Claire Donnelly’s three children have attended Catholic school in Salt Lake City since they were 4 years old and barely tall enough to see over the wooden pews in the chapel. But this fall, for the first time, they won’t be going back.
“It was a terribly difficult decision for us to make,” Donnelly said. “We’re sad to leave the community. But for our family, we had to take a stand against bigotry and intolerance and, frankly, hate speech.”
Over the past year in her parish in the foothills of Salt Lake City — which includes St. Ambrose Church and J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School — problems with priests have riled the small faith community and prompted some, like the Donnellys, to step away.
The previous priest there was charged last fall with patronizing a prostitute. The new priest starting this fall has a history of posting profane things online.
Previous priest Andrzej Skrzypiec, who pleaded no contest, is now being sent to another school. The Rev. Erik Richtsteig, who will replace him at this church, was counseled about his online posts that promote hate of LGBTQ groups and mock women, and will lead weekly Mass for children from 4 years old to 15.
More than 150 parents have signed a petition hoping to block Richtsteig’s move to their parish and school; he’s scheduled to start Thursday.
All of it, but especially the new priest coming in, has pushed Donnelly over the edge. She’s mad about the previous priest. She had hoped the church would be more sensitive in choosing a new priest.
“As long as that man is there, I will not go back,” she said. “And I won’t take my kids there.”
Donnelly’s youngest would have been going into second grade. Her oldest finished up eighth grade there this year and might have gone to a Catholic high school next. But now both of them and their brother in seventh grade will be enrolled at public schools for the fall.
Controversial Facebook posts
Richtsteig, a longtime priest serving in Ogden, was assigned to replace Skrzypiec at the Salt Lake City parish after the sexual misconduct charge was filed. And Skrzypiec was moved to St. Olaf Catholic School in Bountiful.
Transferring priests is common in the church, which usually limits how long Catholic leaders can stay in a parish. Richtsteig had been in Ogden for 17 years — already five years longer than a typical assignment.
Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City Diocese — which oversees more than 300,000 Catholics in Utah — said the church had no comment. As the faith and the nation have been rocked in recent years by reports of sex abuse of minors by priests, the church has promised to remove leaders with the potential for misconduct (19 have been reported in Utah since 1990).
A group of congregants at St. Ambrose and parents with children at the private school, which hosts preschool through eighth grade, created the petition to stop Richtsteig from coming to their parish over his social media posts, which they have documented with screenshots.
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.”
He has since deleted many of the posts. Or, at least, hidden them from public view. When reached by The Salt Lake Tribune, Richtsteig said he had no comment.
The concerned parents have asked the diocese and Bishop Oscar Solis, who presides over Utah Catholics, to rescind Richtsteig’s appointment. Solis has responded in two letters saying he will not change Richtsteig’s placement.
“I understand your fears having checked the postings on his Facebook account, and I am grateful to you for sharing your feelings about it,” he wrote in the first one dated June 21. “It was quite a surprise to me having known Fr. Richtsteig since I came to the diocese two years ago as a priest full of pastoral zeal and commitment to his priestly responsibilities.”
Solis went on to say he has “never heard any serious complaint” about Richtsteig and is confident that he will lead the parish with love and kindness. He included letters of support from individuals at the parish and school Richtsteig was leading in Ogden.
In his second letter, on July 16 — which he sent after sitting down with upset parents and board members for J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School — Solis said he talked to Richtsteig about the concerns and isn’t worried about the priest creating similar posts in the future. But it is against the diocese’s policies for a priest to be so outspoken on social media.
“He is not a person without faults, much more a saint, but one with weaknesses and failings like anyone else,” Solis wrote. “Yet, his mistakes do not outweigh his love, fidelity and zeal for his priestly ministry.”
Get to know him; give him a chance, Solis pleaded. Because I’m not changing my mind, he added.
One of Richtsteig’s most recent comments on social media, though, said that he didn’t actually want the transfer either, as he apparently referred to the miter worn by the pope, cardinals and bishops in the faith.
“Not my choice, I would have been happy to stay here,” he wrote. “But, it is what it is. I don’t have a tall pointy hat.”
‘We feel threatened’
The Catholic faith has historically overlapped with conservatism. It has opposed same-sex marriage, civil unions and adoptions by gay couples; LGBTQ individuals, according to a 2005 statement from the church, should be treated with kindness but should live celibate lives to not be “sinful.”
But this parish and this school, parents say, have found a way to carve out a space for more liberal ideas and more welcoming views and more diverse voices in Salt Lake City, one of the bluer places in Utah.
In their online petition against Richtsteig, parents say J.E. Cosgriff Memorial School and St. Ambrose Church have taught adherents to “walk the path that Jesus, the Christ, has laid before us. It is a path of love, compassion, and unconditional regard and acceptance.”
“If he’s not following that, how can I in good conscience shake this priest’s hand?” asked member Amy Stevanoni. “How can I send my kids knowing they are going to go to church once a week with this person?”
The biggest issue for many parents about Richtsteig’s posts is the focus on LGBTQ individuals. There are several queer and transgender students at the school, and they worry that those kids will be targeted by the priest or made to feel less worthy.
Colleen Sandor and her wife are one of the few — and possibly only — gay parents at the school. Their twin daughters are 6 and starting first grade next year; they’ve been going to J.E. Cosgriff Memorial since they were 2. She fears that because of what Richtsteig has posted that the girls will be “retaliated against.”
“It’s been very painful,” she said. “The Facebook posts are pretty horrifying. And we feel threatened.”
Sandor said she and her wife enrolled their daughters there because they appreciated the caliber of the school, the teachers and principal. Sandor also attended a Catholic school when she was growing up and spent three years at a Jesuit college.
“The reason we chose Catholic school is because of the virtues that are woven into the lessons,” she said. “In his posts, though, [Father Richtsteig] is representing morals that are not things that we teach our children. They’re homophobic, misogynistic.”
She hopes the school will remain as it is. But Richtsteig will be in charge and will interact with students there at least once a week at Mass, as well as with first communions and confirmations.
Donnelly, who has pulled her kids from the school and whose sister is gay, said anyone in a business or other workplace would be fired for posting similar comments — “let alone being asked to be a spiritual leader for children.” As far as she can see, she said, Richtsteig has faced no consequences.
Richtsteig previously spoke out in 2007, too, when he protested a Catholic priest in Park City who was holding special Masses once a month for LGBTQ congregants and their families. He called same-sex attraction “a disorder” and “not something to be proud of.” He also protested a school performance of “Rent” in 2009 at Judge Memorial Catholic High because it included LGBTQ characters. He suggested that made it "morally destructive and offensive.”
Now, many parents are worried about what Richtsteig will say over the pulpit.
“I hope he’s not going to stand up there and preach hateful, hurtful things to a church full of children,” added Stevanoni, whose two kids, ages 7 and 12, go there. She’s been questioning if they should stay or leave.
More than 70 parents showed up at a private school board meeting in June, and The Tribune received a recording of the discussion from one of the attendees. There are slightly more than 300 students at the school.
The parents talked for more than two hours about their hesitation in accepting Richtsteig into the community. “It’s extremely concerning,” said one mom. “There are trust issues,” said another. “We disagree with his bigotry,” said a dad.
Others said they don’t feel comfortable with the priest talking to young kids and teens who may be questioning their sexuality. Some argued that he’s not fit to be a spiritual leader. A few more said these posts aren’t an anomaly; they go back more than a decade.
That includes two posts from 2008 on Richtsteig’s blog where he’s holding an automatic rifle — both appear to be edited into the image. In one of the photos, the gun is spitting flames and labeled “Easter fire.”
The priest has been an open advocate for guns since a man was shot and injured by a family member in Richtsteig’s church in 2013.
But with recent school shootings, some parents say it’s inappropriate for him to advocate for rifles and joke about automatic weapons.
Moving forward ‘with caution’
Parents say the only hope they have left is that Richtsteig will preserve the welcoming atmosphere at St. Ambrose Church and J.E. Cosgriff Memorial School. They pray that when he comes, he will act in accordance with how the parish has been run for years — liberally and diversely.
“I’ve been asked to move forward with this. And I certainly will with caution,” said the principal at the school, Betsy Hunt. “I just have to think positive about all of this and reassure the parents that it will be another great year.”
Ashley Gardner, who has one child going into second grade there and another starting prekindergarten, said the best thing would be if Richtsteig would apologize before coming to the parish.
“That would be huge for us,” she said. “We’re willing to give anyone a second chance.”
Other parents would like to see his talks checked first before he celebrates Mass. Some want him to promise not to mention anything about guns or LGBTQ individuals.
The divide is a microcosm of a larger split that’s happening nationally and globally in the Catholic faith. One faction has remained rooted in the church’s historic ways, while another has branched out — including Pope Francis, who has been accepting of LGBTQ individuals.
The parish Richtsteig will lead is named after St. Ambrose, who was known for settling conflicts. When members of the faith were fighting in the year 374, according to historical accounts, Ambrose stepped in to try to find common ground and prevent an uproar.
Because of that, he was appointed bishop. He is also credited with saying, “Follow the custom of the church where you are.”
Still, some parents say they can’t wait to see whether such a reconciliation occurs at St. Ambrose Church.
“It breaks our hearts to walk away,” Donnelly said. “But I won’t accept it.”
With Richtsteig coming in and the previous priest leaving after the prostitute charge, she added, “this parish already feels beaten up. It’s just too much.”