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Nun's Job Loss Puts Focus on Laity's Role

Controversy is seen by some as a test of whether the Catholic Church can ease its hierarchical tradition.

September 27, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Judy Molosky, a longtime sister of the St. Joseph of Carondelet order, was hired last year as a lay minister for St. Brendan Church in Hancock Park. The nun helped keep the community together when the pastor, a charismatic man who had tripled the congregation's size, was dismissed after discovery of his affairs with adult women.

But in July, three weeks after arriving as St. Brendan's new pastor, Father John W. Love told Molosky that he would not renew her contract. He says that the church's $1.2-million deficit required staff reductions and that he does not oppose lay ministers; she says his failure to discuss or negotiate alternatives was an abuse of power.

Since then, what began as a parish labor dispute has mushroomed into what Molosky's supporters see as a watershed of whether the Roman Catholic Church would make room in its centuries-old traditions of hierarchical clerical rule for a new era of collaboration with laity, including nuns.

The situation is timely. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Sunday is scheduled to officially certify the Los Angeles Archdiocese's first crop of 18 professional lay ministers -- Molosky included. They are becoming increasingly vital as the priest shortage worsens.

"Lay people used to be expected to pray, pay and obey, but now we have theologically well-educated people who can exercise leadership roles in the church," said Michael Horan, a Loyola Marymount University professor who heads an archdiocesan advisory committee on professional lay ministers, known as pastoral associates. "The problem is, there are no procedures" to protect them in their jobs.

Molosky's dismissal provoked a swift reaction. Nearly 200 members of her order's West Coast province sent a letter of protest to Mahony for what they called clerical "misuse of authority" for ending Molosky's contract with no negotiation. At St. Brendan -- a diverse congregation of Filipinos, Koreans, Latinos and whites from wealthy and working-class families -- some parishioners withdrew their contributions in protest.

"It was symbolic of women's position in the church and our own inability to have any real power or voice," said one protester, Los Angeles attorney Graciela Martinez.

Last week, in a move that both stunned and elated Molosky's supporters, Mahony announced that Love would leave St. Brendan to finish his doctoral degree and would not be reassigned to the parish. The cardinal has appointed as new pastor Msgr. Terrance Fleming, who is scheduled to arrive from a sabbatical in January.

The archdiocese won't comment on the case, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.

For her part, Molosky said she was gratified by the support. But she said she would not be returning to St. Brendan's staff and now questions whether she will ever want to work as a pastoral associate again. Still, she said it was a fight worth waging.

"We did this because we believe the people who come after us in lay ministry deserve better," said Molosky, a Los Angeles native who, over three decades, has set up homeless shelters, run a job bank for immigrants, and served on her order's leadership council. "We wanted to challenge an antiquated church system that uses authoritarian, top-down decision making."

Love, however, said he has been misunderstood. The Molosky dismissal, he said, was part of a program of broader staff cuts to close a $1.2-million debt incurred by acquiring property to expand the parish school. He declined to comment on whether he had discussed those financial problems adequately with Molosky, but he said he had consulted with St. Brendan's finance council.

"This whole thing can make it appear that I'm a dinosaur from the past that doesn't accept lay ministers," Love said. "I am on record of being in favor of pastoral associates. I think it's unfortunate that the whole situation has been blown out of proportion."

Among some of Love's supporters, Mahony's action fanned tensions in the church between the forces of tradition and those of change. Because most of the pastoral associates are women, some conservative priests fear that installing them as lay ministers to run parishes or serve in top leadership positions was "part of an agenda to push for married clergy and women priests," as one cleric put it. They also fear that some lay ministers might infringe on priestly duties, such as preaching.

"Some priests feel we're going into dangerous territory here," said the cleric, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution. "If our legitimate rights are being trampled on to push an agenda, there are going to be problems."

Others, however, praise Mahony's action as a courageous step forward to empower the laity and treat them justly.

"The cardinal sent a very loud and clear message to other priests in the diocese that this is not acceptable," Loyola's Horan said, referring to Love's action toward Molosky.

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