Five clergy-abuse survivors, including three brothers abused by former St. Paul parish priest Curtis Wehmeyer, plan to sue the Vatican to release the names and files of all clergy who have sexually abused children.
The charges against Wehmeyer, who sexually abused the boys in his trailer parked at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, led to unprecedented criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failure to protect children.
It also led to the resignation of former archbishop John Nienstedt, who was sharply criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against a priest with a history of sexual misconduct.
The brothers will speak publicly for the first time at a news conference Tuesday in the office of St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has several lawsuits pending against the Vatican. The brothers are expected to demand greater sanctions against Nienstedt, who resigned in good standing.
Anderson announced plans to file the lawsuit and the Tuesday news conference in a news release Monday.
The lawsuit, to be filed Tuesday, asks that the Vatican release the names of more than 3,000 priests who have sexually abused children, as well as evidence and documentation. It is one of several lawsuits that abuse survivors represented by Anderson have filed against the Vatican.
At the news conference, Anderson said he will provide details of the lawsuit and introduce the plaintiffs. They include the brothers, who have not yet been named, as well as Twin Cities abuse survivor Jim Keenan and survivor Manuel Vega of California.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement by Pope Francis that the Roman Catholic Church now would require that clergy report any sexual abuse to their superiors. The new rules have been criticized by victims of child sexual abuse, who say that any incidents need to be reported to law enforcement, not to church officials.
Wehmeyer plead guilty to criminal sexual misconduct in connection with the abuse of two of the boys, and is serving five years in prison.
On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.
But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.
It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.
Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.
“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”
The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.
“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.
Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.
And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.
But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.
She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”
St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.
Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.
St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”
Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.
Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.
“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.
When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.
“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”
These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.
At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.
“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.
St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.
Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.
Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.
For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.
“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”
St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”
“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”
I feel sorry for professed Christians who support this President.
They have a profound and fundamental spiritual problem: their God is too small.
They passionately worship a deity made in their own image: white, American, Republican, male—and perpetually terrified of just about everything: Muslims, immigrants, gay children, Special Counsel reports, mandalas, Harry Potter, Starbuck holiday cups, yoga, wind turbines, Science—everything.
Their God is so laughably minuscule, so fully neutered of power, so completely devoid of functioning vertebrae that “He” cannot protect them from the encroaching monsters they are certain lurk around every corner to overwhelm them.
MAGA Christians sure put up a brave face, I’ll give them that. They shower this God with effusive praise on Sunday mornings, they sing with reckless abandon in church services about Him, they brazenly pump out their chests on social media regarding His infinite wisdom, they defiantly declare this God’s staggering might at every opportunity—but their lives tell the truth: They believe He is impotent and scared and ineffectual. You can tell this because they insist on doing all the things that a God-sized God would simply do as part of the gig.
They need to be armed to the teeth at all times because they don’t really believe God will come through to defend them in a pinch—and will always be outgunned.
They want to change gay couples and transgender teenagers themselves, because they don’t trust God to work within people as He desires. (Apparently God keeps making LGBTQ people, which really pisses them off.)
They want to stockpile and horde wealth, health insurance, and opportunity—because this is a zero sum game; because the God they claim turned water into wine, and fed thousands with a few fish and some leftover bread—can’t make enough for everyone.
They are obsessed with building a wall and defending a border and turning way refugees—because their God isn’t generous or smart or creative enough to help them figure out how to welcome and care for everyone who requires it.
They want no other religious traditions to have a voice, because their insecure and terribly tiny God is mortally threatened by such things.
MAGA Christians’ daily existence testifies that their God is a microscopic, myopic coward, who has appointed them to morally police a world He cannot handle or is not equipped to direct and renovate. That’s pretty sad.
In short, their God isn’t a God worth believing in or worshiping—which is why they have to play God while they’re alive. It’s why they are furrowed-browed and white-nuckling their journey here—not content to let Jesus take the wheel for fear he’d drive them outside their gated community and into the hood and ask them to get out and care for the people they’re so used to condemning.
If you’re going to have a God, it may as well be right-sized. The world deserves this.
People deserve a God who is bigger than Franklin Graham’s God and Mike Pence’s God and Sander’s and Jerry Falwell’s God. Their God is small and terrified—and it suspiciously resembles them.
People deserve a God who so loves the world, not a God who thinks America First; whose creation begin without divides and borders and walls, because there is only a single, interdependent community.
People deserve a God who touched the leper and healed the sick and fed the starving and parted the seas and raised the dead—not a quivering idol who drafts bathroom bills and social media crusades against migrant families.
People deserve a God who is neither white nor male nor cisgender-heterosexual, nor Republican—because any other God isn’t big enough to bear the title or merit any reverence.
MAGA Christians believe in God earnestly, pray to God passionately, serve God with unflinching fervor. The problem is their God is too small, and as long as they are oriented toward such a tiny, useless deity—they will continue to be compelled to do for God what they believe God should be doing, but can’t or won’t.
I feel sorry for them and for the world that has to be subjected to their pocket-sized theology when there is an expansive space waiting.
I hope and pray that these people soon find a God who is big enough so that they stop living so small.
Walk into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge on a Sunday morning and you’ll find the trappings and sacraments of a typical parish.
From the kneeling parishioners to the priests in robes dispensing Holy Communion, there are few signs of divergence from tradition.
There is, however, one stark, if less apparent, difference: The priest leading the service, the Rev. Geety Reyes, is openly gay.
St. Francis of Assisi and two kindred churches in Kearny and Long Branch, belong to the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement founded in the Garden State nearly 10 years ago. ANCC affilates mirror the Roman Catholic Church in most respects, except those elements that members find judgmental or discriminatory.
“We believe in an all-inclusive, loving God,” Reyes tells New Jersey Monthly. “We tend to be progressive, but we are conservative in that we embrace the Gospel.”
The ANCC also embraces numerous innovations the Vatican rejects, including gay, married and female priests, gay marriage and divorce. Transgender, nonbinary and gender-fluid members are also welcome. The ANCC also supports a reproductive choice.
“We don’t see ourselves as a new church,” says the Most Rev. George R. Lucey, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi. Lucey, who is also openly gay, was instrumental in founding the ANCC in Glen Ridge in 2009 and presides as bishop over all 10 ANCC parishes in seven states. “We see ourselves as united to the same church that was founded by Christ.”
Catholic Church officialdom begs to differ. Asked to comment on the ANCC and its place in Catholic faith, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Newark provided this statement: “It would be inappropriate for us to make any comment about the American National Catholic Church other than to state that this group is not in union with the Catholic Church in Rome, so they are not in union with the Holy Father. We will leave it at that.”
New parishioners come to the ANCC for a variety of reasons. “I was not happy with the way that the whole bad-priests scandal was handled,” says Loretta Marches, a five-year member of the ANCC parish in Glen Ridge, her hometown. “I have a strong Catholic faith, but many misgivings with the Catholic Church. I found the [ANCC] website and contacted them because it was exactly what I was looking for—none of the politics and the exclusion of certain people.”
The ANCC’s three New Jersey parishes have more than 1,500 members, up from 1,000 in 2016 and 500 in 2014, Lucey says. Nationwide, ANCC claims about 2,000 parishioners; Lucey expects new parishes in the coming months in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Baltimore, Maryland.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, between 2007 and 2014, Catholicism nationwide saw a “greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S.” The report further states that 13 percent of all U.S. adults “are former Catholics,” a higher rate than any other religion. But the same report found that only 2 percent of U.S. adults are converts to Catholicism—that is, people who now identify as Catholic after being raised in another religion (or with no religion).
A native of the Philippines, Reyes joined the ANCC church as a parishioner. He was ordained as a deacon in 2012 and as a priest three years later.
“I was raised Roman Catholic; I wanted to follow it,” says Reyes, 43. Unfortunately, his gay identity made him feel uncomfortable in the Roman Catholic church. Then he learned about the ANCC.
“One of our taglines when we preach is that we are Catholics without judgment,” he says.
ANCC leaders estimate there are about 400 independent Catholic jurisdictions in the United States—all unaffiliated with Rome. ANCC appears to be the largest group among the Garden State’s Catholic alternatives. Others in New Jersey include Good Shepherd Reformed Catholic Church in Toms River, and the Saints Peter and Paul Polish National Catholic Church in Passaic.
“We don’t exist as an axe to grind against Rome; we don’t really fight with anybody,” Lucey explains. “[Parishioners] come in and it’s a little like being home. There’s a great comfort in that. If people are attracted to us, it is because they see in the expression—which the Catholic Church has always taught, but has gotten away from—that God accepts and loves all of us for who we are.”
Reyes says that while many St. Francis of Assisi parishioners are gay, the parish has just as many traditional families with moms, dads and children. “It is becoming more and more mixed,” he says.
None of ANCC’s three New Jersey parishes has its own chapel. St. Francis of Assisi leases a small chapel behind the much larger Glen Ridge Congregational Church. Our Lady of Guadalupe American National Catholic Church, founded in 2011, borrows space in St. James Episcopal Church in Long Branch. The Sacred Heart of Jesus American National Catholic Church, launched in 2013, holds mass in Kearny’s Grace United Methodist Church.
That doesn’t seem to bother parishioners. “What is important to me is the lack of restrictions on how people find their spirituality. This church respects their right to worship,” says Hap Walter Bojsza, a West Orange resident who joined the Glen Ridge parish four years ago. “Our liturgies are the same Catholic liturgies, our readings are the same week after week. There are no dogmatic differences. The only difference is who is welcomed, and that is everybody.”
An Air Force veteran and father of two daughters, Bojsza says he was raised a Catholic, but left for many reasons—including his concerns about pedophile priests.
Jim Capobianco of Kearny left the Catholic Church for ANCC five years ago, after attending a Christmas Eve mass in which the priest’s homily attacked pro-choice views.
“That kind of did it for us,” recalls Capobianco, a married father of three. “The Roman Catholic Church has clung to ideals, and I respect that,” he adds. “But I also feel like there seems to be an inability to change. They seem more out of touch with the world that we live in.”
Suzanne Ryan, a divorced Maplewood mother and teacher, attended two Catholic churches close to home in recent years, but found them lacking. “I wanted a more vibrant church that was involved in social justice,” she says of her switch to ANCC four years ago. “I needed to feel that the church did what it was really supposed to do—a message of love and openness. I wanted a community where everything was inclusive and participatory.”
ANCC has had at least one brush with trouble. Leo Donaldson, a former cantor and musician at the Glen Ridge parish, was suspended in 2016 from his church duties after being arrested on sexual-assault charges relating to his roles as a Bloomfield High School teacher and coach.
He pled guilty in 2018 to charges of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and official misconduct and was sentenced to seven years in state prison. None of the allegations related to his time at the ANCC church.
Asked to comment, Lucey says, “We have a policy of background checks [for church leaders] and two adults with children at all times, and only in public space. I am grateful we followed our procedure and am keeping Leo in our prayers.”
All ANCC’s priests have other vocations and serve unpaid. Some were ordained in the Roman Catholic tradition; some defected from other churches. Priests can also be ordained under the auspices of the ANCC, a process that includes theology courses through the University of Notre Dame online, and training at a local parish.
Lucey, 64, took a winding road to the ANCC. A native of the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken, Lucey has followed parallel paths of ministry and counseling. He holds an M.S. in education and a PhD. in psychology. He became a Franciscan Friar in 1998. Ordained a Franciscan bishop, he served in ministerial roles in Canada and Mexico. He also worked briefly for the Diocese of Paterson as director of Hope House, a program for HIV and AIDS patients in Dover.
Lucey was ordained as a priest in the Independent Catholic Movement in 2005. Following his ordination, he resigned from the diocese. “It felt like a conflict,” he says. “I couldn’t be working for the Roman Catholic Church and be part of a group that wasn’t Roman Catholic.”
Lucey remained in New Jersey, working as a counselor and psychotherapist and living in West Orange with Bill, his partner of 15 years. At one point, Lucey worked at a hospital in Summit as a counselor and launched a “spirituality unit” there for gay and lesbian patients suffering from physical or chemical abuse.
“I just started asking them what they thought about the Gospel, and they asked me to do it for the entire hospital,” he says. He began holding Sunday Mass, including gay and lesbian weddings. “I started to do more weddings, and people asked where I celebrated Mass.”
Eventually, Lucey began performing eucharistic services in his home on Sunday nights. His next step was to launch his own parish. Inclusiveness was central to his vision.
“As we are committed to acknowledging the Catholic teaching of the dignity of the human person because they are created in the image of God, it follows then that God, who is omniscient and omnipotent, does not make mistakes,” Lucey says. “Then there must be an image of God who is gay, straight, transgender and nonbinary.”
The West Long Branch parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, took a different road to ANCC affiliation. A former Roman Catholic church with a predominantly Spanish-speaking membership, it faced upheaval in 2009 when the Diocese of Trenton ordered it to consolidate with two nearby churches to form a single parish, Christ the King.
Some Our Lady of Guadalupe members and leaders objected and eventually left the diocese, formed a new parish and joined the ANCC in 2011. Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell decried the move as illegitimate, stating at the time that “no Catholic Church is independent.”
But theology experts say these new forms of Catholicism are valid expressions of change in religious thinking.
“There is a kind of legitimacy in that these people wanted to be Catholic and are doing Catholic things,” says Dugan McGinley, a teaching instructor in the religion department at Rutgers University. “I think that is legitimately and effectively Catholic, although it is not officially recognized.”
Julie Byrne, author of The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016) and the Hartman Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, agrees. “There really is no trademark on the word Catholic,” she says. “When [Roman Catholic leaders] say [independents] are not Catholic, they are trying to trademark the Catholic name….To me, if you say you are Catholic, you are Catholic.”
The Rev. Paul Gulya, pastor of the Sacred Heart ANCC Church in Kearny, says his church opens its doors to all “who are feeling left out or broken-hearted and marginalized.”
Gulya, who is gay and married, was ordained in 1981 in the diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In time, he felt distanced from fellow priests because he questioned the church’s rules.
“For me it was an issue of independence,” he remembers. “I found that rectory living wasn’t for me. You were living with people whom you didn’t necessarily share the same ideals or ministerial vision with.”
Mother Phyllis McHugh, a former Roman Catholic nun who spent 10 years with the Sisters of the Roman Family of Nazareth in Philadelphia, was the first woman incardinated as an ANCC priest. She had left Roman Family many years before to teach. She later married and is now a mother and grandmother. McHugh was ordained a priest in 2011 at St. Jude’s Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the ANCC church in the Philadelphia area. A second woman is set to be ordained this year at the ANCC parish in Bridgeport.
Admitting divorcees is also a founding principle for ANCC. “Why would we withhold the sacrament at a time when people need it the most?” Lucey says. “If they are coming to us, the assumption is that they are in a moral or spiritual dilemma.”
Decisions on day-to-day matters are left to the local parishes, Lucey says. However, each parish must celebrate Mass with the liturgy of Vatican II and perform the same seven sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church,” Lucey declares, “is the church that came from the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ and [was] proclaimed publicly at Pentecost.”