The Rev. Theodore Rothrock, who was assigned to St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Carmel, Indiana, was suspended after he wrote a fiery bulletin post on Sunday that disparaged Black Lives Matters organizers for protesting what Rothrock called “alleged systemic racism.” Bishop Timothy L. Doherty of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana issued the suspension from public ministry in the diocese.
Rothrock’s article, “The lady (doth) protest too much, methinks,” conflated Black Lives Matter protesters with antifa, an umbrella term used for leftist militants. Rothrock said that Christians should promote peace and that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t support “throwing bombs or even marching in the streets.”
Black Lives Matter protesters are “serpents in the garden” whose “poison is more toxic than any pandemic we have endured,” Rothrock said.
“They are wolves in wolves clothing, masked thieves and bandits, seeking only to devour the life of the poor and profit from the fear of others,” Rothrock said of Black Lives Matter protesters. “They are maggots and parasites at best, feeding off the isolation of addiction and broken families, and offering to replace any current frustration and anxiety with more misery and greater resentment.”
Rothrock issued a “response and clarification” Wednesday, insisting that he didn’t intend to offend anyone and that he was sorry that his words had hurt people.
“However, we must also be fully aware that there are those who would distort the Gospel for their own misguided purposes,” Rothrock wrote in his apology letter. “People are afraid, as I pointed out, rather poorly I would admit, that there are those who feed on that fear to promote more fear and division.”
Doherty said Tuesday that he hadn’t approved Rothrock’s message beforehand and that he was waiting for the priest to issue a clarification before taking action. It appeared that Rothrock’s follow-up wasn’t enough for Doherty, who suspended the priest the following day.
Rothrock’s suspension offered “an opportunity for pastoral discernment for the good of the diocese and for the good of Father Rothrock,” the diocese said, adding that “various possibilities” for Rothrock’s future public ministry were being considered.
“The Bishop expresses pastoral concern for the affected communities,” the diocese’s statement read.
HuffPost reached out to Rothrock and the diocese for comment.
Carmel Against Racial Injustice, a group formed to rally anti-racists in the city, called for Rothrock’s resignation. The group vehemently objected to Rothrock’s original post and didn’t buy his apology, Ashten Spilker, a Carmel resident and one of the group’s co-CEOs, told HuffPost.
“What he needed to say was, ‘I need to as a leader in a church educate myself to do better and recognize the plight of people of color, not only in my congregation but in our country, to better serve our community,’” said Spilker, who is white.
“It was misguided fear-mongering to his parish,” Spilker added. “People look to leaders to educate them, and so to put out something so misguided that can instill fear about what we’re trying to do here in Carmel was irresponsible on his part.”
Now that Rothrock’s suspension has been announced, the group will monitor the diocese’s further response, Spilker said. A protest planned for Sunday outside the church in part to call for Rothrock’s resignation will now become part of a “day of healing,” Spilker added.
Carmel Against Racial Injustice came together in June after Spilker and two Black high school classmates, Breanna Hargrove and Kayla Seymour, reconnected to organize the city’s response to nationwide calls for racial justice after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
The three former classmates, who are each 24 years old, organized a rally at a local park in mid-June. Since then, the group has met with local and state officials to talk about police and school reforms, Spilker said. The group isn’t officially affiliated with the global Black Lives Matter organization.
Rothrock’s original message was “vile,” “disgusting” and “simply inexcusable,” the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a prominent Black Catholic theologian at Fordham University, told HuffPost. Massingale said he is happy that Doherty removed Rothrock from the ministry but added that the bishop also needs to apologize for the “national scandal” the priest caused and proclaim that the church won’t turn a blind eye to any form of racism.
The deeper issue is that Rothrock is not an aberration in the U.S. Catholic church, Massingale said. By claiming that “people are afraid” in his apology, Rothrock expressed the fears some white conservative Catholics hold but ignored the “real terror” experienced by Black Catholics and people of color living in a society that devalues and endangers their lives, Massingale added.
Whenever the church does acknowledge racism, it’s usually with “bland sentiments of concern that won’t disturb white Catholics,” Massingale said. Church leaders rarely have the courage to address how central white racial resentment and entitlement are in shaping public life, he said.
“Until white Catholics have the courage to face deeply uncomfortable truths about the depth of racism in the nation and end the Church’s complicity of silence, attitudes like [Father] Rothrock’s will continue to fester and poison American Catholicism,” Massingale said.
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