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Center of controversy

Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino has found himself at the center of numerous controversies and dust-ups in the past decade. A sampling:

ISSUE: Six months into his tenure, Morlino wrote in the Catholic Herald newspaper that Madison appears to be a community that has “a high comfort level with virtually no public morality.” The episode outraged many residents and kicked off a continuing parlor game of parsing his every utterance.

OUTCOME: Morlino said he meant no offense and was merely pointing out that there are few common starting points for discussions about moral reasoning in such a diverse city.

ISSUE: In 2005, Morlino joined a federal advisory board for the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a training facility for Latin American military leaders formerly known as the notorious School of the Americas. Critics held a 25-hour session of prayer and fasting at the Bishop O’Connor Center.

OUTCOME: Morlino defended the board as a group of outsiders whose role is to advise Congress on correcting any problems at the facility. His service on the board ended in 2009.

ISSUE: In 2006, Morlino ordered all priests to play, without comment, a recorded message from him at Mass the weekend before state elections. In the message, Morlino voiced opposition to same-sex marriage, the death penalty and embryonic stem-cell research, all ballot-related issues that year. He threatened “serious consequences” to priests who signaled any disagreement.

OUTCOME: Parishioners at several parishes walked out or stood with their backs to the altar when the message was played. At the polls, voters approved a state ban on same-sex marriage, just as Morlino hoped.

ISSUE: A survey firm hired by the diocese to gauge support for rebuilding St. Raphael Cathedral sued the diocese in 2008, claiming the diocese owed it $350,000. The firm said the diocese stopped payment after it refused to turn over confidential information requested by Morlino, including names of priests who complained about him. In a subsequent court filing, Morlino denied asking for the information.

OUTCOME: The diocese and the survey firm reached an agreement out of court that was never disclosed. They issued a joint statement calling the whole thing “a misunderstanding.”

ISSUE: In 2009, Morlino fired Ruth Kolpack, a pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle Catholic Church in Beloit. Kolpack, a church employee for 26 years, said she was let go after a 10-minute meeting in which Morlino asked her to renounce her master’s thesis in which she criticized the church’s doctrine of male-only ordination, among other things.

OUTCOME: Kolpack’s supporters signed petitions and held rallies. Morlino stood by his decision, suggesting Kolpack opposed church teachings not just in her thesis but in her role as a teacher of Catholic doctrine. Kolpack denied the charge.

ISSUE: After Morlino installed three priests from the Spain-based Society of Jesus Christ the Priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Platteville in 2010, 469 of the church’s approximately 1,200 members signed a petition seeking the removal of the traditionalist priests. Morlino met with about 200 church members at a heated meeting in an attempt to quell the uprising.

OUTCOME: Morlino stood by the priests and warned critics they could face church sanctions if they continued to spread “rumors and gossip.” Last year, the church’s 77-year-old school closed after donations plunged. “It’s still a fragmented parish,” said Myron Tranel, a member of the parish finance council who estimates the number of active families has fallen by nearly half. Many now travel to parishes in Cuba City, Hazel Green and Belmont for Mass, he said.

ISSUE: Last year, Morlino banned two longtime Madison nuns, and two other women connected to an interfaith spirituality center, from holding workshops or providing spiritual direction or guidance at any Catholic church in the diocese.The women supposedly strayed too far from church teachings.

OUTCOME: More than 125 faculty and staff members at Edgewood College in Madison signed a statement of support for two of the women — a nun and a retired professor of philosophy — both former Edgewood staff members.

— Doug Erickson

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