Bishop Robert Deeley personally delivered shocking news over the weekend to Roman Catholic church members in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and South Portland, telling them that their longtime former pastor and a former parish administrator had started a relationship before he retired in July and are now living together.
Formerly a high-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Monsignor Michael Henchal had been pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Cape Elizabeth since 1997. As the diocese consolidated parishes in response to dwindling numbers of priests and active members, he took on additional duties as pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Scarborough in 2006 and St. John and Holy Cross parishes in South Portland in 2008.
Deeley spoke at the start of seven services Saturday through Sunday, sometimes racing from one church to another to accommodate the Mass schedule and staying to celebrate the Eucharist with congregants when possible.
Reading from a prepared statement at the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Bart’s on Sunday, Deeley said that shortly after Monsignor Paul Stefanko took over as the new pastor of the cluster of churches, “a serious matter was brought to his attention” and he “immediately informed me.” Deeley said he was aware of “many stories and rumors circulating” about Henchal and that he was “here to share the facts as I know them.”
“Since his retirement in July, Monsignor Henchal has been living with Kathy Jones, the former pastoral life coordinator for this cluster,” Deeley said. “It is now painfully apparent that this relationship began while they were working together here in the cluster.”
“This situation is untenable and inconsistent with the promises Michael made at his ordination,” Deeley continued. “Retirement for a priest does not mean that he is absolved of the commitments and promises he made at ordination. As we all know, priesthood is a vocation, not simply a profession. This vocation includes perpetual celibacy.”
Deeley said that while a priest is “freed” from administrative responsibilities when he retires, he continues to be a priest. With that in mind, Deeley said he reached out to Henchal and tried unsuccessfully “to convince him to change his decision.”
“Given his present living situation, Michael cannot perform any priestly ministry or present himself as a priest,” Deeley said. “The gravity of this situation required that I speak with the bishop of the diocese where Michael lives to make him aware of this situation.”
HOME IN TEXAS
Diocesan staff members distributed a copy of Deeley’s statement at the end of each Mass and remained to answer questions from parishioners.
Deeley didn’t indicate in his statement where Henchal and Jones are living or what church they attend.
Online tax records for Comal County, Texas, indicate that Henchal and Jones purchased property in New Braunfels, Texas, in June 2016 and that he now owns a house on the property with a total assessed value of $197,450. Saints Peter and Paul Church is the Catholic church in New Braunfels, which is near San Antonio.
Deeley declined to answer questions from a reporter after he spoke at the 9 a.m. Mass Sunday in Cape Elizabeth, directing inquiries to diocesan spokesman Dave Guthro.
In an email, Guthro said Deeley’s public statement about Henchal “was as transparent and comprehensive as possible.” He declined to answer several written questions, including whether Henchal could be removed from the priesthood or excommunicated from the church for living out of wedlock with a woman.
A diocesan representative who was answering questions following Saturday’s 4 p.m. Mass at Holy Cross Church in South Portland said that Henchal would continue to be a priest but wouldn’t be allowed to practice as one, and that he would continue to receive his pension.
Asked whether Deeley also had heard rumors about Henchal’s situation in the past or had been completely surprised by it, Guthro said, “Bishop Deeley was shocked by this when he was informed.”
Attempts to reach Henchal and Jones by phone on Sunday were unsuccessful. Jones changed her last name from Williamson in recent years.
COMMITMENT FOR LIFE
Celibacy among Roman Catholic priests is a prerequisite to ordination that must be freely assumed and maintained for life. Pope Gregory VII issued a decree in 1075 that required priests to abstain from marriage and sexual relations and it became a formalized discipline in 1123.
In the early centuries of the church, priests were allowed to marry and have families, until church leaders grew concerned about clerical abuses and corruption, especially related to the transfer of church property to the wives and children of priests.
While the church today sees clerical celibacy as a mirror of Christ’s life, there are increasing calls to allow priests to marry in the face of declining numbers and priest abuse scandals. The Diocese of Portland had 57 active priests in 2015, down from 230 priests at its peak in the 1950s, according to its website.
Henchal grew up in Natick, Massachusetts, and moved to the Portland area before attending Cheverus High School. He is a Canon Law expert who has served in a variety of top positions in the diocese, including co-chancellor (sharing the No. 2 spot in the diocese), vice chancellor and secretary, vicar general and chaplain to Diocesan Human Relations Services, according to his retirement announcement.
He also served in churches in Rumford, Portland, Pittsfield, Jay and Sanford, and he was a longtime columnist for Catholic publications, including Harvest, the diocesan magazine.
Deeley told parishioners in his statement that he had met with cluster staff to discuss the situation and that they were “hurt” and “disillusioned” by Henchal’s actions. He shared his own sense of “disappointment” and “betrayal,” noting that he has known Henchal for nearly 50 years, starting when they were studying for the priesthood in the early 1970s. Both were ordained in their home parishes on July 14, 1973.
“During his many years as your pastor, he has been present at some of the most important moments in your lives. You have valued his ministry. When I became your bishop, Michael’s presence encouraged me,” Deeley said. “Fundamentally, what has happened is unacceptable. These actions violate the promises Michael made to the church at his ordination.”
DISAPPOINTMENT AND BETRAYAL
Church members reacted to Deeley’s announcement with a variety of emotions. While some said they were shocked, others said they weren’t surprised because they had heard rumors for weeks or longer. Some said they saw signs that Henchal and Jones were more than just employer and employee before they left their jobs.
And while some said they were simply disappointed that Henchal had broken his vows, others described his action as a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power. Still others said Henchal’s deceit paled in comparison to priests who have abused children and said the church should be more forgiving. Some pointed to Henchal’s action as a reason why priests should be allowed to get married.
And, finally, some said they liked and missed Henchal, saying he was intelligent and delivered a good homily, while others said they clashed with Henchal and described him as dismissive and unforgiving. Only two agreed to be quoted for this story.
“It’s a shocker,” said Bob Wilson of South Portland, a member of the church cluster since 1964. “There were rumors before he left, but you always want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We’re all human. With the shortage of priests, I think they should let them marry.”
Julie Rieger of Cape Elizabeth said she appreciated Bishop Deeley’s effort to confront the controversy publicly and bring some clarity to the situation.
“He clearly made a herculean effort to come to every Mass this weekend. That was very moving to me,” Rieger said. “I sympathize with the staff and priests in the diocese who had to deal with this situation. They should be tending to other matters and instead they had to spend time cleaning up this mess.”
Guthro, the diocesan spokesman, said a crisis intervention team will hold a closed meeting with cluster members at 7 p.m. Monday at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Scarborough for anyone who wishes to talk further about the situation.