One-time priest Dale Fushek offers a less than tell-all book as he moves on in ministry
I first met the Rev. Dale Fushek nearly 25 years ago when I, in my role as religion editor for the Tribune, accepted an invitation from Marge Injasoulian, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic of Diocese, to serve on a committee to plan press and media coverage and logistics for the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II. I was there to help make sure we in the secular press had ideal access and that the diocese knew of our needs.
Fushek, pastor of St. Timothy’s Catholic Community in Mesa, was also the Vicar of Worship for the Diocese. Bright, articulate, a take-charge-guy, he proved to be the kind of source we in the media appreciated. And for the next nearly 20 years, Fushek returned phone calls, made himself available for interviews and was a steady voice for matters large and small in the diocese and beyond. He was front and center for that papal visit to Phoenix and Tempe. Fushek served as the master of ceremonies for the historic mass officiated by the pope at Sun Devil Stadium on Sept. 14, 1987. Then in February 1989, there was the remarkable two-day visit of Mother Teresa to the Valley to find a place where she could establish a home for her nuns of the Sisters of Mercy, the order she founded. Fushek once again took charge of arrangements and masterfully helped hundreds of church, security, media and others keep up with the pint-size, wrinkled Nobel Peace Prize icon from Calcutta.
Fushek had the Midas touch. Life Teen, a model Catholic program for youth, which he founded at St. Timothy’s in 1985, went international and caught the attention of the Vatican. Named one of two vicar generals for the growing diocese in 2000, he then was selected to receive the honorable title of “monsignor” in 2001. Soon he was named coordinator for the $15 million building project to replace an aging diocesan headquarters with the Pastoral Center in 2003. He launched the highly respected Paz de Cristo homeless kitchen and ministry in Mesa in 1987. In columns, I speculated that Dale Fushek was on track to be the future bishop of the diocese. The tall, blond square-jawed priest of Polish heritage was called a “golden boy” with a bright future.
Accusations of misconduct with teens dating back two decades brought his world crashing down. Then-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas brought 10 misdemeanor charges against him in 2005 (later reduced to seven counts, including assault, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and indecent exposure). That came after a surreal two-year catharsis for the diocese that included a batch of priest misconduct investigations, Bishop Thomas O’Brien’s fatal hit-and-run accident that led to his resignation and the arrival of his replacement – Bishop Thomas Olmsted, a humorless authoritarian.
I just finished reading, “The Unexpected Life: An Autobiography of a Very Human Priest,” (Serey Jones Publishers, 2010, 142 pages, $15). Co-written with a longtime friend, Jody Serey of Glendale, the book strives to be Fushek’s effort to set the record straight, without going into any substantive detail to refute the accusations. The book succeeds best at intimating what a priest’s life entails — the pressures, demands, loneliness, power to fall prey to temptations, unreal expectations and how his peers in the priesthood can be colleagues or back stabbers. In a chapter titled ‘Priests – Cain and Abel were Brothers, Too,” Fushek writes there are three groups of priests, those who in one’s support group with whom one is most friendly; those outside one’s circle who are helpful and interested in advancing the priestly brotherhood; and priests who are “angry, jealous and gossipy. They are spiritually bored and are very often burned out with ministry.”
Between late 2005 and April 2010, Fushek was at work defending himself. After the priest was indicted, Olmsted ordered him to resign his duties and go on paid leave, pending the legal outcome. “During these months and years, the stress and anxiety were indescribable and overwhelming,” Fushek writes. “Whenever I was in public, I feared the police, the media and even people who used to be my friends. I do not know how I survived. I was hurt, humiliated and lost.”
But by 2007, Fushek felt called to launch a non-denominational fellowship with friends and former priest Mark Dippre. Many who adored his work at St. Timothy’s swarmed into the prayer gathering. His charisma and preaching drew other disaffected Catholics and non-Catholics into what become the Praise and Worship Center, first in Mesa and now in Chandler. Olmsted’s repeated threats for him to stop went unheeded, and the bishop warned the Catholic faithful to not darken the doors of the upstart church. Fushek subsequently was excommunicated and laicized for his defiance.
In his book, Fushek has pointed comments about Olmsted: 1) “Thomas Olmsted has not been received well by the people of Phoenix as their bishop. He is distant from the people, not ecumenical, uncaring and perceived by many as being a man of ‘rules’ and not a man of Christ”; 2) Olmsted “became a symbol of all that is wrong with the institution of the Catholic Church. He excommunicates, not reconciles. He evaluates rules and rubrics and cares little about spirituality” 3) “he used the Catholic Sun newspaper to try to destroy me. So many facts recounted in the paper and that were cited in the laicization were lies”; 4) “Bishop Olmsted forced me to look outside the Catholic Church for love and community.” Fushek asserts that the Maricopa County attorney’s office still has undue influence in diocesan matters.
After his indictment, I repeatedly called Fushek’s home for opportunities to sit down with him for his story. Occasionally he would pick up the phone and talk briefly. Several times he promised I would get an interview to get his side. Yes, during all that time, I wrote dozens of articles, columns and blogs about the court proceedings and news developments and the diocese’s actions to reign Fushek in. I thought I was fair. So often I wanted his side of the story, but I was spurned. Several times in the Justice of the Peace court in Chandler, I attempted to talk to him and was always rebuffed with an icy look.
In his book, Fushek makes a reasonable case questioning why alleged “victims” took decades to come forward and the unreliability of “repressed memories” in legal actions decades later. It is unclear how many thousands of dollars the diocese has paid to complainants related to Fushek’s interaction with boys-now-men. Certainly, his experience underscores how important it is to not allow adults and minors to interact without other adults present, for the protection of all.
Dale Fushek has guts and courage. By all accounts, he has won again and again in the courts. In the end, he plea- bargained to a single count of misdemeanor assault stemming from a 1986 incident and paid a $250 fine, a surcharge and put on a year’s probation. His own legal costs and what it cost taxpayers to prosecute raises other questions.
“I do know that I have come to expect the unexpected,” he writes in the last chapter. “And the most unexpected gift in my unexpected life is God’s unconditional love. Everything but this will pass away.” Almost 59, the pastor of a thriving non-denominational church has told as much of his story as he finds necessary in this book, one of a half-dozen he has written.
He represents an impressive group of priests who, one way or another, have broken free from Bishop Olmsted’s unwelcomed control, often at a heavy cost. “I will always love the Catholic Church, but I am not in love with her any longer,” he offers. That is a seemingly contradictory statement, but one that others surely can understand.