The Vatican women’s magazine is blaming the drastic drop in the number of nuns worldwide in part on their wretched working conditions and the sexual abuse and abuses of power they suffer at the hands of priests and their own superiors.
“Women Church World” dedicated its February issue to the burnout, trauma and exploitation experienced by religious sisters and how the church is realizing it must change its ways if it wants to attract new vocations.
The magazine published Thursday revealed that Pope Francis had authorized the creation of a special home in Rome for nuns who were kicked out of their orders and all but left on the street, some forced into prostitution to survive.
“There are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out,” the head of the Vatican’s religious orders congregation, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, told the magazine.
“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” he said. “These are ex-nuns!”
“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore.’’”
“All of this must absolutely change,” he said.
The Catholic Church has seen a continuing free fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, Latin American numbers are stable and the numbers are rising in Asia and Africa.
The magazine has made headlines in the past with articles exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the slave-like conditions sisters are often forced to work under, without contracts and doing menial jobs like cleaning for cardinals.
The drop in their numbers has resulted in the closure of convents around Europe, and the ensuing battle between the remaining sisters and diocesan bishops or the Vatican for control of their assets.
Braz insisted the assets don’t belong to the sisters themselves, but the entire church, and called for a new culture of exchange, so that “five nuns aren’t managing an enormous patrimony” while other orders go broke.
Braz acknowledged the problem of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops. But he said in recent times, his office has also heard from nuns who were abused by other nuns — including one congregation with nine cases.
There were also cases of gross abuses of power.
“We’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules,” he was quoted as saying. “And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think.”
The international umbrella group of nuns has begun speaking out more forcefully about the abuses of nuns and has formed a commission with its male counterpart to take better care of their members.
Michael J. Bransfield was just a couple of years into his tenure as West Virginia’s bishop in 2007 when one of his former students called a church sexual abuse hotline. Decades earlier, at a Catholic high school, Bransfield had repeatedly summoned him from class, escorted him to a private room and fondled his buttocks and genitals, the caller said.
The former student said he was a freshman when the unwanted touching began.
It was a stark warning about a cleric who allegedly went on in the next decade to grope and sexually harass seminarians and young priests in West Virginia.
The former student’s allegation, first reported to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where Bransfield taught, was eventually referred to the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church and the Vatican, as well as to the police, according to the findings of a recent church investigation obtained by The Washington Post.
But no action was taken against Bransfield — and the church’s own investigators now say the allegation may warrant further examination.
The former student, speaking to reporters for the first time, told The Post that church officials might have prevented Bransfield’s alleged wrongdoing in the years since if they had taken his claim more seriously.
“They looked the other way,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he has not told his family about his experience. “More people got victimized.”
Bransfield had close ties to two high-ranking clerics in Philadelphia who had responsibility for assessing sexual abuse claims at the time, a Post examination found. The cardinal in Philadelphia and one of his top aides received thousands of dollars in cash gifts from Bransfield before or after he was absolved of the hotline allegation in a process that was never made public, according to internal financial documents.
The Post has previously reported that Bransfield gave $350,000 in cash gifts, using church money, to clerics in the United States and at the Vatican over more than a decade. This is the first reported example of Bransfield giving money to a cleric involved in ruling on a sexual abuse claim against him before his retirement.
Bransfield stepped down as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in September 2018, as church officials announced an investigation into allegations of sexual and financial wrongdoing spanning his 13-year tenure.
In February, a team of lay investigators, led by outside attorneys, concluded that he subjected eight young clerics in West Virginia to unwanted sexual overtures, sexual harassment and sexual contact.
The alleged sexual and financial misconduct was documented in a confidential report that was sent to the Vatican. Those findings remained secret until June, when The Post published the first in a series of stories drawing on the confidential report and other internal church documents.
The existence of the hotline complaint became public several years ago during an unrelated sexual abuse trial of two priests, but details of the allegation and the church’s handling of it have not been previously reported.
In a recent interview, Bransfield denied any sexual or financial misconduct. He said the former student’s allegations were untrue and probably motivated by a desire for financial payment.
“They investigated the whole thing, and he’s a wack job,” Bransfield said. “There was never any grounds to it.”
Bransfield said that while teaching at Lansdale Catholic High School in the late 1970s, he regularly took students out of class and privately interviewed them about their school and family lives but that nothing untoward happened.
“I was chaplain, and I’d ask them how they were doing,” he said. “It was a normal thing.”
Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, defended the handling of the claim but did not respond to specific questions about the process.
“I can say with certainty that this matter was not only investigated internally,” he said in a statement. “It was reviewed by law enforcement on two occasions and no criminal charges were filed.”
At the time, church officials privately concluded there were inconsistencies in the former student’s account, but the recent church investigation raised questions about that conclusion, according to the confidential report. Investigators wrote that such inconsistencies in decades-old accounts of sexual abuse are common.
The former student told The Post that the law enforcement investigations stalled because police told him they could not guarantee his identity would not become public. Law enforcement authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
He recently filed a claim to a victims compensation fund in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
‘He told me to relax’
By the time of the hotline complaint, Bransfield had risen to prominence in the Catholic Church.
In the 1970s, he served as a religion instructor and chaplain at Lansdale High School in Montgomery County, Pa., about 30 miles from downtown Philadelphia. He went on to assignments at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where he eventually rose to rector. In 2005, he was installed as bishop in West Virginia.
That year, though, a landmark grand jury report about sexual abuse of minors by Philadelphia clerics mentioned Bransfield, saying that a priest who was a friend of his had sodomized a teenage boy at Bransfield’s New Jersey beach house.
The former Lansdale student saw news coverage of the grand jury report in the Philadelphia press and began considering whether to come forward, he told The Post.
“This is something I was going to take to my grave,” he said. “You feel shame. It’s sad. It’s very sad.”
The Post located the former student — whose name is not included in the confidential investigative report — with help from a Catholic advocacy group. He agreed to be interviewed at his attorney’s Philadelphia office.
The Post generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission.
Now in his mid-50s, he has worked a variety of blue-collar jobs. He comes from a large family of devout Catholics. Since graduating from Lansdale, he said, he has struggled with depression and drug and alcohol abuse.
In 2007, he decided to call the hotline established by the Philadelphia Archdiocese several years earlier in response to the church’s sexual abuse crisis. That call was the beginning of a long effort by the former student to hold Bransfield to account, he said.
He told a private investigator working for the archdiocese that Bransfield started singling him out for extra attention soon after his freshman year began. Bransfield summoned him out of classes, sometimes by knocking on the classroom door and beckoning him by crooking his finger, he told The Post.
At first, Bransfield took him on walks and showed him around the school. Eventually, Bransfield steered the teen into a small office he used near a teachers’ lounge. It was there, he said, that Bransfield directed him to stand behind a desk, beside Bransfield’s chair, and read a passage from a book.
“He told me to relax and read and calm down,” the former student said in the interview.
Bransfield put his hand on the teenager’s lower back, then moved it to his buttocks and began fondling his genitals over his clothing, the former student said. Similar episodes happened at least five times during his freshman and sophomore years, he said.
He said he told no one about the encounters until the day he called the hotline.
After speaking with the archdiocese’s investigator, the former student asked for a copy of his report. He said it never arrived.
A different investigative path
In the years following his complaint, Bransfield’s accuser said he was left in the dark.
Behind the scenes, Cardinal Justin Rigali, then the archbishop of Philadelphia, and other ranking clerics were handling his complaint, according to the confidential report.
Under procedures established after the clergy sexual abuse scandal, each diocese and archdiocese set up an independent review board to assess sexual abuse claims against priests. The accusation against Bransfield took a different path because he had been elevated to bishop before the complaint was made, church investigators wrote in the recent confidential report.
In October 2009, behind closed doors, Rigali formally declared the allegations were unsubstantiated because of inconsistencies in the former student’s account, including precisely when and where the alleged abuses occurred, according to the confidential report.
Rigali, who is now retired, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Before and after the secret pronouncement about his fate, Bransfield maintained warm relations with leaders of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he started his career.
Using money from the West Virginia diocese, Bransfield gave some of those clerics thousands of dollars in cash gifts. Among them was Rigali, who in 2011 received a check for $1,000, internal documents show.
From February 2009 through last year, Bransfield gave five checks totaling $3,750 to then-Monsignor Timothy C. Senior, the vicar for clergy in Philadelphia, whose responsibilities included helping to assess sexual abuse claims against clerics.
Gavin, the spokesman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, declined to say whether Senior played a role in Bransfield’s case.
Among Rigali’s top aides was a nephew of the bishop’s, the Rev. Sean Bransfield, an assistant judicial vicar. Starting in 2013, Bishop Bransfield gave his nephew more than $9,000 over five years.
In a statement earlier this year for an article about the gifts, Senior said that he thought the money was Bransfield’s and that he had “done nothing wrong” in accepting it.
Sean Bransfield said through a spokesman in June that “he logically assumed gifts from a family member came from Bishop Bransfield’s personal funds” and denied wrongdoing.
Michael J. Bransfield said the cash gifts had no connection to the claim against him. He described himself as a “very close friend” of Senior and said they had exchanged gifts over the years.
“I was very friendly with him,” Bransfield said.
In the mid-1970s, Senior was a student of Bransfield’s at Lansdale High School, graduating before the alleged abuse happened. In July 2009, shortly before Rigali absolved Bransfield of wrongdoing in connection with the hotline complaint, Rigali and Bransfield jointly led the ceremony for Senior’s ordination as auxiliary bishop.
Reporting his accusation again
A few details of the hotline claim became public in 2012, during a sensational trial of two Philadelphia priests accused of sexual abuse and child endangerment.
In April that year, newspapers reported that a witness had mentioned rumors about Bransfield, catching the attention of the former Lansdale student who had called the hotline five years earlier.
He decided to contact the archdiocese to again tell his story to a church official. “I’m like, ‘This still has to be addressed. I want to do something here,’ ” he said.
In response to media questions, church officials publicly acknowledged the 2007 hotline complaint but released few details. The officials said they were reexamining the allegation and had notified law enforcement authorities in Montgomery County, Pa., as they did immediately after the hotline call several years earlier.
County detectives spoke with the former student and took him to Lansdale High School to talk in more detail about the claims. But the former student said he saw an administrator he knew and balked at going in. The former student feared he might be recognized and did not want anyone to know he had been abused.
Montgomery County authorities “determined further investigation was unwarranted,” the recent confidential church report said.
The archdiocese sent the allegation to the Vatican, according to previously unreported details in the report.
The matter was reported first to the apostolic nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic outpost in Washington, D.C. It was then forwarded to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican office that oversees bishops worldwide, the investigative report said.
“The investigative file we reviewed does not reflect any further action,” the report said.
A Vatican spokesman did not respond to questions about the handling of the complaint or to requests for an interview with Ouellet.
Bransfield, meanwhile, was living extravagantly as head of the diocese in West Virginia. Church investigators found that he spent millions of dollars in the diocese’s money on personal expenditures, including travel by private jet and renovations to his church mansion, according to internal church documents.
Bransfield also cultivated seminarians and young priests and subjected them to unwanted attention, including sexual remarks and intimate touching, according to the confidential investigative report. In some cases, he groped or kissed them, it said. He also allegedly exposed himself and made sexually charged remarks about their bodies. Bransfield asked that some of the young men accompany him on lavish trips to Florida, the Caribbean, Paris, London and Rome.
Some of the young clerics “were broken by the experience,” suffering depression or fear as a result of their interactions with Bransfield, the investigative report said.
At the same time, Bransfield was drawing on diocese funds to send cash gifts to influential clerics who had sway over his career. They included tens of thousands of dollars sent to the nuncios in Washington and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, some of them aides to the pope.
During the recent investigation, Bransfield’s accuser spoke several times with a church investigator.
The former student’s attorney, David Inscho, insisted the church could have done much more to stop Bransfield when his client came forward. “The church had everything they needed . . . to start canonical proceedings, to have had him removed from active ministry,” Inscho said.
In their recent report about Bransfield, the church investigators cast doubts on the thoroughness of the earlier investigations of the former Lansdale student’s claims. They said that the inconsistencies in the victim’s accounts are “typical of these types of cases when a substantial amount of time has passed” and that they believed the matter “may warrant further inquiry.”
“The victim remains willing to be cooperative in any further investigation that the Philadelphia Archdiocese may feel is warranted,” they wrote.
Judge Sara Smolenski, chief judge of the Kent County District Court, has been denied Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades because she is married to a woman.
It is a move that for many was the final straw in a pattern of behavior that has them calling for the removal of a priest — a priest who came to St. Stephen Catholic Church about three years ago.
In 1966, under the leadership of Rev. Msgr. Edward N. Alt, St. Stephen Catholic School became the first integrated Catholic school in Metro Grand Rapids and had a student body that was nearly 40 percent non-Catholic.
This tradition of inclusion and acceptance would be the essence of the school and the church for 50 years.
But now, some here say that is changing.
“I’ve been a member of St. Stephen’s Catholic Parish for 62 years, basically,” Smolenski said.
Smolenski who has been on the bench for nearly 30 years, comes from a family of prominent community members, including her father who was also a district court judge, and her brother, a state appeals court judge.
“I was baptized there, my parents were married there, every one of my nine siblings went to school (from) first through eighth grade. We buried my parents out of that school,” Smolenski said. “This is a church that is a part of who I am. This is a church who helped form my faith.”
News 8 featured Smolenski in March of 2016, when she became the first Kent County elected official to marry someone of the same sex.
But it was just last Saturday that Smolenski got a call from the parish priest, Father Scott Nolan.
“The way he said it was ‘because you’re married to Linda in the state of Michigan, you cannot accept communion,’ that’s how he said it,” Smolenski explained. “I try to be a good and faithful servant to our Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is a huge part of who I am, but it is the church that made that faith, the very church where he is taking a stance and saying ho-ho, not you.”
It was a devastating revelation for the lifelong Catholic who months earlier gave $7,000 to the parish building fund.
“Oh my gosh, I’m not going to get Jesus at the church I have devoted my life to,” Smolenski said, fighting back tears. “I thought of my mom and dad who devoted their whole life to raising us Catholic, spending all that money at the Catholic education.”
Smolenski was not the first person to be denied, according to a dozen people News 8 talked to Tuesday, including one same-sex couple who was denied the Eucharist during their child’s communion service.
“The public shunning — everything about it was offensive,” Smolenski said of the denial months before her own.
It is part of a pattern, according to Micki Benz, a 40-year member of the parish who is a part of a group of members who have decided to speak out.
They point to the words of Pope Francis who wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation.
Evangelii Gaudium, translates as “joy of the Gospel,” that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak and the church is not a toll house but a place for everyone.
“(Nolan) has eliminated teachers who are gay. He has made it clear that gay people are not welcome,” Benz said.
For a period of time, Nolan forbade non-Catholics from participating in church services, including choir and reading before the congregation, members say.
Parishioners met with Nolan and were hopeful that he was changing his ways, until last Saturday when the beloved judge was denied Communion.
Nolan talked to News 8 briefly Tuesday, promising he would speak on the issue but then did not call back or return messages.
There are those who believe Nolan is in the right, but they would not go on camera. Others with kids attending school would not go on camera due to fear of reprisal, but all say they love the church and want healing.
“I love the St. Stephen’s I knew. I don’t love the St. Stephen’s of now,” Smolenski said.
Some members say it would be better overall for the church to change pastors.
“We don’t see Father Scott changing; therefore we’ve come to the conclusion that it’d be better for him and us if there were a change in our pastors,” Benz said.
Some parishioners have drafted a letter to Bishop David Walkowiak, bishop of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, explaining their position and asking for a meeting — a request he has not responded to in the past.
The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.
Parisi, dean of his class of seminarians in the Buffalo Diocese, and another classmate had gone to seminary officials about a recent party in a parish rectory. At the party in April, the men said, priests were directing obscene comments to the seminarians, discussing graphic photos and joking about professors allegedly swapping A’s for sex.
“I just wanted to be sure that you guys are protected and are watching your backs,” the seminarian’s text said. Authorities are “fishing to figure out who the nark [sic] is.”
Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who was academic chairman of the class, have made explosive news nationally recently after alleging that they were bullied by superiors, grilled by their academic dean under police-like interrogation and then shunned by many of their fellow seminarians after going public with sexual harassment complaints about those up the chain of command. The Vatican on Thursday announced it is investigating broad allegations church leaders have mishandled clergy abuse cases.
As striking as the charges is the fact that the men are speaking out at all. Parisi and Bojanowski — who both left seminary in August — are among a small but growing number of Catholic priests and seminarians who in the past year have gone to investigators, journalists and lawyers with complaints about their superiors. While still rare, such dissent has until now been nearly unheard of in a profession that requires vows of obedience to one’s bishop and offers no right to recourse, no independent human resources department.
Prompting the pushback, the men and experts on the U.S. church say, is what many Catholics view as the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to respond frankly and transparently to recently revealed cases of sexual mistreatment of seminarians and priests. That, and the #MeToo moment, in which Americans have shown new willingness to speak out against adult sexual abuse and harassment.
“My conscience bothered me. If it meant being thrown out, so be it,” said Parisi, now 45, who joined the seminary in 2018 after 25 years as a member of a Catholic religious order, caring for the sick and dying. He thought he knew the church well when he entered seminary. Now living with his parents and unemployed, he has received hate mail, and says priests in his hometown won’t acknowledge him. His faith in the institution has been “shattered,” he said. “That’s what you get for exposing the truth.”
In addition to Buffalo, young men wrestling with scandals in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, among other places, have also weighed expectations of obedience against their desire for more accountability — and chosen the latter.
More than half a dozen priests and former seminarians were the key whistleblowers in the recent fall of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a well-connected fundraiser and donator in the U.S. church. Two recently exited West Virginia seminarians have gone public with allegations that Bransfield sexually mistreated them and have sued. One, who has not been named, said he was assaulted. The other, Vincent DeGeorge, 30, said Bransfield kissed and groped him, and pressured him to sleep over and watch porn.
“Because of the sex abuse crisis, I told myself going in [that] I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t going to let myself be complicit in a corrupt institution,” said DeGeorge, who left seminary last year after he says he was sexually harassed by his then-bishop, wrote an op-ed criticizing regional church leaders and quickly became a pariah.
“To scrutinize a bishop is to attack the church, is to be a bad Catholic,” DeGeorge said.
Several current and former clergy members spoke out beginning last summer about their treatment by defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, some by name and others anonymously. The Washington Post has received more calls from Catholic seminarians and clergy members with tips and concerns in the past year than in the previous decade.
“I’ve never had conversations in all the previous years like the ones I’ve had in the past year. People feel they can finally talk about things” among themselves, said a seminarian in the D.C. region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears dismissal.
Some said the expanding of a more aggressive Catholic media in the past couple of years has emboldened Catholics, including seminarians, to challenge the hierarchy.
A power imbalance
But even as the scandals have spurred some to speak out, church culture and theology dissuade more from raising their voices.
In the Catholic Church, bishops are kings of their dioceses, and priests swear an oath of loyalty to them. Seminarians’ pursuit of the priesthood rests completely with their superiors — the bishop in particular. There is no appeal or required explanation if one is deemed not to be priest material.
Some seminarians described having their spiritual fitness scrutinized if they raised too many questions. They fear that criticizing a bishop or higher-up could get them removed from seminary.
An internal church report investigating allegations against Bransfield quotes one priest-secretary who was allegedly harassed as saying he was in seminary when the bishop first asked him to remove his shirt.
“He stated that he did so out of fear. ‘Your life is at the will and pleasure of the bishop when you’re in seminary,’ ” the man told the lay investigators last year, according to the report, which The Post obtained.
In an email on May 7, 2018, a diocesan official in West Virginia told DeGeorge that he must stay over with Bransfield for a week — even though the then-seminarian did not want to.
“The request … was not actually a request. It was basically an expectation. You need to be there with the bishop during those dates,” the email reads.
“Seminaries should articulate that priestly obedience begins with humble and willing cooperation in seminary life, docility to direction and wholehearted compliance with the seminary’s policies,” it says.
Priests, seminarians and former seminarians described in interviews a climate of self-censure, with men often tattling on one another and gossiping rather than speaking openly. And when they do speak up, they said church authorities often do nothing.
They “say the right things, how we encourage honesty and openness, but deep down it’s clear they want to move on from [issues] as fast as possible,” said Mike Kelsey, who was a seminarian in the D.C. Archdiocese from last summer until January when students were openly upset that more hadn’t been done to learn what the past two archbishops — McCarrick and Donald Wuerl — did and knew regarding sexual misconduct.
Kelsey and other seminarians and priests interviewed for this article agreed that the problem lies in how the vows are interpreted and lived out within the church.
“I don’t think obedience is bad,” Kelsey said, noting that corporations also suffer from similar transparency problems. “But it’s also not something I’m signing up for if the hierarchy behaves in this way. If leadership and so many are not willing to get to basic levels of truth and justice, I’m not willing to sit there and obey them. I think the church is deeply corrupt and broken.”
Questions about how sexual misconduct in seminary is handled are considered so pressing that the University of Notre Dame last month released a first-of-its-kind study of 1500 seminarians on the topic. About 3,500 U.S. post-college men — who make up the vast majority of seminarians — were enrolled in programs in 2018-2019, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Seventeen percent said sexual abuse or misconduct is a problem at their schools, the survey found. Asked whether their administrators take the issue seriously, 84 percent said “very,” while 11 percent said somewhat or not at all. Of the 10 percent who said they have experienced, or may have experienced, sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, 51 percent said they had not reported it. Of those who did, 42 percent said their reports were either “completely” taken seriously and acted upon or acted upon “for the most part.”
To get the seminarians to talk, researchers offered anonymity.
“They are afraid they’ll be judged as temporarily unfit, too assertive,” John Cavadini, director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, which crafted the new research, said about seminarians. “That’s one aspect of seminary education you wouldn’t have a close parallel of outside seminary. The bishop is a peculiar concentration of power in one person.”
The Rev. Carter Griffin, rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary in the D.C. Archdiocese, said that, if taught correctly, obedience to church authority can be a beautiful act, “to follow the Lord through the word of another.”
But younger men who grew up in the shadow of earlier abuse scandals know that automatically going “into protection mode” isn’t wise for the church, Griffin said. Regardless of what higher-ups do, he said, seminarians must do what’s right.
“ It might mean that people will misunderstand you, there may be consequences for your actions and you have to shoulder those,” he said.
Shunning as punishment
Speaking out, especially for those who do not leave seminary or the priesthood, can be risky. Some seminarians report a lack of support from their classmates — even social shunning.
An unnamed seminarian who filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia diocese earlier this year alleging that Bransfield sexually assaulted him declined to comment for this article. But his mother told The Post that many priests “whom he called friends and brothers” and many of his former fellow seminarians for the most part have kept their distance from him.
“They feel they have to choose the church,” she said. The Post isn’t naming her to protect the anonymity of her son. The Post doesn’t identify sexual assault victims without their permission.
The man and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese reached an unspecified settlement over the summer.
DeGeorge’s allegation of sexual mistreatment by Bransfield became widely known recently when The Post reported it in a profile of William Lori, the Baltimore archbishop who led the investigation of Bransfield. He had already made waves for a seminarian — he was on leave — in December when he wrote a Baltimore Sun essay critical of Lori. Many priests and his former classmates still avoid him — or speak of him as a troublemaker, he said.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in Ohio County, DeGeorge alleges that Bransfield, the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not rein in someone known as a harasser, leaving seminarians vulnerable.
In Buffalo, the priests whom Parisi and Bojanowski blew the whistle on were suspended for a few weeks and returned to ministry in June. Bishop Richard Malone issued a statement that seminarians who spoke out “are to be lauded for coming forward.” Malone is accused of mishandling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases.
After more than 20 years serving Catholic organizations, Parisi says he’s looking for work outside the church.
“There needs to be major reform … But in my view, that won’t happen. The system is a very well-oiled machine,” he said. The church hierarchy believes “it doesn’t need fixing in their view because it’s running exactly the way they want it to.”
If Catholic bishops hope to reclaim their moral credibility after revelations about covering up clergy sexual abuse, the hierarchy might start by sending a simple but potent message: Church leaders should take a year of abstinence from preaching about sex and gender.
It might seem obvious that a church facing a crisis of legitimacy caused by clergy raping children would show more humility when claiming to hold ultimate truths about human sexuality
Instead, in the past month alone, a Rhode Island bishop tweeted that Catholics shouldn’t attend LGBTQ pride events because they are “especially harmful for children”; a Vatican office issued a document that described transgender people as “provocative” in trying to “annihilate the concept of nature”; and a Catholic high school in Indianapolis that refused to fire a teacher married to a same-sex partner was told by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that it can no longer call itself Catholic
There is an unmistakable hubris displayed when some in the church are determined to make sexuality the linchpin of Catholic identity at a time when bishops have failed to convince their flock that they are prepared to police predators in their own parishes.
Even before abuse scandals exploded into public consciousness a decade ago and more, many Catholics were tuning out the all-male hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality. Surveys show the vast majority of Catholics use birth control and nearly 70 percent now support same-sex marriage.
This isn’t simply a matter of the church’s image, however. When the Catholic Church describes sexual intimacy between gay people as “intrinsically disordered,” it fails to take into account how this degrading language contributes to higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ people; when it condemns even civil recognition of same-sex unions that don’t impede the church’s ability to define marriage sacramentally, bishops appear indifferent to the roadblocks committed couples without marriage licenses face in hospitals and other settings.
Unless church leaders are content to drive away a generation of young people, these positions are self-inflicted wounds. Millennial Catholics understandably ask why centuries of Catholic teaching on human dignity and justice about don’t apply fully to their LGBTQ friends, family members and teachers. Those who are raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people as the primary reason they leave, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
A document on gender identity released earlier this month from the Vatican’s congregation for Catholic education, titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” underscores why we need a break from lofty church pronouncements on these issues. The document is right in its call for respectful dialogue with LGBTQ people, but the work itself fails to reflect that ideal.
The authors clearly didn’t spend time with transgender Catholics. There was no apparent effort to engage with modern science or contemporary medical insights about gender development. It feels as if it was written in a bunker sealed off from the world in 1950.
Ray Dever, a Catholic deacon who has a transgender daughter and who ministers to Catholic families with transgender members, called the document “totally divorced from the lived reality of transgender people.”
Dever added, “Anyone with firsthand experience with gender identity issues will confirm that for an authentically transgender person, being transgender is not a choice, and it is certainly not driven by any gender theory or ideology.”
While abstract Vatican musings on sex and gender are unhelpful, the church faces a more urgent crisis in the making in the firing of LGBTQ employees at Catholic schools. In a rare display of defiance, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis clashed with Archbishop Charles Thompson, who wanted the independently operated school to terminate an employee who is civilly married to a person of the same sex. The school refused, and the archbishop now says the school can no longer call itself Catholic. Brebeuf Jesuit’s supervisory body, the Midwest Province of Jesuits, said the decision will be appealed through a church process all the way to the Vatican if necessary.
“We felt we could not in conscience dismiss him from employment,” the Rev. William Verbryke, president of Brebeuf, told the Jesuit publication America magazine earlier this week, explaining that the teacher in question does not teach religion and is not a campus minister.
After the Jesuit school’s decision became national news, another Indiana Catholic high school announced it was complying with the archdiocese and dismissing a teacher in a same-sex marriage. Administrators at Cathedral High School called it “an agonizing decision” and wrote a letter to the school community. “In today’s climate we know that being Catholic can be challenging and we hope that this action does not dishearten you, and most especially, dishearten Cathedral’s young people.”
In recent years, more than 70 LGBTQ church employees and Catholic school teachers have been fired or lost their jobs in employment disputes. Heterosexual Catholics who don’t follow church teaching that prohibits birth control or living together before marriage, for example, are not disciplined the same way by Catholic institutions. The scrutiny targeting gay employees alone is discriminatory and disproportionate.
Efforts to narrow Catholic identity to a “pelvic theology” hyperfocused on human sexuality raise questions about what Christians should be known for as we seek to live the gospel. Are Catholic employees at schools and other Catholic institutions evaluated for how often they visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, treat the environment, confront inequality? All of these moral issues are central to papal encyclicals, centuries of Catholic social teachings and the ministry of Jesus.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in one of his first interviews after his election. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”
A year of abstinence for church leaders preaching about sex would demonstrate a symbolic posture of humility that could substantively show those of us still left in the pews that the hierarchy isn’t completely clueless to the stark reality of the present moment.
During their silence on sex and gender, Vatican and local Catholic leaders should get out of their comfort zones and conduct listening sessions with married, divorced, gay, straight and transgender people. They should step away from the microphone and take notes. There would be disagreement, but the simple act of flipping the script — priests and bishops quietly in the back instead of holding forth up front — might help clergy recognize there is a wisdom in lived reality and truth not found solely in dusty church documents.
Taking risks and sitting with discomfort is part of a healthy faith. It’s time for our bishops to lead by taking a step back.