About 400 people turned out Monday night for a meeting called by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to explain why a popular Gilbert priest was suspended on accusations he broke church law.
Many were dissatisfied with what they felt was an inadequate investigation.
"This is a high-tech lynching," said Jerry McCarty, who attended to the meeting in defense of the Rev. John Cunningham. "They’re trying to silence the more liberal priests."
Cunningham was suspended April 30 from his job as pastor of the St. Mary Magdalene parish after accusations he broke church law by celebrating Mass with a non-Catholic clergyman during a wedding at St. Anne’s Catholic Parish, also in Gilbert.
Staff members at St. Anne’s filed a complaint with the diocese, claiming Cunningham allowed an Anglican priest to play a role reserved for practicing Catholics in the Eucharist, the part of Mass in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed.
"I denied it initially, and I deny it tonight," Cunningham said.
But the Rev. Tim Davern, the diocese’s judicial vicar, said Cunningham told Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted that the second clergyman did read the Gospel and received Holy Communion during the Eucharist.
The couple married at the ceremony told the crowd that they were never contacted in the investigation. The other clergyman, the Rev. Bob Haux of Atlanta, said via cell phone to the group that the diocese never contacted him, either.
"We did leave a message," Davern said. "And I don’t know what more people would want us to do."
The meeting was held in the gym of Williams Community School near Arizona State University East in Mesa. Many in the audience said they would have expected the diocese to investigate more thoroughly before sending the case on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
"I honestly feel that if they had talked to more people who were there, it would never have been sent to Rome," Denise Maurer said.
In a letter read at all Masses at St. Mary Magdalene over the weekend, Olmsted said he has appointed the Rev. Donald Kline as the parish’s interim administrator.
Also in the letter, Olmsted said the results of a preliminary investigation were inconclusive, so he was required to send the case to the Vatican.
Olmsted did not attend Monday’s meeting so as not to jeopardize his role in the investigation.
"He can’t come because of the judicial procedures in the church," diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo West said.
Cunningham is one of nine Catholic priests ordered by Olmsted to remove their names from the "Phoenix Declaration," which said gays and lesbians should be included in all aspects of church life and was signed by 112 pastors.