Va. Priest's Double Life Devastates Parishioners
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
The Rev. Rodney L. Rodis never healed the sick, much less turned water into wine. But some say he performed at least one minor miracle as the head of two small Catholic churches in central Virginia.
When he arrived in Louisa County as a substitute priest 14 years ago, the congregation was divided and attendance was near an all-time low. Yet, Rodis, a charismatic native of the Philippines with a round face, laughing eyes and Cheshire cat grin, united parishioners at Immaculate Conception in Buckner and St. Jude in Mineral, building church rolls to nearly 360 families and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for capital improvements, parishioners said.
"He just absolutely wowed everybody," said parishioner Phil Scoggin, 73, who retired to the area from Great Falls with his wife. "I don't think I ever met a layman or a priest that I thought was a better Christian than him."
But now parishioners are trying to reconcile the saint they thought Rodis was with the sinner authorities say he is. Rodis, 50, has been charged with embezzling an estimated $600,000 to $700,000, possibly more, from the parish. And, unbeknownst to parishioners, for the past 14 years, Rodis has been living with a woman identified in court records as his wife and three children an hour away in Spotsylvania County, where his neighbors believed he was in the import-export business.
Diocese of Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo has barred Rodis from representing the diocese or celebrating Mass. Diocese officials have also said Rodis could eventually be defrocked, but it would be up to the Vatican to decide whether to remove him from the priesthood permanently. Meanwhile, the diocese has issued reminders about stricter rules for tracking church funds across the diocese, which consists of about 220,000 active Catholics in 153 parishes, according to its Web site.
Immaculate Conception parishioner Kay Cabe, 31, is reeling from the news of Rodis's arrest and alleged double life. The priesthood is lonely, she said. She understands why a man who was always so good with children would want a family. It's the secrets and lies in a place where you're supposed to be faithful and honest that Cabe doesn't get.
"I still have my faith in God, but it has shaken my faith in humanity," Cabe said.
For years, Rodis counseled parishioners at Immaculate Conception and St. Jude, where they thought he was living in the rectory. He married them, baptized their children, listened when they confessed their sins. All the while, he lived the life of a secular, married, family man, according to court records and neighbors in the Fredericksburg subdivision Rodis also called home.
The modest, split-level brick house had all the trappings of suburbia and so, seemingly, did Rodis, neighbors said. The lawn, adorned with mini pagodas, was always well-kept, and the SUV and two other vehicles parked in the driveway were usually clean and shiny. Neighbors knew Rodis as the host with the most who always served sumptuous food at the neighborhood holiday parties he threw regularly. He was always friendly, had a smile for everyone and doted on his three girls, the youngest of whom was 5 or 6, neighbors said. Some remembered how Joyce Sillador-Rodis, the woman known to most in the subdivision as Rodis's wife, recently stopped by with one of the younger girls to sell boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
"You have to think: Was that his true person, or was it a facade he was putting on?" Cabe said.
Crises of faith this large don't often visit the tiny towns that make up the Louisa parishes. And, at Mass last week, not even the winter sun streaming through Immaculate Conception's stained-glass windows broke through the chill left by the scandal. The Rev. Michael Duffy, the priest who replaced Rodis when he retired in May for what he said then were health reasons, leaned heavily on the lectern on the dais where Rodis once stood. Waving his hand in the air as if searching for something, Duffy began talking about the fragility of faith.
Heads were bowed. Hands were folded. Parishioners shifted in the old wooden pews as they strained to hear the words they hoped would restore their faith and their church. The floorboards beneath the carpet in the 131-year-old church creaked as parishioners knelt to pray. The organist in the balcony struck a chord. The choir sang: "The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the decree of the Lord is trustworthy." The words hung in the air like a rebuke.
Scoggin, a retired Air Force veteran and technical consultant, moved to the area with his wife, Joan, 77, about the time Rodis was installed as parish priest. Scoggin remembered with a grimace the day Rodis made a heartfelt pitch for donations to help tsunami victims in Indonesia. Scoggin, longtime chairman of Immaculate Conception's finance committee, was so moved that he reached for his wife's purse and dashed off a check for $500. But the check never made it into the church's account; instead, it went into the secret account Rodis had opened at a branch of Virginia Heartland Bank in Fredericksburg, Scoggin said.
"He deserves an Academy Award for acting because at the same time he was stealing money from us, he was telling us to 'be good,' and that hurt," Scoggin said. "The fact that he took money from people who really needed it is unconscionable."
Neighbors in the quiet Fredericksburg subdivision are equally dismayed by the allegations about Rodis. He always referred to a woman named Joyce Sillador-Rodis as his wife, neighbors said. She was a nurse; he was in the import-export business, neighbors were told. There was no hint of Rodis's priestly life. And, there was little reason to believe he wasn't the quiet family man he said he was. Last year, Rodis sent a Christmas card to one neighbor signed, "God bless! Love Rodney, Joyce and the girls."
Rodis, who was released on $10,000 bond after his Jan. 8 arrest, did not return several messages left on his home phone last week, and no one answered at the Fredericksburg house. But a little more than a week after his arrest, Rodis sent out an apologetic e-mail to parishioners. "I am sure that at this time you are aware of what has been going on," Rodis wrote in the Jan. 17 message. "This is to express my heartfelt apology for the trouble this might [have] caused you. Whatever the Church may decide regarding my case, I will fully accept the consequences. Please include me in your prayers."
John Maus, an attorney for Rodis, said the e-mail is "a far cry from an admission of criminal behavior." Maus said Rodis, who was ordained in the Order of St. Camillus in 1986, has no criminal history and retired as head of the Louisa parishes in May after suffering a stroke and injuries from a car accident.
The diocese learned of the diversion of church funds after an Immaculate Conception donor requested a receipt for a $1,000 contribution for tax purposes in June. When no receipt could be found for the canceled check, the donor discovered in October that the check had been deposited in Rodis's alleged secret account, Scoggin said.
Virginia State Police launched a full-scale investigation shortly after the unauthorized account was discovered, said state police Sgt. Kevin Barrick. He said calls from parishioners and donors continue to pour in about Rodis's case, and the total amount of diverted funds is expected to reach well beyond the more than $600,000 the diocese has estimated was stolen.
Richmond diocese officials hope insurance will cover some of the missing money. But it might be difficult to recover from other, more intangible losses. Concerns still linger that news of Rodis's arrest will only darken the cloud already hovering over the priesthood in the wake of revelations in recent years about rampant sexual misconduct involving Catholic clergy. Diocese officials said they are especially worried that Rodis's case could unduly damage the reputation of priests in the diocese and hamper efforts to recruit clergy, said William F. Etherington, an attorney for the diocese.
"It's caused considerable sadness. It's awful for the priests because everyone starts looking at them like they're all the same, which is, of course, grotesque and untrue," Etherington said. "This is not a morale builder."
It hasn't done much for Catholic churchgoers in Louisa, either. Last Sunday, the diocese sent a counselor to Immaculate Conception to talk to parishioners. But it's not talk so much as a return to faith that's needed right now, said longtime parishioner Bud Alexander. "If you can't trust your priest," Alexander said, "who can you trust?"
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.