips would not be allowed to return to public ministry and that he’d seen documentary evidence of this.

“The letter] was constructed in concert with Cardinal Cupich," the source said, adding that other internet reports claiming [Szarek's] authority on it were 'fake news.'

Then came Szarek’s June 29 letter, which oddly stated, “I wish to reaffirm what I wrote to the parishioners of St. John Cantius, namely that I accept the decisions of the Archdiocese of Chicago regarding Father Frank C. Phillips, C.R.”

He then went on to state, “The reports that the Independent Review Board exonerated Fr. Phillips are without foundation.”  

In addition to Phillips’ explicit profession of innocence Friday directly contradicting Szarek’s letter that day stating that “reports that an Independent Review Board exonerated Fr. Phillips are without foundation,” Spalding noted another contrast between Szarek’s June 29 letter and his earlier one from June 24.    

Szarek wrote June 29 that “Father Phillips will receive support and care by the Congregation of the Resurrection,” wherein the previous letter signed by him “but written by or under the authority of Cardinal Cupich” said, Phillips “will be receiving support and will reside at a Resurrectionist facility away from your parish.”

This earlier statement inferred a confined existence would be ahead for Phillips, which conflicts with Phillips’ Friday statement, in which Phillips had said, “I am returning to serve God in any capacity under the direction of the Provincial of the Congregation of the Resurrection to build up the Kingdom of God.”

Phillips’ statement also dispelled the idea that Cupich had stopped him from functioning as a priest anywhere but in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and let it be known he was consulting with “other Church leaders.”

“I am currently in Rome engaged in consultations with the Congregation of the Resurrection and other Church leaders,” he said. “I have heard there is a misunderstanding concerning my status. Currently, by decree of Cardinal Cupich my faculties are suspended only in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I am free to continue in my calling to serve God in all other geographical locations on the planet. Therefore, I will continue to say Mass for you daily and petition for reconciliation with the Cardinal.”

Spalding noted that Phillips’ press release did not theoretically contradict any of the statements the Chicago archdiocese has made in the case, except for the claim that the allegations were "credible" in the first place.

This is because that although the archdiocese has taken clear actions in the case, he said, it has said very little, or very little of substance, instead speaking in vague terms, dropping hints or making insinuations, “or use(ing) others - Fr. Szarek - to do its speaking for it.”

Spalding added that the archdiocese took something that might have been much more easily resolved, presumably a fair investigation leading to a dismissal of not credible charges, and “instead created something much bigger,” leaving its credibility in the matter “quite low.”

In his press statement, Phillips thanked Szarek, “for providing an independent review board to examine the accusations against” him, and he thanked the members of the review board “who spent hours listening to the accusers as well as individuals who gave testimony of the facts and on behalf of (his) character.” 

“I assure you I have done nothing that would scandalize the faithful,” Phillips stated.

Phillips is pursuing a canon law case seeking reinstatement.

The GoFundMe page established for Father Phillips legal defense and the Protect Our Priests website have combined fundraising efforts to facilitate tax-deductible status.

The text of the votum is below:

Congregation of the Resurrection

Gene Szarek, C.R., Ph.D. Provincial Superior USA Province

VOTUM

OF THE PROVINCIAL SUPERIOR IN THE MATTER OF FATHER FRANK PHILLIPS, C.R.

21 May 2018

In response to the findings of the Independent Review Board (which follow), I propose the following resolution:

1)  IMMEDIATE ASSESSMENT: Because of a certain amount of ambiguity between the allegations of the accusers and the testimony of witnesses, including Fr. Phillips himself, I will be instructing Fr. Phillips to undertake a psychological assessment and possible sensitivity training in the very near future.

2)  PASTORATE: Because of his age (68) and out of respect for the Cardinal's own preference, I judge that Fr. Phillips should not return to the parish as its pastor.

3)  CANONICAL FACULTIES: Because no civil or ecclesiastical crime has been established. It's seems fair and just to restore the canonical faculties of Fr. Phillips. His accusers, when asked what should happen to Fr. Phillips as a result of their accusation, thought that his removal from the parish was all that they desired (see report, in various places).

4) SUPERIOR GENERALSHIP: This is a sensitive issue. As Founder of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, the ideal would be his restoration as their superior general. Because the Canons are ordained for the Archdiocese of Chicago and because all major superiors of men merely recommend or nominate priests for appointments, which are made only by the authority of the Archbishop, there is no fear that Fr. Phillips could possibly interfere in some way with the decisions of the Archbishop. The historical reality of his being the Founder and his ongoing provision of spiritual leadership would be salutary for all. He would obviously not reside at the parish (see #2, above), but at some place determined by his Resurrectionist major superior. If the above recommendation is unfeasible, then at least he and the Canons should not be prevented from communication.

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