Singapore archbishop speaks out on dismissal of St Joseph's Church priest

Father Teo disobeyed orders to steer clear of a project to restore the stained glass (above) of St Joseph’s Church. -- PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN
Father Teo disobeyed orders to steer clear of a project to restore the stained glass (above) of St Joseph’s Church. -- PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN
Father Teo (above) disobeyed orders to steer clear of a project to restore the stained glass of St Joseph’s Church. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELVIN TAN
Father Teo (above) disobeyed orders to steer clear of a project to restore the stained glass of St Joseph’s Church. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELVIN TAN

The head of the Roman Catholic Church here has urged his flock to avoid speculation that might "cause more hurt" over the removal of a priest from his post.

In a letter to Catholics on Monday, Archbishop William Goh said the decision to remove Father Michael Teo as Rector of St Joseph's Church was taken after efforts to settle differences over a $1.2 million project to restore the church's stained glass failed.

However, more than 400 supporters have signed a petition urging him to revoke the decision.

Father Teo, 76, is due to be replaced by Reverend John Bosco Pereira next week for disobeying former archbishop Nicholas Chia's order in January to steer clear of the restoration project.

Father Teo, who had initiated the project about 18 months ago, was also faulted for lodging a police report in relation to the value of the project contract without clearance from the church authorities. Catholic priests take a vow of obedience requiring them to abide by the decisions of their superiors in the Church's hierarchy.

Last month, he also asked the Commissioner of Charities to probe the contract.

Last Saturday, Father Teo told his congregation that he had complained to police about possible wrongdoing because his "pleas" to the church authorities "fell on deaf ears". He was the one who signed the contract for the project and wanted the police to probe as he was suspicious about the stated cost.

Archbishop Goh's letter is seen as a move to allay concerns among churchgoers as he deals with his first major challenge since taking over from Archbishop Emeritus Chia in May.

At yesterday's evening mass, Father Teo's supporters continued to seek signatures for a petition which they plan to take all the way to Rome if all else fails. Both sides in the standoff are backed by senior lawyers.

St Joseph's is a national monument, and work to restore 72 glass panels - estimated to cost $1.2 million - is being done with co-funding from the Preservation of Monuments Board and donations from Catholics.

In his open letter, Archbishop Goh explained that his predecessor's team and his own administration had struggled "long and hard" to mediate a "just and amicable" settlement among the project's stakeholders. He did not say what the differences were.

The challenges in executing the project led to an "acrimonious situation" which stalled the project for over a year, he said.

He added it was "untenable" for the situation to remain unresolved, and "much as we feel for Father Teo", there was no choice but to remove him.

"Not to do so would subject the church to civil suits and this may cause even greater damage to the standing of the Church."

He did not go into details but further delay in the project could result in a breach of contract.

When contacted last night, Father Teo disputed several of the Archbishop's statements, "particularly in relation to a struggle by Archbishop Chia and Archbishop Goh to mediate a just and amicable settlement among the relevant stakeholders".

He disagreed that if he had not been sacked,the Church would face law suits. He added neither ex-Archbishop Chia nor Archbishop Goh imposed any requirement on him to get clearance from their office before lodging a police report. "I further reserve my rights to address any of the issues raised by the said pastoral letter through further press releases or other suitable and appropriate channels."

Yesterday afternoon, Father Teo's representatives went to the Archbishop's Office to present a petition seeking a revocation of the order removing Father Teo.

One of his supporters, Madam Valencia Tan, 58, said she hoped that he would get to see the glass panels restored before handing the reins over to the next priest.

But Mr Gerard Pereira, 54, a parishioner, said: "I believe there are many more hundreds who are not for Father Teo. I am indeed saddened and dismayed that the Catholic Church is embroiled in this public dispute. I am not sad at Father Michael Teo's departure."

vijayan@sph.com.sg

rachelay@sph.com.sg