Methodist church bid raises concern

Conference doesn't want to do business if buyer is anti-Semitic

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The United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania is concerned about reports that a church connected to an outspoken anti-Semite plans to buy one of its buildings in Westmoreland County, but a conference official says he has no proof that the buyer is from that church.

"The Realtor informed [the Methodist congregation] that it is some sort of a church group. They do not know who it is other than that," said the Rev. Larry Homitsky, council steward of the United Methodist Conference of Western Pennsylvania, which is similar to a diocese.

"We are trying to ascertain what is gossip and what is fact."

According to published reports, there is a pending sale of the Charter Oak United Methodist Church building in Unity to St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, a schismatic Latin Mass group that is not recognized by the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg or by Rome.

One of its members is Hutton Gibson, 87, the father of actor Mel Gibson. The elder Mr. Gibson has called the Holocaust fiction and claims that Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to rule the world. According to the published reports last week, the Gibsons are financing the purchase of the church. Mel Gibson has been in the news lately for his anti-Semitic ravings after he was stopped in California for drunken driving.

James Hirsen, who heads The Foundation for Free Expression, parent foundation of The World Faith Foundation, to which Hutton Gibson is connected, said he had no comment on reports of the purchase.

"From what I've seen, it's not accurate. That's all I can tell you," Mr. Hirsen said.

The first Mr. Homitsky knew of the situation when reporters from People magazine, "60 Minutes" and other national media besieged Charter Oak church, he said. He has been trying to discover who the buyer who signed the sales contract represents. Then he will consider whether it is a "hate group," which the United Methodist Church is forbidden to do business with, he said.

"Right now, we don't know anything about this group. We cannot make a judgment or a statement about their beliefs."

Charter Oak, which is finishing work on a $6 million church on donated land near its current site on Frye Farm Road, issued a statement saying it knew nothing about the pending buyer. The church had been for sale for $750,000.

"We were offered the full asking price. Our real estate broker informed us that the buyer was a church group," the statement said.

"Beyond the name of the purchaser shown on the agreement of sale, we do not know the parishioners or church officers of the purchasing group, nor are we aware of any statements regarding their faith or philosophy."

Tony Ferry, the Realtor, said confidentiality forbade him from disclosing details, but that the signator was a woman, her name was not Gibson and she never named her church. The closing is slated for the end of this month, "when her name will be a matter of public record," he said.

Hutton Gibson is a retired railroad worker and onetime "Jeopardy" winner who appears to live modestly. He recently moved from a $76,000 home in Summersville, W.Va., to a house in Lycippus, where St. Michael the Archangel Chapel holds services. Attempts to reach Mr. Gibson were unsuccessful

It's a large, brick, ranch-style home, surrounded by a neatly manicured lawn. Neighbors say that its long, gravel driveway is packed with cars on Sundays. But the only sign that a church meets there is the name "St. Michael" in tiny sticker-lettering on a roadside mailbox. A stone statue of the Virgin Mary sits in front of the garage.

Latin Mass groups vary from Ecclesia Dei communities, which are approved by the local Catholic bishop, to those that believe there hasn't been a valid pope since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. Hutton Gibson is among the latter.

Schismatic groups reject the reforms of Vatican II, including the council's repudiation of the belief that all Jews are eternally responsible for killing Jesus.

In 2003, Hutton Gibson was a featured speaker at a conference sponsored by the Barnes Review and the American Free Press, both of which regularly carry anti-Semitic articles and reprint writings by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders. In his speech, Mr. Gibson reiterated his belief that the papal throne has been vacant since 1958.

In several interviews over the past five years, he has described the Holocaust as a fiction and said the reforms of Vatican II were the result of a conspiracy of Masons and Jews intent on creating "one world religion and one world government."

In his quarterly publication, "The War Is Now!" and his book, "The Enemy Is Still Here!" he wrote that there is no basis for contemporary Judaism.

"Those still identifiable as Jews are those who rejected their own theology and its logical consequences, and eventually developed their own new Talmudic theology," he wrote in the book. "And where their descendants have prevailed, as in Medieval Spain or contemporary Russia, they have killed far more Christians than the number of Jews for which Hitler was given credit."

It is unclear, however, whether Mr. Gibson's views are those of St. Michael the Archangel Chapel. A board member of the chapel, lawyer Shawn Boyle, has said that Mr. Gibson did not impose his personal views on the group. Mr. Boyle's phone has been disconnected.

The priest at St. Michael the Archangel is Leonard Bealko, who has a troubled clerical history. But several people who were critical of him for other reasons said that, if he held anti-Semitic views, they were unaware of it. Efforts to reach Mr. Bealko were unsuccessful.

He was ordained May 8, 1971, for the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg. But "he left the Catholic Church in 1986, when he refused to take an assignment" and joined the Polish National Catholic Church, said Jerry Zufelt, a spokesman for the Diocese of Greensburg.

He was a Polish National Catholic priest for about three months in 1988, serving in Rochester, N.Y., said Bishop Thaddeus Peplowski, of the Diocese of Buffalo-Pittsburgh.

"He proved unworthy, so that we couldn't use him," said Bishop Peplowski, who added that he didn't know the details.

He returned to Western Pennsylvania and sometimes misrepresented himself as a Catholic priest in good standing, said retired Bishop Anthony Bosco, bishop of the Greensburg diocese from 1987 to 2004.

Bishop Bosco said, however, that he was unaware of any anti-Semitic emphasis by Mr. Bealko.

Asked whether the Diocese of Greensburg was aware of any anti-Semitic teaching at St. Michael, Mr. Zufelt said, "We do not know specifics about the group's teachings."

At Greensburg's synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El Israel, Rabbi Sara Perman said she knew virtually nothing about St. Michael the Archangel Chapel until her phone started ringing Tuesday.

If the rumors are true, "I can't stop them from coming. I wouldn't stop them," she said. "We have freedom of religion in this country. They do, too. I would hope that they would be respectful. ... This whole thing, with Mel Gibson's [arrest] in California, I think, is being blown out of proportion. I think there are much more serious things happening in our society."

Hutton GibsonLake Fong, Post-Gazette
A schismatic Latin Mass group that includes Hutton Gibson, the father of Mel Gibson, has offered to buy Charter Oak United Methodist Church in Unity.
Click photo for larger image.

Staff writers Dennis B. Roddy and Caitlin Cleary contributed. Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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