January 7, 2005
Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s action to remove the Rev. John Cunningham as pastor of the Gilbert parish he founded in 2002 has infuriated parishioners who say the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has been unwilling to hear their appeals of support for the veteran priest.
The parishioners of St. Mary Magdalene say the new bishop targeted Cunningham because he is a progressive, liberal priest who embraces diversity.
Cunningham, 55, was first suspended from his duties on April 30 on accusations he violated church law by performing a wedding last spring at nearby St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Gilbert in which he allegedly permitted an Anglican priest from Georgia to have a role in the rite of Eucharist, or communion. Such "concelebration" violates Catholic canon law.
On Tuesday, Cunningham, a priest since 1974, received a four-sentence letter from the bishop saying he was being removed from his pastorate. Olmsted said his actions were based on the same reasons when he asked the priest to resign in a Nov. 30 letter. That day, the Rev. Fred Adamson, vicar general, announced that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office would be conducting an investigation of alleged irregularities of the parish’s financial records. The priest also was accused of failing to set up a parish finance committee to oversee church spending, which the priest and parishioners have disputed.
"The bogus charges created by the diocese have succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of a 30-year priest and scholar," said parishioner Tom Schildgen. "John Cunningham’s forward-thinking and ability to embrace diversity is a threat to the bishop’s narrow perspective of the Catholic religion."
Schildgen said he tried six times last summer to call Olmsted about the issues but he "was insulated, and I was never able to talk to him."
A spokeswoman at the diocese Thursday said nothing would be said further about Cunningham until a bishop’s letter is read at the Saturday and Sunday Masses at St. Mary Magdalene explaining the action.
"He will be clarifying everything in a letter to the parishioners," said Rebecca Gonzales from the diocese.
Last May, Olmsted asked a Vatican office to review the diocesan findings regarding what took place in the April wedding, but it is not publicly known whether the bishop had received the requested information before taking action to fire Cunningham this week.
Reached by phone Thursday, Cunningham said that he was following the advice of his attorney and brother, James Cunningham, "that I shouldn’t comment until further down the line. The saga just continues."
The Anglican priest allegedly involved in the Eucharist rite, the Rev. Bob Haux, pastor of St. Andrews Parish in LaGrange, Ga., has denied that he concelebrated with Cunningham.
"I am appalled at the treatment that Father Cunningham has received," he said Thursday when told of the dismissal. "I find his manner of treatment to be highly ironic in light of the slogan at St. Anne’s Parish in Gilbert: ‘At every moment, do what love requires.’"
Meanwhile, for months, the suspended priest has been attending the 10:40 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Mary Magdalene, which meets temporarily in the Williams Community School gym at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa until a permanent campus is completed. There Cunningham is surrounded by about 40 supportive parishioners wearing green ribbons.
Parishioner Ray Rafford, former building committee chairman, said he expected a "tremendous reaction" when the bishop’s letter is read this weekend. Both Rafford and Schildgen said parishioners have quit the parish and tithes are being withheld in protest, but large Catholic population growth in Gilbert is replenishing numbers.
The Rev. Donald Kline was named interim pastor at the parish after Cunningham’s suspension.