Priest’s Ordeal Shows Aging Clergy’s Risks

A custody battle over an elderly priest shines light on challenges faced by retired clergymen.

SAN GABRIEL, Calif. — Frail and normally confined to his bed, the 76-year-old Father Bernard Gallagher would never have chosen to spend his final days embroiled in an acrimonious lawsuit.

Yet that’s where he has been. The retired priest from the Diocese of Yakima, Wash., was caught in a battle between his family and his appointed guardian over where and under whose care he should spend his final years.

Father Gallagher’s custody battle began in 2006, when the Irish-born priest, living near relatives in Pasadena, Calif., assigned his healthcare power of attorney to David Picella, his nurse practitioner, and what he thought was a friend, Imelda Guadalupe Kowalczyk. “What followed was an ordeal from hell,” said his attorney, Greg Weiler, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Tyler, Wiener, Wilhelm and Waldron.

Suffering from a variety of illnesses, including brain cancer, Father Gallagher was looking for someone to oversee his care when he was no longer capable of doing it, but instead of looking out for the elderly priest, Weiler said Kowalczyk admitted him to the Payson Care Center, near Kowalczyck’s home in Apache County, Ariz. Once admitted as a patient, he couldn’t get out.

“His friends in California didn’t know where he was,” the attorney said. “He wanted to go back to southern California. He couldn’t, because he’d given his power of attorney to Kowalczyk, who wouldn’t let him go.”

Led by the priest’s cousin, Jim Logsden, who lives in Los Angeles, a delegation of friends made the 450-mile trip to the northeastern Arizona community. On the advice of Weiler, the friends helped Father Gallagher to rescind his power of attorney.

Kowalczyk countered by having the priest declared mentally incompetent. “She then instructed the nursing home to permit him no further communication with anyone,” Weiler said.

Now concerned for his safety, the friends made the trip again on Feb. 25. They were told he was competent and assisted him in checking himself out. They then admitted him to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment of pneumonia they blamed on inadequate care in Payson.

Defended by Weiler, a real estate and land use attorney, familiar to the participants in the rescue for his pro bono work on behalf of groups opposing abortion, Father Gallagher was finally able to end his relationship with Kowalczyk, and relocate to the Fernview care facility in San Gabriel.

“The court has now appointed a new conservator, Life Services Inc.,” Weiler said, “and he’s receiving the care he needs, near friends and family and able to receive the sacraments, whenever he wants them.”

That should be the end of the story, and for Father Gallagher it is, but Weiler said what he has learned from the incident is how isolated many aging diocesan clergy are and how vulnerable they can be to abuse or neglect.

“They’re uniquely vulnerable,” he said.

They don’t have wives or children to look out for them. Siblings are often either living in distant cities or deceased, Weiler said.

“Put that together with a trusting nature, to begin with,” he said, and you have a recipe for more problems with abuse in the years ahead.

Adding to the risk is the sheer number of elderly priests, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. She said the statistics collected by the center show there was a surge in ordinations during the first six decades of the 20th century, followed by a steep drop-off during the last four decades.

“That has created an imbalance between active and retired clergy that’s just hitting the top of the curve now,” Gautier said. “It will take another 10-15 years, at least, to overcome the stress it has imposed on the system.”

Until then, each diocese will have to cope as best it can, said Sister of Mercy Mary Ann Walsh, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spokeswoman. A number of bishops are trying to cope by encouraging these priests to remain active, maybe at a reduced level, “because there’s such a need for them to keep working, and they’re still vital contributors to their diocese,” she said.

As for caring for those who can’t care for themselves, “it’s a matter of handling each circumstance on a case-by-case basis,” offering options, such as group homes or residence in parishes, “while respecting their right to make a choice on how to live.” Sister Mary Ann said, “This isn’t an issue with a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

Caught by surprise by the Father Gallagher incident, Father Robert Siler, chief of staff for the Diocese of Yakima, said the diocese is determined not to be blindsided again. “We have 15 retired priests, and Bishop Carlos Sevilla is making a special effort through written correspondence, phone calls and visits, to see that all of them are doing well.”

Won’t Be Forgotten

The diocese has also raised nearly $4 million over the last three years to support vocations and supplement retired clergy’s pension income. “Care for our retired priests is not something we take lightly. It’s an important part of our ministry,” Father Siler said.

“We tailor our efforts to the individual retirement needs of each,” he said, but the entire diocese wants every priest to know they won’t be neglected and they won’t be forgotten.

Beyond clergy helping clergy, Weiler said Father Gallagher’s “rendition” by friends and family demonstrate “this is something that should be a concern for every Catholic.”

Said Weiler, “I believe they’ve spent their lives serving us and serving God. We should be alert to any time there is a priest in need and be ready to drop everything to help.”

Philip Moore is based in Vail, Arizona.