The flap over the ouster of a gay priest from a teaching post at Chestnut Hill College, a Roman Catholic institution, is getting uglier.
The lawyer for Father Jim St. George - an openly gay priest in an independent Catholic denomination that ordains gays and women - said that someone is trying to smear his client by circulating information about a 19-year-old felony conviction.
"It's sad that certain people out there would try to dredge up things from 20 years ago, when someone was a youngster and in a difficult family situation, to try to destroy a person who for the last 20 years has been but a godsend to his parishioners, to those around him and to his students," said George Bochetto, St. George's attorney.
In 1992, St. George - who was running a fifth-generation family funeral home in Erie - pleaded no contest to three federal felony counts of mail fraud on charges he had misused money from prepaid funeral accounts.
St. George reportedly served a 10-month sentence in the federal prison in Morgantown, W. Va., and said that he also fulfilled a court order to pay more than $90,000 in restitution fees.
In 1997, he told a funeral-industry trade publication, Death Care Business Advisor: "I paid for my mistake both financially and with a portion of my life. I'm not proud of what happened, but I'm also not ashamed of it anymore either. I would love to go back in history and correct it, but I can't."
After his prison time, St. George ran a discount-coffin company out of Erie for several years and later earned a master's of divinity degree from Washington, D.C.'s Howard University in 2003. In 2006, he was ordained a priest by the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of the Americas, which is not affiliated with the Vatican and welcomes gay and female clergy.
Last month, not long after an attorney e-mailed Chestnut Hill College officials and Cardinal Justin Rigali calling St. George - who's been in a relationship with another man for 15 years - "a heretic," the school terminated its teaching contract with him.
College officials claimed that he was not up-front about his homosexuality - which they said violates church teaching - or his affiliation with the non-Vatican-linked church. St. George insists that he told college officials he was not a Roman Catholic priest and never hid his sexuality.
In addition to news of St. George's brush with the law, the now-retired bishop who in 2006 ordained St. George into what was then known as the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch blasted the priest in a mass e-mail.