Two priests, one a well-respected former director of the Vietnamese Catholic Center, were reinstated Tuesday to the ministry but at the same time transferred separately out of their parish in Little Saigon, Nguoi Viet Daily News reported here.
It seems the Diocese of Orange was hoping the decision would put an end to the outcry among Vietnamese-American Catholics over the abrupt suspension of two popular priests with no apparent fault.
In October, the faithful at St. Barbara parish in Santa Ana, 70% of whom are Vietnamese-American, woke up to find three of their priests gone. The pastor, Fr. Richard Kennedy was sent on sick leave, while two Viet associate pastors, Fr. Michael Mai (Mai Khải Hoàn) and Fr. Raphael Xuan Nguyen were suspended from active ministry indefinitely. Father Mai is a well-loved, well-respected priest, president of the league of Vietnamese priests in the U.S., and former director of the Vietnamese Catholic Center — itself the subject of dispute between the Vietnamese congregation and the Diocese over who gets to control it.
No explanation was provided, and nobody at the Diocese was talking, citing confidential personnel issues. The two priests were allegedly not allowed back to the parish or to talk to anyone.
Rumors began flying, of this and that, including romantic affairs involving another priest at the parish. Msgr. Mike Heher, the vicar general, denounced “rumors” surrounding the action, and asserted that all were still “good priests,” but still won’t say exactly why they were removed.
That did not satisfy anyone. A prominent lay activist, Cao Tan Tinh, sent around copies of a letter calling on all Vietnamese priests and religious in the U.S. to get involved and get an answer from the diocese. (Read here page 1 and herepage 2, in Vietnamese.) Even politicians got in the act, with OC Supervisor Janet Nguyen offering to “assist the Diocese in resolving the matter.”
Meanwhile, Fr. Thomas Do (Đỗ Thanh Hà), a retired priest and also former director of the VCC, publicized his own letter to the incoming Bishop of Orange, in which he speculated that it was all personal conflicts between the two Viet priests and the pastor, but while the pastor was allowed to go on sick leave the other two were suspended. Read the letter here and here.
The culprit, Fr Do wrote, is the vicar general. Msgr. Heher, he said, “has been known for his abuse of power, his lack of charity and his arrogance not only in this incident but also in many instances in his dealing with the Vietnamese priests and community.”
There was, wrote the retired priest, “some act of discrimination by the vicar general.”
A couple weeks later, with no resolution from the hierarchy, flyers were passed around at the church, asking parishioners to stop contributing. Collections dropped from more than $22,695 in the week ending September 30, to less than $19,832 in the week ending October 21, a decrease of more than 12%.
Which would be bad, because the Diocese just forked over $50 million to buy Crystal Cathedral and would need to fix it up too.
Finally, on Tuesday, outgoing Bishop Tod Brown received the two priests, heard their grievances, and devised a solution: They would get their ministry back, but not at St. Barbara, and not together. The two would be transferred to two separate parishes to be announced. Meanwhile, the diocese would send out notices clearing their names, and they would come back to St. Barbara for a Farewell Mass this Sunday.
And hopefulyy the diocese would get its collection level back up.