Monday, March 3, 2008

Custody Battle Threatens Health and Life of Aging Priest

A terminally ill Roman Catholic priest is the center of a tempestuous legal battle between a court-appointed temporary guardian - who has demanded his return to an Arizona care center - and family and friends - who believe such a move could kill him.

Fr. Bernard "Brian" Gallagher, 76, a retired priest from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Yakima, Washington, is the focus of a custody struggle between his family and a woman acting as his legal emergency guardian. Imelda Guadalupe "Lupe" Kowalczyk has insisted to authorities that Fr. Gallagher is mentally incompetent and cannot make his own decisions, among which is Fr. Gallagher's well-documented desire to live with fellow religious in California and to finish his days with constant access to the Mass and the sacraments.

Earlier this week, Fr. Gallagher was taken, at his own urgent request, and over the objections of Kowalczyk, from a nursing home in Payson, Arizona to the well-equipped cancer care facilities at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. Once there it was discovered that Fr. Gallagher was suffering from an infected bladder, the beginnings of aspiration pneumonia from poor feeding tube treatment, as well as other symptoms. He had also lost a considerable amount of weight.

But sources say Arizona law enforcement is now exerting pressure to return Fr. Gallagher into the custody of Kowalczyk, who had deprived him of all contact with friends and family and the right to the Catholic Church's sacraments. Those who are close to the terminally ill priest say any move from the hospital could jeopardize his life.

An attorney representing Fr. Gallagher, has instructed the hospital that the priest "not be moved and certainly not be moved at the behest of the very person whose motives and legal actions we are questioning in the California courts."

Father Gallagher rescinded the power of attorney he gave to Kowalczyk:

Documents obtained by show that Kowalczyk seized emergency legal guardianship of Fr. Gallagher shortly after learning that the priest, dissatisfied with her unwillingness to return him to California, relieved her of her power of attorney and reassigned any health-care directive and legal control over his finances to his cousin James Logsdon.

"I, Father Brian T. Gallagher, fully revoke the Power of Attorney from Lupe Kowalczyk from St. John's, AZ as having power of attorney over my affairs," reads the letter, signed by Fr. Gallagher and also signed by witnesses on February 16, 2008. Again on February 19, Fr. Gallagher repeated this instruction before witnesses, which was recorded by friend Denise Riggio. (Listen to recording:

The priest also expressed his wish to return to San Juan Capistrano or live in a religious institute, "so that I may be with the Blessed Sacrament daily as well as receive the sacraments daily till the end of my days."

Kowalczyk, however, sought and obtained Temporary Guardianship and Temporary Conservator over Fr. Gallagher after she asserted that the priest was mentally incompetent. A hearing to review guardianship is scheduled for March 13 in Apache County, Arizona, where she resides. The same day that she obtained emergency guardianship, Kowalczyk ordered Payson Care Center staff to cut off Fr. Gallagher from all visitors and all means of communication, including reception of the sacraments.

Several of Fr. Gallagher's friends had traveled from California to visit him on February 23, but were abruptly turned away by several nurses following Kowalczyk's "no visitor" orders. The visitors observed other signs of neglect, including a mattress on the floor to catch the priest if he fell off the bed, lack of bed sheets, insufficient clothing on his body, and the fact that he was lying flat on his back with his feeding tube installed, which can cause aspiration pneumonia.

Does that sound like someone who is mentally incompetent?

There's something missing from this story. I have to wonder exactly what Kowalczyk has to gain by cutting off Father from his family.

I will be praying for him.