Security work at St. Joseph may not be enough to keep him there
In response to the murder of Eureka priest Father Eric Freed and his own safety concerns, Del Norte's Catholic leader says he wants to leave the church rectory.
But because some, including his bishop and a few parishioners, oppose such a move, Father Adam Kotas says he is struggling to reconcile those wishes with his own psychological wellbeing.
As details about Freed's homicide continue to emerge, Kotas, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Crescent City, said he doesn't feel safe at the rectory and is looking for a new place to live.
"Access to Father Eric was facilitated by where Father Eric resided," Kotas said. "It's obvious where I live. Everybody knows where the priest lives; right next to the church."
Freed's body was found in his upstairs bedroom at St. Bernard Church's rectory after he failed to show up for a 9 a.m. Mass on Jan. 1. The murder suspect, 44-year-old Gary Lee Bullock, of Redway, had been released from jail at 12:43 a.m. after a public intoxication arrest and was later found twice on the church grounds acting erratically, according to authorities.
Surveillance footage shown at Bullock's preliminary hearing Jan. 22 captured him at the rectory door about an hour after he was released from jail, according to the Times-Standard. Cameras show Bullock going back inside the rectory a few times before Freed's car is shown driving away at 7:01 a.m.
Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Marilyn Miles ruled that there was sufficient evidence for Bullock to stand trial on murder and other charges in Freed's death.
Kotas, who was close to his colleague in Eureka, said people come to him for help at all hours of the day, some knocking on the rectory door in the middle of the night.
Recently a transient showed up at St. Joseph and for about four days refused to leave, Kotas said. The church gave the man clothes, a raincoat, food, money for a bus ticket and a motel room. Kotas said he and parishioners told the transient that they did all they could for him and there were no other services and to please seek help in another city. But, he wouldn't leave.
"After what happened in Eureka I'm being extra-extra-extra cautious," Kotas said. "I called the police and reported it to one of the parishioners."
Since Freed's death, Kotas' bishop, Robert Vasa, leader of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, sent a memo to the parishes in his diocese encouraging them to improve their safety and security.
In Crescent City, the northernmost parish in the diocese, parishioners installed metal bars on the rectory windows and replaced the building's sliding glass doors with security doors, Kotas said. The church has set up surveillance cameras on the church grounds and installed a new alarm system. Since Freed's death, the church has enacted a new policy to keep the alarm on and its doors locked at all times, Kotas said.
Parishes throughout the Diocese of Santa Rosa are taking a closer look at safety and security, Vasa said. But, he added, he isn't sure that it is necessary for priests to move out of their rectories.
Living close to the church allows the priest easy access to those in need of spiritual aid and for his own daily prayer, the bishop said. Moving off church grounds could create significant costs, but, Vasa said he isn't going to micromanage the actions of individual parishes.
"The death of Father Eric Freed is such an extraordinary kind of event," he said. "This happens maybe once every 10 years in the United States. Saying I need to move out of the rectory because it's not safe probably borders on an overreaction. However to find some means of making the rectory secure so priests feel safe, that's important."
As a priest who has taken a vow of obedience, Kotas says he wants to comply with his bishop's wishes. There are also those among his own parish who think he's being "a crybaby" for wanting to move out of the rectory, he said. But, Kotas pointed out, he needs to feel comfortable where he's living.
"I'm isolated from the nucleus of the Diocese of Santa Rosa and I'm isolated from other priests," he said. "I don't really have that support because I'm so far away. Father Eric was a great support for me and now he's not here."
Despite comments from some of his parishioners, there are others, including Kotas's own family, who are still concerned about his safety. Kotas said this is part of what fueled his desire to move. Some of his family members have offered to take up a collection for living expenses, but paying rent will still be difficult.
The financial burden may also be difficult for St. Joseph, Kotas said. The facility is large and there are bills to pay. The church is also still paying off a debt of more than $100,000 from when St. Joseph School was in operation.
But Freed's death has also created an outpouring of support from within and outside the local Catholic community, Kotas said.
"I'm the priest for all of Crescent City. I don't just minister to Catholics, I'm here for everybody," he said. "And people outside have been absolutely wonderful. I'm very very grateful."
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com .