A tale of two priests and the future of the Catholic Church

By Bob Kustra

Recent news of the Vatican defrocking a Boise priest now serving 25 years without parole for possessing violent and extreme child pornography brought back memories long forgotten. Raised in the Catholic Church, I spent my youth as an altar boy with clergy officiating at daily Masses, funerals, weddings and who often assumed administrative or teaching roles in the Catholic schools I attended.

One priest, the principal of my high school, invited his favorite students to his cabin on the river to fish and enjoy water sports in the summer. Looking back on it all, it never once occurred to me during those outings that some of the questions he would ask about our personal lives might be an indicator of some repressed sexual desires that the church seemed to ignore with its vow of celibacy for priests.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read an account of the director of the film, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, James Gunn, that I realized the same priest/principal who was befriending boys in my high school was also prominent in the young life of this successful director in a parish across town from my experience. According to Gunn, that same priest would give young boys in his class alcohol and pornography.

In July 2019, the St. Louis Archdiocese would release the names of St. Louis priests with “substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.” And there on the list was the priest that James Gunn and I encountered in our formative years. He had risen to a top administrative post in the Archdiocese, but it was only after his death that the Archdiocese would identify him as a child abuser.

He died of cancer in 2000 in retirement and was never held accountable. Like Gunn, I was never victimized by this priest, but how many young students around us were violated by this man and had their lives ruined or destroyed in the process?

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (Boise, Idaho)

Years later, when I was lieutenant governor of Illinois, the flip side of this sad tale of priestly abuse would enter my life when I was asked by Father Mike Ivers to walk the streets of the near west side of Chicago to see firsthand the impact of failed government policies on the powerless and the poor. Father Mike was pastor of a parish in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, drug- and gang-infested at the time. It was a dangerous assignment for a white priest who requested parish work on Chicago’s south and west side and who, at one point in his ministry, was threatened with a gang hit.

Father Mike fought for his parishioners before the Chicago Housing Authority to improve housing conditions. He worked with police and the courts to rescue juveniles from gangs and a criminal justice system that too often consigned them to a life of crime. He would rail against social service agencies that failed to protect children. But he saved most of his wrath for his own church and its mishandling of countless cases of priest pedophilia. He would take on the Cardinal in advocating for a tougher stance against accused priests and the system of assignment that moved pedophiles from parish to parish.

Father Mike Ivers was a man who lived his faith daily and never once strayed from his priestly vows. He officiated at our daughter’s wedding and at my father’s funeral. We attended Mass at his parish and met some of the finest people of faith we’ve met in our lives. My office staff would assist at Christmastime with the distribution of gifts to kids whose families couldn’t afford Christmas presents. Throughout our friendship, Mike talked often about the toll the celibacy vow had taken on the priesthood, about how its refusal to ordain women held back the church from being the religious and community force it could be in our lives.

In a mid-career correction, Mike realized his own need for an intimacy that he felt should only be achieved with the sacrament of matrimony. He wanted to marry. And because his church forbade married priests, he left the church and his beloved parish. He married, assumed a new life and career in social services.

What happened next you would think is the work of a novelist twisting and turning the plot. It was not. Father Mike, this arch-critic of Archdiocesan complicity in priestly child abuse, was succeeded as pastor of his parish by a priest who became the most notorious child sex-abuser in the history of the Chicago Archdiocese. In yet another failure of the Archdiocese, the priest was not removed after the first offense and went on to commit more crimes of pedophilia. He was sentenced to prison, served his term and has since been confined indefinitely to a state facility for sex offenders for his failure to even admit he has a problem.

Mike Ivers died a few years ago, a humble servant of his God, a man who lived the good life and along the way enriched the lives of his parishioners, friends and family. His life offers hope to Catholics who decry the church’s role in these scandals over the years but look to a time when priests like Mike Ivers are the stories in the news, not pedophiles and church officials who cover up.

There is one thing missing from this account. That would be the Vatican dropping the vow of celibacy from priests’ ordinations. On a recent visit to South America, Pope Francis seemed open to married priests and enhanced roles for women in the church. Will the Vatican admit men and women to the priesthood without the requirement of celibacy? Who knows, but that’s when I know my friend Mike Ivers will rest in peace.

Complete Article HERE!

François Ozon’s New Pedophile Priest Drama Blows the Doors Off the Catholic Church

The gay French auteur collaborated with real-life victims of sexual abuse for his powerful latest, “By the Grace of God.”

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François Ozon has long been regarded as an enfant terrible of French cinema for his subversive, darkly comic, sexually provocative, and genre-hopping films, including 2012’s In the House, 2003’s Swimming Pool, and 2002’s musical murder mystery 8 Women (featuring a cast of iconic French actresses).

Yet the gay auteur has earned a new reputation as the good son this year thanks to By the Grace of God, a briskly paced procedural about the real-life case of a French pedophile priest, Bernard Preynat; the Lyon-based Catholic cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who covered up and enabled Preynat’s crimes for decades; and the adult victims who urgently fought for justice against a ticking statute-of-limitations clock.

With help from Preynat’s victims and their activist organization, La Parole Libérée (or, Lift the Burden of Silence in English), By the Grace of God takes cues from 2016’s Oscar-winning film Spotlight, following father of five Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) as he realizes the priest who abused him decades earlier, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), is still interacting with children. In communications and meetings with Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) and Preynat himself, Alexandre grows increasingly frustrated by the Church’s inertia in the matter, which leads to his collaboration with other former victims, including fellow family man François (Denis Ménochet), whose experiences shattered his relationship with his brother, and the emotionally crippled, seizure-prone Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud).

The now 74-year-old Preynat unsuccessfully attempted to block the movie’s release in France, for fear it would influence his trial (he was defrocked by the Church this past summer, while Barbarin was found guilty in civil court and received a suspended prison sentence). Visiting New York during By the Grace of God’s opening weekend, Ozon spoke with NewNowNext about the powerful film, which he was first inspired to make when coming across the victims’ website.

Were the victims familiar with your work when you approached them to make this film?

Yes. They had seen some of my films, and because I was a director of fiction features, they trusted me. They had done so many interviews with journalists and TV people, they were very proud that someone from the fiction world came to them, and it was right after Spotlight, which was really important in France. When they did interviews with me, I realized they were waiting for me to make a kind of French Spotlight about their story.

In your recent interview with The Guardian, you mentioned that you narrowly avoided being molested by a priest when you were 7 or 8 during a game of hide-and-seek.

es, it was something I had totally forgotten. While listening to the testimonies of the victims suddenly it came back to me, and I remembered this very strange moment with a priest when I was a child. I realized maybe it could have happened to me.

Did you consider trying to find that priest now, so you could ask him about it?

No, no. I remember his name, but nothing happened, so I think it was a fight inside him.

(L-R:) Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet, and Eric Caravaca in By the Grace of God.

How did you decide which victims you’d frame the film’s narrative around?

It was obvious that I should use Alexandre and François’ stories. For the third character, I was looking for someone from a different social background—someone who maybe was not able to have a family and children and a good job. They told me about Emmanuel, and I met him and it was very powerful, because he was exactly what I was looking for. But I also met some other victims who helped me understand more what the experience of being a survivor of child abuse is like.

Did you also try to find a gay man to spotlight?

Yes, of course. I asked, and it was very sad because the answer they told me was that very often gay men [in these situations] commit suicide. It’s a real fight for them to come out and make the link with what happened as a child, being raped. So it was a struggle inside them, especially within very Catholic families.

Some feel that the policy of celibacy within the Catholic Church is partly to blame for some priests turning to children for sexual release. Do you feel this is the case?

I don’t know. It’s a big question, but what I saw is that the Catholic Church has to start a revolution in its relationship with sexuality. There is a problem because sexuality is always linked to reproduction, and as long as sexuality is not accepted as something human, this change won’t be possible.

Dan Savage pointed out in a tweet that “if kids got raped by clowns as often as they get raped by priests it would be illegal to take your kids to the circus.” Why do people keep going back to the Catholic Church when this happens over and over?

It’s not the case in France. I think the Catholic religion has lost many people in France because they were very shocked by the way the institution dealt with all these problems. But maybe in America it’s different.

Poupaud (right) in By the Grace of God.

Have there been any updates on Preynat and Barbarin since the film was released?

Preynat was defrocked, and that was a big victory for the survivors. Barbarin was condemned and went to the Vatican to propose his resignation to Pope Francis, but the Pope refused it, and that was a big scandal. People, especially French Catholics, didn’t understand, because the Pope didn’t stop saying “zero tolerance for pedophilia.” His words were always against pedophilia, but the acts don’t follow those words. A big problem.

How do you personally feel about Preynat?

I think he’s an asshole and a product of the old church. He doesn’t really feel guilty. He lives with this vice, and it’s terrible because he always told the truth. He has always said, “I have a problem with kids.” And the institution protected him for such a long time, so he had a feeling of impunity [like] he’s outside of reality, beyond reality. Now he’s defrocked and his life has totally changed, because he doesn’t exist as a priest or have the institution to protect him anymore. So I hope he has changed, but I’m not sure. When I read the reports from his interviews, I got the feeling he hasn’t understood what he really had done.

François Ozon

Has the experience of tackling a real-life big issue changed you as a filmmaker?

Of course it was a great adventure and a big challenge for me, and it was a big discovery to see things can be changed through fiction. Often journalists ask me and other directors if we think cinema can change the world, and we always answer, “No, of course not.” But with this film, things really did change in France. Many victims told me what happened to them, and that the film made it easier to accept and speak out after watching it. So this film was very important and had a big impact on the Catholic Church in France, and I’m very proud of that, but I didn’t imagine that before the film.

Does this film need a follow-up? Is there more to say on the subject?

I’m not a politician. I’m an artist, and don’t give the answers to all these problems. I just ask questions. That’s what interests me. Afterwards, it’s up to you to change things. That’s why at the end of the film when the son asks his father Alexandre, “Do you still believe in God?,” I don’t show the answer. It’s because it’s not my part as a director. My part is just to ask the good questions.

By the Grace of God is now playing in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles.

Complete Article HERE!

Kenyan man’s search for his father runs into church cover-up

Consolata Missionaries in Africa

By NICOLE WINFIELD and RODNEY MUHUMUZA

SAMBURU, Kenya — When Sabina Losirkale went into labor, her sister Scolastica recalls, priests and religious sisters filled the delivery ward waiting to see the color of the baby’s skin — and if their worst fears had come to pass.

Scolastica and dozens of villagers peered in from behind the clinic fence, as well.

A nun screamed. The boy was white — “a mzungu child,” Scolastica said, using Kiswahili slang.

“How will we cover up this shame?” the sisters fretted, she recalled.

The shame that brought this baby into the world: An Italian missionary priest, her family alleges, impregnated this Kenyan girl when she was just 16. But the nuns need not have worried about the scandal spreading.

The priest — who to this day denies paternity — was transferred, and a Kenyan man was found for Sabina to marry. He would be listed as the father on the boy’s birth certificate.

The church’s efforts to conceal what is alleged to have happened here would stretch over three decades — a testament to the extraordinary ways in which church officials have dealt with accusations that priests in the developing world have had sex with girls and young women. Here, the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis is just beginning to force a reckoning.

The boy who was born to Sabina Losirkale on that day in 1989 has been an outcast of sorts for all of his life. Tall and light-skinned, with wavy hair, Gerald Erebon, now 30, looks nothing like the dark-skinned Kenyan man who he was told was his father, or like his black mother and siblings.

“According to my birth certificate, it is like I am living a wrong life, a lie,” he said. “I just want to have my identity, my history.”

Gerald Erebon

Amid the torrent of sex abuse accusations that have rocked the priesthood, little attention has been paid to the pregnancies resulting from those illicit acts. And nowhere is this a more glaring issue than in Africa.

While there are no official statistics, experts point to a “culture of silence and compromise” that has allowed abuses of all kinds to fester in African society, said Augusta Muthigani, in charge of education for the Kenyan bishops’ conference.

“Matters of sexuality are not discussed openly,” she said.

The continent has long lagged behind the United States, Europe and Australia in confronting the problem of priests having sex with children, given the church’s priorities here have focused on fighting poverty, conflict and traffickers who sell children off to war or work.

Recently, East African bishops established regional child protection standards and guidelines to prevent child sexual abuse. And in parts of Francophone West Africa, the Catholic Church has launched safeguarding programs for society at large.

Those initiatives, though, are relatively new, scattershot and underfunded. And eight months after Pope Francis summoned bishops from around the world for a summit to insist that clergy sexual abuse prevention be a priority for the universal church going forward, African bishops made no mention of it in their final declaration after a continentwide assembly in July. All in a region where advocates say Catholic clergy routinely violate their vows of celibacy, including with children.

The Rev. Mario Lacchin encountered Sabina Losirkale when she was a student at the Gir Gir Primary School in Archer’s Post, a dusty town on the highway to Ethiopia. The school was established by the Consolata Missionaries religious order, which had come to Archer’s Post to spread the faith to the semi-nomadic tribes of Kenya’s northern Rift Valley.

Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, the Losirkale girls and two cousins were often left on their own; their parents were poor shepherds and spent days away from home, seeking pasture in the bush for their animals.

Starting about a year before she turned 16, Sabina skipped afterschool sports to go to the priests’ quarters to do housework, cooking and cleaning for the parish priests. Scolastica recalls she would sometimes see Sabina and Lacchin hugging as they said goodbye.

Other times, Scolastica said, Sabina would come home from Lacchin’s house crying and asking for Scolastica to fetch water so she could bathe. Some nights she didn’t come home at all.

At the time, the priest was in his early 50s.

“I think Father Mario was taking advantage of my sister,” said the 45-year-old widow, looking through family photos in her one-bedroom, mud-brick home. “He bribed her with gifts, food, clothes. He was even buying us books. My sister used to come with books, pens, all we needed.”

One night, Sabina vomited. It was the first indication that she was pregnant.

Their parents were shocked and angry. They demanded to know who the father was.

Lacchin was quietly transferred to a nearby mission; his driver and a catechist at Archer’s Post, Benjamin Ekwam, was chosen to marry Sabina.

Nevertheless, people talked.

“You know, it was very shameful in the community,” Scolastica said. “If someone wanted a child, a girl, they just married. So this was just an embarrassment to the whole community.”

Sabina was just 16 when she gave birth March 12, 1989. She had conceived a few weeks after her 16th birthday. In Kenya, the legal age of consent was and is 18.

Rev. Mario Lacchin

The Vatican doesn’t publish statistics about the number of priests who have fathered children. The Holy See only publicly admitted that it’s a problem this year, and only then because it was compelled to acknowledge that it had crafted internal guidelines to deal with it.

The man behind the disclosure was Vincent Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist and son of a priest who in 2014 launched an online resource, Coping International, to help children of priests.

Doyle has been a thorn in the side of the Vatican ever since, seeking to raise awareness through the media about the plight of these children, who often suffer emotionally and psychologically. He has also begun advocating for their mothers, some of whom were just girls when they conceived.

In recent months, he has forwarded three such cases to the Vatican: those of Erebon and of children born of a 17-year-old in Cameroon and a 15-year-old in the United Kingdom.

All told, Doyle believes priests’ children number in the thousands, given the 415,000 Catholic clergy alive today and church teaching that forbids artificial contraception and abortion. Doyle estimates that about 5% of these births are the result of sex between a priest and a minor, though he has only anecdotal evidence.

The Rev. Stephane Joulain, a leading expert in clergy sex abuse prevention in Africa, said the majority of cases of sexual abuse of minors in Africa involve foreign missionary priests. But he said there is a significant problem of local African priests fathering children, including to young mothers, because of cultural norms: “You become a man only when you have fathered children.”

Many priests cite this pressure from family or tribe to explain why they have had offspring. Other priests, Joulain said, rationalize their behavior by saying celibacy is an imported “Western” tradition that has no place in Africa, where girls are often considered adult once they reach puberty, irrespective of the law.

The flouting of celibacy vows among African clergy is no secret to the Vatican. Nearly every time a group of African bishops visited the Vatican during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, he would remind them of the need to train their priests to “embrace the gift of celibacy,” a reminder not often given to other bishops’ conferences, according to a review of his speeches to more than a dozen African bishops’ conferences.

Decades ago, as in Erebon’s case, it was common for bishops and religious superiors to relocate an offending priest and try to find a man who would accept the woman and child as his own, Joulain said. If the mother was lucky, the order would provide financially for them.

“Congregations were all dealing the same way with the same problem,” he said.

___

Gerald Erebon grew up devoted to the Consolata Missionaries who employed his mother and her husband and, along with an Italian order of nuns in Archer’s Post, paid for his education. An altar boy, he entered the minor seminary after graduating from Gir Gir Primary School, hoping to join the order as a priest.

He knew well he was different from his dark-skinned siblings and the rest of the Samburu and Turkana people of the region. His half-sister Lina Ben, 27, recalled her siblings teased Erebon mercilessly, as did the family of the man he knew as his father. They called him “bastard.” Even Erebon’s last name was different, belonging to his maternal grandfather.

When Lina was 14, she asked her mother why Gerald didn’t look like her other children, and why his friends often referred to him as “mtoto was padre” — “child of the priest.”

Her mother initially pushed her away, but eventually told her that “Dad to Gerald is a priest called Father Mario and he is not here.”

Scolastica said her sister finally told her the secret in 2012, two weeks before she died.

“Now that my days are over,” her sister told her, she could reveal all: “When Gerald will ask you who’s his father, just tell him: Father Mario.”

In fact, neighbors took Erebon’s heritage for granted. “The people of Archer’s knew it was Father Mario. The people knew that the priest was responsible. Because even the boy — he resembled the priest when he was born,” said Alfred-Edukan Loote, who taught Erebon in primary school.

Young Erebon often got into fights, raging at the children who teased him. He eventually was expelled from the minor seminary after he smashed a plate of hot food on the head of a boy who had called him son of a white man.

After his mother’s death, Erebon asked Scolastica the question he never had the courage to ask his mother. She remembers hearing him cry over the phone when she told him.

___

In mid-2013, Erebon reached out to Lacchin, sending him a series of emails over the span of two months, hoping to establish a relationship following his mother’s death. By now, the two men looked strikingly alike, tall and lanky with sharp cheekbones.

“Ever since I knew you as my real biological father, I could not stop asking myself questions as to why I was born the way I was born, which consequently had put hate in me against you,” Erebon wrote.

But he said he had since had a change of heart and now forgave him. “I love you father,” he wrote. “Let us not allow the past to affect our present and future.” He signed the email “Your son, Gerardo” — the Italian name that appears on his birth certificate.

After Erebon received no response, he said he tried to meet Lacchin in person in Marsabit, where Lacchin was working as a church administrator. Erebon said Lacchin brushed off his overture. Told by the priest to take his complaint to the bishop, he did not.

Five years later, Erebon — by then a student studying education at Catholic University of Eastern Africa, his tuition partially paid for by an anonymous donor — reached out to Doyle, the Irish psychotherapist.

Doyle immediately contacted the Rome-based superior of the Consolata Missionaries, the Rev. Stefano Camerlengo, who sent a top official to investigate. The order arranged three meetings over the past year between Erebon and Lacchin in Nairobi, in what Camerlengo told Doyle was an effort at facilitating dialogue between the two.

According to minutes of a Jan. 15 meeting prepared by a Consolata priest who attended, Lacchin denied paternity. He refused to take a DNA test “since it would mean that he is possibly the father, whereas he knows that he is not the father.”

The Rev. James Lengarin, the Consolata’s deputy superior who investigated the case and hails from a town not far from Archer’s Post, said the order felt it could not compel Lacchin to take the DNA test, and that a slow process of reconciliation was the best course.

“We didn’t feel that he should be constrained by obedience, by force of obedience, to do it,” Lengarin said, noting that Lacchin is now 83.

He added that there was no reference in the Consolata’s archives to any problem with Lacchin in Archer’s Post, though an official history of the order in Kenya makes a cryptic reference to him in an entry about scandals involving some missionaries.

After months of impasse, Doyle went directly to the Vatican and Interpol after acquiring the birth certificates of both Erebon and his mother, which showed that she had just turned 16 when she conceived.

There are no known criminal proceedings against Lacchin in Kenya as a result of Doyle’s report to Interpol.

While the birth certificates don’t prove a canonical crime of sexual assault of a minor — in 1988, the church’s internal code didn’t consider a 16-year-old a minor in sex abuse cases — Sabina’s sister and other villagers allege the two were engaged in a sexual relationship well before she turned 16.

In many countries nowadays, such documented information would lead to the immediate removal from ministry of the priest pending a canonical investigation that could result in defrocking. Lacchin has continued in ministry, preaching at the Resurrection Gardens church in Nairobi as recently as this summer.

Lengarin said the order had planned to continue its investigation and hoped Lacchin would be persuaded to accept a paternity test, but is now awaiting orders from the Vatican office that handles religious orders on how to proceed.

The Vatican confirmed the office is investigating Lacchin, but declined further comment.

Efforts to reach Lacchin for comment were unsuccessful. He didn’t respond to email, text message and phone calls. After witnessing him celebrate Mass at his Resurrection Gardens parish in July, the AP went back to the church and was told this week that he was visiting a sick sister in France and would take a period of leave at least through the end of October.

In an Aug. 2 reply to Doyle, the undersecretary at the congregation for religious orders, the Rev. Pier Luigi Nava, criticized Doyle and asked for further information, saying it wasn’t clear what Erebon wanted, or if he intended to launch a criminal case in Kenyan or church courts.

Erebon said he wants Lacchin’s help to obtain Italian citizenship for himself and his two children. But more than that, he wants a life that is based on the truth.

“They created something which is not my real identity,” he said. “I just want to have my identity, my history, so that my children can also have what they really are: their heritage, history and everything.”

Complete Article HERE!

Accused priests teach, counsel young children under radar

By CLAUDIA LAUER and MEGHAN HOYER

Nearly 1,700 priests and other clergy members that the Roman Catholic Church considers credibly accused of child sexual abuse are living under the radar with little to no oversight from religious authorities or law enforcement, decades after the first wave of the church abuse scandal roiled U.S. dioceses, an Associated Press investigation has found.

These priests, deacons, monks and lay people now teach middle-school math. They counsel survivors of sexual assault. They work as nurses and volunteer at nonprofits aimed at helping at-risk kids. They live next to playgrounds and day care centers. They foster and care for children.

And in their time since leaving the church, dozens have committed crimes, including sexual assault and possessing child pornography, the AP’s analysis found.

A recent push by Roman Catholic dioceses across the U.S. to publish the names of those it considers to be credibly accused has opened a window into the daunting problem of how to monitor and track priests who often were never criminally charged and, in many cases, were removed from or left the church to live as private citizens.

Each diocese determines its own standard to deem a priest credibly accused, with the allegations ranging from inappropriate conversations and unwanted hugging to forced sodomy and rape.

Dioceses and religious orders so far have shared the names of more than 5,100 clergy members, with more than three-quarters of the names released just in the last year. The AP researched the nearly 2,000 who remain alive to determine where they have lived and worked — the largest-scale review to date of what happened to priests named as possible sexual abusers.

In addition to the almost 1,700 that the AP was able to identify as largely unsupervised, there were 76 people who could not be located. The remaining clergy members were found to be under some kind of supervision, with some in prison or overseen by church programs.

The review found hundreds of priests held positions of trust, many with access to children. More than 160 continued working or volunteering in churches, including dozens in Catholic dioceses overseas and some in other denominations. Roughly 190 obtained professional licenses to work in education, medicine, social work and counseling — including 76 who, as of August, still had valid credentials in those fields.

The research also turned up cases where the priests were once again able to prey on victims.

After Roger Sinclair was removed by the Diocese of Greensburg in Pennsylvania in 2002 for allegedly abusing a teenage boy decades earlier, he ended up in Oregon. In 2017, he was arrested for repeatedly molesting a young developmentally disabled man and is now imprisoned for a crime that the lead investigator in the Oregon case says should have never been allowed to happen.

Like Sinclair, the majority of people listed as credibly accused were never criminally prosecuted for the abuse alleged when they were part of the church. That lack of criminal history has revealed a sizable gray area that state licensing boards and background check services are not designed to handle as former priests seek new employment, apply to be foster parents and live in communities unaware of their presence and their pasts.

It also has left dioceses struggling with how — or if — former employees should be tracked and monitored. Victims’ advocates have pushed for more oversight, but church officials say what’s being requested extends beyond what they legally can do. And civil authorities like police departments or prosecutors say their purview is limited to people convicted of crimes.

That means the heavy lift of tracking former priests has fallen to citizen watchdogs and victims, whose complaints have fueled suspensions, removals and firings. But even then, loopholes in state laws allow many former clergy to keep their new jobs even when the history of allegations becomes public.

“Defrocked or not, we’ve long argued that bishops can’t recruit, hire, ordain, supervise, shield, transfer and protect predator priests, then suddenly oust them and claim to be powerless over their whereabouts and activities,” said David Clohessy, the former executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who now heads the group’s St. Louis chapter.

“IT WAS SUPPOSED TO MAKE ABUSE HISTORY”

When the first big wave of the clergy abuse scandal hit Roman Catholic dioceses in the early 2000s, the U.S. bishops created the Dallas Charter, a baseline for sexual abuse reporting, training and other procedures to prevent child abuse. A handful of canon lawyers and experts at the time said every diocese should be transparent, name priests that had been accused of abuse and, in many cases, get rid of them.

Most dioceses decided against naming priests, however. And with the dioceses that did release lists in the next few years— some by choice, others due to lawsuit settlements or bankruptcy proceedings — abuse survivors complained about underreporting of priests, along with the omission of religious brothers they believed should be on those lists.

“The Dallas Charter was supposed to fix everything. It was supposed to make the abuse scandal history. But that didn’t happen,” said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who had tried to warn the bishops that abuse was widespread and that they should clean house.

After the charter was established in 2002, some critics say dioceses were more likely to simply defrock priests and return them to private citizenship.

Before 2018’s landmark Pennsylvania grand jury report, which named more than 300 predator priests accused of abusing more than 1,000 children in six dioceses, the official lists of credibly accused priests added up to fewer than 1,500 names nationwide. Now, within the span of a little more than a year, more than 100 dioceses and religious orders have come forward with thousands of names — but often little other information that can be used to alert the public.

Some of the lists merely provide names, without details of the abuse allegations that led to their inclusion, the dates of the priests’ assignments or the parishes where they served. And many don’t disclose the priests’ status with the church, which can vary from being moved into full retirement to being banished from performing public sacraments while continuing to perform administrative work. Only a handful of the lists include the last-known cities the priests lived in.

Over nine months, AP reporters and researchers scoured public databases, court records, property records, social media and other sources to locate the ousted clergy members.

That effort unearthed hundreds of these priests who, largely unwatched by church and civil authorities, chose careers that put them in new positions of trust and authority, including jobs in which they dealt with children and survivors of sexual abuse.

At least two worked as juvenile detention officers, in Washington and Arizona, and several others migrated to government roles like victims’ advocate or public health planner. Others landed jobs at places like Disney World, community centers or family shelters for domestic abuse. And one former priest started a nonprofit that sends people to volunteer in orphanages and other places in developing nations.

The AP determined that a handful adopted or fostered children, sponsored teens and young adults coming to the U.S. for educational opportunities, or worked with organizations that are part of the foster care system, though that number could be much higher since no public database tracks adoptive or foster parents.

Until February, former priest Steven Gerard Stencil worked at a Phoenix company that places severely disabled children in foster homes and trains foster parents to care for them. Colleagues knew he was a former priest, but were unaware of past allegations against him, according to Lauree Copenhaver, the firm’s executive director.

Stencil, now 67, was suspended from ministry in 2001 after a trip to Mexico that violated a diocese policy forbidding clerics from being with minors overnight. Around that time, a 17-year-old boy also complained that Stencil, then pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Casa Grande, Ariz., had grabbed his crotch in 1999 in a swimming pool. The diocese determined it was accidental touching, but turned the allegations over to police. No criminal charges were filed.

Since 2003, Stencil’s name has appeared on the Tucson diocese’s list of clerics credibly accused of sexually abusing children, and his request to be voluntarily defrocked was granted in 2011.

Copenhaver said Stencil passed a fingerprint test showing he did not have a criminal history when he was first hired part time by Human Services Consultants LLC 12 years ago.

“We did not have any knowledge of his indiscretions, and had we known his history we would not have hired him,” she said, emphasizing that he did not have direct access to children in his job.

Stencil was fired from the company for unrelated reasons earlier this year. He later said in a post on his Facebook page that he was working as a driver for a private Phoenix bus company that specializes in educational tours for school groups and scout troops.

“I have always been upfront with my employers about my past as a priest,” Stencil wrote in an email to the AP when asked for comment. He said he unsuccessfully asked years ago for his name to be removed from the diocese’s list, adding, “Since then, I have decided to simply live my life as best I can.”

The AP’s analysis also found that more than 160 of the priests remained in the comfortable position of continuing to work or volunteer in a church, with three-quarters of those continuing to serve in some capacity in the Roman Catholic Church. Others moved on as ministers and priests in different denominations, with new roles such as organist or even as priests in Catholic churches not affiliated with the Vatican, sometimes despite known or published credible accusations against them.

In more than 30 cases, priests accused of sexual abuse in the U.S. simply moved overseas, where they worked as Roman Catholic priests in good standing in countries including Peru, Mexico, the Philippines, Ireland and Colombia. The AP found that in all, roughly 110 clergy members moved or were suspected of moving out of the U.S. after allegations were made.

At least five priests were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church because of their refusal to stop participating in other religious activity.

More than three decades ago, James A. Funke and a fellow teacher at a St. Louis Catholic high school, Jerome Robben, went to prison for sexually abusing male students together. Funke, released in 1995, was eventually bounced from the priesthood. But years later, the two men joined together again, promoting Robben as the leader of a church of his own making.

Since 2004, Missouri records show that Robben has listed his St. Louis home as the base for a religious organization operating under at least three different names. Beginning in 2014, those papers have identified Funke as the order’s secretary and one of its three directors.

Mary Kruger, whose son committed suicide when he was 21 after being abused by the men in high school, said she raised fresh concerns about Robben in 2007 when she heard he was presenting himself as a cleric.

At the time, he was being considered for promotion to bishop in a conservative Christian order based in Ontario, Canada. Kruger said members of the order told her that Robben had dismissed questions about his abuse conviction, claiming he had merely rented an apartment to Funke and that police blamed him for not knowing what went on inside.

Robben eventually was defrocked from the Christian order, and apparently then started his own. Until last year, when its paperwork expired, the group was registered with Missouri officials as the Syrian Orthodox Exarchate. However, a Facebook post from 2017 identified Robben — photographed wearing a crown and gold vestments — as the leader of a Russian Byzantine order raising money to build a monastery in Nevada.

Funke refused comment when approached by an AP reporter, and Robben did not respond to requests for comment.

“If they could wind up in jail next week, I’d be ecstatic,” Kruger said. “I think as long as they’re alive, they’re dangerous.”

LEFT THE CHURCH, COMMITTED CRIMINAL OFFENSES

As early as 1981, church officials knew of allegations that Roger Sinclair had acted inappropriately with adolescent boys. Two mothers at St. Mary’s Parish in Kittanning, Penn., wrote a letter to the then-bishop saying that Sinclair had molested their sons, both about 14 at the time.

Sinclair played a game where he would shake hands and then try to shove his hand at their genitals, the mothers said in their letter, parts of which were made public last year as part of the landmark report in Pennsylvania. They said he also tried to put his hands down one of the boy’s pants.

Other accusations emerged about Sinclair showing dirty movies to boys in the rectory, exposing himself and possibly molesting a teen he had taken on a trip to Florida a few years earlier. After a group of mothers called the police for advice, the police chief told them he had heard the rumors but took no action, according to documents reviewed by the Pennsylvania grand jury.

The church sent Sinclair for treatment, returned him to ministry and provided him with a letter that listed him as a priest in good standing so he could be a chaplain in the Archdiocese of Military Services, according to the grand jury. That assignment took him to at least four different states, including Kansas, where in the early ’90s he was a chaplain at the Topeka State Hospital, a now-closed state mental hospital that had a wing for teenagers.

He was fired from that assignment in 1991 after trying multiple times to check out male teenage patients to go see a movie. Administrators said he had managed “to gain access to a locked unit deceitfully.”

Sinclair was removed from ministry in 2002 while the diocese investigated claims from a victim who said the priest sexually abused him in the rectory and on field trips beginning at Sinclair’s first assignment as a priest. He resigned a few years later, before the church concluded proceedings to defrock him.

When he started serving on the board of directors of an Oregon senior center and working as a volunteer there, he was required to pass a background check because the center received federal dollars for the Meals on Wheels program. But no flags were raised because he was never charged in Pennsylvania.

According to accounts from both former center staffers and law enforcement officials, Sinclair’s downfall began when the center’s then-director looked outside and saw him with his hand down the young man’s pants. He immediately barred Sinclair from the center, but left it up to the man’s family to decide whether to press charges. Three months later, after learning why Sinclair had been absent, an employee went to the police out of fear the former priest would target someone else.

Now-Sgt. Steven Binstock, the lead investigator in Oregon, said Sinclair immediately confessed to committing multiple sexual acts with the developmentally disabled man. He also confessed to sexual contact with minors in Pennsylvania 30 years earlier.

“He was very vague, but he did tell us that it was some of the same type of behaviors, the same type of incidents, that had occurred with the victim that happened here,” Binstock told the AP.

The Pennsylvania diocese had never warned Oregon authorities about Sinclair because it stopped tracking him after he left the church. The diocese, which did not tell the public Sinclair had been accused of abuse until it released its list in August 2018, declined to comment on his case.

The AP’s analysis of the credibly accused church employees who remain alive found that more than 310 of the 2,000 have been charged with crimes for actions that took place when they were priests. Beyond that, the AP confirmed that Sinclair and 64 others have been charged with crimes committed after leaving the church, with most of them convicted for those crimes.

Some of the crimes involved drunken driving, theft or drug offenses. But 42 of the men were accused of crimes that were sexual in nature or violent, including a dozen charged with sexually assaulting minors. Thirteen were charged with distributing, making or possessing child pornography, and several others were caught masturbating in public or exposing themselves to people on planes or in shopping malls.

Five failed to register in their new communities as sex offenders as required due to their sex crime convictions.

Priests and other church employees being listed on sex offender registries at all is a rarity — the AP analysis found that only 85 of the 2,000 are. That’s because church officials often successfully lobbied civil authorities to downgrade charges in exchange for guilty pleas ahead of trials. Convictions were sometimes expunged if offenders completed probationary programs or the charges were reduced below the level required by states for registration.

Since sex offender registries in their current searchable form didn’t begin until the 1990s, dozens also were not tracked or monitored, because their original sentences already had been served before the registries were established.

The AP also found that more than 500 of the credibly accused former priests live within 2,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, childcare centers or other facilities that serve children, with many living much closer. In the states that restrict how close registered sex offenders can live to those facilities, limits range from 500 to 2,000 feet.

Decades after Louis Ladenburger was temporarily removed from the priesthood to be treated for “inappropriate professional behavior and relationships,” he was hired as a counselor at a school for troubled boys in Idaho.

Ladenburger was arrested in 2007 and accused of sexual battery; in a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. He served about five months in prison.

According to Bonner County, Idaho, sheriff’s reports, students said Ladenburger told them he was a sex addict. During counseling sessions, they said, the former Franciscan priest rubbed their upper thighs and stomachs, held their hands and gave them shoulder and neck massages. If students expressed confusion about their sexual identities, the sheriff’s reports say he fondled them and performed oral sex on them.

Ladenburger was fired from the school. In an interview with sheriff’s officials at the time, he “admitted being a touchy person,” kissing many students and having his “needs met by the physical contact” with the boys.

By then, he’d been gone from the church for more than a decade — in 1996, the Vatican had granted his request to be released from his vows. No officials from his religious order or from the dioceses in six different states where he had served had warned the school or provided details of the allegations against him when he was a priest.

In a lawsuit involving a sexual abuse allegation against another member of the Franciscan order, the complaint cited Ladenburger as an example of the harm done when church officials don’t report accusations of abuse to law enforcement, saying he likely never would have been hired at the school if the Franciscans had reported him when they first became aware.

“For all intents and purposes, they set loose a ticking time bomb that exploded in 2007,” the lawsuit said.

WHY FORMER PRIESTS AREN’T TRACKED

If priests choose to leave their dioceses or religious orders — or if the church decides to permanently defrock them in a process known as laicization — leaders say the church no longer has authority to monitor where they go.

After the Dallas Charter came a rush to laicize, resulting in more than 220 of the priests researched by the AP being laicized between 2004 and 2010. Roughly 40% of all the living credibly accused clergy members had either been laicized or had voluntarily left the church.

The laicized priests also are increasingly younger, giving them even more years to lead unsupervised lives, according to Deacon Bernie Nojadera, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

“That does create an opportunity for them to seek a second career,” Nojadera said. “So this is something a number of dioceses are grappling with and trying to figure out.”

For priests who don’t leave the church, dioceses and religious orders have more options to impose restrictions and monitoring. But how and whether that’s done ranges widely from diocese to diocese, since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cannot mandate specific regulations or procedures.

The AP found that the dioceses that released lists more than a decade ago have the most robust of the handful of existing programs.

In Chicago, accused priests who are removed from ministry can opt to join a program started in 2008 in which they continue to receive treatment, benefits and help, and get to “die a priest.” In exchange, they must sign over their right to privacy and agree to obey rules such as not living near a school.

“The monitoring is intrusive . I track their phone usage, I require daily logs of where they go, I track their internet usage and check their financial information and records. They have to tell me where they are going to be, who they will be with. And they have to meet with me twice a month face-to-face,” said Moira Reilly, the case manager in charge of the Chicago Archdiocese’s prayer and penance program.

Reilly, a licensed social worker, said many Catholics don’t understand why the church runs the program, instead pushing for every priest accused of abuse to be defrocked.

“If we laicize them or if we let them walk away … no one is watching them,” she said. “I do this job because I truly believe that I am protecting the community. I truly believe that I am protecting children.”

In 2006, the Archdiocese of Detroit hired a former parole officer to monitor priests permanently removed from ministry after credible abuse allegations. Spokesman Ned McGrath said the program requires monthly written reports from the priests that include any contact or planned contact with minors and information on whether they attended treatment among other things.

In other dioceses, priests are sent to retirement homes for clergy or church properties that are easy to monitor, but also are often in close proximity or even share space with schools or universities.

The analysis found that many of the accused clergy members still receive pensions or health insurance from the church, since pensions are governed by federal statute and other benefits are dictated by the bishops in each diocese.

Victims’ advocates and others have suggested dioceses devise a system in which those benefits are contingent upon defrocked priests self-reporting their current addresses and employment.

“All a bishop has to do is tell a predator: ‘Here’s your choice. You’ll go live where I tell you, and you’ll get your pension, health insurance, etc. and be around your brothers but be supervised,'” SNAP’s Clohessy suggested, adding that if the former priests don’t agree, their benefits could be withheld.

But several church officials and lawyers note that robust federal laws prohibit withholding or threatening pensions.

Other experts who study child abuse have suggested the church create a database similar to the national sex offender registry that would allow the public and employers to identify credibly accused priests. But even that measure would not guarantee that licensing boards or employers flag a priest credibly accused but not convicted of abuse.

Doyle, the canon lawyer, said the bishops might not believe they can monitor defrocked priests, but that they could be forthcoming about allegations when potential employers call and could also be required to call child protective services in the states where laicized priests move.

The bishops also could address the issue of oversight by initiating a new framework along the lines of the groundbreaking Dallas Charter, which was approved by the pope, Doyle said. But he added that he didn’t trust the current church leadership to meaningfully address the issue.

“The bishops will never admit this, but when they do cut them loose, they believe they are no longer a liability,” he said, referring to the defrocked priests. “I severely doubt there is an incentive for them to want to fix this problem.”

Nojadera noted that it isn’t that simple, since decisions default to the individual bishops in each diocese.

“We have 197 different ways that the Dallas Charter is being implemented. It’s a road map, a bare minimum,” he said. “We do talk about situations where these men are being laicized and what happens to them. And our canon lawyers are quick to say there is no purview to monitor them.”

LICENSED TO TEACH AND COUNSEL

In many cases, the priests tracked by the AP went on to work in positions of trust in fields allowing close access to children and other vulnerable individuals — all with the approval of state credentialing boards, which often were powerless to deny them or unaware of the allegations until the dioceses’ lists were released.

The review found that 190 of the former clergy members gained licenses to work as educators, counselors, social workers or medical personnel, which can be easy places to land for priests already trained in counseling parishioners or working with youth groups.

One is Thomas Meiring who, after asking to leave the priesthood in 1983, began working as a licensed clinical counselor in Ohio, specializing in therapy for teens and adults with sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

Meiring maintained his state-issued license even after the diocese in Toledo settled a lawsuit in 2008 filed by a man who said he was 15 when Meiring sexually abused him in a church rectory in the late 1960s.

It wasn’t until 2016 that the Toledo diocese’s request to defrock Meiring was granted. State records show that Ohio’s Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage & Family Therapist Board has never taken disciplinary action against the 81-year-old, who is among several treatment providers listed by a municipal court in suburban Toledo.

“We made noise about him years ago and nobody did anything. It’s mind-blowing,” said Claudia Vercellotti, who heads Toledo’s chapter of SNAP.

But Brian Carnahan, the licensing board’s executive director, said the law grants the authority to act only when allegations have resulted in a criminal conviction.

Multiple calls to Meiring at his home and office were not returned.

Few state licensing boards for professions like counselors or teachers have mechanisms in their background check procedures that would catch allegations that were never prosecuted. Some standard checks are conducted in every state, but the statutes regulating what can be taken into consideration when granting or revoking licenses vary. And because the lists of priests with credible allegations against them were so thin until the past year, there was little to cross-check.

Danielle Irving-Johnson, the career services specialist for the American Counseling Association, said criminal background checks are standard when licensing counselors, but that dismissing an application due to an unprosecuted allegation would be unusual.

“There would have to be substantial evidence or some form of documentation to support this accusation,” Irving-Johnson said.

The Alabama Board of Examiners in Psychology was not aware of the allegations against former priest William Finger when he was licensed as a counselor in 2012. The Brooklyn diocese publicly named Finger only in 2017, even though he had been laicized since 2002 because of abuse allegations.

According to a complaint filed in January with the board, a woman who asked not to be named contacted Finger’s employer last year to say he had abused her for a decade, beginning when he was a priest and she was 12 years old. She said he kissed her, fondled her and digitally penetrated her and also alleged he had sexually abused her sister and a female cousin.

The employer fired Finger, now 83, and reported the allegations to the state’s licensing board.

In many states, allegations dating from before someone was licensed or that never made it to court would have been dismissed. But Alabama’s board issued an emergency suspension because it is allowed to consider issues of “moral character” from any point in a licensed individual’s life.

The decision whether to permanently suspend Finger’s license is pending. He did not return multiple messages from the AP but denied the allegations in a statement to the licensing board. He also remains licensed as a counselor and hypnotherapist in Florida.

The AP also found that 91 of the clergy members had been licensed to work in schools as teachers, principals, aides and school counselors, only 19 of whom had their licenses suspended or revoked. Twenty-eight still are actively licensed or hold lifetime certifications.

That’s almost surely an undercount, since some private, religious or online schools don’t require teachers to be licensed and states like New Jersey and Massachusetts don’t have public databases of teacher licenses.

School administrators in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, knew for years that sixth-grade teacher Joseph Michael DeShan had been forced from the priesthood for impregnating a teen parishioner. But nearly two decades later, he remained in a classroom.

DeShan, now 60, left the Bridgeport, Connecticut, diocese in 1989 after admitting having sex with the girl beginning when she was 14. Two years later, she got pregnant and gave birth. The diocese did not report DeShan to the police, and he was never prosecuted.

By 2002, he was working as a teacher in Cinnaminson when church disclosures about his past raised alarms. After a brief investigation, administrators allowed DeShan to return to the classroom, where he remained until last year, when a new generation of parents renewed cries for his removal.

The school board tried to fire him, citing both his conduct as a priest and recent remarks to a student about her “pretty green eyes.” In April, a state arbitrator ruled against the district, saying it had been “long aware” of DeShan’s conduct as a priest.

The state confirmed DeShan, who did not return calls for comment, still holds a valid teaching license, but that the licensing board is seeking to revoke it. Parents say he is not in a classroom this fall, but his profile remains posted on the school website and the idea he could be allowed back is troubling, said Cornell Jones, whose daughter was in DeShan’s class last year.

“When I found out about this guy being her teacher I was just, ‘No way — there’s no way possible,'” Jones said. “I get a traffic violation and they make me pay. You violate a child and they just put you in a different zip code. How fair is that?”

The AP determined that one former priest had been licensed as recently as May. Andrew Syring, 42, resigned from the Omaha Archdiocese in November after a review of allegations that included inappropriate conversations with teens and kissing them on the cheeks. No charges were filed.

Dan Hoesing, the superintendent of the Schuyler Independent School DIstrict in Nebraska, said he could not disqualify Syring when he applied to be a substitute teacher because the former priest had not been accused of outright abuse or criminally charged. But Hoesing instituted strict rules requiring Syring to be supervised by another adult at all times, even while teaching, and banning him from student bathrooms or locker rooms.

Syring did not return messages for comment left with family members.

In many of the cases where a teaching license was revoked, the AP found the former priests went on to seek employment teaching English as a second language in private clinics, as online teachers or at community colleges.

“If these guys simply left and disappeared somewhere, it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Doyle, the canon lawyer. “But they don’t. They get jobs and create spaces where they can get access to and abuse children again.”

FILLING THE VACUUM

To a large extent, nonprofits, survivors groups and victims have stepped in to fill the void in tracking and policing these clergy members while they await stronger action.

Nojadera, with the bishops’ youth protection division, said more and more of his emails about priests are from concerned parishioners who are taking up the cause of protecting children.

“The lay faithful definitely seem to be stepping in,” he said. “Part of that is the awareness of the community in many ways based on the trainings we are having for our children and others in the parish communities.”

Gemma Hoskins, one of the stars of the documentary series “The Keepers” about abuse in a Baltimore Catholic school, also is taking up the cause.

Hoskins and a handful of volunteers have started a homegrown database using spreadsheets of clergy members created by a nonprofit called BishopAccountability.org to locate priests accused of abuse and post their approximate addresses.

“We’re careful. If their address is 123 Main Street, we’ll say the 100 block of Main Street like the police do,” she said. “We don’t want any of our volunteers to get in trouble, but it’s something all of us feel is necessary. If the priests are laicized, it’s even scarier … because it means the church isn’t tracking where they are living. They’re out there in the world as unregistered sex offenders.”

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said reports of abuse in the church have decreased and that all indications are that fresh allegations are being properly reported.

He also said that while keeping tabs on the accused abusers is important, the public shouldn’t assume all the former priests pose a big risk, noting that roughly one in every five child molesters reoffends.

“That’s lower than for a number of other violent crimes,” he said.

Still, he feels church leaders need to do far more to help track these clergy members, since anemic reporting in the past means little now prevents many of the priests from once again getting close to children.

“Tracking them is something they could have done as part of a general display of responsibility for the problem that they had helped contribute to,” Finkelhor said.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic seminarians are newly speaking out about sexual misconduct

— and being shunned as a result

Matthew Bojanowski, left, is pictured on his confirmation day as a seminarian in 2015 in Boston. With him are Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop, and the Rev. Jeffrey Nowak, Bojanowski’s spiritual director.

By Michelle Boorstein

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 his Aug. 15 resignation letter, Parisi urged other seminarians, if they have issues, to go to state officials or journalists.

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.

The guide for seminarians by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops encourages submissiveness.

“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.

Vincent DeGeorge, left, a former seminarian for the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, attends a “candidacy” ceremony in March 2018, one of the steps toward becoming a priest, along with then-Bishop Michael Bransfield.

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.”

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