Priest fired for being scandalously good

This is how Father Ray Martin got fired from his three parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baltimore: he invited an Episcopal priest…a woman!… to read the Gospel at a funeral mass. He also hired a handyman who was arrested once…and for whom the charges were dropped. The handyman, Frank Gulbrandsen, lost his home and his job in the process, but hire him Father Martin did.

Liz Kay and Kelly Brewington broke the story for the Baltimore Sun on November 9th:

Baltimore’s new Roman Catholic archbishop removed a priest who was pastor of three South Baltimore parishes for offenses that include officiating at a funeral Mass with an Episcopal priest, which violates canon law.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien personally ordered the Rev. Ray Martin, who has led the Catholic Community of South Baltimore for five years, to resign from the three churches and sign a statement yesterday apologizing for “bringing scandal to the church.”

Martin led the funeral Mass on Oct. 15 for Locust Point activist Ann Shirley Doda at Our Lady of Good Counsel with several clergy, including the Rev. Annette Chappell, the pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Redemption in Locust Point, Martin said.

Doda’s son, Victor, who had invited Chappell to participate in the service, was stunned and outraged by the action taken against Martin.

The Sun followed up with the residents of Locust Point and found that they were hopping mad.

So the news … that the Rev. Ray Martin, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel, was forced to resign for offenses that included officiating at a funeral Mass with an Episcopal priest, was met with outrage. Community members of all faiths decried Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien’s action and vowed to protest, noting how sharply it seemed to break from the emphasis on religious tolerance by his predecessor, Cardinal William H. Keeler.

“Locust Point was ecumenical before it was kosher to be,” said Joyce Bauerle, 65, who attends the Church of the Redemption. “The three churches have always worked together. We do dinners together. We work at their church. They work at our church. Christmas bazaars, Easter bazaars, we always help each other.

“This is just a big slap in the face to this whole community,” she said yesterday. “We’re appalled by this.”

The three women sitting around her, all congregants of Our Lady of Good Counsel, nodded their heads in agreement.

One, Helen Kazmarek, an 81-year-old lifelong Locust Point resident, wore a T-shirt with a picture of the community’s three churches.

“A Community In Unity,” it read.

The Archdiocese said that one of the reasons it removed Martin was that he hired a man with a criminal background to work as handyman in the parish. Given the recent news of other kinds of scandal and abuse in the church, this might have seemed a prudent response except that there is more–and less–to the story according to the Sun.

But who is this maintenance man? How serious is his criminal record, and how old are the charges against him?

Answer: He’s Frank Gulbrandsen, a 41-year-old welder and handyman. Most of his problems with the law go back to the early to mid-1990s, when he was in his 20s. Some of the charges against him involved drugs, including marijuana and PCP; most were dropped.

His relationship with Martin developed last spring, when the priest hired Gulbrandsen to make repairs at Holy Cross Church in South Baltimore, one of three in Martin’s pastorate. More than his supervisor, Martin became Gulbrandsen’s encouraging friend and spiritual mentor. By late summer, Gulbrandsen, who was raised a Lutheran, was ready to convert to Catholicism.

He was happy – “Closer to God than I’ve ever been before,” he says – until the Archdiocese of Baltimore rejected him as a full-time employee at Holy Cross.

And the archdiocese rejected him, he says, because of a crime he did not commit.

In 2005, Gulbrandsen owned a modest rowhouse on a side street in the Brooklyn section of Baltimore. He rented the second floor to a young woman.

One day, his tenant’s boyfriend was arrested in the basement of the house for selling drugs. Police arrested Gulbrandsen, too, though he claimed he had nothing to do with the crime. “They arrested me because I owned the house, that’s all,” he says.

Though the charges against him were eventually dropped, Gulbrandsen says, the arrest cost him the house; he spent 2 1/2 months in jail, fell behind in mortgage payments and lost the property in an auction. He lost most of its contents to theft.

Sun writer Dan Rodricks thinks this shows that in its quest for order and discipline, the Church–in this case the Diocese of Baltimore–has lost sight of the big picture.

Here, in the long wake of the priest sexual-abuse scandals, the Baltimore Archdiocese’s reference to Father Martin’s offenses as “bringing scandal to the church” seem almost laughable.

What were his offenses? Martin allowed other clergy to participate in the Oct. 15 funeral of longtime Locust Point activist Shirley Doda at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on Fort Avenue. Among those at the altar was the Rev. Annette Chappell, the pastor of nearby Episcopal Church of the Redemption. Doda’s son had asked Chappell to participate in the Mass.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is not unusual to see clergy of other churches and faiths at Catholic services. In fact, it was something for which O’Brien’s predecessor, Cardinal William H. Keeler, was noted. Pope John Paul II praised Keeler for his ecumenical work toward “interfaith understanding.” And two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Keeler convened and conducted a prayer vigil at the Basilica of the Assumption with an imam and a rabbi.

At Doda’s funeral last month, Martin’s big offense was that he allowed the Episcopal priest to read the Gospel – a violation of canon law.

According to Friday’s Sun article, the person who reported this to the archdiocese also said Martin gestured to Chappell to take Communion during Mass, another violation. But Martin said he did not recall making the gesture. Still, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, apparently.

A spokesman for the archbishop said Martin had “repeatedly violated church teaching.” He hired a maintenance man with a criminal background – I guess forgiveness and redemption must violate church teaching – allowed dogs in the sanctuary and did not show up for a baptism.

(A priest serving three parishes must have a lot on his plate.)

The Sun says that Martin has not been defrocked, but has been barred from celebrating Mass publicly and will go on an extended retreat and counseling at a monastery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania

“I feel terrible that this is happening to him because, in compassion, he permitted me to participate in the service,” Chappell said. She said she has participated in another Catholic funeral with Martin, also at the request of the deceased’s family.

Chappell’s involvement was especially heartfelt, Victor Doda said. During his mother’s weakest hours, it was Chappell who used to visit her daily in the hospital.

Doda said Martin agreed to have Chappell involved and that such ecumenical activity wasn’t unusual at the church.

“In our neighborhood, when you go to church dinner or a church function on a social level, people from all churches are involved,” he said. “That’s the kind of relationship the churches have. It’s very, very close.”

Mad Priest, who has not let us forget this story (blessed be he), says:

Reading it will make you very, very angry. Talk about the Church missing the point of its own existence.

Sun articles and commentary are here, here, here, and here.

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