Sunday, October 12, 2003

Fire chief dismisses chaplain

Volunteer had vision of unifying factions

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rev. Mike Paraniuk

Cincinnati Fire Chief Robin Wright has fired the chaplain who provided spiritual guidance to firefighters through their first on-duty death in two decades after a dispute over the priest's involvement in the department's race-relations issues.

The Rev. Mike Paraniuk said Saturday that he made it his goal to unify the predominantly white fire union and the Cincinnati African-American Firefighters Association after the volunteer chaplain saw a church filled with black and white firefighters at the March funeral of firefighter Oscar Armstrong III. Wright, though, said Paraniuk's involvement crossed the line: from trying to help to injecting himself too much into the department, bringing complaints from some firefighters.

"When he thinks that he's going to be the peacemaker, I don't need him to do that,'' the chief said. "That's my position, that he should've stayed out of that.''

The union and black firefighters association have been battling over racial issues for years. Two weeks ago, the association filed racial discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Association president James Wright is Chief Robert Wright's cousin.

Paraniuk, 52, also is a chaplain at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He says Mass at Mother of Christ Church in Winton Hills and St. Bernard Church in Winton Place.

On Wednesday, he addressed a crowd at the fire department's annual memorial service. The next day, the chief said he told Paraniuk that he needed to spend less time in fire houses, and couldn't stay overnight or wear the fire department patch.

The chief fired the priest Friday, after Wright said he heard Paraniuk had gone to fire houses complaining the chief was minimizing his time with the troops.

Wright called Mayor Charlie Luken and council members Friday to tell them he'd fired Paraniuk. According to the mayor, Wright said the priest had become a problem. Union President Joe Diebold said Saturday that he was surprised, since Paraniuk spoke at Wednesday's memorial "with what I assumed was the fire department's and our blessing.''

Paraniuk said he wanted to ride with firefighters so he could minister to them on difficult calls.

"This is a moral issue,'' he said of the racial divisions in the department. "As the chaplain, I'm the spiritual leader and it's my job to address the moral issues.''

He said he would like to be reinstated. Wright said that's not going to happen.


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