The Diocese of San Bernardino has declared an Inland priest guilty of heresy, after what experts say may have been one of the first trials of its kind in U.S. history.
As a result, the Rev. Ned Reidy is formally excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
Reidy said the verdict means little to him, because the religious denomination he joined in 2000 after resigning from his Roman Catholic order does not recognize the Vatican's authority.
"I have no thoughts on it because I'm so far beyond this," said Reidy, co-pastor of Pathfinder Community of the Risen Christ in Bermuda Dunes, which is near his old Roman Catholic parish in Palm Desert. "I'm now involved in the life of the people here. I've gotten on with my life."
The Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese, also declined to discuss the verdict.
"The letter received by Rev. Reidy clearly stated the findings of the tribunal, and we do not feel it is appropriate to comment further on this matter," Lincoln said.
The Roman Catholic Church defines heresy as the denial of a fundamental truth. A tribunal of three diocesan priests also found Reidy guilty of schism, for leaving the Roman Catholic Church to join another religion and refusing to submit to the authority of the pope.
Reidy has the right to appeal the diocese's verdict to the Vatican, but he said he would not do so, because that would give it legitimacy. He called the decision "30 pages of gobbledygook." Reidy refused to attend the Dec. 13 trial.
Monsignor Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said the verdict could help pave the way for heresy trials in other dioceses across the country.
"They might think, 'If they did it and were able to carry it off, it's not insuperable,' " Green said.
Green and other leading Roman Catholic scholars said they were unaware of any other heresy trials in the United States.
Reidy left Christ of the Desert Roman Catholic Church in Palm Desert in 1999 after serving 19 years as its pastor.
He was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church when he became a priest with the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, based in Orange.
But the diocesan judges wrote in the verdict that it is necessary "for the good of the faithful" to formally excommunicate him and revoke his priestly functions.
The rituals and liturgy of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion are so similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church that it may lead some Roman Catholics astray, the judges said.
In addition, the judges wrote, Ecumenical Catholic churches "target" Roman Catholics who feel disillusioned with and excluded from the Roman church, making it different from other non-Roman-Catholic denominations.
In a June document delineating the accusations against Reidy, Stephen Osborn, the diocese's promoter of justice, argued that Reidy's affiliation with a denomination that ordains women and blesses same-sex unions was heresy.
But in declaring Reidy guilty of heresy, the judges singled out Reidy's refusal to accept the infallibility and leadership of the pope, beliefs that they said belong "to the first level of truths" in the church.
Bishop Peter Hickman, leader of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, called the judges' letter "vindictive."
"There are all these quotes from canon law that are cold and harsh, but there are no quotes from the Gospel of Jesus," said Hickman, who lives in Lake Elsinore. "Are we not to be followers of Jesus? Is this the way Jesus would have behaved? There is no evidence he ever behaved that way. His response was always a loving response. This is not a loving document."
The trial and verdict may reflect personal anger that San Bernardino diocesan Bishop Gerald R. Barnes has toward Reidy for leaving the church, Hickman said.
Lincoln declined to respond to Hickman's comments.
Marc Balestrieri, a canon lawyer and president of De Fide, a Santa Monica-based group that advocates filing heresy denunciations against those who violate fundamental church teachings, praised the verdict.
"The gravity of the errors which he is professing, coupled with the group's targeting of Roman Catholic faithful in the bishop's diocese, all pose a real danger of inducing the flock under his care into grave sin," Balestrieri said. "Let us not forget, we're dealing here with the risk of eternal damnation."
Balestrieri drew national attention in 2004 for filing a heresy denunciation against former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts because of Kerry's support of abortion rights.
Kerry has not been tried nor have four other pro-abortion-rights Roman Catholic politicians against whom Balestrieri filed denunciations.
Hickman released the verdict Thursday, a day after the diocese announced it would not publicly reveal it.
Leading Roman Catholic scholars said they were perplexed by the diocese's decision to keep the verdict secret, especially because diocesan officials said last month that they were holding the trial to warn the faithful that Reidy is no longer a practicing Roman Catholic priest.
"If in fact they wanted to establish that he is not a Roman Catholic priest, but they're now not publicizing that -- that strikes me as odd," said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and an expert in church history.
Reidy initially planned to return the envelope containing the verdict without opening it. He said he changed his mind because "if I don't open it up, they can say what they want about this."
He criticized the diocese for contacting him only in writing, rather than verbally.
Lincoln said written communication is part of the formal canon-law process, and "there's a greater clarity when it is in writing."
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