Matt C. Abbott
Liberal women rule Rochester diocese
By Matt C. Abbott
May 23, 2011

The following article is reprinted from the May 19 issue of The Wanderer Catholic newspaper. To support the publication through subscriptions and/or advertising, click here. Thanks to Catholic journalist Paul Likoudis for permitting me to reprint his article. (Readers might recall that I featured Likoudis' book in my March 16 column "New York priest wouldn't say pedophilia is a sin," and my April 19 column on the resurfacing of ex-priest Ellis Harsham and his connection to the infamous Bernardin legacy.)

For Bishop Clark . . .

Women-Run Church Is Becoming A Reality

By Paul Likoudis

ROCHESTER, N. Y. — Almost 30 years ago, on April 29, 1982, three years into his reign as bishop of Rochester, Matthew Clark published a pastoral letter, Fire in the Thornbush: A Pastoral Letter on Women in the Church, in which he presented his vision for a more "inclusive" (i.e., de-clericalized) Church, one in which women exercised greater roles in every aspect of parish and diocesan life.

He set out an ambitious "course of action" which, now, is largely complete, and there are some Catholics in the diocese who are eagerly counting down the days (430 as of May 11, 2011) until he retires and the Holy Father appoints a new bishop to begin reconstructing the local Church along Catholic lines.

The agenda Clark mandated has not been easy or painless, and it frequently brought him to loggerheads with officials of the Holy See, notably Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI. (As early as 1986, Ratzinger ordered Clark to remove his imprimatur from a sex education book, Parents Talk Love: The Catholic Family Handbook About Sexuality, because it approved of homosexuality, masturbation, and contraception.)

Nevertheless, Clark's lay-run womanchurch agenda is up and running, and possibly even spreading into the Diocese of Syracuse, which last month opened up a branch of his theologate, St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry, a/k/a "the French Road Heresy Factory," whose president, Sr. Patricia Schoelles, SSJ, is one of the diocese's most prominent dissenters on a wide array of issues.

In Fire in the Thornbush, Bishop Clark acknowledged his debt to a host of bishops who found themselves at odds with Catholic teaching, including Bishop Carroll Dozier of Memphis, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, Bishop John Cummins of Oakland, Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark, N. J., et al., as he set out his 16-point plan, which gave as its first point: "It will be a priority of the Diocese of Rochester, all of its agencies, divisions, and departments, to encourage and to invite women to participate in full measure in volunteer and paid positions within the diocese and its organizations."

Point 3 declared: "It is my wish that all our educational programs and institutions continue to improve their curricula on the roles and experience of women, the enormous contributions of women to the history of our Church, and the present rich gifts now being offered by women to our common life."

Point 4: "In our communications at every level we need to make efforts to use inclusive language and to avoid using expressions which are offensive to women."

Point 9: "I encourage more inclusion of women in liturgical functions, in those roles now open to them or in new roles that may be legitimately created."

Point 11: "I urge the Liturgy Department and Liturgical Commission, as well as parish liturgy committees, to examine creatively the work of preaching: its kinds, the qualifications required for it, its various liturgical and extra-liturgical forms and moments. I ask especially that we engage in an effort to improve the quality of our preaching. How can we encourage and assist those entrusted with this ministry to carry it out in an even more fruitful way?"

Point 12: "I ask the committee that plans conferences for our priests to plan programs dealing with such topics as Women in the Church, Ministry, Team Ministry, Sexism, and Clericalism, and to involve, as appropriate, qualified women in the planning and presentation of such conferences."

Point 15: "I ask the priests of the diocese to unite with me in a prayerful examination of our attitudes toward women and the ways in which we communicate with them. Through such a sharing I believe that we will strengthen our bonds of faith and affection and, at the same time, lessen the possibility of any unhealthy clericalism among us."

As of May 11, according to the administrators of the website, which meticulously documents the rise of Clark's lay-run womanchurch, there are five women religious in charge of 11 churches, including Sr. Joan Sobala, SSJ, a key player in the Women's Ordination Conference, who runs two churches, St. Anne and Our Lady of Lourdes; Sr. Karen Dietz, SSJ, who runs three churches, St. Agnes, St. Rose, St. Paul of the Cross; Sr. Chris Treichel, OSF, who runs two churches, Sacred Heart and St. Ann; Sr. Joan Cawley, SSJ, who runs the Church of the Resurrection; and Sr. Diane Dennie, SSJ, who runs three churches, St. Michael, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Patrick.

Six laywomen run 12 churches. Deb Housel is in charge of four churches, with "sacramental minister" Fr. Paul Gitau: St. Michael, Corpus Christi, St. Andrew, and Church of the Annunciation. A fifth church she ran, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, recently closed. Charlotte Bruney runs St. Vincent de Paul. Irene Goodwin runs St. Mary of the Assumption; Anne-Marie Brogan runs St. Mary, in downtown Rochester; Margaret Ostromecki runs two churches, St. Thomas More and Our Lady Queen of Peace; Barbara Swiecki runs three churches, Good Shepherd, Guardian Angels, St. Joseph. Meanwhile, two laymen run six churches: William Rabjohn runs St. Pius X and Michael Sauter has five parishes.

Another Women's Ordination Conference activist, Nancy DeRycke, is not now serving as a lay administrator but had done so for several years at Church of the Resurrection, St. Helen, St. Margaret Mary, and Good Shepherd.

"These lay administrators," The Wanderer was informed by the administrator of, "direct the pastoral care of their parishes. They are in charge and answer to the bishop. Priests assigned under lay administrators serve as 'sacramental ministers' or 'assisting priest' and are little more than sacramental Pez machines. The administrator calls all the shots, often delivers a homily, wears an alb, and sits in the sanctuary alongside the priest, stands up to deliver commentary during Mass, and some have even performed the preliminaries of Baptism. These administrators preside over parish council meetings in violation of canon law. And, of course, the administrators list their names at the top of parish bulletins."

Seven years ago, Bishop Clark spoke at Boston College's "The Church in the 21st Century Initiative," along with several women involved in the U. S. Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Women (which eventually failed to achieve approval), and after recounting the type of "inclusive" liturgy he admired, when women and men at the altar all had equal roles, he expressed his vision of the type of Church women want.

There are "six qualities" that women look for in the Church, he said.

"The first relates to how the Church formulates its proclamations and teachings and I would say under that category they have three strong desires: First, that their experience be heard and honored, not argued with, but absorbed and integrated into the thinking of those who hear. Secondly, that a broad spectrum of voices should be heard before coming to conclusions that relate to teaching and polity of significance. They include specifically poor women and men, abused women, abandoned mothers, divorced women, gay, lesbian, single people, now thought to be absent from this kind of discourse, leaving us deprived of their experience and their insights. Thirdly in that basic theme that they seek to develop, a Church that is diverse and affirming of all, welcoming those who have been excluded, including varying theological perspectives, people whose backgrounds offer richness that clerics alone cannot possibly hope to have, and all manner of gifts and talents and life experiences. So, how the Church formulates its proclamations and teachings.

"Secondly, how the Church deals with diverse opinion among the faithful: They want a Church that deals with issues and people and divergent theological opinion in loving and just ways, rather than what may seem to be a condemnatory manner or a dictatorial kind of manner. Many long for a Church that affirms the gifts of all members as we struggle to form communities dedicated to loving one another and building the kingdom of God.

"Thirdly, on theological work that needs to be done in service of the Church women want: In terms of the theological tasks they're most concerned about they ask for the development of a more adequate theological anthropology, one that will adequately account for gender distinction in integrating our understanding of 'imago Dei' and 'in persona Christi.' With particular emphasis they stress the need for that kind of reflection and inclusion in matters of sex and sexuality which does not sufficiently include consideration of women's experience.

"Next, the exercise of authority in the Church: The general call is for a decentralized authority better able to serve the Church and the Gospel we seek to follow and embody. This includes a climate of honest and open dialog, granting to local churches — dioceses — the right to exercise their own identities, to call their own leaders, and respond pastorally to concerns and realities that arise in a given place and time and which may not be common to all places. Disagreement on matters other than creedal statements should not be feared, but a community of discourse in which truth is sought and celebrated should be encouraged and nourished.

"Fifth, on Church activity and action: The Church needs to consider its call to reach out to those in need and to grant increasing prominence to action on behalf of justice as a constitutive part of preaching the Gospel.... A Church that simply 'maintains' and leaders who focus on extraneous or superficial goals are in no way the Church that women want.

"Next, on the Church as a source of spirituality ... [w]omen I have talked with expressed the need to approach the Church as a community whose rituals and celebrations are rich in the authentic tradition that nurtures life and genuine relationship with God. Under that rubric of spirituality in a Gospel-centered life, if we fail to image God in appropriate ways, if we cannot assume the role of pilgrim Church assisting the disciples of Christ in their call to be present to those bearing the fears and anxieties of our time, then we will have forsaken our call and our mission."

The Latest Woman To Leave

In the late summer and early fall of 1998, Bishop Clark received some international publicity when he was forced to take action against Fr. James Callan at the city's Corpus Christi Church. Callan was blessing same-sex unions, concelebrating Mass with his assistant Mary Ramerman (who was later "ordained" a "priest"); he subsequently founded his own church and was excommunicated.

A number of women prominent in the Diocese of Rochester, starting with Gloria Ulterino, who for years ran Clark's Office of Women, have played prominent roles in advancing the "womanchurch." Though Ulterino has not officially left the Catholic Church, she is active in the Women's Ordination Conference, and is the author of several liturgies which women can preside at. Other Catholic women in Rochester have been "ordained," such as Denise Donato, a graduate of St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry, who recently formed the St. Mary Magdalen community in suburban Fairport.

The latest woman to announce her departure from the Catholic Church is the music director at the Church of the Assumption — also in Fairport — whose pastor, Fr. Ed Palumbo, serves on Clark's Priest Personnel Board.

On April 10, 2011, Fr. Palumbo announced that Mary Van Houten, who ran the music program at his parish for two and a half years, was leaving to "enter more deeply into ministry," i.e., had decided to become a priest.

"It is important for all of us to listen to the voice of God speaking within our hearts," the priest wrote. "Mary's discernment has led her to the conclusion that the Lord is calling her elsewhere for further discernment. As a result of this process, Mary has submitted her resignation as a member of our staff, effective at the end of June. This news is sad for us because Mary has brought the wonderful and powerful gift to the music ministry of our community. Our choirs are vibrant, our cantors and instrumentalists all offer the gift of their music beautifully and our whole parish has benefited from Mary's prayerfulness and spirituality. The quality of our sung prayer is a wonderful gift to our parish community and a 'joyful sound unto the Lord.' Mary has brought out the best in us!"

In a letter to parishioners, Van Houten was a little more specific. She wrote: "For the past several years, I have sensed a deeper call from God in my life. In order to discern what this call might be, I sought the guidance and [counsel] of a few 'wise people.' These dear friends and spiritual directors who know and love me, helped me listen to God and discern how God was calling me. Their support and direction helped me to answer the tough questions that clarified God's call in my life.

"I have discerned that I am being called by God to the vocation of ordained ministry. As you know, the Roman Catholic Church does not embrace the vocation of the ordained ministry of women. Believe me, I am aware of every implication that this call demands, and have shed many tears. This call makes absolutely no sense, especially since it is contrary to what the Catholic Church professes and teaches. But what, my friends, am I to do? What does anyone do when they are summoned? With terrifying excitement, they follow and so I must follow where my good and loving God calls me....

"I am convinced that without the support, love, and stability of Assumption Parish, I would never have had the 'spiritual space' in which to do this kind of discernment."

The current "Pastoral Associate" at Church of the Assumption is Deni Mack, one of the most prominent women in the diocese, who, along with Sr. Joan Sobala and Nancy DeRycke, is affiliated with the Women's Ordination Conference. Mack, a former parishioner of ex-Fr. Callan's Corpus Christi, has preached at Assumption on various occasions, and is also one of the presiders at liturgies for Rochester's chapter of Dignity/ Integrity, along with Gloria Ulterino.

The Bottom Line

Rochester blogger Rich Leonardi posted, on April 25, 2011, an item titled, "Ten Reasons: Dying and Rising (but mostly dying)," in which he observed: "In his latest randomly themed column for the Catholic Courier, Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark crows about winning an award for pastoral planning, remarking at the end that '[t]here is a great deal of dying and rising in pastoral planning.'

"The people of Rochester might be forgiven for thinking it's mostly been the former. For evidence, see my review of His Excellency's recent book on something called 'lay ecclesial ministry': Potential readers should realize that Bishop Clark presides over perhaps the most dissent-filled, decadent diocese in the nation. His unique approach to lay ministry, which includes illicitly appointing two members of the Women's Ordination Conference as 'pastors' over parish clusters, has resulted in an unparalleled vocations crisis. (In the book, he flagrantly defends his elevation of dissenting would-be priestesses by claiming Lay Ecclesial Ministry 'has become a substitute ministry for the one to which they feel called.')

"From 1995 to 2005, the Diocese of Rochester lost over 45% of its priests, a figure unmatched virtually anywhere in the United States. Indeed, priests aren't even priests in Rochester; they are called 'sacramental ministers' in local Catholic officialdom. And while Mass attendance has stabilized or increased in most parts of the Church in America over the last decade, it is in free-fall in Rochester, dropping almost 25% since 2002."

Meanwhile, the countdown to Clark's retirement ticks away: 430, 429, 428...

Might we suggest that those readers who desire to see Bishop Clark's tenure abruptly canceled write to:

Marc Cardinal Ouellet, PSS, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops.
Palazzo della Congregazioni, 00193 Roma, Piazza Pio XII, 10
Telephone: • Fax:

A copy of your letter should be sent to our Holy Father, Benedict XVI.

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media, and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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