SNAP Connecticut

Push on to unionize priests
Catholic leaders say idea at odds with clerical vows

New Haven Register Staff
Published on 12/10/2004

MILFORD — Calling the Archdiocese of Hartford "arbitrary, capricious and arrogant," a New Haven attorney is urging priests around the state to unionize to protect their due process rights when they’re accused of sexual misconduct.

It’s an idea many members of the Catholic clergy consider appalling and improbable, but attorney Hugh Keefe, who has represented many priests who have been accused of misconduct, said Thursday he has reached out to top state union leaders in an effort to help priests unionize. Keefe said he has also broached the topic with many priests.

"Lying under the surface is tremendous resentment from the vast majority of Catholic priests who feel betrayed and not backed up by the hierarchy of the church," Keefe said.

The Most Rev. Peter Rosazza, an auxiliary bishop in New Haven, called the notion of priests unionizing "repugnant."

"It should be a relationship of father-son, or older brother to younger brother, if you will, between bishop and priest," he said. The idea of priests unionizing, he said, is "almost like the mention of, ‘the moon is made of green cheese.’ " "Most (priests) trust Archbishop (Henry J.) Mansell," he said.

Among Keefe’s clients is the Rev. Matthew Kappalumakkel, who is currently on administrative leave at St. Gabriel’s Church in Milford after a woman accused him of breaching his fiduciary duty to her as her priest and counselor by having a four-year affair with her in the late 1990s. The woman’s lawsuit against Kappalumakkel has been dismissed, but he remains in the archdiocese’s bad graces.

Keefe said his issues with the archdiocese led him to reach out to prominent union officials who say they would support helping priests form a union. He said if the priests were unionized they could go on strike to get their point across.

"No one could give Mass, marry or bury people," he said.

A union would ensure that priests would be treated as innocent until proven guilty when an allegation of misconduct is raised, Keefe said.

"A union would ensure that you can’t cost a man his career on baseless allegations," he said.

Keefe would not name the union officials who support his effort, and said it would be unethical to name priests on- board with his idea.

The New Haven Register tried to contact several Greater New Haven priests for comment on the idea, without success.

Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessy, executive director of the Education Law Institute at Spaulding University in Louisville, Ky., and an expert on Catholic legal issues, said Keefe has little chance of prevailing in his push to unionize priests. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that "the National Labor Relations Act was never intended to give the National Labor Relations Board jurisdiction over religious matters," she said.

Shaughnessy added that unionizing would likely contradict the vow of obedience to their bishop that all priests must take.

The Rev. John Gatzak, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Hartford, was even more dismissive of Keefe’s comments.

"That’s Hugh Keefe’s opinion, and so be it," he said.

Keefe said there are undoubtedly priests in the state who have committed crimes, but it’s his opinion many of the lawsuits are baseless and an attempt to make money.

"Many clergy have been falsely accused," Keefe said. "There is nothing worse than child molestation except to be falsely accused of child molestation."

Shaughnessy said the church was well within its rights to place a priest accused of having a sexual affair with a woman on administrative leave.

"It’s still inappropriate behavior for a man with a vow of chastity and celibacy," she said.

Jack Fowler of Milford, who worked for the National Committee of Catholic Laymen in Washington, D.C., said the concept of priests forming a union is appalling.

"This idea is nuttier than a macadamia farm. It’s just more circling the wagons to protect wayward priests who have scandalized the faithful. This is precisely why our churches are emptying," Fowler said.

©New Haven Register 2004

Return to SNAP CT News Page

Connecticut SNAP Chapter
Last Updated: October 26, 2005