Parents and parishioners in Salt Lake City are raising the alarm about the appointment of a new parish priest, Fr. Erik Richtsteig because they fear he will be a negative influence on their church community.
Known for making LGBTQ-negative and pro-gun posts on social media, Fr. Richsteig replaces Fr. Andrzej Skrzypiec, who was removed from the parish of St. Ambrose Church last year after being found with a sex worker. For many members of the St. Ambrose and J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School community, Richsteig’s appointment is the last straw in their frustrations with this particular congregation, reported Crux.
Local resident Claire Donnelly said that leaving the parish and pulling her children from the school was “a terribly difficult decision,” but that “we had to take a stand against bigotry and intolerance and, frankly, hate speech.” Her three children are transferring to public schools for the first time.
Donnelly was one of 150 parents who formed an online petition to stop Richsteig’s appointment after discovering his social media postings, which range from offensive jokes to obscenities and cruelties. As reported by the Associated Press:
“In one image on his blog, Richtsteig edited an assault rifle into his hands. In a post on Facebook, he said that images shared by LGBTQ individuals in June (which is Pride month) look ‘like a gnome vomited’ and promised he wouldn’t accept a friend request from those with a rainbow filter in their picture. In other places online, he’s liked or followed pages that include ‘Male feminists are pu–’ and ‘Right wing extremist’ and ‘Obama has to go.’
“He shared one meme about slavery that suggested a black U.S. senator, who has advocated for reparations, should perform oral sex on a man. He also posted an article about a cardinal who instructed members of the faith to stop calling priests ‘father.’ Richtsteig added the comment: ‘Bite me, Eminence.’”
While many of the posts have since been removed, there is no indication that the thinking behind them has changed.
In their petition, parents shared that they have tried to build an accepting and diverse faith community. They say that their school and church taught them to “walk the path that Jesus the Christ has laid before us. It is a path of love, compassion, and unconditional regard and acceptance.”
Parents at the school reported that their primary concern was for the ways that Richsteig’s LGBTQ-negative posts would affect children at the school. They worry that the LGTBQ+ students at the school will be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. “How can I send my kids knowing the are going to church once a week with this person?” asked Amy Stevanoni.
Colleen Sandor, a gay parent of twin girls in the school, worried that her daughters will be ‘retaliated against,’ and shared that the whole experience has been ‘very painful.’ Sandor, a product of Catholic and Jesuit education herself, intentionally chose to send her daughters to a Catholic school because of its emphasis on virtue and strong morals. Yet Richsteig’s posts show a direct opposition to these values, and in this role, he will interact with students on a regular basis.
Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City does not agree with the parishioners, saying that his experience of Fr. Richsteig has been as “a priest full of pastoral zeal and commitment to his priestly responsibilities.” Despite the parents’ petition, Solis reports that he has received “no serious complaints” about the pastor. Formally, the Diocese of Salt Lake Cityhad ‘no comment.’ Neither did Richsteig. In one of his most recent Facebook posts, though, he continued to have plenty to say on the subject of his transfer, writing, “Not my choice, I would have been happy to stay here. But, it is what it is. I don’t have a tall pointy hat.”
Beyond his social media postings, Richsteig has long been outspoken against LGBTQ rights. In 2007, he protested Masses that welcomed LGBTQ congregants and families. In 2009, he called a high school performance of the musical Rent, which has several gay characters, “morally destructive and offensive.”
For a school that enrolls only 300 students, a petition signed by more than 150 parents shows that the community is united against Richsteig’s appointment. More than seventy people showed up in person for a school board meeting in June, and many have already committed to transferring their children before the start of the new school year. These students will no longer receive a formal Catholic education, but the example of their parents—sticking up for love and compassion in the face of hate and discrimination—will serve them far longer.
There should be no place for bigotry against LGBTQ people in Catholic spaces, and the community of St. Ambrose Church and J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School have shown great integrity in speaking up for this truth.
For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBTQ issues in Catholic education, see the “Schools & Youth” category to the right or click here.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, August 16, 2019