Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mel Gibsons' Latin-rite church in Pennsylvania ousts priest - Tribune-Review

Gibsons' Latin-rite church in Unity ousts priest - Tribune-Review

By Richard Gazarik
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

An attempt by actor and director Mel Gibson to establish a church that would celebrate the Mass in Latin and attract similar believers outside mainstream Catholicism apparently has failed.

St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Unity will be sold after Saturday's ouster of its priest, a former clergyman of the Greensburg Catholic Diocese, parish members said.

Karen Petrone, her husband, Glenn, of Wilkinsburg in Allegheny County, and their nine children attended Mass at St. Michael's until April. They said they stopped because of questions about the credentials of Leonard Bealko, who celebrated Mass each Sunday, officiated at weddings and conducted baptisms.

The building in Mountain View had been owned by the Charter Oak United Methodist Church before it was sold in 2006 to the World Faith Foundation of California, which Gibson funds, for $750,000. Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, moved to Pennsylvania from West Virginia so he could attend the Mass celebrated in Latin. The foundation paid $315,000 for a home in rural Lycippus, Mt. Pleasant Township, where the Gibsons live.

But the new church attracted few faithful, according to Karen Petrone, who said the most worshippers the church ever drew for Mass was about 45. About 20 recently left the parish, she said.

The church now is listed by Jodi Repasky of Prudential Preferred Realty of Greensburg for $775,000, according to the company Web site.

The Gibsons follow the traditional Latin Mass, known as the Tridentine Mass.

Parishioner Trish Hammill, of Mt. Lebanon in Allegheny County, said the World Faith Foundation is the legal owner of the building, although the deed is held in trust by First Commonwealth Bank.

"We've been asked not to say anything until (Bealko) has left the building," she said.

Glenn Petrone said the problems surfaced around Easter when Hutton Gibson and his wife, Joy, asked Bealko to produce documentation proving he was ordained in the Latin rite. When he couldn't, he was asked to leave, Petrone said. Bealko celebrated his last Mass on Sunday, she said.

Hutton and Joy Gibson stopped attending Mass after Easter, and Hutton Gibson resigned from the church's board of directors, the Petrones said.

Glenn Petrone said there were questions about church finances and why some bills were not paid.

"Everybody was always in the dark," he said of Bealko. "He didn't confide in anybody."

Joy Gibson would not comment on the matter.

"Father Bealko's leaving. That's all I want to say," she said.

Bealko blamed the failure of the 17,000-square-foot church on a lack of revenue.

"It's a sticking point," he said. "The utility bills were killing us. The church was a monster."

Bealko, 63, who lives in Commodore in Indiana County, was defrocked in the mid-1980s by the Greensburg Catholic Diocese for undisclosed reasons. The Fayette County native once served as pastor of the defunct Transfiguration Church in Mt. Pleasant and has been involved in the Tridentine movement since being relieved of his priestly duties by the Greensburg diocese.

After leaving Westmoreland County, he joined the Polish National Catholic Church, based in Scranton, and was assigned to St. Casimir Parish in Rochester, N.Y. The Polish national church, which allows priests to marry, is not recognized by the Vatican.

While in New York, Bealko was arrested for reckless endangerment and illegal possession of a weapon after he fired an unregistered pistol at a 22-year-old man who was living in the parish rectory. According to a police report, the young man said Bealko "threatened to blow my head off." When police arrested Bealko, they discovered a 17-year-old boy from Pennsylvania staying at the house.

Bealko has been associated with several Latin rite churches in the area.

After leaving New York, Bealko returned to Westmoreland County, where he celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Victory Chapel in Greensburg before he was ousted there, according to Nick Roy, who recruited Bealko. Then he began celebrating Mass at St. Joseph Chapel in Hempfield.

When parishioners at St. Joseph began to question Bealko about finances, Bealko changed the locks on the chapel, according to John Maher, a parishioner. It took a threat of legal action by parish members before Bealko agreed to turn over keys to the chapel and leave, according to a letter sent to Bealko by an attorney representing the chapel.

Bealko became acquainted with Mel Gibson and his father when the Gibsons attended a Mass he celebrated at St. Joseph.

"I feel sorry for the Gibsons," Karen Petrone said. "They were duped."

"I guess because we're religious people, we had faith in the priest, and nobody challenged him," her husband said.

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