War in the Chaplain Corps: Naples at center of battle
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series that looks at the legal conflicts involving the Navy Chaplain Corps. Many evangelicals say the Navy prefers Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants over them, discriminates against them in promotions and even tries to tell them what to preach. The Navy denies the claims. Now, a class-action suit representing about 2,000 present and former chaplains threatens to overhaul naval promotions and cost the sea service tens of millions of dollars in back pay. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to examine the complaints early next year.
The Mediterranean, normally azure and calm, has churned to frothing white because of a naval battle between men of the cloth.
A group of evangelicals waging a war for reform in the Navy Chaplain Corps say their front has long been a seaport in Southern Italy: Naples, home to both a U.S. Navy base and a NATO headquarters, Allied Forces Southern Europe.
“My intent is to use this as the poster child for the Navy Chaplain Corps,” said Arthur Schulcz, an attorney representing evangelical chaplains in several lawsuits against the Navy, including a class-action case representing about 2,000 clergy. The lawsuits claim that Roman Catholics and liturgical Protestants — those whose services revolve around set ritual — are promoted ahead of evangelicals, and that evangelicals are often warned to water down sermons. Many chaplains — including one rabbi — also say that theological conservatives of any faith face the same challenges and are often forced out of the Navy.
The service does not discuss lawsuits, but the Navy denies any bias in promotions.
The main suits, filed in 1999, have since unleashed a legal and constitutional tsunami threatening to force the sea service into overhauling promotions and possibly costing it millions of dollars in back pay. Next year, the House Armed Services Committee is expected to hold hearings on the brouhaha.
Naples, some chaplains claim, is the epitome of their struggle. Naples has seen a series of evangelical chaplains come and go and complain of bias on the way. Several present and former chaplains say that Naples is the place that forever altered or ended their careers.
Lt. Cmdr. Armando Torralva, a chaplain now stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, said he and several others received the worst fitness ratings of their careers while in Italy.
“It’s a graveyard for evangelicals,” he said.
It all allegedly started with Stan Aufderheide, who was stationed with NATO in the late 1990s. The conservative Lutheran fought for four years for promotion to commander after being denied twice despite an excellent record. After help from Congress and three federal investigations, Aufderheide won.
He retired three years ago.
“I could have stayed,” Aufderheide said. “There were no deals cut. They [the Navy] righted a wrong, and I probably could have made O-6,” or captain. “But I decided to leave. I just got a bit jaundiced and jaded by it. I didn’t think I could pour my heart into it like I used to.”
But the findings of a widely circulated Navy equal opportunity report on Aufderheide’s case riled other chaplains. Though unwilling to say much on the record, some evangelicals stationed in Naples today said the chapel remains divided.
“I’ve not seen any significant change for the better,” said Lt. Cmdr. Joe Dufour, a Bible Church chaplain now serving in Naples.
Capt. Jim Poe, a minister of the Associated Gospel Churches and head chaplain for Navy Region Europe, has personally intervened to stop an evangelical service from being shut down at the NATO base in Naples.
However, he expects it to close when he leaves in the autumn of next year. Though a senior chaplain, he does not have a say over whether the service survives.
“If I did,” Poe said, “it would be a different story.”
The service Poe took over was originally run by Aufderheide.
When Aufderheide retired in August, Lt. Cmdr. Torralva assumed the pulpit.
Torralva — whose previous assignments include the Presidential Helicopter Squadron, the Marines who fly and provide security for the president aboard Marine One — said his career was then ruined.
He said that while in Naples, the command chastised him for not supporting plans for a teen clinic distributing contraceptives without parental knowledge.
According to Torralva, he avoided criticism of the clinic but preached a sermon on alternatives for parents, such as talking to teenagers. Torralva said he was lectured later by Capt. Brendan Gray, then commander of the naval base, and in June of 2002 received the worst performance rating of his career.
“He had to put off his robes, take off his cross, and become a regular naval officer,” said Billy Baugham, who runs the chaplaincy program for Torralva’s denomination, the Associated Gospel Churches.
However, Lt. Jon Spiers, a Navy spokesman, said that’s exactly what chaplains are: naval officers first.
Baugham said Torralva could not both back the clinic and be true to his church.
According to Torralva, Gray wanted to keep a lid on the clinic plans, but many in the congregation were already worried about it.
Torralva later filed a complaint over the performance rating with Gray’s boss, Rear Adm. Michael Holmes. Holmes, who Torralva said had heard the sermon and congratulated him on it, sided against the chaplain.
“Basically, I have two reputations,” Torralva said, “one to live up to and one to live down.”
Naval officials turned down requests to interview Holmes and Gray and would not comment on Torralva’s complaint.
Cmdr. Mary Hanson, acting spokeswoman for Navy Region Europe, said the service does not release the results of such investigations.
Torralva said his ability to advance is ruined.
“I may as well run for governor of California,” he said.
Evangelicals maintain that Naples command chaplains have long desired to close down the service first led by Aufderheide.
According to sworn testimony, Capt. Steve Rock, former Catholic command chaplain at Naples, was determined to stop the service. Torralva said he told Rock that the Navy couldn’t close it, because Title 10 of the U.S. Code required the service to support the Americans at NATO.
Rock, now serving at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., declined a request for an interview.
“Since I am not privy to any of the information or accusations regarding Chaplain Torralva and his church, I have no comment,” Rock said in a written response.
Capt. Dave Frederick, commanding officer of the Naval Support Activity Naples, said the chapel offers a replacement service at the Gricignano Support Site.
“I think it’s important to point out that the Navy’s been shifting toward Capodichino and Gricignano,” Frederick said, referring to two new bases across town from NATO. “A natural consequence is that our people are moving out there also.”
Frederick said that by year’s end, 600 sailors will live on Capodichino; 2,500 Americans now live on the Gricignano base and 1,000 others live just 15 minutes away.
Frederick also said he has only five chaplains rather than his usual seven.
“You still have to do the math, and put chaplains and services in places where people are going to attend.”
However, those attending the service say efforts to close it have nothing to do with the Navy moves. From 50 to 150 people attend services at the NATO base, and it is about 30 miles away from the Navy’s Gricignano housing area.
“Unfortunately,” Army Col. Jacob McFerren testified, “that doesn’t help the 706 people that we’ve got living and working at AFSouth.”
McFerren, director of staff at AFSouth as well as a member of the congregation there, wrote a letter to the Navy defending Torralva’s character. When contacted by a reporter, McFerren said his position prevented him from saying much. However, he expressed surprise at how the Navy deals with chaplains and religious freedom.
“I swore an oath to defend the Constitution,” McFerren said.
Navy Cmdr. Ken Morrell, staff officer at Striking Forces Southern Europe and another member of the congregation, said the drive to Gricignano is too far for most NATO staff.
“The majority of people who attend here don’t live all the way out to the Support Site.”
Rehab and empires?
That NATO scrap is just one of several Neapolitan campaigns.
Gregory Siegfriedt-Wilson, a missionary with evangelical Cadence International, said his stay in Naples was the first time in 13 years abroad that he was denied base access. Cadence runs hospitality houses for troops, and typically works with base chapels.
According to his sworn testimony, the Naples base refused him access to conduct Bible studies. Attorney Schulcz said the witness, who now ministers to Air Force personnel at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, had to break from testifying because he was nearly in tears.
“We jokingly call Aviano the Naples recovery group or Naples rehabilitation center,” Siegfriedt-Wilson said in the transcript.
Sailors began attending off-base churches in droves, he said, because evangelicals felt the military offered them nothing.
“The last few years, [churches] doubled and tripled in size because it was the only alternative,” Siegfriedt-Wilson testified. “Before that time, they were struggling.”
Gregory DeMarco, a retired lieutenant commander and a Baptist chaplain who had been stationed in Naples from 1995 through 1998, said the Naples command chaplain at the time, a priest named Capt. Ronald Buchmiller, told him not to end prayers in the name of Jesus. So, allegedly, did Cmdr. Steven Pike, presently stationed in Gaeta, Italy, who was at the time a Naples lieutenant commander. Buchmiller now pastors a civilian parish in Lakeside, Calif.
“I do not share with reporters anything to do with the military suits,” Buchmiller said in an e-mail reply to an interview request. “I loved my time and ministry with military personnel and am very happy as a pastor in a civilian parish.”
Pike, an Episcopalian, said he couldn’t comment because the case is ongoing.
DeMarco said his service, which he called the most popular on the base, was taken away because Buchmiller and Pike accused him of building an “empire.”
According to the deposition of another minister in Naples at the time, then-Lt. Cmdr. Philip Veitch, DeMarco turned a service drawing about 25 people on average into one drawing 250.
However, fitness reports plummeted. Before, DeMarco said, he had always earned golden evaluations. He spent a decade as a Navy diver, then ministered to SEALs and explosive ordnance disposal teams and served as chaplain aboard the first of a new class of vessel.
“I had my 20 years in,” DeMarco said. “… After it was reported to me from some good sources that I would never be promoted, I decided to get out and fight from the outside.” He now pastors a church in Virginia Beach, Va.
DeMarco was largely behind the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2001 demand for an investigation into Navy chaplain promotions. America’s largest Protestant denomination, through its 9,100 delegates, overwhelmingly passed the resolution in the New Orleans Superdome.
DeMarco has called it “the shot heard ’round the world.”
Ideology vs. bureaucracy
The incidents show what might be an inherent dilemma in institutions like the Chaplain Corps — that of serving everyone while being true to a particular theological school.
Veitch testified that a Jewish woman was upset at the Christocentric nature of DeMarco’s preaching during one of his sermons.
Torralva alleged that Buchmiller spiked his plans to allow a Jewish congregation to light a Menorah and say Hanukkah prayers outside because it would be a public display of religion. Torralva said he looked outside his office later that same day and saw Buchmiller blessing a Christmas tree in the base piazza.
“The only guys the chaplains can beat up on is other chaplains,” DeMarco said, “and they never miss an opportunity.”
Veitch, too, would find himself at odds with the command.
According to testimony, shortly after DeMarco left in 1998, Buchmiller hosted a meeting at his home overlooking the Bay of Naples. There, he allegedly told the chapel staff that a zealous chaplain like DeMarco had no place in the Navy.
Veitch, a Reformed Episcopal chaplain with an evangelical bent, took it as a warning. His wife also testified Buchmiller had earlier told her that Veitch wouldn’t be busy during his Naples tour. Buchmiller has denied making the comment.
According to Veitch, Buchmiller later accused him of unpluralistic preaching because of messages proclaiming humanity’s ability to commune directly with God. Veitch had also said things such as salvation “is not dispensed by the hand, or the cup, or the wafer.” Such themes were seen as attacks on Roman Catholicism.
“From what I heard from other people who were at the sermon, he added a number of other things that were interpreted as being a slam,” Buchmiller said in his testimony.
Buchmiller also criticized Veitch’s sermon comment that even the chief of naval operations could not change what he preached.
“I would say he was certainly against Navy tradition,” Buchmiller testified. “… We say we’re going to be obedient to lawful orders from our superior officers.”
Buchmiller also allegedly told both DeMarco and Veitch not to preach on the tenet of “sola scriptura,” or Scripture alone being the source of spiritual authority, as that contradicted the Catholic view of the role of church tradition.
Veitch said he refused to give in merely because Buchmiller’s complaints were specifically against what made a Protestant a Protestant. He also maintains his intent wasn’t to attack other faiths; his wife Sharon played organ during Buchmiller’s Masses.
However, in the past, Pike has described Veitch as being foul-mouthed, disrespectful and being prone to outrageous statements. He has also praised Buchmiller’s leadership and ability to navigate difficult situations.
In Buchmiller’s testimony, he also denied ignoring another priest’s alleged flaunting of a homosexual relationship. Homosexual sex is illegal in the military.
Veitch’s attorney asked why Buchmiller publicly asked whether the other priest planned to bring his “wife” to the chaplains’ ball.
“I did that at one of the staff meetings as a bit of humor because obviously, as a Catholic, he did not have a wife,” Buchmiller responded.
Buchmiller also denied an allegation that other chaplains had complained over the other priest’s homosexual activities. The point, the attorney said in the exchange, was that the conduct was illegal and that any tolerance of it, but not evangelical preaching, showed bias.
Veitch said that he was eventually removed from his pulpit for failing to preach pluralism, and later forced to resign his commission or face court martial. The base has denied that, saying instead that Veitch chose to resign rather than face charges of missing duty and disrespecting a superior. He left Naples in 1999. A Defense Department inspector general investigation found against Veitch’s claims and he left the service.
Veitch, now living in Jacksonville, N.C., is suing the Navy to be reinstated. The Navy will not discuss his case.
Veitch is backed by the Rutherford Institute, the legal powerhouse that helped Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. With congressional investigations expected next year, Veitch said he’s shocked at the scope of the shock wave following his case and others.
“No one person had a grand scheme,” Veitch said. “We had a vision and we just had faith and conviction and kept stepping forward and pressing the envelope legally.”
Priests, ministers and rabbis
Many of the suing Christians said the more import they place on their faith, the more difficult it is to move up in rank. One conservative rabbi said that’s true in Judaism, too.
Rabbi Sanford Shudnow, who served near Naples with the 6th Fleet in Gaeta, said he faced persecution because of his strict dietary observances and wearing of his yarmulke.
“I’m glad [the evangelicals] did what they did in bringing these lawsuits,” Shudnow said. “I just wish I could join somehow.”
Shudnow, who retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander in 1998 and now serves as a chaplain at Washington Hospital Center in D.C., said his superiors in London would use “spies” to see whether he was asking for kosher meals and wearing the traditional skullcap.
“It was really misery,” Shudnow said.
When he was first assigned to Gaeta in the mid ’80s, Shudnow said that a more liberal Reformed rabbi warned him to loosen up, that the 6th Fleet “was the real Navy” and that he’d better play ball or they would “kick his ass out of there.”
Shudnow said he was also chastised for missing a weekend get-together thrown by the 6th Fleet command chaplain, even though he told colleagues he couldn’t travel on the Sabbath. Shudnow also accused his command chaplain of destroying letters written in praise of his service aboard some of the 67 vessels he visited during his tour at 6th Fleet. One admiral, Shudnow said, even protested against a poor fitness report by writing on the back that Shudnow was the best chaplain the admiral had worked with.
Shudnow also complained that the Reformed rabbi who he claimed threatened his tour sat on one of his selection boards, sabotaging it.
“I feel they really, really torpedoed my career,” he said.
Shudnow filed a complaint with the Navy inspector general in the late ’90s, but to no avail. Shudnow tried to get a copy of its report, but the IG refused. Shudnow then approached the American Civil Liberties Union.
Eventually, the ACLU obtained the report, and according to Shudnow it labeled him a lackluster chaplain. He was shocked. He thought the Navy would quietly promote him to captain.
Shudnow decided that in the end, the Chaplain Corps simply works like a government apparatus and protects itself like any bureaucracy.
“They pretty much sacrifice everything for the sake of promotion. There’s no doubt about it. The rank structure and religion didn’t mix well.”