The Diocese of La Crosse ousted its most controversial priest, but Madison is ignoring its own

By: - July 23, 2021 6:17 am
Father Richard Heilman

St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff Priest Richard Heilman gives a homily. His rhetoric has frequently attacked transgender people, spread vaccine misinformation and compared Democrats to Nazis. (Screenshot | YouTube)

Over the last year, the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse has been handling the fallout of one of its priests, Father James Altman, continuously preaching dangerous and hateful rhetoric about Democrats, vaccines, transgender people and other conspiracy theories from the altar of St. James the Less Catholic Church and his widely viewed social media channels. 

On July 10, the diocese removed Altman from his post at St. James, saying he was too “divisive.” Altman followed up his removal by giving the welcome prayer at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas. 

Yet even as the Diocese of La Crosse decided that Altman’s views were too extreme, the Diocese of Madison hasn’t taken any actions to rein in a Dane County priest sharing and preaching similar views. 

Father Richard Heilman, pastor at St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff is one of Altman’s friends and regularly appears on podcasts and videos with Altman. The pair appeared on an episode of a conservative Catholic podcast on Jan. 7 to spread conspiracies about the deadly insurrection that had taken place at the U.S. Capitol the day before. 

Despite the views and rhetoric of Heilman, church officials in Madison don’t seem likely to make the same decision that their counterparts in La Crosse made about Altman. 

“The social media activity of individual Catholics, including priests, do not represent the policies, positions, or opinions of the Diocese of Madison,” diocesan spokesperson Brent King said in a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner. The matter of Fr. James Altman is best left to Bishop William Callahan, Bishop of La Crosse, and Fr. Altman.” He did not have anything to say about Heilman, however. 

In his homily on Good Friday in April, Heilman said that the reason that American church participation has been on the decline is the lies told by “the cabal.” The invocation of a shadowy cabal controlling American society is a theme common in QAnon conspiracy theories. 

“It’s not a baby, it’s a clump of cells; be whatever gender you want; marry five people if you want, that’s our truth,” the priest said on one of the most important — and highly attended — days of the Catholic year. “We have spiritual leaders in our times that are telling — particularly those who speak the truth of what the church teaches of what we found in the Bible, of what is the will of God — you need to be quiet because you’re offending people, you’re offending the ruling class.” 

After Altman was removed from his post earlier this month, Heilman spent the next three days defending him from the pulpit. 

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At Sunday mass on July 11, as he defended Altman from his so-called “cancellation,” Heilman diverged into attacks against transgender people and Democratic politicians such as President Joe Biden. 

“You don’t make my people have to call a guy a girl when he’s a guy,” Heilman said. “You don’t march the president of the United States up to communion when he is the number one most influential person promoting the killing of children. You don’t do that.” 

The next day, at his daily mass, Heilman again spent several minutes defending Altman. 

“I apologize, not, if you’re getting tired of this topic because it seems to be talked about ad nauseum because we get worn out after a time, we get battle weary after a time, but you have to stick with it because this is bringing the evil out of the darkness and into the light,” he said. “We so wish we didn’t need to deal with these things, we so wish we could just go shopping and golfing. Again, what are we talking about? Well, duh, we’re talking about this whole situation in which a bishop has punished his priest for being open and honest about the evil that’s going on in the world.” 

But soon he moved onto the various ills he sees as wrong in today’s society.

“Under our watch, 1.7 billion babies, little precious babies worldwide have been torn apart limb from limb since 1973,” he said, then comparing Democratic policies on abortion to Nazi Germany. “We don’t even need to talk about the same party advocating for such things as a grown man being able to walk into a little girls’ bathroom, or an 8-year-old boy to decide he wants to be a girl and sent to a surgeon.” 

The comparison of Democrats to Nazis is a common theme for Heilman, who wrote a blog post published that same day that touched on similar topics as his homily. 

“My brain seeks logical conclusions. So, here is where my brain goes in this ‘Altman controversy,’ he wrote. “For argument sake, what if Hitler and the Nazi Party was put to a vote? The platform of the Nazi Party was that they planned to kill six million Jews; most of them burned alive. And, the opposing party was against this. Could a Catholic vote for the Nazi Party, even if the Nazi Party held other platform issues that were attractive? Could one say, ‘The incineration of six million Jews is not the ‘only’ issue?’ Of course not! It would be a horror to even conceive of such a thing.” 

While Heilman ignores the fact that the Nazi Party was put to a vote — earning 37.3% of the vote in the German parliamentary elections of 1932 — his blog complains that the “prophetic” Altman is being cancelled for pointing out that Democrats are as evil as Nazis. 

On July 13, in a homily at daily mass that rails against “participation trophies” and modern society, Heilman said parents need to get tough to make sure their children don’t become sinners, just like priests need to get tough to make sure their parishioners don’t become too welcoming to transgender people or support Democrats. 

“Grown men in little girls’ bathrooms, chopping up little babies, and we’re fine with that?” he said.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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