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DIOCESE OF EL CAMINO REAL: Controversial Santa Cruz Priest Charged By Church

DIOCESE OF EL CAMINO REAL: Controversial Santa Cruz Priest Charged By Church

By Curtis Cartier
Sept. 14, 2010

Rev. Joel Miller has been Calvary Episcopal's head priest since 2006. Photo by Curtis Cartier.

Under the light of stained glass windows and gas lamps, the Reverend Joel P. Miller delivers his homily on "inviting sinners to the feast of the Lord." The redwood pews at Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz sit more empty than occupied, but attention is rapt among the 50 or so worshipers as the short, mustachioed priest discusses the importance of forgiveness and of serving the "least among us."

"In the gospel we're told that Jesus sits down to eat with sinners and tax collectors. The worst people." says Miller in a soft and nasal voice as he saunters between the well-worn pews. "So what we see is that Jesus loves people, he loves his neighbors, includes them and embraces them. That's what we try to do here."

It's an appropriate subject for a priest who has made a name in Santa Cruz for his controversial homeless outreach services, which have at times outraged neighbors and city leaders after crowds of homeless people showed up for free dinners and turned the downtown church's lawn into a party zone. Lately criticism has come from a new direction: within the church itself. In late July, Miller was charged with "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" by the Episcopal Church in a development that could see Miller suspended or even defrocked.

Miller has been Calvary's rector, or head priest, since 2006, when he, his wife and four children moved from Turlock to Santa Cruz. Miller says he was "thrilled about coming to what I thought was a Nirvana of progressive values." In June of 2008, he invited homeless advocates Rone'e and Scott Curry to set up the "Coffee House Ministry" at the church, which serves up coffee and dinner every Monday night to anywhere from 20 to 150 homeless residents and street youths-often to the chagrin of some churchgoers and neighbors who see the beneficiaries as uncouth nuisances. The charges Miller now faces (collectively known as a "presentment," church legalese for "indictment") follow a year of heated back-and-forth between him and parishioners. After an investigation, a church-hired attorney ultimately settled on two specific offenses, both related to the Monday night "Coffee House Ministry."

The first charge, that he "brought disrepute and material discredit upon the Church," alleges that he "failed to create working relationships of cooperation and trust" between Calvary and city leaders when he allowed the feeding program to set up at the church.

The second charge has to do with a June 11, 2009 meeting that was called after Calvary member Margaret Statzer was grabbed and shaken on church grounds by 23-year-old Jeremy Hess-Neve, a Coffee House Ministry regular. Statzer and others who attended the meeting say Miller said police had told him Statzer provoked the attack herself by starting an argument with the young man. Santa Cruz Police Dep. Chief Rick Martinez, who was at the meeting, says that's untrue.

"After he said that, I confronted him because I wanted to know who this cop is that said that, because it's certainly not appropriate," says Martinez, who says Miller couldn't remember which officer he'd spoken with. "Plus, if you look at the facts of the case, that's clearly not what happened."

Mass Exodus

If the Monday night feedings had left the congregation divided, the notion that Miller would seemingly take a "street kid's" side over a fellow parishioner's left many downright furious. Some stopped coming to church altogether. Some of those, like Libby Alexander, say Miller is "dictatorial" in how he runs his parish. Another, Catherine Gill, says he uses feeding the homeless as a "smoke screen" for insensitive and egotistical ways. Statzer says she no longer even considers herself Episcopalian.

"I was assaulted on church grounds, defamed by my priest and I had no one to go to. This isn't about the homeless, it's about Joel Miller not being fit to be a priest," says Statzer, who joined eight other parishioners in signing onto the charges that spurred the church's investigation. "Even the bishop stonewalled me when I went to her. The Episcopal Church has put me through hell. Why would I want to be a part of it?"

Miller can now either hire an attorney and fight for his innocence in a ecclesiastical court or "submit to the will of the bishop" and throw himself on the mercy of Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves-an option he says he's leaning toward because he can't afford to hire an attorney.

Gray-Reeves, whose diocese is based in Southern California, could "admonish" him, which amounts to a formal slap on the wrist, suspend him or defrock him permanently.

The bishop remarks at the rarity of such charges in general, saying she "can't remember the last time there were presentment charges" against a priest in her diocese. In May, however, she did deal with another presentment across the country when she sat on a church appeals panel that overturned charges against the bishop of Pennsylvania, Charles Bennison. In that case, the bishop had been defrocked for failing to act 35 years prior when he found out his brother-then a ordained deacon-was molesting a 14-year-old girl. Whatever she has in store for Miller, however, she's not giving any clues.

"People feel strongly on all sides of this. I've got to listen to many perspectives," she says. "I think churches are like families, and sometimes family life is easy, sometimes it's hard. I think that Father Miller has said that himself."

The entire affair comes during what nearly everyone involved says is a vastly improved homeless outreach service with a fraction of the loitering and antisocial behavior that marred it last year. Crime data provided by SCPD shows that emergency calls for service at the church peaked last summer with 38 calls from June through mid-September, while there were only 16 calls during the same time period this year. The same data shows other downtown homeless hangouts like New Leaf with more than twice as many calls on average and Louden Nelson Community Center with around the same number as Calvary.

Neighbors like Rachel Daso, who lives in the Zasu Pitts house next door to Jack's Hamburgers and across the street from Calvary, says she used to have issues with homeless loiterers every day, but that it's been much quieter lately. Even Santa Cruz Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, who owns the house Daso rents and who has sent official city correspondence to the bishop pointing at Miller's failures and demanding action, admits things have gotten better.

But whether any of that will help Miller keep his collar, or at least keep his record clean, remains in doubt. And as long as he's behind the pulpit, the roughly 30 parishioners that have reportedly left the church over the dust-up won't likely be coming back. Miller, meanwhile, says he has only one regret.

"My one regret is not that I said anything that was untrue," he says. "It's that I didn't do it in private."


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