The soon-to-be Bishop of Fresno, Calif., has filed a lawsuit against a problematic and outspoken priest in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, alleging financial irregularities and violations of diocesan policy on the handling of parish funds. The priest claims he is being unjustly punished for speaking out against homosexuality.
El Paso Bishop Armando Ochoa, named as the new Bishop of Fresno on Dec. 1, issued a press release last week outlining his reasons for filing the lawsuit against Fr. Michael Rodriguez. (A Mass of Installation for Bishop Ochoa is scheduled in Fresno on Feb. 2.)
“As Bishop and shepherd of the Diocese of El Paso, I have a pastoral duty to safeguard the resources of the diocese and each individual parish,” said Bishop Ochoa in the Jan. 11 press release. “This includes a fiduciary responsibility to hold accountable all those who manage the financial affairs of each parish, especially those in administration.”
According to the bishop, Fr. Rodriguez was removed as administrator of San Juan Bautista Parish in El Paso on Sept. 20, 2011 “based on credible information and documents that show that he intentionally and materially failed to comply with the Manual of Policies and Procedures of Parish Finances of the Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso.”
“Fr. Rodriguez’s handling and use of donated funds has compromised the financial integrity of San Juan Bautista,” Bishop Ochoa said in the press release. “I have appealed repeatedly to Fr. Rodriguez to make a complete disclosure and a thorough accounting of his financial administration of the parish but he has refused to do so.”
The bishop said Fr. Rodriguez’s refusal to provide financial information left him with no alternative but to take the “extraordinary measure” of filing a lawsuit against the priest and his brother, David Rodriguez.
The suit seeks a full accounting of San Juan Bautista’s finances during Fr. Rodriguez’s tenure there and recovery of “any funds that may have been misappropriated.”
“Fr. Rodriguez and those acting in concert with him, had no right to appropriate for themselves funds donated to the parish…” said the bishop’s press release. “We are mere administrators of the Church’s temporal goods and we all must be accountable for all things entrusted to us.”
Bishop Ochoa and Fr. Rodriguez have been at odds since 2010, when the priest began attending city council meetings to speak out against homosexuality. Fr. Rodriguez also authored several opinion pieces in the El Paso Times critical of the El Paso City Council for extending health insurance to all employees regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.
When Fr. Rodriguez became involved in a recall campaign against some in city government responsible for that policy, Bishop Ochoa removed him as parish administrator. “This type of intervention in the political process by religious organizations such as the Diocese of El Paso and San Juan Bautista Church is not permitted under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code,” said Bishop Ochoa in a statement issued at the time.
Fr. Rodriguez denies any wrongdoing and vows to fight on.
“It is unfortunate that Bishop Armando Ochoa, Administrator of the Diocese of El Paso and no longer our bishop, has decided to pursue legal action against me,” he said in a Jan. 12 statement. “Such legal action is unjust.”
“Over the course of 9 1/2 years as the parish priest of San Juan Bautista Catholic Church, I poured my heart and soul into caring for this parish, both in terms of temporal goods, and especially spiritual goods,” continued Fr. Rodriguez. “I'm confident that hundreds of my former parishioners will eagerly testify to this.”
“In his January 11, 2012, press release, Bishop Ochoa stated, ‘Fr. Rodriguez’s handling and use of donated funds has compromised the financial integrity of San Juan Bautista.’ This is not true,” said the embattled priest. “Bishop Ochoa's statement also refers to ‘Fr. Rodriguez's mishandling of funds.’ Again, this is not true. I have always honored, respected, and made good use of the financial patrimony of San Juan Bautista. I stake my entire reputation on this claim.”
According to Fr. Rodriguez, he met with Bishop Ochoa on Sept. 20, 2011, and “opened my heart to my bishop, like a son to a father, and was completely honest and forthcoming with him as to the financial affairs of San Juan Bautista. I told him everything. He chose not to believe me… I have never misappropriated or misused parish funds.”
Fr. Rodriguez said “the real reason” for Bishop Ochoa’s lawsuit against him “is due to my defense of the Catholic Church's teaching with regard to homosexuality as well as my adherence to the Roman Liturgy of 1962.” He said he would “continue to proclaim and teach the truths of the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the area of sexual morality, no matter the cost” and would also “continue to adhere to the Ancient Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, no matter the cost.”