A telephone call intercepted by a baby monitor, charges of an affair and a long-running war of words between a Roman Catholic priest and disgruntled parishioners has rocked a church in Buffalo and could land the participants in court.
The Rev. Thomas Rayar resigned Friday from the Church of St. Francis Xavier, but not until he had sued 11 members of the congregation for defamation of character, saying that they "threatened to publicly humiliate me" at a sit-in scheduled for Sunday.
The planned protest, in which parishioners had said they would occupy the church until Rayar was removed by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has been canceled. On Jan. 25, Archbishop Harry Flynn sent a strongly worded letter to the parishioners cautioning against staging the protest, saying, "It is inappropriate and disrespectful to make threats to your archbishop."
The primary issue, according to the court documents filed by Rayar, 48, was a letter circulated among church members alleging that he was having an affair with a woman he had counseled at a previous parish.
That is "false and defamatory," his suit says.
The allegation "will expose me to hatred, contempt, ridicule [and] degradation."
Rayar's lawyer, Ted Buselmeier, said that the archdiocese "has reviewed all of the available evidence and has concluded that the rumor [of an affair] is false. Furthermore, such defamatory statements are illegal both criminally and civilly."
But the church members claim to have proof of the affair, including a call Rayar made using a cordless phone whose signal was picked up by a nearby parishioner's baby monitor. Rayar's suit argues that reporting the contents of the call constitutes "illegal wiretapping by private individuals."
Dave Shamba, who is representing all 11 defendants, said they had decided as a group not to comment. Those listed in the suit are Natasha Bjorback, Simone Brovege, Jonathan Davis, Joseph DesMaris, Jan and Larry Hance, Robert Pahl, James and Patricia Whalen, Nell Wohlenhaus and Marjorie Zrust.
Copies of letters obtained by the Star Tribune indicate that the suit is the latest skirmish in a war of words that has been going on for months, perhaps even longer. As far back as March, parishioners were writing to the archdiocese complaining about Rayar. Among the complaints are charges that he intimidated parishioners who disagreed with him, created a hostile work environment for staff members and, according to one writer, "acted like some kind of rock star ... pompous and proud."
Back copies of the church bulletin imply that the friction between Rayar and the congregation started almost immediately upon his arrival in 2001. In his pastor's letter of Aug. 19, 2007, he wrote, "I am saddened to say that from the beginning of my ministry here, some individuals are constantly trying to cause a disturbance in our faith community."
He goes on to accuse parishioners of sabotage: "For an example, last Tuesday there was a gentleman [who] brought a tape-recorder to the Parish Pastoral Council meeting [for] taping secretly the proceeding of the meeting. Such intimidation of the council members cannot be and should not be tolerated." (See the complete letter online at startribune.com/local.)
In 2004, the Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper for the archdiocese, published an article about Rayar when he became a U.S. citizen. According to that report, he is from Tamil Nadu in southeastern India. He was ordained in India in 1993 and came to the United States two years later. He has served at the Church of St. Raphael in Crystal and St. Rose of Lima Church in Roseville, and before his assignment to St. Francis he served at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Clearwater. Archbishop Flynn stated that he and Rayar were discussing his future.
The organizers of Sunday's protest now are restructuring their gathering as "an informational meeting" about how the church can move forward.
"There's a lot of pain," said parishioner Jane Muntifering. "We've had people who have been friends for years and years fighting with each other. In my 50-plus years, I've never spent so much time praying for the wellbeing of my own church. Hopefully, now something positive can happen."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392