St Mary of the Angels has had a history of dissent, most recently before this crisis with the resignation of the previous rector, Fr Wilcox, whose involvement in a cult-like get-rich-quick scheme divided the parish in 2006. Some bad feeling over this episode probably remained and fueled disagreements over the parish's direction as it went through discernment over the Patrimony of the Primate and applying to join the US Ordinariate in 2010 and 2011. A number of long-term members had divorces and remarriages, which would have complicated their efforts to become Catholic; some had also been raised Catholic and did not wish to return. While these issues probably underlay their objections to the Ordinariate, they focused in public on presumptive irregularities by the new rector, Fr Kelley, in order to widen the base of dissent. (No court has subsequently found any financial irregularity on Fr Kelley's part.)
Bishop Stephen Strawn of the ACA Diocese of the Missouri Valley had a history of identifying potential parish disputes, intervening with dissident parties to stir them up further (the opposite of a bishop's actual responsibility), and then using such a dispute as an excuse to try to seize at least one parish in Texas. In this, he was unsuccessful, but the pattern he followed in Texas would be repeated at St Mary of the Angels. Although the bishop ordinary for St Mary's during 2011 was David Moyer, Strawn communicated with parish dissidents during this time and, based on a discussion I had with Patrick Omeirs in December 2011, developed a plan with them to seize the parish before it could be received into the Ordinariate. It appears, based on remarks from Omeirs and Msgr William Stetson, that Louis Falk was also aware of this plan, tacitly supported it, and passed a letter with 40 pages of ungrammatical and wild allegations about Fr Kelley to Cardinal Donald Wuerl on behalf of the dissidents. (Falk himself appears to have secretly reversed his own public stance in favor of joining the Ordinariate and would have had motive to try to derail it -- his role here has never been fully established.)
In January of 2012, the ACA House of Bishops dissolved the Patrimony of the Primate and, via a letter on its website, effectively told the former Patrimony parishes and clergy that they were no longer part of the ACA. Parishes and clergy who had changed their minds about the Ordinariate would need to reapply to rejoin the ACA. A number did apply to rejoin, such as St Columba Lanaster, CA; several others did not apply and did not rejoin, including Holy Cross Honolulu and Holy Nativity Payson, AZ. The ACA never made any attempt to assert any further authority over these or other former Patrimony parishes, some of which went to the Ordinariate, while others did not. St Mary of the Angels did not reapply at the time the Patrimony was dissolved, and did not reapply until the parish was seized in April and May of 2012.
Although Strawn now no longer had any remote authority over the parish -- he had never been its bishop ordinary, and as of January 2012, it wasn't even in his denomination -- he continued to meet with dissidents and appears to have been aware of a plan with a former parish treasurer connected with the dissidents to leave IRS withholding amounts unpaid, something the vestry and rector were completely unaware of. The notice of unpaid withholding from the IRS in April 2012 then became the proximate cause of the ACA seizing the parish, although the plan not to pay taxes owed had been in the works for some months previously. (The parish's accountant immediately contacted the IRS, and that matter was quickly resolved, but the ACA had already moved in.)
In May 2012, the ACA and the dissidents represented themselves as the true ecclesiastical authority over the parish to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and received a temporary restraining order giving them control over the building. The judge, however, reversed herself almost immediately, deciding the First Amendment required that she not involve herself in ecclesiastical matters, and ordered the dissidents and the ACA to return control over the building to the elected vestry and rector. This they refused to do, but the judge apparently felt that, having created the problem with her self-described error, she couldn't do anything to fix it. The result was the current set of lawsuits and countersuits between the elected vestry and the ACA, which it appears are slowly being resolved in the elected vestry's favor.
I think the judge's reversal of the temporary restraining order is the key event in this whole story. I think Stephen Strawn felt he already had a foolproof plan for seizing any parish he wanted to seize -- he'd already tried the same thing in Texas. Never mind the result there was to drive that parish from the ACA; this time, it was going to work! I can only assume that both retired Presiding Bishop Louis Falk and current Presiding Bishop Brian Marsh were aware of this plan and gave it at least their tacit support. David Moyer was also aware that Strawn was meeting with dissidents under Moyer's nose and objected insofar as he could, but once the ACA dissolved the Patrimony, it purged Moyer, leaving Strawn an avenue to keep interfering.
But as I noted above, other parishes in the Patrimony left the ACA, some joined the Ordinariate while others didn't, and the ACA never made a move to assert its authority over any of these others. Why did the ACA seize St Mary of the Angels so uniquely? I think the answer is that none of the other parishes had multimillion-dollar properties, money in the bank, and a substantial income. It simply wasn't worth Strawn's while to seize Holy Cross Honolulu. The St Mary's dissidents may well have dangled the indirect opportunity for various payoffs and lagniappes to Strawn in the bargain. Strawn and his stooge Morello moved in.
The problem is that they were expecting a quick payout. I believe the scheme would have been to appoint a compliant vestry or hold a membership meeting along the lines of the one they eventually held -- Strawn inadvertently sent me an e-mail meant for Morello (which I promptly handed over to the elected vestry's attorneys) in which he explains to Morello that he knows they are acting outside the ACA canons, but they will soon call a "membership meeting" that will paper all this over with a vote to endorse their actions after the fact. I assume Strawn intended to work this way all along, and that fairly soon, a puppet vestry or restricted membership meeting would vote to dissolve the corporation, sell its assets, and pass them on to the ACA, less assorted payoffs, commissions, consulting fees, and lagniappes. The dissolution of the temporary restraining order and the subsequent legal actions prevented the quick payout, and the process has been stalled ever since.
What other circumstances support this view of the case?
- It appears that members of the dissident group began removing parish property from the premises almost immediately after the seizure
- The ACA did not hold services in the parish at all for months after the seizure -- the spiritual welfare of the parish was a very distant issue
- Stephen Strawn, thwarted in his intention and with potential embarrassment, not to mention exposure to criminal charges, quickly withdrew as bishop ordinary over the parish
- The ACA House of Bishops distanced itself from the failing scheme by putting Anthony Morello in full charge of it, an act which probably hastened Morello's death
- The ACA continues a scheme whereby an absentee rector is in charge, with a series of priests-not-in-charge saying mass, preventing the parish from functioning as an ongoing enterprise.