Preparation for Sunday-morning services at the Cathedral of Hope resembles backstage on opening night of a Broadway production. The halls bustle with activity as volunteer coordinators and staff tick off their to-do lists. Everything must be perfect, from preparing urns of coffee to ushering in latecomers to ordering multimedia presentations that flash headlines, film clips and still images on a large screen behind the pulpit. Timing is essential. One mistake--a missed beat, a flubbed line or a crying baby--could ruin the performance.
On such a Sunday a year ago in November, minutes before taking the stage, the Reverend Michael Piazza and his assistant ministers gathered in Piazza's office to quickly review the program before taking the pulpit. As eyes scanned the script it became clear that something had gone wrong. A song the senior pastor objected to had made the playlist. It was an instrumental score that included a piece for the lowly kazoo.
A slightly comical mistake, but Piazza was apoplectic. He slammed his fist repeatedly on his desk and screamed that if one of the assistant ministers snickered, heads would roll. So help him, if just one of them deigned to clap after the recital, it would be the end of his or her career. The pastor's usual pallor had turned beet red.
The clergy were cowed into silence. Ten minutes later they took to the chancel, the pictures of serenity and compassion. No one could see the trembling beneath the robes.
One associate pastor who stood onstage that day had an epiphany. The church, it seemed to her, was unraveling at the seams. The gap between what the congregation saw and what took place in boardroom meetings was widening. As church leadership dissolved into bitter squabbles, attendance declined, as did donations. And what was intended to be the church's crowning jewel, the grand cathedral that had been six years in the making, was no closer to breaking ground.
Nearly a decade earlier ministers had stood before a couple of thousand congregants instead of several hundred. Back then, people came in droves to hear the renowned pastor whose sermons were a mix of the literary and the liturgical; a pastor who was known for bringing to life the stories of saints and sinners, their deeds spun with a mix of radical queer theory, old-fashioned morality and gentle, self-deprecating humor--all told with a lilting Southern twang. People drove from miles around to listen to the message of a brilliant orator and visionary: Michael Piazza.
It was a time of tremendous growth and giving. The church needed more buildings, more pews, more parking spaces, more clergy and more services. Money was heaped upon the donation plates. Easter services were standing room only. At its pinnacle, the cathedral implemented a regular third-Sunday service.
To top it off, Piazza had plans to build a massive cathedral designed by premier architect Philip Johnson, the so-called dean of American architecture whose stark modernist style spawned a movement and can be seen in such buildings as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and Pennzoil Place in Houston. The church was glory-bound, but something went terribly wrong.
Of those present for worship that November morning in 2002, few knew of or suspected the battle that lay ahead. The church was hemorrhaging members and operating far in the red. Employees were quitting the church on an average of one every six weeks, and people were beginning to speak openly about what's been whispered about for years--that Piazza's personal life hardly befits that of a man of God. And as for the Philip Johnson cathedral, former church leaders say it probably never will be built and allege that the church has, in fact, misused some funds earmarked for the building.
Piazza soon would find himself under attack when members of his congregation initiated a clerical investigation accusing him of financial mismanagement, insurance fraud and abusive leadership. The investigation would end with the cathedral's separation from the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the umbrella denomination to which the cathedral belonged. The MCC acts as an overseeing organization and provides spiritual and material assistance to churches that primarily target the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities.
The Dallas Observer interviewed more than a dozen former church members and clergy and reviewed many of the church's internal documents. Together, they describe how one man's ambition divided the world's premier gay and lesbian church.
The Cathedral of Hope has come a long way from its humble beginnings when a group of 12 friends met in 1970 to discuss forming a church that would embrace the gay and lesbian community. During that first year, meetings were rotated among the friends' homes until the newly credentialed church was established in a run-down neighborhood on Ross Avenue. Over the next several years, membership exploded as word of the openly gay church spread. In just six years membership had grown from 40 to more than 400, and the congregation found a larger sanctuary on Reagan Street in the Oak Lawn neighborhood.
The Reverend Don Eastman served as minister to the church for 10 years. For years he divided his time and attention between the church and its parent organization, MCC, until he could no longer serve two masters and resigned in 1986 to fulfill his obligations as an elder in the denomination, a supervisory position not unlike a bishop.
The congregation of MCC-Dallas, as the cathedral was known then, had been without a senior pastor for about a year when Piazza filled the post in November 1987.
The soft-spoken minister with bright red hair took the helm with humility and graciousness. Though slight of frame and standing well under 6 feet tall, his message was stalwart and delivered with an immediacy that compelled people to return every week, often with friends in tow: Too long have gays been outcast, God's broken children. If the personal is political, what better arena than the church, where one cultivates a personal relationship to God and the universe, to make a statement about social justice? Through Piazza, people saw the chance to heal and make a difference in the world. He called for each member--gay or straight, black or white--to live as radically and righteously as Christ himself.
The congregation adored Piazza. The church experienced a kind of second wave of revivalism as membership exploded. Some wept openly during his sermons, which concluded with thunderous applause and, oftentimes, standing ovations. In a little more than a year the church had gained 100 new members.
Piazza's life revolved around the church. He and his partner, Bill Eure, would invite members of the congregation to their home for dinner and to discuss the church's future.
The Reverend Elder Lillie Brock, Piazza's longtime friend and associate, says Piazza was just reaching the height of his career in the early 1990s. It was during this period that he dreamed up the idea of a cathedral in the historic sense of the word--as a stately and decorous church located in the center of the city, a place of worship and study, ensconced in tradition yet ministering to a changing world, a place where the past and the present fuse.
"The cathedral would be a symbol and a beacon to the gay community," she says. "It was a powerful moment for him."
"Michael is a visionary," former church board member Kathy Harper says. "He dreams great dreams, and that's something that's definitely needed in a leader. The church needs someone to dream the dream; otherwise there's no future to move forward to."
By 1990, Piazza launched a building campaign to erect a new church--not the Johnson cathedral--on roughly six acres between Cedar Springs Road and Nash Street. The ranks of the congregation had swelled to 1,000, and through their pledges the church was able to raise $1 million for construction. It also sold $2 million in bonds to finance the building, nearly all of which were purchased by the congregation. "This building was constructed out of an absolute resolution that none of God's children should ever be excluded from worship for any reason," Piazza wrote for the dedication service.
In honor of this new building and the vision, the church would later change its name to Cathedral of Hope MCC.
Piazza hit his stride when the congregation moved into the Cathedral of Hope in February 1993. Worship services became more professional productions. The church had an orchestra and choir led by a full-time director. The sanctuary was light and airy with eight panels of stained glass spelling out "hope" in English and Spanish. The stone walls were austere but beautiful and drew attention to an enormous cross that stands in relief.
"My reaction to the church was, 'Oh, my God!' It was such a beautiful building," recalls former member Terri Frey. "The combination of the power of the beauty of that building coupled with the quality of the worship experience topped off by feeling surrounded by God's presence brought us--me and my partner--to tears."
The success of the new church was inspiring, yet in a few years Piazza would attempt to make it even grander with the input of Johnson and his team of designers.
Piazza grew up in a large Italian immigrant family in Statesboro, Georgia, where his father worked three jobs to support his family. He declined repeated requests for an interview for this article, but in an interview with the Observer in 1999, he said that as early as high school he felt the call to become a Methodist minister. And while he had many girlfriends throughout high school and had planned to marry and have children, he finally began to deal with his homosexuality when he entered seminary at Emory University in 1978. For the next eight years Piazza worked at a number of churches, most of them Methodist, while pursuing a divinity degree.
Piazza's coming-out process was painful. While pastoring at Haygood Methodist Church in Atlanta, he kept his sexuality secret but spent many of his off-hours working at the Atlanta Gay Center. A fellow student in seminary told him about MCC. MCC offered him a way to continue developing his profession while living an authentic life, since Methodists didn't condone openly gay ministers. The board at Haygood began to suspect their pastor was leading a double life and threatened to take action, he told the Observer. Under increasing pressure, Piazza left his post at the Methodist church in 1980 to become the assistant pastor of MCC-Atlanta.
His stay in Atlanta was not long, and in a couple of years he was offered a post at St. Luke's MCC in Jacksonville, Florida, where he worked until coming to Dallas.
During his pastorate, the Cathedral of Hope more than tripled its size. It grew at an estimated 20 percent a year for the first six years of his tenure. At its peak in the early 1990s, the church had built a $3.5 million sanctuary, developed an AIDS ministry, and offered a counseling center and a shelter for gay teens. The cathedral boasted a budget of more than $1.6 million and received accolades from MCC. To continue to spread the message of salvation to wider audiences, Piazza had launched a weekly cable television program as well as a publishing and distribution outlet. His power and presence gained the attention of the national media, which solicited him for comments and interviews on a range of subjects.
Yet even during this time of tremendous growth and praise for Piazza, those closest to him say they saw signs of problems.
Former employees say he was given to outbursts of rage and criticism that led to the alienation of longtime friends and colleagues, many of whom have kept their silence until now.
"I believed and still believe today very strongly in what the church can do for our community and the impact it can have on the lives of individuals," Harper says. "Michael has a very strong personality and a very controlling nature...He very much likes to have his way at the expense of people's feelings."
In a few years Piazza would run for a prestigious seat on the board of MCC elders. It was not his first attempt. When his latest bid failed, he launched his most grandiose plan yet. In 1996, Piazza unveiled a master plan to build a 2,300-seat cathedral designed by Johnson. He would lash the congregation forward on the building project, heedless of his board's warnings of financial problems. The project marked a turning point in his career and eventually splintered the congregation.
Minister's Black Veil
One evening in 1990 after attending an MCC conference, three friends--Piazza, his partner, Bill Eure, and a Cathedral of Hope administrator--showered and dressed and went out to dinner on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, just a stone's throw from the hotel where they were staying. After an early meal, they decided to go out on the town and blow off some steam in the gay mecca of West Hollywood.
The three men shared a rental car. That night they made a deal: The single friend could have the car for the night in exchange for dropping off Piazza and Eure at a club.
As the trio headed the short distance into West Hollywood, the conversation turned animated when the couple began talking about the club where they were going. In fact, it wasn't a bar at all but a gay sex club where men pay an entrance fee for anonymous sex.
The warehouse building was nondescript. There were no flashing lights, no signs that advertised the club's name or venue.
"I was surprised, but I didn't hold a judgment about it," says the administrator, "Neil," who spoke on condition that he not be identified by his real name. "Maybe it was because he [Piazza] was my friend and not my pastor--I didn't have him on a pedestal.
"If he had preached monogamy, then he would've been a hypocrite," he says. "He always said he didn't care what the staff did. 'Just not in my back yard'--not in Dallas and not with the congregation. Power and sex go hand in hand, whether you're a politician or a preacher."
He picked up the couple a few hours later. No one spoke about what happened inside the club. "They didn't go in for tea and crumpets," he says. "But you can't assume they weren't safe."
The MCC's code of conduct for clergy is disarmingly simple and deliberately open to interpretation.
MCC developed its sexual conduct guidelines to offer parameters for responsible clerical behavior without prescribing or prohibiting the form of sexual contact. Sexual misconduct is less about whom one has sex with or what acts consenting adults engage in as it is about the ethics of sex. The focus is on openness and honesty. The types of behavior that constitute sexual misconduct are sex with minors, sexual abuse or molestation, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation or sexual relationships with a person whom one supervises or ministers to.
"There is no prohibition that says a pastor must be monogamous or not attend a sex club," says MCC spokesman Jim Birkitt. "The key for us is whether that person is open to the congregation. At the very least, there must be a clear understanding with the board of directors."
Birkitt says it is incumbent upon the pastor to honestly represent himself to his board, if not from the pulpit. Open relationships and anonymous sexual encounters are not expressly condemned, but MCC does frown upon secrecy and hypocrisy, he says.
"The question to ask about sexual conduct is, is it harmful to anyone? Is it manipulative? Is it coercive?"
Though Piazza didn't tell the board about going to a sex club, he was intolerant of board members whose behavior might bring shame on the church.
Piazza hired a friend living in Washington, D.C., as a consultant. Lillie Brock, who later became an elder with MCC, had led a number of businesses and was an expert in change management. Her advice on running the new Cedar Springs cathedral was invaluable. She traveled to the church four days out of the month, where she met the woman who was the director of discipleship. Before long, the two became sexually involved. Piazza responded by firing Brock. He informed the board of their relationship and reported Brock to MCC in 1992.
Brock argues that while Piazza had the authority to fire her, the grounds on which he did so were unfair. "She was not my subordinate. Everybody on the planet found out, even MCC. It was quite an ordeal, but I'm grateful. It changed me. The person who was hurt in this was my partner."
Within a year of driving Piazza to the sex club, Neil quit his job at the church because of the stress and long hours. Part of the stress he chalked up to Piazza's controlling nature and double standards.
But leaving came at a high price. At first Piazza ignored Neil's notice and refused to fill the pending vacancy. Two weeks stretched to two months. Finally Neil packed his files and said he was leaving by week's end. The pastor was livid. Neil says Piazza retaliated by giving him a negative performance evaluation and sending copies to the board.
A 10-year friendship was destroyed. Neil says he hasn't spoken to Piazza since.
Seeds of Undoing
In the sterile conference room at the Nokia headquarters in Plano, Terri Frey asks to see my press pass before she'll answer questions, despite several e-mails and phone conversations. The days of trusting people at their word are over, she explains. After all, she thought she knew her friends, her pastor and her church. Now she errs on the side of caution.
"I was in the cult of Michael Piazza," she says, her eyes burning. "I adored him. He was God in many ways to me."
It was Frey who saw the church's finances going sideways and sent up red flags. She developed a financial tracking system, organized accounting information, compiled attendance and giving reports and kept meticulous files brimming with correspondence. Those files she would later turn over to the denomination's investigators, an act for which she was vilified and cast as a modern-day Judas.
Frey moved to Dallas from Florida and started attending the cathedral in the spring of 1993. The new Cathedral of Hope was nothing short of magnificent, and services were breathtaking. "I felt God's presence in that building," she says. "That's the only way I can describe it."
Church had always been a cornerstone in her life, but she needed it now more than ever. A child of alcoholic parents who sexually abused her, she sought to make sense of her burden through the church. She looked to church counselors for therapy and spoke of her shame and hurt to ministers Paul Tucker and Piazza. In return for the spiritual balm, she gave her time and money to the church. She volunteered at the teen center and tithed thousands of dollars a year.
In the middle of her healing process, life dealt another blow. Her adoptive brother Danny was diagnosed with AIDS. He died of a brain tumor in 1995.
"I spent a lot of time going to church in off-hours," she says. "I would light a candle and sit in the pews. I would just try to understand how that happened. It was a difficult, dark period of my life."
In 1996, Piazza unveiled a stunning new $20 million building campaign that promised to bring to Dallas and the gay community a world-class cathedral. At the time the program launched, attendance and giving had reached an all-time high with 1,200 members contributing an average of about $34 per person.
With the campaign in full swing, Piazza asked the congregation to step up and give as much as they could to make the dream a reality.
Frey, who already was contributing $10,000 a year, sent in another $1,000 check along with a letter praising Piazza's powerful sermons, and in 1997 she was asked to join the board of directors to help get the fledgling campaign off the ground. She also donated her time as a consultant on the building project and had access to all of the church's financial records as well as its lists of people solicited for donations.
Despite the prosperity of the previous year, the church was not meeting its operating expenses. More people were coming to church, but they were kicking in less. Contributions had fallen in December 1997 to an average of $26 a person. The church was more than $65,000 short on cash for operating expenses, which was carried into the new year.
Starting in 1997, the church shifted money between accounts to meet expenses. It was not a one-time deal.
Information obtained by the Observer reveals that the church placed a hold on $50,000 worth of checks that December to keep afloat. It borrowed nearly $74,000 from operating funds to try to raise money for the building fund, and still the project was more than $100,000 short for the new year.
Again in 2002, the church ran short on money for basic operations and dug into the building fund's purse for more than $263,000.
An e-mail sent to a congregant in April 2003 by the church's executive director, Ken Upton, defends the church's financial actions. He admits that money was borrowed from the building funds "when giving was down," but justifies the move since "the general fund pays a commercial rate of interest to the capital fund, the same as if the funds were invested, so any suggestion that the capital fund is being shortchanged is nonsense."
In the letter he also complains that the congregation was not coughing up the money they pledged, yet the church was buying adjacent properties that hadn't been budgeted for.
"The church bit off more than it could chew," Frey says. "I told Mike we needed to do a feasibility study. If we were having trouble paying our bills today, why are we doing a building of that magnitude?"
But the church had another problem. As a member of MCC, the cathedral was required to contribute 15 percent of its monthly income to the denomination. According to MCC's chief financial officer, Margaret Mahlman, the cathedral paid anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 a month, depending on donations.
There simply wasn't enough money to go around.
The church cut off contributions to the denomination. From February 1997 to December 1999, the church either didn't pay or underpaid and quickly racked up $250,000 in arrears, Mahlman says. During this time the church stopped sending in required financial statements to MCC headquarters or to the district office and ignored the monthly reminders, she says.
"Churches typically do one of two things when they have financial difficulty: They work out a reduced payment or they get mad at us about funding, they protest and quit paying," Mahlman says.
Though she says she wasn't sure which it was in the case of the cathedral, former board members suggest that Piazza made it abundantly clear that he resented answering to the denomination.
A former executive director who agreed to speak on condition that she not be identified says Piazza asked MCC for a deferment because the cathedral needed the cash flow for construction and the purchase of properties.
MCC negotiated a reduction in contributions by half, the remainder to be made up of in-kind services and materials. But even that the church carried out in the most cursory way, sources say, bundling up outdated fliers of local events held at the church and shipping them to MCC's Los Angeles headquarters. MCC spokesman Birkitt says no one at headquarters understood how the fliers would be remotely useful.
Frey says board members occasionally would question Piazza's decisions and the direction of the church, but doing so meant risking humiliation before the board.
"He brought employees and staff to tears," she says. "He called them stupid and idiot." The verbal abuse was a pattern she would see played out time and again. When the director of administration was ignored after alerting the board to a potentially serious insurance problem, Frey resigned.
Piazza's response was to undermine her credibility, she says.
"He told people--board and staff--that I was sexually abused as a child and that I was resigning because I was having a nervous breakdown," she says, shaking her head. "He gave a sermon about people with 'daddy issues.' I told him those experiences in confidence."
The episode left her jaded and weary, but still she says she loved the church and friends in the congregation.
"People think he [Piazza] is the church and without him the church will crumble," she says.
Former board member Kathy Harper, who served as chair of the cathedral's building design team, says she finally quit the board because Piazza was so abusive. "If you didn't agree with what was being presented to you, you would be verbally attacked and ridiculed," she says. "I felt I was being attacked personally, not just in my position. It was a very frequent occurrence, and at some point I just ran out of energy to be able to continue."
"If I did one thing wrong, it was not turning their asses in," former director of administration Jean Morris says of Piazza and senior board members.
She alleges that in 1997 senior church leaders, at Piazza's behest, asked her to add volunteers such as Roger Stanley, who was HIV-positive, to the church's insurance policy even though only full-time paid employees were eligible.
Church policy stated that employees working more than 30 hours a week were eligible for health insurance but said nothing about volunteers. When finance director Bruce Ehrhardt asked her to start the necessary paperwork, she called the insurance carrier to see whether full-time volunteers could be considered employees and was told no. The church had the option, however, of purchasing an individual plan through another company, but then Stanley's medical history would have to be disclosed.
She reported her early findings via e-mail to the board of directors in July 1997. Piazza responded with a terse e-mail that started, "Then find another company who will." He chastised her for contacting the insurance company, saying she "may have done some serious damage."
"This is a case where 'no' is not an acceptable answer because we can't have people with HIV and no insurance. I don't know if this is really your area or Bruce's, but we have to keep turning this problem over until we find a solution," he stated in an e-mail.
An e-mail dated July 17, 1997, from director of cathedral services Joyce Bell to Morris, confirms that Stanley was not a paid employee:
"Roger Stanley just mentioned to me...that his...insurance is running out next month. I would like to set him up on our insurance policy at that time...Of course, this would be paid by the church. I understand that since he is not a paid staff [member] this might be a challenge to do but would like to work it out."
The board revisited the issue once again in January 1998, then promptly moved forward. The church placed Stanley on the group insurance plan, and Morris resigned in protest. The Observer's attempts to contact Stanley for comment were unsuccessful.
In a letter addressed to Frey dated April 2003, executive director Upton admitted that he found several instances "in which it appears that the church provided health-insurance benefits to unpaid staff members," but that practice had been discontinued. One month later, however, he denied wrongdoing. In an article in the Dallas Voice that looked at the charges leveled at the church, Upton said that a church review of its insurance practices "revealed no irregularities."
Piazza also asked Ehrhardt to complete an employment verification form for a volunteer who sought a home loan and needed to show income. Morris provided the Observer with copies of faxed documents turned over to the denomination's investigators that show that Piazza and Ehrhardt filed an employment verification form on behalf of volunteer Michael Maher.
She says that Ehrhardt came to her in the spring of 1997 clearly distressed about being asked to provide employment verification on behalf of Maher. Against Morris' advice, Ehrhardt faxed the report to CTX Mortgage Co. in March 1997 indicating that Maher worked as a volunteer coordinator for $25,000 a year. Morris says Maher may have worked in that capacity, but he was not a paid employee. The application was rejected, however, because Maher didn't earn enough to qualify for the loan. That same day, Ehrhardt re-sent a fax with an amended salary of $30,000, the minimum amount required to make Maher eligible for the loan.
In the second fax, he also included a letter from Piazza dated January 24, 1997:
"Dear Mike, We are very pleased to offer you a permanent position as the Christian Caring Outreach Coordinator here at Cathedral of Hope, beginning March 3, 1997. Your yearly salary will be $30,000. The insurance plan we are presently offering you will continue to be paid by the Cathedral of Hope. Welcome to our staff!!"
The Observer was unable to reach Maher for comment.
Casting Bread Upon Water
The capital campaign was short on funds and long on internecine squabbles as board members and building team volunteers began to question the necessity of the building project and how funds were being spent.
Allegations of abuse, lies and fraud are leveled at the cathedral and its building project, which may explain why more than 65 employees have left their posts since the start of the campaign and the church is on its fourth executive director. Several former board members say that senior leaders conspired to deceive the congregation about the actual cost of the building project and how money earmarked for the new cathedral was squandered on fruitless fund-raising ventures.
"I don't know if the congregation as a whole had a clear understanding of how the capital campaign money was being spent," Harper says. "I continued to feel there was a deception being carried out." According to the Dallas Central Appraisal District, from the start of the capital campaign until the end of last year, Cathedral of Hope Inc. purchased nine properties for roughly $2.6 million. One warehouse building on Peeler Street was sold by the church last year for $1 million.
The properties were bought to make room for the Philip Johnson cathedral, a massive 35,000-square-foot building that would join the existing cathedral to the new one.
From the start, the price tag was closer to $35 million, but Piazza pushed his plan through at the expense of the congregation, former church leaders allege.
Originally billed as a $20 million project in 1996, the price tag has since soared to more than $40 million. In an interview with the Observer in 1999, Piazza was adamant that the project would break ground by 2000, though the church had managed to raise less than a third of the funds necessary. With a scant $8.5 million in the campaign coffers and a revised cost analysis, they are even further from reaching that goal today than they were four years ago.
Upton told the Voice in November 2003 that the project could take another six years to complete.
What is deceptive, a former executive director says, is that the revised $40 million figure alone is the cost of the construction and doesn't include land acquisition or any of the other smaller projects associated with the master plan.
"Minor construction was carried out to fool the congregation into thinking the project was on track," the former director says. "First the bell wall was built, so it was called Phase 1. Next the office buildings, called Phase 2. So it looks good. But the cathedral? They're never gonna see that cathedral built. Mike will have to answer to a higher authority in time."
Former members wonder how the church can justify continuing to lobby for a massive building project when it has not paid off loans on its current building and continues to fall short of its monthly operating expenses. In May, church balance sheets show, the operating budget was nearly $275,000 in the hole.
Harper says she left the church to which she had belonged for nearly 20 years because of unethical business practices made worse by the verbal abuse she suffered when she questioned those practices.
It wasn't the mounting cost of the project that bothered her or even the amount of money spent on fund-raising activities. What chafed Harper was the secrecy. Harper says that Piazza and board members were not forthcoming to the congregation, leading them to think all of their money was being used to construct the Johnson cathedral.
She supported the church's expansion while privately questioning the scope of the project, but it was the financial discrepancies that compelled her to resign. Money that should have been used for construction was being spent on fund raising, she says.
Sources say that Piazza sponsored lavish fund-raising events despite their failure to net much money. He took groups of potential donors to the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas and to Johnson's home in Connecticut, spending tens of thousands of dollars wining and dining people who never came through.
Frey's records show that less than $200,000 was raised through national sources.
The Observer reported in 1999 that the bulk of the $7 million then raised for the new cathedral's construction came primarily from the congregation and Dallas arts patrons, not through national fund-raising efforts. The following year, the cathedral received another local windfall when Texas philanthropist Sam Frech died and bequeathed his $4 million estate to advance the building project.
"Everyone knows that to raise money you have to spend money," the former executive director says. "You're casting bread upon water. But if money's not coming in, you have to wonder."
Fund raising is an appropriate use of capital campaign money, she says, but in the cathedral's case, it was obvious the endeavor was a bust. Yet Piazza continued to spend money regardless of the fact that the church couldn't meet its monthly obligations.
Harper says the cathedral may be intent on seeing the new building completed, but as it appears on the books today it isn't possible.
Documents put together by the cathedral's financial team show that since Piazza came on staff, the church has purchased 19 parcels valued at $12 million. The church's footprint has been enlarged to 14 largely contiguous acres near Nash Street and Cedar Springs and Inwood roads. The church owes $2 million on the properties and pays close to $40,000 a month on their loans.
The former executive director says Piazza set up a parallel organization, Cathedral of Hope Inc., so that in case the church ever split with the denomination, the property and assets would remain with the cathedral. After the start of the capital campaign, properties bought by the church were purchased under Cathedral of Hope Inc.
Copies of a legal summary prepared by the board of directors and obtained by the Observer suggest cathedral leadership may have been preparing for a break. In January 1998, the board discussed the results of a list of goals presented to its legal counsel, Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP. It included making COH Inc. a legally and operationally separate entity from MCC-Dallas (MCCD) "in the unlikely event of separation from the denomination. The only property in MCCD ownership is to be the condo."
The condo was a parsonage purchased prior to Piazza's hiring and has since been sold.
The summary also shows that the cathedral was establishing a nonprofit status for the new corporation to get out from under MCC's tax-exempt umbrella.
The purpose was clear, former church leaders say: Piazza was planning to leave the denomination and make sure all the assets remained with the church.
A number of former staff and board members were having a crisis of faith. They didn't trust Piazza's leadership; they questioned the direction of the church and the reality of the Johnson cathedral to which they had devoted so much time and energy.
It took the sudden departure of a much-loved minister, Brock, to coalesce a small group of reformers.
Calling themselves the Cathedral of Hope Reform and led by Terri Frey, former members began to speak openly about their experiences and ask questions. They went to board meetings, they wrote letters, they agitated. And in April 2003, Frey filed a complaint that sparked MCC's investigation. Two days before the results were to be made public, Piazza resigned his credentials from MCC, spiking the investigation and sealing the findings from the public.
Even his resignation letter to the congregation is controversial. As the Voice reported, Piazza sent a letter to congregants claiming, "I repeatedly asked the board to allow me simply to resign and to go away, but they were clear that would be wrong because they know that I am innocent and this attack is really aimed at the church, not me." The Voice noted, however, that Upton said he knew of no offer by Piazza to resign and that Piazza himself had called speculation about his resignation "wishful thinking."
Brock called his resignation "masterful--unethical but masterful. He did it before anyone could say, 'Wait! If you're innocent, why not wait to be exonerated?'"
At the end of July this year, on the cathedral's 33rd anniversary, Piazza asked the congregation to vote on disaffiliating with the denomination, saying that it was a "post-Will and Grace world." He said the vote to disaffiliate, while painful, was necessary. It could no longer be simply a gay church and survive. (The church is still predominantly gay but is casting a wider net to draw progressive heterosexuals.)
The decision was put to a vote, but congregants had to sign their names, in violation of MCC procedures. Piazza told the press he was following instructions, but MCC said it informed him more than once that the procedure was breaking custom.
The majority of the congregation stood by Piazza and voted 977-140 to withdraw from the denomination. Success in hand, Piazza took a three-month sabbatical to recover.
Meanwhile, half of those who voted to remain affiliated with the denomination formed their own church, MCC of Greater Dallas. The new church's membership now tops more than 100 and is growing every week, says its pastor, the Reverend Cindi Love.
MCC bylaws state that when the congregation splinters, whatever percent of members wish to remain with the denomination are entitled to that percent of the church's assets. MCC of Greater Dallas believes it is due about 12 percent of the cathedral's holdings, though Love says she doesn't know the cash equivalent of that percentage. But members can't shake a dime out of the cathedral's pockets, even though many of the new church's members have tithed for years.
"Any congregation owns the church they attend," says the Reverend Diane Fisher, who oversees MCC's division of assets. "The church is not owned by the pastor or the board of directors."
According to the Voice, Love received a copy of the letter sent by the cathedral in care of MCC saying that the provision is not valid under Texas law.
Members haven't decided whether they are willing to pursue the money. It means more time, more energy and, for some, more wounding, Love says.
The Observer made repeated attempts by phone and e-mail to speak with cathedral staff and board members, but they declined to be interviewed.
Cathedral spokeswoman Kris Martin said in October that she would arrange an interview with Piazza when he returned in November. Three weeks later, she said it was her decision not to tell Piazza about the request. Furthermore, she said Piazza was available to discuss his new book only and even then not for a few weeks. She agreed to ask Upton and other senior leaders to speak. Martin called back that afternoon to say that no interviews would be granted until after the first of the year.
The Observer e-mailed requests for an interview to Piazza and Upton, but those requests went unanswered.
During the course of writing the article, the Reverend Mona West, the newly appointed senior pastor who filled Piazza's position when he resigned his MCC credentials and became the cathedral's dean, went on a three-month sabbatical amid rumors of the board holding closed-door meetings and calling Piazza back from his sojourn.
Following West's departure, associate pastor Sharon Bezner tendered her resignation. Neither returned phone calls nor responded to e-mailed requests for interviews.
Martin initially said Bezner's resignation had been made public. When pressed for a date and the reasons, she said the pastor's resignation would be made public at the next Sunday service and promptly ended the conversation.
To date, no information about what happened to Bezner has been posted online. Her biography has been removed from the church's Web site.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.