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Bishop drops covenant, rehires workers in Fargo

NCR Staff

In a striking about-face, Bishop James Sullivan of Fargo, N.D., has dropped both his insistence on a controversial moral code for diocesan employees and his support for an equally controversial administrator at a church-run social services agency.

In mid-July, Sullivan also invited back the 10 employees who had resigned or been fired from Fargo’s Catholic Family Services, and replaced a group of mediators he had invited in from the Lincoln, Neb., diocese with advisers from Catholic Charities-USA.

Sullivan also gave assurances to agency administrators that they will not be pressured to impose Catholic morality upon the clients they serve.

Sullivan faced multiple pressures to change course, including the loss of state contracts at Catholic Family Services, the public support of 14 priests for the agency’s workers, a rally supporting the employees, and a stinging critique of the moral code from a widely respected canon lawyer.

The new decisions “are all very dramatic, very positive steps,” said Tim Mathern, a Democratic state senator in North Dakota and one of the 10 employees who had left. “Whether the underlying structural issues are fixed, only time will tell.”

A spokesperson said Sullivan was unavailable for comment.

The drama began April 1 when Sullivan named Bill Kurpius-Brock executive director of the 33-employee agency. Several workers complained of harassment and demeaning treatment by Kurpius-Brock.

In late June, the agency’s board of directors voted to fire Kurpius-Brock but were immediately overruled by Sullivan, who also forbade the board to meet again.

At the same time, several employees refused to sign the new moral code, called “a covenant of responsible service.” It listed behaviors contrary to Catholic teaching, required workers to promise in writing they have not engaged in those behaviors and directed them to list exceptions on the back of the form.

A “non-taxative” list of such behaviors included “driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, rape, pederasty, exhibitionism, voyeurism, homosexuality, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, impregnation of a woman or being impregnated outside wedlock whether a consenting adult or not, sexual harassment, embezzlement of funds, and the like.”

The head of the canon law department at the Catholic University of America, Fr. John Beal, wrote a withering four-page critique of the covenant June 7, calling it useless in terms of civil law and a violation of canon law because it compelled employees to confess sins.

As the controversy reached its peak in June, 10 of the 33 employees of Catholic Family Services either resigned of were fired, including three of four senior managers.

State regulators, worried about discontinuity in services because of the turmoil, revoked several contracts with the agency.

Fourteen priests in Fargo sent a letter in May to Sullivan criticizing the covenant and his treatment of Catholic Family Services. When they received no response, they announced their stance publicly and created a legal defense fund for the employees. The diocese has 158 priests.

Members of the Fargo community also staged a rally in a park to show support for the Catholic Family Services staff.

Sullivan changed course dramatically in early July, announcing that he had asked Kurpius-Brock to resign. Personnel were invited back on an “interim basis” with back pay. As of late July, five had returned and another two were in the process of returning.

Mark Schneider, the Fargo attorney who represents 18 employees, said several workers are at risk until the state makes a decision about a guardianship contract.

On July 13, the Catholic Family Services board hired Paul Griffin, another of the former employees, as interim executive director. Griffin said he is “very optimistic, very enthusiastic” that the agency can recover.

On July 15, Sullivan sent a letter to employees saying the covenant had been withdrawn.

Griffin told NCR that Sullivan has given the agency written assurances on two key points: 1) While Catholic Family Services will not provide information on either abortion or birth control, it will serve people regardless of the choices they make on those issues; 2) in making decisions for clients over whom the agency exercises guardianship, the agency will respect the values and faith traditions of the client and not impose moral choices upon them.

The team from Catholic Charities-USA is expected to arrive in Fargo in five to six weeks. Both Mathern and Schneider expressed confidence that the team’s role would be positive. “I think everything will be on the table,” Schneider said. Employees had resisted Sullivan’s plan to bring in experts from Lincoln. “Who knows what their agenda would have been?” Mathern said.

Mathern, who hopes to return to Catholic Family Services after completing a yearlong fellowship at Harvard University, said several “systemic issues” are still unresolved. One is the role of the board of directors and the agency’s independence.

Another, Mathern said, is how Sullivan will relate in the future to employees who question his decisions. On this score, he said Sullivan’s July 14 remarks to a Fargo TV station were worrisome. Sullivan referred to support for the workers by priests as a “knife stab,” and said, “there are about 8 or 10 persons that would do anything to have me decapitated.”

“That seems to be escalating things,” Mathern said. “It suggests there are issues here that go beyond Catholic Family Services, that should be of concern to every Catholic institution.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999