Father John Direen, Pastor at St Joseph The Worker Church in Berkeley

Two weeks after more than 100 people protested against Reverend John Direen outside St. Joseph The Worker Church while he conducted mass inside, Direen disputed many of the accusations leveled against him in an interview with Berkeleyside.

While Direen acknowledged he has made some unpopular moves —  including closing meeting spaces and laying off staff — he said the changes have been driven by an urgent need to cut costs in a parish carrying a $1.1 million debt rather than being an attempt to push his own conservative agenda.

“When I came to St. Joseph two years ago I quickly realized we were facing a crisis,” he said. “We owed money to the diocese and to a variety of vendors, and we were being threatened by lawsuits.” Much of the debt was incurred by retrofitting work done at the church and it was compounded by decreased donations from a congregation in the midst of an economic recession.

Direen has laid off six church staffers in total, the latest a month ago when a cook and office manager were let go. All of the people involved were popular, he said, but he works to ensure they are all employable elsewhere.

Direen denies the charge that he has closed down any of the parish’s committees or working groups. A statement posted by St. Joseph on the Oakland Diocese website, responding to media reports and public outcry, echoes his statement. It reads: “Contrary to recent commentary, no ministries or committees at St. Joseph the Worker have been disbanded, dismissed or displaced”.

To try to raise income, Direen said, he turned the church’s main meeting room into a gift shop, but he said there are three other places in the church where groups can meet.

The unrest at the Berkeley church is being seen as a battle between religious conservatism represented by Direen and a more progressive ideology espoused by the parishioners who have been carrying on the church’s long tradition of social justice work, particularly among immigrant communities. (About half of St. Joseph’s parishioners are Hispanic, with the rest made up of African-Americans, Filipinos, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Anglo-Americans.)

Direen accepts that there is some truth to this. “There has been angst in the community over my teaching,” he said, describing his approach as preaching the entirety of the Catholic doctrine. “Some of the protestor representatives said they don’t like my homilies — that they are not nurturing. Some people are not as comfortable with the church’s teachings as I am.”

St. Joseph is one of 19 local churches that make up Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, or BOCA. Father Direen believes BOCA members have been instrumental in organizing the recent protests at St. Joseph’s. “There are a couple of people at BOCA who are very vocal, very good at organizing,” he said.

His views are reiterated by Mike Brown, Director of Communication and Community Relations for the Diocese of Oakland. “The protests were made up of leaders of BOCA, parishioners and non-parishioners, Catholics and non-Catholics,” he told Berkeleyside.

However in a June 28 letter to Bishop of Oakland Salvatore Cordileone (referenced on the Diocese of Oakland online statement), BOCA’s Executive Director, Reverend Michael McBride, said BOCA “declined multiple requests to join the community protest”.

One central issue concerns abortion. Direen preaches the Catholic Church’s “pro-life” stand and supports the Gabriel Project at St. Joseph’s which helps women with unwanted pregnancies to deliver their babies. Hector Cortez, one of whose roles at the church is coordinator for Project Gabriel, said this work “would have been impossible to do in the past because there was a choice for abortion”.

Demonstrators outside St. Joseph's on June 19. Photo: Tracey Taylor

But perhaps the most contentious issue surrounds Rev. George Crespin, known to many as Father Jorge, who has lived at St. Joseph for more than 30 years despite retiring five years ago, and has a loyal following in the parish. Although retired, he has continued to conduct sermons as well as weddings and quinceañeras at the church.

Earlier this month Direen asked Crespin to leave the church by June 30, much to the dismay of some members of the congregation, including Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, president of the Berkeley School Board, and a member of St. Joseph’s parish. Leyva-Cutler told The Catholic Voice: “The departure of Father Crespin leaves the Berkeley community without one of its more visible advocates for education. We’re losing someone very familiar with our community and with Latino families.”

Direen said he experienced a lack of cooperation from Father Crespin and it was causing many pastoral difficulties. “There is a lot of love in the community for Father Crespin and I respect that, but the situation had become a little bit tense,” he said.

Direen says Crespin was organizing the parishioners against him, at one point holding a mass in which he suggested to members of the congregation that they should look for another parish.

The church’s online statement says some of these difficulties included Crespin’s failure to observe the necessary steps to insure the valid and licit celebration of the sacraments, especially marriage, and “a refusal to follow parish procedures in the scheduling of sacraments and other special ceremonies (baptisms, weddings, quinceañera celebrations, etc.) and in the preparation of people for these sacraments.”

St. Joseph The Worker Church on Addison Street

“I wish him well, but it is healthy for the parish for him to leave,” Direen said of Crespin.

Another concern among protesters was that Direen might close St. Joseph as they had heard his previous two churches had shut down. According to Direen, his previous position was at Oakland’s St. Andrew-St. Joseph parish, and the Diocese had already begun a process to consider the eventual merger that took place between that parish and the Cathedral parish.

“I take responsibility for the way I talked about this,” Direen said. “I told the parish, in Spanish, that ‘I don’t want to close the parish’. What I was trying to say is that I have no intention of closing the parish.” One of the criticisms leveled at Direen is that he is not a fluent Spanish speaker.

Direen is hoping that now that Crespin has left, the conflict at the heart of the church will resolve itself, or at least simmer down.

“After the big protest there have been a couple of smaller ones with fewer people. Collections have not been affected much. People want to see the parish thrive,” he said. ” I believe in working with people to help them understand the church.”

In Berkeley, a church congregation is dismayed [06.20.11]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...