An Interview with Father Joseph Fessio of San Francisco and Ignatius Press
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In spite of a recent newspaper poll that showed 89% of the public supports San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, a small but vocal group of people are keeping up a campaign to get Pope Francis to replace him as archbishop of San Francisco.
The controversy surrounds the archbishop’s plan to strengthen the Catholic identity of high schools that are run by the archdiocese and his support of a priest who decided not to allow girls to be altar servers anymore.
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, based in San Francisco, discussed the controversy with Aleteia.
What’s the latest in the campaign against Archbishop Cordileone?
They’re keeping up the pressure. It’s a well-orchestrated and organized campaign. They’re taking no prisoners.
How did this controversy start?
A lot of priests were not happy when Cordileone was made bishop here because he’s known as a conservative…. Especially once Francis came in, people said, “Now’s our chance. We’ve been waiting through all these pontificates, and now we have Cordileone.”
Then he brings in Father [Joseph] Illo, who was a priest of the Stockton Diocese…. Father Illo was very successful down there. After 12 years as a pastor, Father Illo asked if he could go do some college work, and he was chaplain at Thomas Aquinas [College]. He knows Archbishop Cordileone, so the archbishop asked him to come to San Francisco to start an oratory. So they gave him this parish which was really dying. It had an Extraordinary Form Mass there, but the priest got sick. It was in a Chinese area—not many Catholics there any more.
The parish has a school, and I think there are three parishioners who have children in the school. Only 40% are Catholics. And he decided that in the parish and at the school Mass once a month he was not going to have any more altar girls. So there’s a huge resistance to that. They started a campaign: "He’s against women, it’s discrimination, blah blah blah."
And then they were having confessions for the kids in their Catholic school and they didn’t have any material for the examination of conscience. So the associate pastor, Father Driscoll, went to the parish and quickly grabbed a Fathers of Mercy examination of conscience and gave it to the kids. It tells you have to make a confession, make the sign of the cross, etc., but they didn’t look carefully inside to find that it talks about masturbation, sodomy, adultery. It’s for adults. So there was a huge uproar about that.
This was back in November. Once they found that they took it out.
Then in early February, Archbishop Cordileone had planned to implement some changes in the faculty handbook for the four archdiocesan high schools, basically simply to make explicit what was already there implicitly: they’re supposed to teach Catholic doctrine and not publicly oppose the Church or join other organizations that are opposed to the Church’s teachings. He spelled it out with all the controversial issues. That’s where a huge uproar started. Their first protest was on Ash Wednesday, so, very soon after this happened.
It appears that it’s the parents of the school who hired this [public relations guru] Sam Singer, to get rid of Father Illo as pastor. But they’re using that as a way to get to Cordileone, and that organized campaign now is directed against him. The two big complaints are one, that he’s imposing this “morality clause,” he’s not being inclusive, he’s not being accepting of people, he’s not really following Pope Francis. And number two, that he brought this priest in and hasn’t gotten rid of him.
They then brought up this lawsuit that was decided 10 years ago. There was a woman who had been stalking him, and he tried to get her to stop stalking him. She was a divorcee. He tried to counsel her when she was getting her divorce, and she fell in love with him, so he tried to put some distance between her and him, and she sends her daughter in to say that her mother told her to say that she’s uncomfortable with this [other priest].
And the mistake Father Illo made was bringing her into his office—it was okay because it was outside with a bunch of people there—but then he brought the priest in to have her tell the story to him, and she got upset.
So right away they called the police and they called the diocese, and they had a criminal investigation that lasted six months. The priest who was accused of the abuse was suspended or was removed for a six-month period. And they found no charges—nothing that would stand up—so all charges were dropped. This was on 9/11 in 2001.
Two years later they filed this civil suit making all kinds of accusations—10 or 12 counts, one of which was inflicting emotional distress on an 11-year-old girl. That civil suit was concluded, and they said there was no evidence, can’t prove at all, but there was emotional distress inflicted on this girl in a negative way, so they had $20,000 in damages. …
Then the priest comes back, and they have a canonical investigation, which found no wrongdoing, no abuse, but said that Father Illo sometimes has a dominating personality: sometimes he’s pleasant, sometimes he’s not, and that he needs some counseling….
But it’s a 108-page report, and the other side has passed out only two pages. What is not known yet is that when Archbishop Cordileone asked Father Illo to come into the archdiocese, he had his independent review board review the civil case and the canonical report to see whether or not Father Illo was fit to be around children or to be a pastor. And they passed him. They said, “He needs to take a session or a workshop on human relations or something like that, but otherwise you’ve got a green light.”
But all this is being dredged up now. …
Who are some of the members of the opposition, and why are they coming out against the archbishop?
Well, here’s a mistake the archdiocese made: the parents demanded to speak with the archdiocese, and so Bishop [William J.] Justice, the vicar general, said, “Well, we’ll speak with the school board of the parish, and they said, “No, we want to speak directly with the bishop.” So Bishop Justice agreed to a meeting in which the parents… organized 15 people who would all speak against Father Illo. So Bishop Justice was there along with Father Reyes, the vicar for clergy, and they weren’t allowed to speak, except to introduce with a prayer. And Father Illo and Father Driscoll were there, and all it was was a kangaroo court, with the press being invited. So that was a set-up.
We were having a holy hour in a church nearby when this happened. I swung by the parking lot and I saw all brand new cars: I saw one Porsche, two Lexuses, four Audis, and several high-end Volkswagens. So this is not on a whim that they’re doing this.
Of the hundred people who signed the newspaper ad, one of them said, “All of us have children who are gay.’ That’s probably an exaggeration. And the ad says "He condemns our children’s behavior." Well, you’re right he does, because they’re homosexual acts.
One of the signers is Brian Cahill, the former head of Catholic Charities. He’s a big-time dissenter of the Church’s teaching, and he’s been very public about it, even when he was working for Catholic Charities.
How is Archbishop Cordileone reacting personally to all this controversy? Is it difficult for him?
He’s a humble man. On the school thing, he’s said, “I didn’t foresee this reaction, I thought it was simple to make explicit what was there implicitly. But I see that even good people are upset by this, so let’s regroup. We’ll have a committee, and we’re not going to change the substance of what I’m asking here, but we’ll go through a process and we’ll put it in over time.”
So he’s basically trying to accommodate himself as best he can. It’s very hard on him because on the one hand he’s got a lot of priests who are upset. But they’re really upset with him and with Father Illo for other reasons, it seems to me. And on the other hand he’s got the supporters, who are many, and if you were to kind of cave on anything that would be a gut punch for the people who are supporting him.
For example, when this ad came out in the San Francisco Chronicle, the same day or the next day, SFGate put up this poll with four questions: Should he be removed for this reason, or should he stay? … He got 89% approval. It was unbelievable.
The other thing he’s done: Father Illo came into this parish that was literally dying: attendance was down; the collection was down; very few Catholics in the neighborhood. He’s already got attendance up 60%; donations up 60%; they made their archdiocesan assessment in one week, which was faster than anyone in the whole archdiocese; he’s got several prayer groups, he’s got all kinds of things going. And the parishioners love him. It’s really flourishing now.
So what happened? There’s a Solomonic decision, what the archbishop did. He put in a very good priest from a contemplative community to be chaplain to the school. So now, “You’re worried about your children? It’s okay: we have a new chaplain for you; Father Illo will take care of the parish.” So we’ll see what happens.
Do you see any signs that the opposition is backing down? Do you think the opposition will get anywhere in the current campaign?
The signers are saying publicly, “We don’t expect Pope Francis to do anything, but we’re not going away.” Sam Singer is the one who, when a tiger got out of the zoo and killed a guy and mauled two others, he was called in to do damage control; he got the public so they’d have sympathy for the tiger: “Oh, they must have taunted it, or they were probably drinking.”
This has national implications because Cordileone is the public face of the Catholic Church on traditional marriage—one man, one woman. He’s the chairman of the subcommittee of the USCCB on the defense and promotion of marriage. Other bishops are looking at this. If he is forced to back down or cave, it’s going to intimidate the rest of the episcopacy.
He decided to not attend the March for Marriage the other day. Did that have anything to do with this?
He probably would have gone were it not for this controversy. Last year, he was the only representative of the USCCB. This year, [papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria] Vigano was there, [USCCB President Archbishop Joseph E.] Kurtz was there. He really didn’t have to go, and he had plenty to do here.
He must be doing something right, with an 89% approval rating.
He’s a great bishop. And he’s a humble guy. He’s not a hard-nosed, provocative kind of guy. No, he’s very reasonable. But reason is not the coin of the realm these days.
What are some of the things people like about him?
He’s very engaging; he’s very compassionate; he clearly is orthodox in trying to support solid Church teaching; he’s defending the most important areas of Church teaching in a culture that’s very hostile. So he’s courageous, like his name [suggests]: Savior (Salvatore) Lionheart (Cordileone). We have a bishop now who’s not afraid to resist cultural decline, but he’s getting a lot of resistance for doing that.