A Catholic priest who filed a police report over a stained glass project involving government money defended his actions Tuesday as he faced removal from his Singapore parish by local church authorities.
Reverend Father Michael Teo, rector of St. Joseph's Church on Victoria Street, on Tuesday evening refuted statements made by Singapore archbishop William Goh earlier that day that the former had to be removed to avoid civil suits from being filed against the church.
Teo pointed out that firing him from his post would not prevent the Commercial Affairs Department, with which he filed his police report in June, from recommending the filing of a criminal case if so warranted.
The 76-year old priest told his parishioners at masses over the weekend that he had been obliged to file a police report about possible wrongdoing in relation to a project to restore stained glass panels at St. Joseph’s after work on it had remained unfinished and his pleas for answers from local church leaders "fell on deaf ears".
As the case is before the CAD, both sides are unable to reveal more details about the precise nature of the suspected wrongdoing.
In a pastoral letter published early Tuesday afternoon, Goh said that his team "struggled to mediate a just and amicable settlement" of differences among stakeholders so that work on the project could proceed according to plan.
Among the parties involved is Singapore's government under the stewardship of the Preservation of Monuments Board, which is co-funding the project, the archbishop disclosed.
"The challenges in executing the project have resulted in an acrimonious situation," Goh said. "All attempts at mediation have failed to yield a breakthrough and every party is equally aggrieved."
The archbishop stopped short of saying which parties or which differences emerged from it, although Yahoo! Singapore has contacted the archdiocese’s office for clarification.
According to Goh, the difficulties in reaching a settlement resulted in his administration's eventual decision to order Teo’s removal and transfer to the Church of St. Teresa in Bukit Purmei.
Goh said it was "clearly untenable for the situation to remain unresolved", and that his administration was "left with no other option" but to remove Teo from the project, an order that was previously issued by Goh's predecessor Nicholas Chia.
"Not to do so would subject the Church to civil suits, and this may cause even greater damage to the standing of the Church in society," he added.
How the conflict first surfaced
The decree for Teo’s removal effective 20 August was first revealed by the priest over the weekend at the masses held at his parish, as it was previously announced by the Chancery on 5 August as a transfer, which is a routine process.
"I wish to state clearly that I disagree with the basis of the decision by the Archbishop's Office and I shall be appealing to Rome against the decision," Teo had said then. "As I had done nothing wrong, I am not ashamed to let everyone know that I have received a removal decree, not just a mere transfer order."
As the person who initiated and led the church's stained glass restoration project and who raised funds for it from its congregation, he said he felt compelled to give an update to the parishioners who donated toward the project.
The restoration project involved 72 stained glass panels in the church, which were more than a century old.
Yahoo! Singapore understands from interviews with parishioners of St. Joseph's that Teo was in January instructed by Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia to abandon the project, but defied his orders, despite Chia telling Teo back then he no longer had jurisdiction over it.
In his announcement to parishioners, Teo also spoke of a meeting he had with Chia and Goh on 25 March, before Goh took over as Archbishop, where he was advised by a lawyer for the Archdiocese that it was his right and legal duty to lodge a police report, should he have valid reason to suspect wrongdoing.
In his statement on Tuesday, Teo also maintained he was at no point advised of the need to obtain permission or clearance from the Archbishop's office before being able to proceed with reporting the case to the authorities, and he subsequently did so on 7 June.
"My conscience is crystal clear, both as a priest, as well as a citizen of Singapore," he added. "I have only done what is required of me by the laws of Singapore."
Churchgoers rally behind Fr Teo, submit petition against decree
Parishioners at St. Joseph's Church whom Yahoo! Singapore spoke to on Tuesday evening rallied behind Teo.
One churchgoer who has attended mass at St. Joseph's for more than 10 years called Teo "a very sincere man who trusts people too easily".
"He's very caring and very approachable, and has helped broken families and homes in many ways... yet he's a no-nonsense priest," said the 72-year-old parishioner, who declined to be named.
Another parishioner, who only wanted to be known as Theresa, said she, alongside the 25 wardens under her charge, thinks highly of Teo.
"He is very fair to all of us and treats all of us equally," she said, adding her view that the Bishop's move is not being fair to Teo. "We will stand by him (Teo) no matter what awaits him."
Said another 42-year-old parishioner, who wished to remain anonymous, "This has resulted in a lot of sadness, and it's every parishioner's hope and wish that the truth of the matter surfaces."
In his view, Teo's announcement was "fair and just", as he had pastoral accountability to the donors toward the stained glass project to give them an account of what was happening.
"It is the duty of everyone involved to collaborate for the purposes of getting the truth out... (and) we trust that the Catholic Church will handle this in an open and fair manner," he added.
Meanwhile, Teo has until noon on 20 August to shift to St. Teresa. He said over the weekend he plans to stay put, however, pending his appeal to the Vatican, which is an avenue open to him under Canon law.
Parishioners of the church started collecting signatures over the weekend and submitting them in batches as part of a petition to the Archbishop's office to revoke his decree of removal for Teo.
Yahoo! Singapore understands from Teo's legal counsel Peter Low that on Tuesday afternoon, 251 signatures were submitted, while another 158 were collected by 8pm. More will be collected at St. Joseph's Church on Wednesday at morning and evening masses.
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