Defrocked priest finds strength in new followers

The Archdiocese of Newark is on the defensive in a dispute with a small but growing sect of Catholics over the defrocking of a former Bergen County priest who the church says “abandoned” the ministry, a term his defenders say was used to sow doubt about his conduct.

Anthony Lipari worked as a Roman Catholic priest for years in Bergenfield and Ridgewood parishes, and as a deacon in Dumont, becoming a popular youth minister with a loyal following. But in 2003, while he was an assistant priest in Nutley, he and a high-ranking archdiocese official agreed he should leave the church as his differences in theology became clear, Lipari said.

Lipari, 54, has just launched a ministry at the Jersey Shore, affiliated with a new, liberal sect of Catholics, and he, like some church experts, is questioning the announcement this month by Newark church leaders stripping him of the priesthood.

The defrocking has created new critics of Archbishop John J. Myers, who in recent years has faced a firestorm of publicity over his treatment of a sexually abusive Bergen County priest, and pushback from parents amid continuing school closings and an archdiocese takeover of education finances. Last year church donors mounted protests over revelations that Myers expanded a lavish countryside home for his retirement.

Lipari’s tiny parish near Toms River, which is affiliated with the American National Catholic Church, opened a week before the archdiocese announced on its website that the Vatican had granted the archdiocese’s request that Lipari be laicized, or defrocked. The often years-long process of removing someone from priesthood is handled by officials in Rome.

“It was important to make clear this is not anything connected to the Roman church,” said Jim Goodness, an archdiocese spokesman. “We said simply he walked away from ministry. I can’t say anything clearer than that.”

Lipari said his greatest concern is the ambiguity of the statement.

“That’s why everyone has this big question mark,” he said. “They could have handled it better.”

The announcement infuriated George Lucey, the bishop of the American National Catholic Church, who preaches at a Glen Ridge parish. He said the archdiocese struck a “mean-spirited” tone that could insinuate Lipari was guilty of wrongdoing, and that the announcement should have been made in an “internal forum.”

There’s been no indication of any wrongdoing by Lipari, only a difference of religious viewpoint.

“Christ warned us about doing things without any consequence to the soul of the other person,” Lucey said. “It angers me that they would intentionally slander a good priest. … Who gets laicized so publicly? The first thing in someone’s mind is, ‘Oh, I wonder what he did.’”

And Lucey took aim at Myers, whom he called the “biggest offender” for his handling of Michael Fugee – a former Wyckoff priest whom the archbishop returned to ministry after Fugee was accused of groping a 14-year-old boy.

Church legal experts saw nothing unusual in defrocking a priest who left the church, and they disagreed with Lucey that it should not be made public, saying transparency was important to avoid scandal and liability problems.

But one church expert said the archdiocese, in announcing that Lipari had “abandoned” the ministry but saying little else, ignored its principle to guard the reputations of priests. Lipari’s defenders say the curt five-paragraph statement cast doubt on the priest’s conduct when his only offense was parting ways with the church on social issues.

Charles Reid, a professor of canon law at University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, said Newark still had an obligation to protect Lipari’s reputation, as a Christian, and that the archdiocese could have been clearer about his situation.

“This is the kind of statement they make when the guy has gone off on a bender, got married somewhere and is drunk in Reno,” Reid said. “There’s a misleading character to saying ‘abandonment.’ … You could do this both more respectfully and truthfully.”

Goodness said the church wanted to eliminate any confusion people might have about Lipari’s loyalties.

“They do things differently; not everybody recognizes they are different,” Goodness said about the American National Catholic Church. “We just wanted to make it plain: This man is in ministry somewhere else. It’s important for people to know he’s not a Roman Catholic priest.”

Goodness dismissed Lucey’s claims about ulterior motives, saying Lucey “doesn’t represent the church” and that his comments didn’t “have any value or substance.” The spokesman also said the archdiocese meant no ill will toward Lipari, and that critics were reading into the announcement – “that’s probably more in the perception of the receiver than the giver.”

For his part, Lipari said he was hurt by the announcement, which he shared with his parishioners during his service two weeks ago. He questioned the archdiocese’s handling of the situation and its use of the word “abandon,” saying his departure was a mutual decision with the vicar general, the top official under Myers.

But, he said, “I have no animosity towards them whatsoever, just forgiveness and love.”

The American National Catholic Church, one of hundreds of independent Catholic communities, began in 2009 with Lucey’s parish in Glen Ridge and has grown to 12 congregations in eight states as far-flung as Missouri and New Mexico.

It has had the most traction in New Jersey, where there are four parishes, including Lipari’s in the borough of Island Heights in Ocean County.

The church differs from Roman Catholic teachings on same-sex marriage, divorce, contraception and the ordination of women and married people.

“We’re the church Francis has been meeting and praying about,” Lucey said.

Pope Francis, while striking a more inclusive tone and urging less focus on social issues, has stood by church doctrines.

Lipari launched Good Shepherd Ministry this month after signing a rental agreement with the United Methodist Church in Island Heights. It has slowly been taking off, with 23 worshipers at the first Mass on March 1 increasing to a crowd of 35 for the service on March 22.

The service mostly followed the script of a Roman Catholic Mass but departed from some formalities and long-held traditions. After his homily, Lipari asked parishioners if they wanted to recognize anyone in a group prayer – something usually relegated to parish bulletins. And while he celebrated Communion, about a dozen worshipers took him up on his offer to stand around the altar, a place reserved for clergy in the Roman church.

“The ANCC is wonderfully different – holding the traditions but inclusive,” Lipari said. “I can continue my ministry pastorally in a welcoming environment.”

His parishioners include Mike Melly of Brick Township, who was denied an annulment before remarrying, a refusal Melly saw as arbitrary and unwelcoming.

Pam Quatse, 64, a lifelong Catholic, said she was drawn to Lipari’s church in her struggle to find a faith more open to women. She said she left the Roman Catholic church in 2010 after a Vatican declaration that the ordination of women was as grave a sin as pedophilia.

“When I saw that, I said, ‘That’s it,’ ” she said. “That’s the day I became a roaming Catholic.”

Lipari attracted many parishioners to his new congregation from his days as a Roman Catholic priest. Katie Pierce, 46, said she met him at St. John the Evangelist in Bergenfield and has “followed him everywhere he goes.”

Another Lipari fan, Bill Chango, 75, who first met the priest at the Church of St. Theresa in Kenilworth, said he was bewildered by the archdiocese’s approach toward Lipari.

“I can’t believe this huge monolith of the Roman Catholic Church wants to bury this guy,” Chango said. “That kind of pressure can really be debilitating, it can crush a guy’s spirit, but not him.”