Jolt: Texas bishop sues outspoken priest

Some may recall the story of Fr. Michael Rodriguez, from the Diocese of El Paso, who was promptly reassigned last fall after making some strong public statements — and taking out newspaper ads — condemning homosexual activity.

Now there’s more, and it’s getting ugly:

In a rare move, Catholic Bishop Armando X. Ochoa and Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas on Wednesday sued a controversial priest and his brother, alleging they mishandled thousands of dollars in church money.

The suit, described as an extraordinary measure by the bishop, alleges that the Rev. Michael E. Rodriguez improperly accepted donations meant for San Juan Bautista parish and opened certificates of deposit in his name that were meant for church construction projects.

The suit also names Rodriguez’s brother, David Rodriguez.

The Rev. Rodriguez, who was reassigned from San Juan Bautista Parish on Sept. 20, 2011, to Santa Teresa de Jesus Parish in Presidio, Texas, denied any wrongdoing in a statement released Thursday. The priest was reassigned for becoming politically involved in a recall effort against the mayor and two City Council representatives.

On Thursday, Ochoa said he could not comment on the lawsuit.

But according to the suit, Ochoa learned of the alleged mishandling on Sept. 7, 2011, when two former parishioners reported that the Rev. Rodriguez was soliciting money from them and others but asked that the checks be made payable to him instead of the church.

In a letter to parishioners on the El Paso Catholic diocese website, Ochoa said that Rodriguez failed to comply with diocesan policies relating to parish finances. He also stated that the priest has repeatedly refused to make a complete disclosure of how San Bautista church donations were used.

“I have had to resort to an extraordinary measure in order to protect the patrimony and restore the financial integrity of San Juan Bautista parish,” Ochoa stated in the letter.

The lawsuit gives a detailed account of how the Rev. Rodriguez allegedly inappropriately deposited donations in various accounts to keep them secret, solicited funds and completed building projects without the approval of the bishop and requested checks be made in his name.

The lawsuit alleges that David Rodriguez was paid $4,000 for unknown work. The suit alleges that David Rodriguez was a participant in some of the priest’s fraudulent practices and maintains at least one personal checking account with money meant for the church. David Rodriguez would not comment on the suit.

Police said neither Ochoa nor Bañuelas has filed a criminal complaint.

“We don’t have a case at this time,” said El Paso police spokesman Darrel Petry.

Renee Railey, spokeswoman for the district attorney, said there currently is no investigation of the Rev. Rodriguez and his brother.

In a statement Thursday, the Rev. Rodriguez said Ochoa’s legal action is unjust and he is ready to defend himself.

“Over the course of 9 1/2 years as the parish priest of San Juan Bautista Catholic Church, I poured my heart and soul into caring for this parish, both in terms of temporal goods, and especially spiritual goods,” he said. “I’m confident that hundreds of my former parishioners will eagerly testify to this.”

Read more.

Colleen Hammond has additional details. And the El Paso paper looks at the “politics” behind the moves.

And for the curious, you can see a video of Fr. Rodriguez in action here.

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