An older parishioner grasped the welcoming hand of Msgr. Hugh J. Shields as she arrived Saturday for the 4:30 p.m. Mass at Incarnation of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church.
"Is Father Jerry all right?" the worried woman asked.
Yes, the monsignor assured her, Father Jerry is fine.
"Is Father Jerry still a priest?"
"Yes," Shields repeated, "he is still a priest."
But the Rev. Geraldo J. Pinero is a priest in limbo, after stepping down last week from the church he has pastored since 2004, according to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
His departure came after federal agents served a search warrant Tuesday on the church rectory. No charges have been filed since agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed the warrant.
Saturday's Mass was the first time some parishioners at the 100-year-old church in the city's Olney section had heard of the search or the priest's departure.
"Shock," said Larry Lelina as he arrived for Mass. "I was shocked. I just found out a few hours ago."
His daughter, Mary, said she had learned of the news online. "I was really surprised," she said, recalling how she had volunteered at the church and had been impressed with Pinero's interaction with his flock.
No parishioners interviewed said they could think of any reason for immigration officials to be investigating the multiracial, multicultural parish or the Brooklyn-born, Philly-reared Pinero, 46.
Neither were those parishioners aware of his online presence as a local face of a pyramidlike, Illinois-based enterprise calling itself Teamwork Revolution Power Systems. Its local site, bearing a photo of a smiling Pinero in a tuxedo, promises progressive income for joining a "matrix" of other members, then benefiting as others sign up.
The site lists Pinero's favorite books as the Bible and Think and Grow Rich.
"I am looking forward to great things in 2010 along with good people to share them with," Pinero says on the site. "I know that many folks are struggling financially during these very difficult economic times. This is why I have gotten involved in some unique, legit and effective moneymaking programs - to help US get out of this awful financial rut.
"If there's anything you wish to know about me or this unique opportunity, just ask and I'll tell! . . . What would you do with an extra $2,330 a month income?"
Efforts to reach Pinero via e-mail over the last two days were unsuccessful.
Whether the venture has any connection to Tuesday's search of the Incarnation rectory or Pinero's departure is not known. Federal officials have refused to say anything about the nature of their probe.
Church officials have said only that Pinero stepped down "pending the outcome of the investigation for the good of the parish."
But at minimum, Pinero's online enterprise clearly violates church policy.
Without speaking specifically of Pinero, archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said Saturday that "outside secular employment would not be permitted" for a priest. Exceptions might be made for things such as teaching at a Catholic university or giving faith-related lectures, Farrell said, but only with approval of the archdiocese.
Yet Pinero openly mentions his outside work on a personal blog in which he writes of both personal and faith-related matters. On it, he describes himself thusly: "I am a child of God, a son of awesome parents, an ordained minister and pastor of a wonderful and ethnically diverse community, [and] I'm also an online business owner."
No sanctions, criminal investigations, or federal lawsuits were found in online searches Saturday on Teamwork Revolution Power Systems or its owner, James Al-Oboudi.
Rather, Google searches produced page after page of online testimonials and disclaimers about why the enterprise is neither a scam nor a pyramid scheme. Some even include directions for finding and searching the website of the Illinois secretary of state for its registration and "certificate of good standing."
When Shields asked for a show of hands in church Saturday, more than half of about 40 worshipers indicated they had seen the news surrounding their parish.
He confirmed to them that the search warrant had been served Tuesday, and that Pinero had stepped down.
Cardinal Justin Rigali "has asked me to express his great pastoral concern for the Incarnation Parish," Shields said, adding Rigali had appointed him to be parochial administrator of the parish.
"I realize this comes as a shock and may be upsetting," he said. "This has been a very tumultuous few days."
Parishioners were cautioned against speculating about the investigation until the facts emerged.
"As you can imagine, many questions, many suppositions, and many rumors fly at a time such as this, when we are not sure what is the reality," Shields said. "I would suggest that you don't answer questions if you do not know the answers at this time. Suspend judgments, and continue to pray."
Shields said Pinero had called his cell phone Friday, aware that Shields would be addressing the congregation.
"He is on retreat, on a much-needed spiritual retreat at this time," Shields said. "But he sends his love and his prayers."
He stressed to the congregation that he was only an administrator, not the new pastor.
"Father Jerry," he said, "is still the pastor."