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FIRST-PERSON: Religious discrimination in the Navy

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Shortly after becoming editor of Oklahoma’s Baptist Messenger in 1997, a story came to my attention regarding scandal and discrimination in the U.S. Navy’s Chaplain High Command. Oklahoma doesn’t have any oceanic beaches, but we do have thousands of veterans and active service men and women in the Navy.

The discriminatory practices are most evident in the promotion selections for Navy chaplains. One would think if the practice occurs with the chaplains, it probably occurs with the line officers as well. Where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

The story involves Roman Catholic chaplains with questionable records continuing up the promotional ladder while qualified evangelical chaplains are discriminated against. Once a commissioned chaplain is passed over for promotion twice, he is released. Imagine the impact when a Southern Baptist chaplain can no longer serve because he is not promoted, while a less-qualified person is promoted.

An Associated Press article by Kevin O’Hanlon in March 2002 exposed part of the problem. He wrote, “The Navy confirmed yesterday that a former priest accused of sexually abusing four Nebraska boys in 1978 was later convicted of lewd conduct involving boys (ages 7 to 11) as a military chaplain.”

According to Baptist Messenger sources, the story behind O’Hanlon’s statement includes the following: The Catholic Military Archdiocese endorsed Robert Hrdlicka for Navy chaplaincy in 1986. Hrdlicka’s pedophilia first surfaced in the Navy during 1988 at Naval Air Station, Sigonella, Sicily. Upon reports that he molested two children, the command relieved Hrdlicka of all chaplaincy duties. However, Hrdlicka somehow transferred to Beaufort, S.C., and resumed functioning as a chaplain. At Beaufort between 1990-92, five more allegations surfaced. Despite later convictions on counts at both duty stations, the Military Archdiocese and Chaplain High Command priests attempted to prevent Hrdlicka’s incarceration by pleading for clemency and treatment/restoration to ministry through a Catholic facility. The Navy promoted Hrdlicka from lieutenant to lieutenant commander in 1992, during a time when many chaplains, including Southern Baptists with exemplary records, were denied promotions and sent home.

The Navy has repeatedly failed to heed calls for equal treatment. Chaplain Ron Wilkins who hails from the Sooner state first sounded the integrity alarm in 1986. In 1995, Baptist chaplain Larry Ellis reported evangelical chaplains filled less than 12 percent of the 15 top positions in the Chaplain High Command from 1980-95. This is while more than 60 percent of the Navy’s enlistment was non-Catholic.

In 1997, according to Baptist Messenger sources, the Chaplain High Command attempted to rid itself of Chaplain Stan Aufderheide, whose zeal for ministry and evangelism raised the CHC’s ire. After 15 years of distinguished service, Aufderheide was denied promotion to commander. In response, he requested an Equal Opportunity investigation into CHC promotion practices. Equal Opportunity Investigating Officer Capt. J.N. Stafford sent shock waves throughout the CHC by concluding, “Aufderheide’s allegation of denominational discrimination has merit.” Stafford stated, “The documented performances of at least two Roman Catholic selectees are markedly inferior to that of Aufderheide.” However, one of the two Roman Catholic selectees remained in the Navy and received promotion to captain in 2003 through a board chaired by Louis V. Iasiello, Catholic Deputy Chief of Chaplains (now Chief of Chaplains). Eventually, Sen. John Glenn assisted Aufderheide by pushing the Department of Defense Inspector General to reinvestigate. The DODIG acknowledged that a 1998 promotion board member wronged Aufderheide, but still pronounced the promotion system equitable, even though the board president justified promoting a poor-performing Catholic priest over a Baptist chaplain with a perfect record by saying, “We tend to … look at priests the same way we look at minorities.” Eventually, Aufderheide received promotion to captain and back pay, but he soon retired.

In March 2000, 17 Navy chaplains, including five Southern Baptists, filed a lawsuit demanding that the Navy cease discriminating. Since then, a growing number of Southern Baptist chaplains continue to join with other evangelicals in support of two class-action lawsuits. The lawsuits seek to right past wrongs and deliver the Chaplain High Command from senior officers with integrity problems.

Evidence of CHC corruption is well-documented and evangelical enlisted men and commissioned officers, who need the help of a chaplain in these days of conflict against terror, are worthy of an evangelical chaplain. Apparently, the only things that will facilitate significant change are legal action or public pressure. Some of the Baptist litigants plan to appeal to the messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention in June to assist them in heightening public pressure. Baptists communicating with their congressmen also could be of immense help by helping the Navy find its moral compass and end its discriminatory, elitist practices.
John Yeats is editor of the Baptist Messenger, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

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  • John Yeats