By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

A priest who was removed from his post as pastor of Bend’s St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church has left the Roman Catholic Church and will head a new church created by his supporters.

James Radloff served as pastor of the Catholic parish for nearly two years, before he was removed Oct. 1 by Liam Cary, bishop of the Archdiocese of Baker. Neither Radloff nor the archdiocese has explained the reasons for the dispute, with the archdiocese saying only that Radloff had done nothing illegal and, prior to his leaving the church, “remains a priest in good standing.”

Initially, Cary announced Radloff would be reassigned to Merrill, a town of about 900 people southeast of Klamath Falls. Cary reversed course, and Radloff spent most of the last six months living with his mother near Chicago while his appeal of his removal was adjudicated by the Vatican.

In February, the Vatican upheld Cary’s decision to remove Radloff.

Tuesday, Radloff announced he would return to the priesthood as the head of the new Holy Communion Evangelical Catholic Church in Bend. He said he still considers himself “very much a Catholic priest serving a Catholic community,” albeit one with no ties to the Vatican and the rest of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

“The challenge is, I didn’t really make this choice — the bishop did, through his actions. And I could no longer act as a priest under him, so now, I am going to be able to act as a priest again,” Radloff said. “That realization has set me free. I feel set free, like I have been released from an abusive relationship.”

Founded in 1997, the Evangelical Catholic Church claims between 1,300 and 1,500 members worldwide, according to James Wilkowski, presiding bishop for the church.

Wilkowski said the church was created by Catholics who had grown disillusioned by the internal politics and bureaucratic structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

The church is governed by a board of directors that includes lay people, clergy and bishops, Wilkowski said, with the presiding bishop elected by the clergy in consultation with the laity every five years.

Wilkowski said the church has instituted “a few minor reforms” to the more conservative stances embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. Women and married people may be ordained as clergy; contraception and same-sex marriage are accepted; and a marriage may be annulled within 30 days, he said.

Judy Parkinson, one of the St. Francis parishioners who rallied to Radloff’s defense and has been helping to set up the new church in recent months, said she expects the more relaxed attitude toward social issues may not sit well with all of the St. Francis members who would otherwise be inclined to follow Radloff to the new church.

“I think that would be a half-and-half decision; I think there were people that were looking for a more open outlook,” Parkinson said. “For me, personally, it was just my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, and losing faith in the hierarchy of the church.”

Victoria Comé said the announcement of the new church is “the best thing to happen to Central Oregon.”

“I’m so happy that I’m finally going to have a real home when I go to Mass,” she said. “I’m just over the top.”

Jim Stedman alleges he and his wife were asked not to return to St. Francis last fall due to their vocal support of Radloff. He said he can’t guess how many St. Francis members or former members might be interested in joining Radloff’s new church, but said he knows there are 100 to 150 members who took their concerns about Radloff’s dismissal to Bishop Cary.

“The news that he’s forming a church here is the best news that could have happened to the genuinely faithful in this community,” he said. “I think we have some glorious days coming.”

A call placed to the St. Francis of Assisi offices seeking comment on Tuesday was not returned.

Radloff said he hopes to be able to elaborate on the dispute with Cary that led to his dismissal in the near future, and he is working with an attorney to assess the validity of the gag order he signed last fall. He said even understanding the allegations leveled against him, he still doesn’t understand why Cary and the diocese couldn’t find another way to resolve the dispute.

“I asked. Under the code of canon law, I have the right to ask for mediation; he refused. He refused mediation; he refused reconciliation; he refused dialogue; he refused confessions,” Radloff said. “So I don’t know exactly what his problem is with me.”

The new church does not yet have a location but plans to celebrate its first Mass June 8 at the Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,