San Bernardino Diocese Tries Priest on Heresy, Schism Charges
In a rare move reminiscent of medieval times, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino convened a secret tribunal against a Riverside priest Tuesday after charging him with heresy and schism.
Meeting at diocesan headquarters in San Bernardino, the tribunal took up the case against the Rev. Ned Reidy, 69, who said he left the Roman Catholic Church five years ago and formed his own parish near Palm Desert. The parish later affiliated with a new denomination that holds services resembling those of the Roman Catholic Church but rejects the authority of the pope, mandatory priestly celibacy, and prohibitions against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining women.
The San Bernardino Diocese confirmed the heresy and schism charges against Reidy and said a decision was expected within two weeks. But the diocese said the tribunal was not an artifact of ancient times.
“What this is not is a Galileo trial of 1633. This is based on revised canon law of 1983,” said Father Howard Lincoln, diocesan spokesman. “No one’s going to be burned at the stake.”
Lincoln said the intent was to defrock Reidy, removing him officially from the clerical state if found guilty, so that ordinary Roman Catholics would not be led astray by the priest’s assertion that he remained a “Catholic.”
A guilty finding also could serve to formally acknowledge Reidy’s automatic excommunication, which the church said took place when Reidy renounced his ordination vows.
Reidy said Tuesday that he would not attend the tribunal. “They’re doing their thing. I have no interest in sitting in a room with six or seven grumpy-faced guys,” he said.
He also said he wasn’t interested in the outcome: “If I get some letter in a number of weeks about excommunication, I will write on there ‘Refused. Return to Sender.’ I won’t even open it.”
Bishop Gerald Barnes’ decision to charge Reidy with heresy and schism surprised Catholic canon lawyers, who called the move rare. They said the bishop could simply have made a finding and publicly announced that Reidy was no longer functioning as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.
“I never heard of such a thing,” said Father Orsy Ladislas, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law School in Washington who is considered a leading canon lawyer in America. “It would be very rare that a diocese would have any kind of formal trial for heresy or schism,” he said. “Most of the time the bishops are running to Rome.... Their tendency is to pick up the phone or a fax to Rome and ask for an intervention.”
Father Robert McCann, a canon lawyer in Northern California’s Oakland Diocese, said such charges could be brought against a priest, “but that’s an unusual way to put it in this day and age.”
Reidy and the Most Rev. Peter Hickman, his bishop in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, speculated that the move was prompted by U.S. Roman Catholic leaders out of fear that the new denomination would attract mainstream Catholics.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise first reported the charges on Tuesday. Hickman said Tuesday that he had heard that similar charges had been brought against a priest in Colorado, but he had no details.
Hickman said he was “surprised and shocked” by the charges. “The reason they give doesn’t make sense, because Ned is very clear about his identity and the identity of his faith community,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would go in there thinking they were in a Roman Catholic parish.”
Reidy said he had invited Bishop Barnes to discuss the matter more than 20 times over the years, most recently last week. “Never do they return a call,” he said. “After that happens for some years, you simply say ‘I don’t want to be around them.’ It’s arrogance.”
Reidy was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in 1962 in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., and joined the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a Catholic religious order, in 1973. He served as parish priest for nearly two decades at Christ of the Desert Roman Catholic Church in Palm Desert.
But in 1999, he resigned from the order, and his resignation was accepted, he said. The following year, he started a new non-Roman Catholic parish near Palm Desert that became a founding member of the Catholic Ecumenical Communion, then a new denomination. The group said it now has 38 priests, six of whom are women who left the Roman Catholic Church. Its website lists 14 parishes nationwide.
Reidy said Bishop Barnes once told parishioners that if they attended Reidy’s spiritual retreats, they would have to confess personally to him and to their own parish priests. Lincoln, the diocese spokesman, denied that Barnes had asked anyone to confess to him.
Lincoln said the San Bernardino Diocese believed a trial on charges of heresy and schism was the best way to clarify Reidy’s status, since under Catholic theology the ordination of a priest is forever, “imprinted on his soul.”
He said that the diocese wrote Reidy in September 2004, warning that he would face the charges unless he ceased his ministry in the breakaway group and returned to his Roman Catholic religious order.
“We live in a time when we need to be clear who is legally entrusted to minister in the name of the Roman Catholic Church and who isn’t,” Lincoln said. “The diocese felt the most prudent course, the best avenue to officially clarify Rev. Reidy’s status, was through this trial.”
Reidy said that in advertising and Sunday bulletins, he makes it clear that his new parish, the Pathfinder Community of the Risen Christ in Bermuda Dunes, near Palm Desert, is not a Roman Catholic parish, even though it follows traditional liturgies and holds to the church’s seven sacraments.
“I have never left the priesthood. I am a Catholic priest of a different face of Catholicism,” he said. “I’m no longer a Roman, but [I’m] more Catholic than ever.”