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SAN ANTONIO, TX: Founding Priest inhibited by Ordinariate

SAN ANTONIO, TX: Founding Priest inhibited by Ordinariate
Fr. Christopher Phillips at Our Lady of Atonement has been stripped of his priestly faculties

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
Dec. 10, 2019

Another shoe has dropped at Our Lady of the Atonement, the founding Anglican Use Pastoral Provision parish in Texas. The Rev. Christopher Phillips' faculties -- the permission, ecclesial authority and sacerdotal privilege to exercise his priesthood publicly -- has been rescinded.

This pronouncement came down on Dec. 6 in the form of a letter by Bishop Steven Lopes (Ordinariate I) written to the "Parishioners of the Church of Our Lady of the Atonement."

"With a heavy heart therefore, and effective immediately, I am restricting the faculties of Father Christopher Phillips," Bishop Lopes wrote using bold to emphasize the fact. "This means that as, Father Phillips turns 70 next week and enters into full retirement, he will no longer participate in the life of Our Lady of the Atonement Parish, nor Atonement Academy."

Fr. Phillips turns 70 on Friday the 13th.

In that letter, which was read from the raised pulpit at all OLA Masses, Bishop Lopes explained to the "Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ" that their beloved pastor emeritus was named in a list of "clergy credibly accused of sexual misconduct with minors" released in January by the Archdiocese of San Antonio "for failing to report credible allegations against Deacon Orr to the Archdiocese."


The late Deacon James Orr (1960-2019) was Our Lady of Atonement's administrator and business manager for three decades. He was also instrumental in helping found the Atonement Academy where he taught geography.

Ten days after Deacon Orr died in January 2019, the Archdiocese of San Antonio released its list of 55 clergy (deacons and priests) who have credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors, dating back to the 1940s. The single accusation surrounding Deacon Orr, who was single, dates to the early 1990s (1993), before he was ordained to the Roman Catholic diaconate. At the time, he was a layman and a volunteer at the growing Anglican Use Catholic complex.

In March 2017, the Most Rev. Gustavo García-Siller, M.Sp.S. (VI San Antonio) -- after he banished Fr. Phillips into temporary exile -- sent Our Lady of Atonement an announcement concerning Deacon Orr.

"Through a civil demand in February 2017, the Archdiocese of San Antonio was notified of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against Deacon James Orr, a retired deacon of the Archdiocese of San Antonio who worked in your parish many years in both the school and the parish," Archbishop García-Siller wrote. "According to this claim the abuse is alleged to have occurred in 1993, prior to Orr's ordination to the diaconate."

In the Dec. 6 letter Bishop Lopes sent to Our Lady of the Atonement, the 1993 accusation was apparently not the only blemish on Deacon Orr's record.

"More recently, the Archdiocese provided me with documentation of still other instances wherein Father Phillips neither informed nor reported to the Archdiocese credible complaints concerning Deacon Orr's conduct," Bishop Lopes wrote. "While I know the Archdiocesan Report naming Deacon Orr and Father Phillips was difficult to receive, the information contained in the Report is appropriate, warranted, and entirely just in view of the transparency and accountability needed to safeguard our children."

The charge against Fr. Phillips is that at the time, and with possible knowledge of Deacon Orr's alleged misconduct, he failed to follow through on Archdiocesan protocols to report such allegations of clergy to the powers that be on the Archdiocesan level.


Now at the end of his sacerdotal ministry, that failure -- that lack of judgment -- is coming back to haunt the aging priest. Fr. Phillips apparently, out of friendship, chose to deal with Deacon Orr's alleged moral failing inhouse rather than involve the Archbishop of San Antonio as required.

"This documentation clearly indicates that Father Phillips willfully and knowingly withheld information, choosing rather to judge merits of the complaint himself instead of referring them to the Archbishop," Bishop Lopes' Dec. 6 letter states.

The Archdiocese's Jan. 31, 2019 report on abusing clergy states this about Fr. Phillip's handling of Deacon Orr's sexual misbehavior: "In 2016, the then pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement, Fr. Christopher Phillips, acknowledged that he had received the complaint and had investigated it, finding it to be without basis. He did not inform the archbishop of the allegation, either at the time it was made or later when recommending Orr for ordination to the permanent diaconate."

Fr. Phillip's lack of judgement may have been because through the years he and Deacon Orr became close friends. They worked together, they prayed together, and they labored together in Our Lady of Atonement's vineyard. This close relationship may have clouded Fr. Phillips' thinking and sacerdotal actions concerning the allegations leveled against his friend, the deacon.

Bishop Lopes' letter continues: "In addition to the Archdiocesan Report, I have now received a first-hand account of misconduct by James Orr against a former student and graduate of Atonement Academy. Father Phillips received the report at the that time, but did nothing."

"The parents asked him to take the proper steps in accord with the Archdiocesan Safe Environment protocols," Bishop Lopes fleshes out. "These steps were not taken, and no report of the incident was ever made to the Archdiocese or civil authorities."


In 1993, the Archbishop of San Antonio was Patrick Flores (IV San Antonio). He had a long warm relationship with Fr. Phillips and Our Lady of the Atonement church and Academy.

It was on Aug. 15, 1983 that Archbishop Flores ordained former Episcopal priest Christopher Phillips into the Roman Catholic priesthood, and a strong lasting spiritual relationship was cemented. On the same day (Aug. 15, 1983) Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church was erected by papal authority as an Anglican Use parish and with the cooperation of Archbishop Flores. Then on Aug. 15, 1994, Atonement Academy first opened its doors, again under the watchful eye of Archbishop Flores.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II tapped the Most Rev. Patrick Flores, then the III Bishop of El Paso, to head east to San Antonio. He was San Antonio's archbishop in 1993 when the first allegation of sexual misconduct occurred naming James Orr. He was still in place in 1997 when Mr. Orr was ordained a permanent or vocational deacon and assigned to Our Lady of the Atonement. Archbishop Flores stayed in San Antonio until his retirement in 2004. Archbishop Flores died in January 2017. His successor was Archbishop Jose Gómez (V San Antonio).

When Fr. Phillips failed to discipline Deacon Orr and report his sexual behavior to the Archdiocese, Archbishop García-Siller stepped in. Deacon Orr, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, "requested retirement and resigned from all active ministry." Then Archbishop García-Siller went one step further. He forbad Deacon Orr to present himself as a deacon or function in any diaconal ministry. Although Deacon Orr was not deposed or laicized, he was for all practical purposes inhibited. He moved from San Antonio to the Kerrville area, where he died Jan. 21, 2019.

Fr. Phillips was not permitted to celebrate Deacon Orr's funeral Mass. That was done by Our Lady of the Atonement's new rector, Fr. Mark Lewis. However, Fr. Phillips did lead the rosary.


On Dec. 6, the shoe finally dropped with a thud. Fr. Phillips was stripped of his public priestly presence. This restriction of ministry may last until his death. Bishop Lopes has put no time limit on Fr. Phillips' inhibition.

"As your Bishop, I assure you that the protection of our children has been a priority since the very beginning of our Ordinariate," Bishop Lopes writes. "At times, this requires actions that may seem severe."

As an inhibited priest, Fr. Phillips can no longer publicly celebrate Mass or any of the other priestly sacraments or actions including preaching and teaching. He is also forbidden from wearing his clerical garb, including his very familiar cassock, in public. Although he is still under the obligation to pray Daily Office and will continue to privately celebrate Mass in his rectory chapel, he is not allowed to invite others in to join him.

He will no longer be holding his popular Wednesday night Bible studies nor teaching the Inquirer's Class. His Sunday evening Latin Mass was scuttled in mid-September.

Someone familiar with the Catholic House of Bishops (the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- USCCB) said that in today's #METOO climate, bishops are more than willing to throw a priest under the bus to avoid civil and criminal litigation.

The person said that today Catholic bishops have very little leeway when such complaints are made, and clergy are almost always suspended from public ministry to avoid costly lawsuits.

For years, Fr. Phillips was a familiar sight at Our Lady of the Atonement. He was usually seen wearing his cassock and he has a commanding presence yet is very fatherly in his one-on-one dealings with his people. He is the visionary -- the person who saw what an Anglican Use parish could become and its place within the Catholic Church. He was the force which helped to bring it into being. He was the glue which held it all together. Fr. Phillips was the golden goose. He was the rainmaker.

Since Fr. Phillips was forced from OLA nearly three years ago, the church membership has dropped and there has also been a decline in school enrollment.

Recently, OLA parishioners received a letter from Fr. Lewis which stated: "We need to increase our weekly giving by $9,000 per week to meet our expenses."

The 2018-2019 Annual Report shows that at the end of the 2018-2019 fiscal year (ending June 30, 2019) that the expenses outstripped income by $1,298,686. The fiscal year income was $4,109,925, while the expenses were $5,318,611 including $91,438 as the parish's annual assessment to the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

The question raised is: "How do we bridge the gap?"

Suggestions include: Boosting one's annual contribution to the parish or school by 15-20%; recruiting new families to the parish and the school; volunteering at the school and parish to perform activities that have required paid personnel; taking advantage of one's company's matching gifts program; participating fundraisers and money-making activities; and pray!


Our Lady of the Atonement has already scrubbed Fr. Phillips' name from the website of both the parish and the school. He is no longer listed as the emeritus. He is no longer recognized as the church's founder. His name has disappeared. His contact information is missing.

"Founded in 1983 with the permission of Archbishop Patrick Flores, the parish of Our Lady of The Atonement Catholic Church began with a few converts from the Episcopal Church. The parish added a school, The Atonement Academy, in 1994 which has grown to include a PreK3 through Grade 12 school of over 400 students," the church's revamped history reads. There is absolutely no mention of Fr. Phillips and his part in the church's founding. "The parish was established by a Decree of Erection, signed by Archbishop Patrick F. Flores, to take effect on 15 August 1983. It was placed under the title of Our Lady of The Atonement, a title which originated in the Episcopal Church in the 19th century, and which was brought into the Catholic Church by the Graymoor Friars and Sisters of The Atonement in 1909 ..."


Fr. Phillips has been in a crucible of suffering for more than three years. It started three years ago (August 2016) when he fell and shattered his hip and needed emergency hip replacement surgery.

Then, in January 2017, Archbishop García-Siller swooped in and yanked him from Our Lady of the Atonement in an attempt to keep the church and school from being shepherded into the Ordinariate. The case went to Rome which decided that, as an Anglican Use parish, OLA would go into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, but that Fr. Phillips would not return as rector. He was then named pastor-emeritus of both the church and the school.

On Aug 15, 2017, thirty-four years to the day he was ordained and Our Lady of Atonement was founded, he had to quietly sit on the sidelines and watch as another priest came in and took over his parish. A priest who doesn't have his vision, or charisma, or passion or following. Little by little, the founding pastor was shown the door as he painfully watched Our Lady of the Atonement start to slowly crumble.

A year later (January 2018) the Archbishop of San Antonio booted out the Poor Claire Nuns who were initially invited by Fr. Phillips to come to Texas and set up a contemplative monastery to undergird Our Lady of the Atonement in monastic prayer. The brown-habited nuns were sent packing back to their Motherhouse in Alabama.

In January of this year, the San Antonio priest was not permitted to conduct the funeral of his friend and colleague Deacon Orr. The deacon proclaimed his innocence until his death. Fr. Phillips was relegated to leading the rosary at his wake.

Now as Christmas nears, Our Lady of the Atonement's former pastor has suffered yet another deep, gaping spiritual and sacerdotal wound. He has been stripped of his faculties and forbidden from publicly functioning as a priest, while he still lives in the shadow of OLA's thick twin towers which pierce the San Antonio sky.

The greatest suffering a priest can endure is to be inhibited, to have his faculties stripped -- to become priest in name only and not to be able to fully exercise his priesthood among his people. However, Fr. Phillips has not been deposed. He is not laicized. He is still a Roman Catholic priest who is no longer in good standing with his bishop. This information is communicated to Rome.

The Episcopal Church has been heavy-handed in this sort of priestly discipline.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (VI Rochester) says that every priest is eventually called to fully embrace the Cross and suffer because of and for his priesthood. The late archbishop is still suffering -- 40 after his death -- when his own road to Sainthood was put on hold by the same #METOO culture. The "fear" is that his name may end up on soon-to-be-released New York Attorney General's list of New York bishops who have mishandled sex abuse allegations. The noted archbishop was the Catholic Bishop of Rochester from 1966-1969.

In today's #METOO culture there is no forgiveness. There is no understanding. There is no redemption. There is no charity. There is no compassion. There is no credit for accomplishments. There is only exacting punishment and lasting humiliation.

Both Fulton J. Sheen and Christopher G. Phillips have become entangled in that web.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline. More stories can be found here www.virtueonline.org

December 11, 2019

On Tuesday (Dec. 10) Our Lady of the Atonement's new rector, Fr. Mark Lewis, writes a parishwide letter responding to Bishop Lopes' inhibition of his predecessor, Fr. Phillips.

"Our Lady of the Atonement and the Atonement Academy received some troubling news last week. In a letter to parishioners, which was read at every Mass this past weekend, Bishop Lopes informed us he was restricting the public ministry of Fr. Phillips," he writes.

He then reiterates the litany of accusations against Fr. Phillips as outlined in Bishop Lopes' missive

"These are the facts," Fr. Lewis notes. "It is important to note the restriction of faculties is based upon Fr. Phillips' failure to report allegations of misconduct, despite the fact that he is a mandatory reporter by law."

Then he asks: "Where do we go from here?"

"Let us remember God is in control," he continues. "He established this parish, He is the cause of its growth, and He will continue to sustain it in the future."

The priest points out three ways to proceed:

* Our Lady of the Atonement Church and Atonement Academy are bigger than any one individual. It will be here thriving in the future long after you and I are gone. This is God's doing.

* We will have a greater awareness of misconduct toward our youth. We must be vigilant in providing a safe environment for our youth; this includes encouraging one to come forward with complaints rather than being rejected.

* Finally, we can give thanks for our Bishop, who, upon reviewing all documentation, deemed the evidence credible, and acted on behalf of our children and the Church.

"While these are difficult days, I am confident in God's goodness and grace," Fr. Lewis writes. "We have received many blessings from our Lord over the years. May we be given the grace to keep our eyes on Jesus."


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