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Bishop criticizes priests who attended Trump rally as VIPs

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File). FILE - In this July 5, 2018, file photo, three of the four Roman Catholic priests are visible in the front row at lower left as President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a rally at the Four Seasons Arena at Montana... (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File). FILE - In this July 5, 2018, file photo, three of the four Roman Catholic priests are visible in the front row at lower left as President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a rally at the Four Seasons Arena at Montana...

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Roman Catholic bishop in Montana has criticized four priests who attended President Donald Trump's rally in Great Falls last week for wearing their black clerical garb while prominently seated in the front row directly behind the president.

The priests could be seen in the audience Thursday wearing VIP badges. They clapped as the president joked about the #MeToo movement against sexual assault, called Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts "Pocahontas" and questioned former President George H.W. Bush's use of the phrase "a thousand points of light" to promote volunteerism, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported .

Two of the priests, Father Garrett Nelson and Father Ryan Erlenbush, are from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, which serves central and eastern Montana. The other two, Father Kevin Christofferson and Father Christopher Lebsock, are from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, which covers western Montana.

Bishop Michael Warfel of the Great Falls-Billings diocese was not aware the priests would be in attendance and was shocked to see them in a prominent location in clerical attire, he said in a letter posted on the diocese's Facebook page.

Warfel said he spoke with Nelson and Erlenbush and told them that they should not have been in clerical attire at a partisan event. The priests said they didn't know they would be seated directly behind Trump and that they were uncomfortable with the location. Warfel said they should have moved to different seats.

"I have received apologies from the two priests for any misunderstanding or any hurt their presence caused," Warfel wrote.

The bishop added that he updated the diocese's policy on political involvement, which says in part, "Supporting or not supporting a particular candidate as a representative of the diocese is not permitted."

Warfel said the restriction is only on partisan politics, and not on the church's involvement in larger political issues. He gave as examples Pope John Paul II, whose visit to the Gdansk shipyards in Poland is credited with helping spark the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, and Pope Francis' public stances on issues from climate change to immigration.

On Saturday in Chicago, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest, was at the front of a march he organized to protest gun violence. Thousands of anti-violence protesters participated in the march, shutting down traffic along the northbound lanes of Interstate 94, to draw attention to the violence and pressure public officials to do more to stop it.

Among the demands the protesters listed were more resources, jobs and better schools for their communities as well as stronger gun laws.

The Helena, Montana, diocese does not have a bishop after Bishop George Leo Thomas left earlier this year. The diocese's administrator, Monsignor Kevin O'Neill, said that he has sent a letter to all personnel seeking their cooperation with the political activity policy set by the Montana Catholic Conference in 2011.

Those guidelines say that religious leaders should avoid taking positions on candidates or participating in political party maters even while acting as individuals. "Although not prohibited, it may be difficult to separate their personal activity from their public role as a Church leader," the policy says.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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