It was anything but a typical Sunday morning for the parishioners of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Carmel who attended July 5 morning services.
Protesters and counter-protestors gathered near the entrance on Haverstick Road to express their disgust and support, respectively, for the Rev. Ted Rothrock, a longtime pastor at the church who was days earlier by Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana Bishop Timothy Doherty for writing a June 28 article that called leaders of Black Lives Matter “serpents in the garden” and “maggots and parasites at best,” among other things.
The dozens of people protesting Rothrock’s comments outnumbered the handful of counter-protestors throughout the daylong event, which was cut short in the late afternoon because of thunderstorms. A Carmel Police Dept. spokesman said the event did not lead to any “arrests or incidents to report,” although at least one counter-protestor walked around with a rifle and verbally sparred with protestors from across Haverstick Road.
Carmel Against Racial Injustice organized the demonstration, which it called the “Gathering for Equality, Justice, and Healing.” CARI co-founder Ashten Spilker said many parishioners visited with protesters throughout the day to talk about the issue, which has been painful for both sides.
“The ones who did find the courage to come over and speak with us, most of them were kind and ended up leaving with a greater understanding,” Spilker said. “The general tone was even if they were sad to see (Rothrock) suspended, they don’t condone the statements he made.”
Scott Cunningham, who has attended the church since it was founded in 1981, said the protestors were gone by the time he attended the 5:30 p.m. service. He said most parishioners are deeply hurt by the situation involving Rothrock and continue to support him. As a leader of the parish, Rothrock is a “family member” to parishioners, Cunningham said.
“The parishioners are struggling with the events because it hurts. It’s devastating. We are trying to reconcile the information that has been put out there as well as the decision by the bishop (to suspend Rothrock). It’s a difficult pill to swallow,” Cunningham said. “It is very hard to overcome the despair, but I think that the parish is beginning to heal and come to terms with the situation, building trust in God that He will draw us to His ultimate conclusion on this issue.”
Cunningham said Rothrock is not a racist and that he worked to “bridge gaps” in the community and build supportive relationships with other faith leaders.
“Father Rothrock’s goal for his parish is to be the most welcoming it can be. In the Catholic faith all are welcome,” Cunningham said. “You can’t make strides in that area and then also be a racist and be exclusive. That is just simply not in (Rothrock’s) nature.”
Rothrock was positioned to become pastor at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, but his next assignment is undecided. Doherty explained his decision to suspend Rothrock during a July 5 homily at Seton, which also was posted on the church’s website.
“The serious consequences of that article are still playing out among us and in the wider community,” Doherty stated. “I chose the suspension provided for in church law. The suspension offers me an opportunity for pastoral discernment for the good of the diocese, of St Elizabeth Seton Church, and for the good of Father Rothrock.”
CARI is calling for Doherty to permanently remove Rothrock from pastoral service.
“When you express those feelings as a leader, people are more likely to listen to them and internalize them,” Spilker said. “Our concern is if he does go to another parish, what kind of rhetoric is he going to be preaching there?”
Rothrock issued an apology last week, in which he stated, “It was not my intention to offend anyone, and I am sorry that my words have caused any hurt to anyone.”
Spilker doesn’t deny that Rothrock has done positive deeds during his 22 years at Seton, but she doesn’t believe he is fit to lead another congregation at this point.
“It’s possible for someone to do good and still have racism in their heart,” Spilker said.