Indiana Priest’s Suspension After Black Lives Matter Letter Divides Catholics
Bishop Timothy Doherty of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana asked Father Theodore Rothrock to step away from public ministry “because of the division and damage felt within the parish, diocese and larger community.”
DENVER, Colo. — Catholics in one Indianapolis suburb are divided over the suspension of a priest who compared organizers of the Black Lives Matter Movement to “maggots and parasites.”
On June 28, Father Theodore Rothrock wrote in the parish bulletin at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Carmel, Indiana a letter on the Black Lives Matter movement and escalating racial tension in the country.
“The brutal murder of a black man has sparked a landslide of reaction to the alleged systemic racism in America,” the priest wrote. “We are being told that the scars of race relations in this country are really unhealed wounds that continue to fester and putrefy; amputation is required! Reforms must be sweeping and immediate to crush the rising wave of racism that pervades the nation and perverts the body politic.”
“What would the great visionary leaders of the past be contributing to the discussion at this point in time? Would men like Fredrick (sic) Douglass and the Reverend King, both men of deep faith, be throwing bombs or even marching in the streets?”
On the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the priest asked “do those black lives really matter to the community organizers promoting their agenda? Is ‘Antifa’ concerned with the defeat of fascist right-wing nationalism or more interested in the establishment of left-wing global nationalism?”
“Who are the real racists and purveyors of hate?” the priest continued. “You shall know them by their works. They are wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits, seeking only to devour the life of the poor and profit from the fear of others. They are maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families, and offering to replace any current frustration and anxiety with more misery and greater resentment.”
“Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and other nefarious acolytes of their persuasion are not the friends or allies we have been led to believe,” Father Rothrock wrote.
Some groups in Carmel immediately protested the priest’s message, calling it racist and inappropriate, and called for his removal from the parish. Supporters said the priest had spoken truthfully, with one telling the Indianapolis Star that the priest was referring to organizers of “Marxist” Black Lives Matter organizations.
Amid the controversy, Bishop Timothy Doherty of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana issued a June 30 statement, saying “I expect Father Rothrock to issue a clarification about his intended message. I have not known him to depart from Church teaching in matters of doctrine and social justice.”
On the same day, Father Rothrock posted an apology on the parish website. “It was not my intention to offend anyone, and I am sorry that my words have caused any hurt to anyone,” he wrote.
The priest’s apology said that the Gospel condemns bigotry, according to the Indianapolis Star, adding that “We must also be fully aware that there are those who would distort the Gospel for their own misguided purposes. People are afraid, as I pointed out, rather poorly I would admit, that there are those who feed on that fear to promote more fear and division.”
The next day, July 1, Bishop Doherty announced that the priest had been suspended from ministry.
“Father Theodore Rothrock is suspended from public ministry according to Canon 1333. The suspension comes in the wake of Father Rothrock’s June 28 bulletin article. The Bishop expresses pastoral concern for the affected communities. The suspension offers the Bishop an opportunity for pastoral discernment for the good of the diocese and for the good of Father Rothrock,” Bishop Doherty wrote in a July 1 decree.
The bishop celebrated Mass and preached at St. Elizabeth Seton parish on July 5. Protesters and counter protesters gathered outside the Church.
Addressing the congregation at Sunday Mass, the bishop praised Father Rothrock as part of the parish’s “wonderful history” while expressing that “serious consequences of that article are still playing out among us, and in the wider community. I chose the suspension provided for in church law. The suspension offers me an opportunity for pastoral discernment for the good of the diocese, of St Elizabeth Seton Church, and for the good of Father Rothrock.”
The bishop drew a distinction between the Black Lives Matter social movement and the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, an organization which, Bishop Doherty said, “clearly says things that I oppose.” But, the bishop said, echoing remarks from black Catholic leaders in recent weeks, “it is a mistake to say that that foundation is the headquarters of what is a very diverse movement.”
When Bishop Doherty concluded his remarks with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” one woman called out, saying the bishop was a coward, according to Catholics in attendance at the Mass, and she was then removed from the church. Outside the parish, demonstrators chanted for or against the priest.
Division over the priest continues in Carmel, a wealthy, mostly white city north of Indianapolis, where some citizens have organized as Carmel Against Racial Injustice to protest systemic racism, while others, Catholics and non-Catholics, have continued to voice support for the priest.
Father Rothrock could not be reached for comment.
While Bishop Doherty said that he had observed Church law in suspending Father Rothrock, it is not clear that the bishops’ action was undertaken in accord with canon law on the subject.
The bishop’s decree indicated that he had suspended the priest in accord with canon 1333 of the Code of Canon Law. The canon describes the formal penalty of suspension issued after a formal penal process- a canonical trial or an administrative penal process. Such a process determines whether a person has committed a “delict”- a crime in Church law.
CNA asked the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana to clarify whether the priest was accused of a particular canonical crime, and whether he had been formally sanctioned with suspension following a canonical process- a procedure which ordinary takes weeks or more to complete.
The diocese declined to respond to CNA’s questions.
It is also not clear whether Father Rothrock formally remains pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish. The priest was due to be transferred to another parish in Carmel, and the diocese now says the transfer will not happen. But the diocese has declined to respond to questions about whether the priest has offered his resignation from St. Elizabeth Seton, or whether he remains the pastor. Removing a pastor from office involuntarily requires a specific canonical process.
On July 8, the diocese issued an “updated statement” saying that Bishop Doherty had “asked Father Theodore Rothrock to step aside from public ministry because of the division and damage that was instantly felt within the parish, the diocese and the larger community following Father Rothrock’s controversial bulletin article. Father Rothrock has expressed regret and he understands and appreciates God’s gift of the human family, and therefore the value of every human life which is made in the image and likeness of God.”
“This time for pastoral discernment is for the good of the diocese, for St. Elizabeth Seton and for the good of Father Rothrock,” the statement said, adding that “various possibilities for Father Rothrock’s public continuation in priestly ministry are still being considered.”