The tensions between Bishop Robert Morlino of the Catholic Diocese of Madison and former parishioners of Platteville’s Catholic churches have not gone away with time, based on events on the UW–Platteville campus Wednesday evening.
Morlino was in Platteville to give a talk, “Why Does Evil Exist?”, to the Catholic Newman Community student group in UW–Platteville’s Doudna Hall.
A group of protesters, holding signs and whistling a hymn of which Morlino disapproves, stood outside room 136 of Doudna Hall as Morlino and Rev. John Del Priore of St. Augustine University Parish entered the lecture hall.
Morlino’s speech lasted about five minutes, when he asked Steve Prestegard, editor of The Platteville Journal, to leave, and after the reporter refused to leave, Morlino announced he was leaving.
The protesters gathered about an hour before Morlino’s talk was scheduled to begin, following Mass and dinner at St. Augustine’s. One protester’s sign had a definition of “Evil,” using as an example a sentence, “What you have done to the parishes of our community is evil!”
Another included a quote from Pope Francis, “If the [bishop] is a restorationist, a legalist, wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.”
Another included two sayings — “The root of all evil is the abuse of power” and “Conquer thy own evils before you judge others” — along with drawings of three tombstones, one representing St. Mary’s, one representing St. Augustine’s, and one representing St. Mary’s School, which closed in 2012.
The protesters were whistling “All Are Welcome,” a hymn that Morlino said in 2011 was inappropriate to use at Mass. The protesters who came into the lecture hall brought some of the signs with them and placed them on the wall behind and to the side of Morlino.
Del Priore opened Morlino’s talk by saying that it was important for Catholics to “defend our faith and understand our faith, because it is so beautiful and it is an incredible gift. The question is do we understand it?”
Morlino opened by saying that he had taught at Loyola University of Maryland, Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and Notre Dame for 11 years.
“All the times I taught, I lived in the dorms with all the great young men,” said Morlino, calling his teaching years “the happiest years of my life. I feel very much at home with great college women and men.”
At that point, Morlino saw Prestegard taking photos and asked him to stop. “I’m sorry that I have to even bring that up.”
That was followed by one of the protesters’ asking Morlino to have a student who had been taking photos of the protesters outside the lecture hall to delete those photos.
After that, Morlino asked Prestegard to leave.
“Sometimes the bishop would just like to have a talk with great young women and men, but there are others who want to make a political battlefield about it, and it just ruins things for the great young women and men, and it ruins things for the bishop,” he said.
When Prestegard refused to leave, Morlino replied, “If you’re staying, I’m leaving.”
Morlino then left for St. Augustine’s, remarking about people who would “make something out of this that it is not.”
As he was leaving the lecture hall, Morlino said, “Good night, God bless you, and I’m very, very sorry about this.”
The talk apparently was resumed in the basement of St. Augustine’s, with no media apparently present.
“The bishop was invited by the students to give a lecture,” said Brent M. King, the diocese’s director of communications. “He thought (and I would argue reasonably so) that he was walking into a college classroom setting for UW–Platteville students, to speak on the topic of the problem of evil. … Of course, he wants to limit distractions to allow for that scholarly engagement and positive learning experience.”
King said Morlino “realized that non-students were trying to make something of the lecture that it was not — something political, controversial, or divisive. The camera disruption from a non-student took him aback. That’s when he asked that no unauthorized recordings or photos (not knowing who Mr. Prestegard was, or why he was taking many pictures). At that point all non-students in the room were seen as being together, trying to hijack the student event on the philosophy of evil.”
King said Morlino’s request “was made in light of the protesters’ presence. Given the volatile history of past events in Platteville, the bishop was attempting to salvage what was intended to be a positive learning experience for the 80 (or so) students gathered to hear his lecture. He thought that it was reasonable, out of respect for the intended objective of the evening and his being distracted by non-student designs to disrupt that objective. There were students who had expressed their intention to take pictures and record. The bishop had no problem with this. It was the fact that others were doing so, seemingly with the motive to divide and stir up controversy that he found unreasonable and unfair to the students.”
One of those students, Lucas Klosiewski, the secretary of the Catholic Newman Community, told the Wisconsin State Journal that “I think most of the people in the audience were students, and we were there to learn. The reporter added kind of a negative vibe. It’s pretty commonly known that the media can really talk negatively about certain things.”
Two of the protesters were John and Katie Bausch of Darlington, former St. Augustine’s members.
“I think he’s made some decisions in the past that are detrimental to the parish communities of Platteville,” he said. “Tonight was a sad example of this.”
“We didn’t stop him from speaking,” she said. “Under this bishop, we’re not welcome in his parish.”
Joyce Clark of Platteville, another former St. Augustine parishioner, said afterward she wanted “to have the bishop listen to me — I want to have a dialogue with him, not his cohorts. He doesn’t communicate.”
Clark said Morlino and the diocese put a “wall up against him with anyone who disagrees with him or wants to question him.”
King said when Prestegard identified himself, “In what was a split-second decision, with that same aim of salvaging a positive learning experience for the students, the bishop respectfully asked Mr. Prestegard to leave. Mr. Prestegard, well within his own rights, chose not to leave. If a group had not organized to disrupt the educational objective of the evening, and had the bishop learned of Mr. Prestegard’s presence in a slightly different context, the lecture would have undoubtedly proceeded as planned and on campus.”
Morlino was in Platteville Dec. 9 for the ordination of three new priests into the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, whose priests staff St. Mary and St. Augustine.
A number of members of St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s have left those churches since priests from the order, based in Spain, were assigned there by Morlino in 2010. Many signed petitions to remove St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s priests.
That prompted a letter from Morlino to the congregation in which he said that “it grieves me to acknowledge that the reputation of these happy, holy, and hard-working priests has been seriously tarnished by rumor, gossip, and calumny (lying with the intent to damage another’s good name) by some within the parish community. Such conduct is gravely sinful, since some parishioners have been driven by fear, anger, or both, to distance themselves from their priests and even the sacraments. This situation must cease, and charity must prevail on the part of all.”
Around that time, enrollment at St. Mary’s School began dropping.
A letter from Fr. Faustino Ruiz, pastor of St. Mary’s, in March 2012, noted “There are some other people unhappy with the changes we have made, but be sure that we have done what we believe is best for our congregation and for you to reach the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In late April 2012, Morlino announced that St. Mary’s School would close in June because a goal of $160,000 in donations to pay outstanding debt was not met. The school had raised $1.9 million of the $2.1 million needed to purchase the former O.E. Gray building from Platteville Public Schools. St. Mary’s had operated in O.E. Gray since 2008.
In the announcement, Morlino wrote, “It has been said that the only solution for saving the parish school would be for me to remove Fr. Faustino Ruiz and Fr. John Del Priore. This would, I have been told by many people, ransom the school from those who are protesting and return giving to its previous level. I’ll not get into the previous financial condition of the school here, and there is certainly something to be said for the lack of monetary support coming from the parish community. But, as evidenced by the very fact of this situation of protest and refusal to support the needs of the church, the deficit at St. Mary and St. Augustine parishes is of a much greater kind.”
Morlino said in the letter he was confident that the Catholic faith is being taught in Platteville according to the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council, “and that what remains are personal likes and dislikes, along with inflated rumors and gossip, some of which may even rise to the level of calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith, and myself. For these likes and dislikes, gossip, and hurt feelings, the Catholic faith is rejected and a school is closed.”
Morlino said in the letter that “the priests of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest will remain in priestly ministry at St. Mary and St. Augustine parishes in Platteville, and they stand to serve you and to seek stability, understanding, and healing.”
The Madison diocese includes 114 Catholic churches, 44 Catholic elementary schools and two Catholic high schools in Grant, Lafayette, Iowa, Sauk, Columbia, Adams, Juneau, Dane, Green, Rock and Jefferson counties.