Priest Who Denied Communion to Same-Gender Couple Now Disrupts Parishioner’s Funeral

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St. Leo’s Catholic Church

A Montana priest’s disruption of a parishioner’s funeral recently has its roots in his denial of communion to a same-gender couple in the parish in 2014.

Almost two years ago, Fr.  Spiering, 29, denied Communion to Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick because the two men had recently married. The pastor expelled them from parish ministries in which they had been active. Fellow parishioners at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Lewistown protested the priest’s act at the time, including resignations by the church choir’s director and several members.

Earlier this month, at least three of those former choir members and director Janie Shupe were invited by the Valach family to sing at the funeral of Pearl Valach, a parishioner at the church for all of her 92 years. Ms. Valach had disagreed at the time with the priest’s decision to deny Communion to Huff and Wojtowick but remained in the church. Her daughter-in-law, Susan Valach, explained to the Great Falls Tribune:

“She was upset when the decision was made. . .She continued to be faithful to the church, but with pain in her heart.”

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Pearl Valach

Greg Clark, partner of Pearl’s son Frank Valach Jr. for twenty-plus years, said Pearl was so pained by the priest’s actions that she never spoke about it. But Greg, Frank, and other members of the Valach family left the parish after the communion denial. They said the decision to hold the funeral at St. Leo’s was painful, but did so to respect Pearl’s wishes.

When Valach’s loved ones and parishioners–more than 300 people–gathered for the funeral on the morning of March 8, he told Shupe she could not join the singers, but she could only participate at the funeral from her pew. Shupe explained:

” ‘It was mortifying. It was the most embarrassing thing. I could have stepped down, but at the same time I thought, “That’s ridiculous “. . .I can’t believe anyone in the right mind, let alone anyone who professes to love God, could do this.’ “

Fr. Dan O’Rourke, the parish’s former pastor who was invited to celebrate the funeral, defended Shupe’s right to lead singing. After he argued with Spiering about the decision, Spiering threatened to prevent O’Rourke from presiding at the funeral, and threatened to ban him from the parish. The family, however, refused to let their mother’s funeral be tarnished by Spiering’s continued exclusion. When Spiering informed Valach’s widower, Frank Valach, that the he would now celebrate the funeral Mass, the family rejected that offering and demanded Fr. O’Rourke. Susan Valach explained:

” ‘We immediately said, “Absolutely, no”. . .I went up to the choir and said we would cancel. Our family was so upset and finally (Spiering) agreed to leave. . .

” ‘As a family, we would like to let this go, but it isn’t right. . .It hurts all Christians because it’s not compassionate.’ “

Fr. Jay Peterson, vicar general for the Great Falls-Billings Diocese who was in attendance, presided at the funeral Mass. Peterson invited the women, including Janie Shupe, to lead the singing. Greg Clark said all involved were able to put aside the pre-funeral antics of Spiering for a “reverent, celebratory, and beautiful” liturgy. Clark wrote on his blog [editor’s note: he uses strong language in the blog post]:

“For the balance of the day our family basked in her glow. And there was no doubt that God was with us. Hence against all odds, our love for her conquered all. It wasn’t until later that evening that our angst and frustration over the morning’s events arose again. All must be told about the sins of that Father.”

But the incident — and the harm done — has not ended. This controversy continued to play out in the following weeks. Spiering commented on the incident before his homily at Mass on March 22, stating the he does not regret the decision he made but only the manner in which he made it. He attacked Fr. O’Rourke in his statement and promised St. Leo’s parishioners a new funeral policy to “prevent such problems” in the future. Spiering apologized to the Valach family in a one-liner at the end, but the family said neither the priest nor Bishop Michael Warfel had reached out to them since the funeral.

Fr. O’Rourke released his own statement, explaining that Spiering would not let the matter drop even though the funeral was set to begin in fifteen minutes and had threatened to ban him from the parish. The former pastor’s statement ended positively: “The singer/musician sang her heart out.”

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Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff

Fr. Peterson, in his position as diocesan vicar general, defended Spiering’s actions as an exercise of his “canonical rights” despite it not being “the right pastoral decision.” Peterson said Bishop Michael Warfel was “very concerned” about the incident, which was described as an “unfortunate conflict.” Peterson, a longtime friend of the Valach family, said despite it being Holy Week he hoped “things can be dealt with sooner than later to bring healing and unity and peace” and would be involved if he could help, reported the Independent Record.

In the words of a Billings Gazette reporter:

“It was supposed to be a simple funeral for a woman who was a lifelong Catholic and a lifetime member of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown. . .Instead, it devolved into a disagreement that nearly derailed the rite and left family and friends confused and angry.”

Few incidents in the church hurt more than sacramental exclusion and interference. These incidents cause tremendous pastoral damage to those targeted  and those witnessing these The tragic nature of this funeral incident speaks for itself. Coupled with Spiering’s denial of Communion to a same-gender couple, this funeral fiasco should be enough for Bishop Warfel to question Fr. Spiering’s ministerial competencies and role in active ministry and in the priesthood altogether.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

16 thoughts on “Priest Who Denied Communion to Same-Gender Couple Now Disrupts Parishioner’s Funeral

  1. Gary Cox March 22, 2016 / 1:12 am

    Mister Spiering belongs in Siberia, Father? I don’t think so…..

  2. Thomas March 22, 2016 / 7:40 am

    This young priest, Spiering, has a lot to learn about compassion and life. People rooted in orthodoxy are of little help to actual humans. Perhaps he should ask himself a couple of questions : why did he become a priest? and , what is he really afraid of ?

    • Christian March 22, 2016 / 5:49 pm

      He became a priest to lord his pseudo-power, over others. The man exhibits tendencies of malignant narcissism an will be a REAL danger in the years to come.
      This type of person should show how the current vetting of seminarians is a dismal failure.
      The bleeding from the Catholic will continue.

  3. Loretta Fitzgerald March 22, 2016 / 8:08 am

    That priest should be publicly reprimanded because he created a public scandal by his words and actions. Ironically, the dear old deceased woman had the final word. She couldn’t bring herself to leave the parish but she left this world with her gay son and partner and supporters in “full and participatory” (Vat. II) attendance! Life from death…she did it!

  4. poolgirl2 March 22, 2016 / 9:41 am

    More people are shoved away by priests than saved/converted.

  5. Bishop Carlos Florido March 22, 2016 / 2:27 pm

    This was very sad. Clergy is supposed to imitate Jesus, something that evidently Fr Spiering does not understand. I hope the diocesan bishop intervenes.

  6. Monsignor Clem Connolly March 22, 2016 / 4:47 pm

    The disposition of the Pastor is an alarming scandal.if the story reported is accurate. Is he accountable to anyone? Are we priests dictators or servants?The Bishop and Vicar General also confuse me in the manner of response….for heaven’s sake what kind of example is this ? Is it any wonder that the church is in trouble. I would have thought that the sins of the clergy would have chastened our judgements. We need to humbly ask for forgiveness ….continually. The faith of the people inspire me.

    • Gary Cox March 22, 2016 / 11:18 pm

      Monsignor Connolly, Your thoughtfulness compassion and insight represent the finest example of what the Catholic clergy should be. So many priests have forgotten why they ever became priests. Some never should have. I have a friend who was denied Reconciliation be a American priest in Rome because he was living with a woman he had not yet married. He found a good Irish priest. God bless you and save the church.

  7. JOHN HILGEMAN March 22, 2016 / 6:10 pm

    The priest making a scene at a funeral right before it was to start – classy. And the bishop silent – classy.

    Unfortunately, this is the policy from on high and really needs to be addressed at the highest levels. But then Francis did not even address the oppression of LGBT people when he was in Africa, and we have the Malawi bishops’ conference decrying the decision of the country’s president to suspend the laws criminalizing homosexual acts.

    There is a real cancer in the hierarchy from the top on down. Fortunately, a lot of ordinary Catholics are much healthier and have more common and Christian sense.

  8. Fatherjonz@aol.com March 22, 2016 / 8:00 pm

    Very sad. Age 29, means that he has been a priest only a few years at most. Obviously not a well seasoned pastor. Probably should not yet be a pastor. Wherever he was educated/trained the focus was on a priesthood that was above the laity. His actions against gay people leads me to wonder about his own comfortability with his sexual orientation.

    His ‘in your face’ scandalous behaviour is so extreme that it is difficult to explain away. This is not doctrine or simple prejudice. Covering self-loathing perhaps?

  9. Vincent March 23, 2016 / 1:43 am

    I see this was two years ago. I’m not sure what I would have done except to tell him to mind his own business. He could have bowed out of the funeral if he felt that strongly.

  10. fr gerard o brien March 24, 2016 / 4:45 pm

    this is a very sad reality in so many catholic churches throughout usa, it is a fact that many newly ordained priests are very homophobic and misuse their authority vested in them as ordained ministers to chastise lay people. they believe this is the gospel of love ! pope francis and his great mission of mercy and his witness of love is what our church should be all about.

  11. Msgr. Clem Connolly March 24, 2016 / 7:46 pm

    In these holy days I am more conscious of my own humanity..the forgiveness of my loving God for the sins of my life…a sinner I am…….and the generous faith of the people of God, I do not have the moral high ground to judge anyone….This Easter Day the faithful ( to include the priest) will gather gloriously,all sinners loved into new life.Do not falter,do not be discouraged…JESUS IS RISEN. A Joyous Easter to all.

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