Updated April 6, 2011 at 9:43 a.m. MST. Corrects spelling of Deacon Dick Petersen.
A onetime supporter of the excommunicated and laicized priest Dale Fushek says that his former pastor's new memoir doesn't tell the real story of the man he knew – who began as a “faithful” and “holy” priest, but was led astray by a sense of self-importance.
Fushek has accused Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix of wishing for his death and forcing him out of the Church because of a personal grudge. In his new memoir “The Unexpected Life,” he defends his decision to found a non-Catholic “worship center,” which caused his excommunication from the Catholic Church. Fushek recently told the Arizona Republic that he “never left the Catholic Church – they left me.”
But Deacon Dick Petersen, who says he was once among Fushek's “loyal soldiers,” said that the former priest developed a problem with authority, and couldn't bear to have his decisions questioned, even by the Vatican. Eventually, Deacon Petersen recalled, Fushek went his own way out of wounded pride when Bishop Olmsted suspended him over sex abuse allegations that later resulted in a plea bargain.
“He was extremely popular, and extremely successful – and extremely holy and good, at the beginning,” said Deacon Petersen, who attributes his own ministry to a “conversion experience” in which Fushek played a major role. He and his wife came to St. Timothy's, a large parish that Fushek led for 20 years, in 1987.
“He did marvelous things for a lot of people, including me,” Deacon Petersen told CNA. For at least a decade, he said, “our parish was really very positive, and very faithful.”
“It started to change around the year 2000,” he recalled. “Things started to become less faithful, and there was a little bit more 'pushing the envelope' with the liturgy – with what could be done, and what couldn't be done.”
Some of Fushek's innovations became the basis for the “Life Teen” youth ministry program, which has continued since his departure. But Deacon Petersen – who remains a supporter of Life Teen – said that Fushek's attitude changed when his liturgical decisions came under the scrutiny of Church authorities.
“As the Vatican started to look at these things, some of them were said to be inappropriate,” Petersen explained. “It was about the same time that some of the liturgical things we were doing started to be questioned, that he started to become grumpy – questioning the Vatican, and that kind of thing.”
“When it came to questioning him, it didn't happen – it just didn't happen,” the deacon said. “It was an arrogant kind of an attitude.”
But Bishop Olmsted's predecessor, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, allowed Fushek – who was his vicar general – to lead the parish in the way he saw fit. “People in the diocese used to talk about us as 'the Diocese of St. Tim's,' like we were off here by ourselves doing whatever we wanted to do,” said Deacon Petersen. “To a degree, that was true.”
He explained that Fushek steered the parish toward a style of worship that blended the Catholic Mass with elements of non-denominational Protestant services. “We were considered a very 'charismatic' parish,” the deacon said. “Everybody's hands in the air, a lot of that kind of thing – saying 'Alleluia' all over the place, doing certain things when the rubrics said we shouldn't be.”
“When the liturgical changes started to be called into question, that's when Dale started to become something other than the faithful, holy person that I knew him to be,” said Deacon Petersen.
Yet Fushek's life would take an even more dramatic turn, as he faced serious questions about his involvement in a diocese-wide sex abuse scandal that came to light in 2002.
That year, Fushek finally told St. Timothy's parishioners that the diocese had settled out of court in 1995 with a former Life Teen employee who accused him of sexual harassment. But the Phoenix diocese's change in leadership coincided with further allegations against him, on 10 counts that included indecent exposure and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
“It was shortly after Bishop Olmsted became bishop, that the allegations started coming out against him,” Deacon Petersen noted. “But that wasn't Bishop Olmsted's doing.” The new bishop responded to the legal charges by suspending Fushek from ministry in December 2004.
“There was nothing Bishop Olmsted could do. He had to put Fushek on administrative leave. And when he did, things just went south – big time.”
The associate pastor at St. Timothy's took Fushek's place, along with a visiting priest. “Dale had an apartment somewhere in Phoenix, and went over there to live. From there, he never came back.”
“He never came back to St. Timothy's – and he started a Protestant church of his own, about four miles away from us.”
Fushek would eventually plead guilty, in 2010, to one count of misdemeanor assault. He was formally dismissed from the priesthood the same year. By that time, however, he had already brought several hundred of his former parishioners from St. Timothy's over to the new nondenominational “Praise and Worship Center” that he started in December 2007.
Because of his decision to establish a non-Catholic worship community, Bishop Olmsted declared in December of 2008 that Fushek, along with his fellow priest Fr. Mark Dippre, were excommunicated.
Because the worship services at the center originally featured only music and preaching, Fushek has tried to maintain that Catholics could attend in good conscience. But the opposition has become more open, with Fushek reportedly holding communion services and appearing in priestly attire on the cover of his memoir.
Deacon Petersen believes “Pastor Dale” is now clearly competing with his former parish and other locations in the diocese.
“He was so angry with everybody – from Bishop Olmsted, down to anybody who wouldn't just follow his lead – that he was out to draw people away from St. Timothy's, and any other place he could draw them away from.”
“He had his service on Sunday, at 10:30, which is the exact same time we have our biggest Mass at St. Timothy's. Some of my best friends aren't my friends anymore, because I can't keep my mouth shut when they start trying to tell me I should come to the Praise and Worship Center.”
“They're even receiving Communion there. He's doing all kinds of things that are just wrong.”
Fushek has accused Bishop Olmsted of hoping he would commit suicide, a charge that Deacon Petersen says is absurd. “I know him as well as I've known any bishop,” said the deacon, who served as the first director of pro-life activities for the diocese. “He has not one ounce of vindictiveness in his whole body. He's the most fair person you'll ever meet in your whole life.”
Ultimately, Deacon Petersen attributes Fushek's break with the Church to “ego.”
“We pray for him constantly,” he said. “But for him to try to put himself out as a victim, and Bishop Olmsted as the perpetrator, that's just not right.”