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.
When Vermont’s Catholic Church recently came clean about its half-century-long history of child sex abuse claims against 10% of its clergy, many wondered how much money the state’s largest religious denomination had on hand to deal with a potential new wave of lawsuits.
But that figure doesn’t include an estimated $500 million in property that church leaders stashed into trusts more than a decade ago to protect those assets from priest abuse settlements.
In the spring of 2006, then-Bishop Salvatore Matano began to see how much the scandal, first exposed by the Boston Globe, would cost the church.
The Vermont diocese had paid one accuser $20,000 to drop his court case in 2003. A year later, two more men demanded $120,000 and $150,000 respectively before they agreed to settle. In 2006, the church, facing a six-figure debt and a seemingly endless series of civil lawsuits, saw individual settlement claims rise to nearly $1 million.
That’s when Matano hatched an idea. The bishop told his attorney to place each of the diocese’s local parishes — some 130 at the time — into separate trusts whose holdings could only be tapped for “pious, charitable or educational purposes,” shielding the property from potential multimillion-dollar jury verdicts.
“In such litigious times, it would be a gross act of mismanagement if I did not do everything possible to protect our parishes and the interests of the faithful from unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault,” Matano wrote in a private letter to concerned Catholics.
Soon after, the diocese’s lawyer quietly sent a stack of two-page “deed into trust” form letters to municipal clerks throughout the state.
Although news reports revealed the diocese’s initial idea for shielding assets 13 years ago, details about how the church carried out the plan, what it stockpiled and where everything would lead haven’t been reported until now. As renewed scrutiny of priest misconduct raises new questions about the diocese’s capacity for future payouts, the trusts could soon be tested.
‘The information we have is sufficiently compelling’
Ever since 17th century Catholic explorer Samuel de Champlain inspired the name of the Green Mountain State — “Voilà les monts verts!” he reportedly exclaimed four centuries ago — the church has played a prominent role in Vermont history, boasting as many as 157,000 members as late as 1980.
But its reputation was besmirched when former residents of Burlington’s now-closed St. Joseph’s Catholic orphanage spoke publicly in the 1990s about enduring physical and psychological abuse during the facility’s operation from 1854 to 1974.
The diocese offered each orphanage resident $5,000 to drop their right to sue. As many as 160 considered the deal and more than 100 accepted payment, according to news reports from the time.
When the press reported on a statewide priest misconduct scandal in the early 2000s, church leaders used a similar strategy to keep survivors from talking.
The idea initially worked. In the fall of 2003, the diocese settled the first lawsuit for a small unspecified sum.
“I’m not going to tell you the amount, although it’s relatively low,” the accuser’s lawyer said at the time of a figure reported to be $20,000. “It was never about the money, it was getting the church to recognize what they did was wrong. We don’t think this is the end of the story. We think there are other victims out there.”
Other survivors weren’t as easily satisfied. A year later, the diocese settled two more cases for $120,000 and $150,000. The church also revealed it had spent more than $700,000 to squash earlier lawsuits dating back to 1950 and another $2 million for orphanage-related compensation, counseling and legal fees.
The diocese doesn’t have insurance for abuse cases and therefore must pay for settlements with assets on hand. (Church leaders stress they don’t tap regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop’s Fund for settlements.)
By 2005, more than a dozen people had filed lawsuits seeking liens on church property totaling up to $30 million.
“We believe the information we have is sufficiently compelling that seven-figure verdicts are quite likely,” their lawyer, Jerome O’Neill of Burlington, said at the time about the possibility of jury trials. “We want to make sure that there are sufficient assets available if we are successful in our actions.”
‘This was much more than we wanted to pay’
Soon after, O’Neill scored big when a judge ordered the Vermont Attorney General’s office to share the priest misconduct files it obtained from the diocese. The lawyer received hundreds of pages of paperwork chronicling the fact the church knew several of its priests had faced accusations of child sex abuse for decades but did nothing to alert the public or police.
By the spring of 2006, O’Neill had 17 new clients and a slate of trials set to start the day after Easter. What the public didn’t know: the first of those cases centered on claims against the former Rev. Edward Paquette, who secret files showed to be the worst serial predator of all the state’s clergy.
A court order restricted anyone involved from talking publicly. But privately, O’Neill and church leaders understood the value of the papers the lawyer held in his hands. If they were introduced in court, a shocked jury might award a survivor a multimillion-dollar verdict.
The church seemed ready to reject escalating settlement demands as Burlington’s Chittenden Superior Court screened jurors for the first Paquette trial in April 2006. Then the judge, gaveling in proceedings, announced the parties had forged a last-minute agreement for a record $965,000.
“This was much more than we wanted to pay,” the diocese’s lawyer said outside court. “But we decided that it would be the best to minimize the cost.”
Church leaders had hoped the settlement would keep the accuser from talking publicly. But once the court lifted its gag order upon the close of the trial, O’Neill — whose client hadn’t signed a nondisclosure agreement — surprised everyone by revealing all of the evidence.
The documents showed Vermont Catholic leaders knew two other states had dismissed Paquette for child sex abuse before they assigned him to Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.
“The dossier is large and the history long,” the bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, had warned his Green Mountain State colleagues in a letter about the priest’s record of molesting boys.
For the first time, the public had a glimpse of what the diocese had covered up for decades.
‘Unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault’
By the first week of May 2006, the church, suddenly in debt more than $1 million and facing a rising number of lawsuits, was studying its financial options. It soon made headlines by announcing it wanted the judge who oversaw the $965,000 settlement to be barred from presiding over the remaining cases.
“The diocese has great concern over the lack of a level playing field,” its lawyer said at the time. “We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to keep prejudice from building.”
Unbeknown to the public, another church attorney was mailing two-page form letters to municipal clerks to secure parish property into individual local trusts.
“This deed into trust shall operate as an assignment of all personal property, tangible and intangible, fixed or moveable, together with all accounts, funds, benefices and entitlements, related to the ownership, operation, management, control, preservation and use of the herein conveyed real estate,” each document says.
As outlined in the papers now on file in town clerk’s offices, the diocese’s bishop is the “trustee” of each trust, each parish pastor is the “trust administrator” and each parish finance council forms the “trust advisors.”
“Thus, the present diocesan protocols and regulations for the administration of parishes remain, in effect, unchanged,” Matano wrote in his private letter to concerned Catholics.
Speaking at a 2006 Mother’s Day reception at the Woodstock Inn, Matano told attendees the trusts were “an extra layer of protection” from anyone seeking to tap church assets.
“I’m really in a no-win situation,” he said. “I want to be sensitive to victims, but I don’t want to inflict pain on innocent parishioners. It’s certainly just to ask the church to be accountable, but is it just to destroy parishes, schools and other agencies of care to do so?”
Learning about Matano’s statement about protecting the church from “unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault,” the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest blasted the bishop for “attacking deeply wounded men and women who were raped as kids by priests.”
“How can you lash out at them and call their long overdue, David vs. Goliath effort an ‘unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault?’” survivors wrote in a letter to Matano.
‘It has a very serious impact on a small, rural diocese’
O’Neill responded more strategically. The lawyer, knowing the church doesn’t pay taxes and its properties aren’t listed at fair market value, sought assessments of the holdings’ true financial worth.
Former state economist Arthur Woolf reviewed insurance and municipal records to place a “market value” of all Vermont Catholic Church-related property at between $270 million and $500 million.
An insurance company, for its part, estimated the replacement cost of all parish, school and support buildings at $400 million, noting the number didn’t put a price tag on the underlying land.
Matano, who steadfastly confined his media comments to diocesan-run press outlets, defended the trust idea in a rare 2006 interview. Noting “this is not in any way intended to penalize victims,” the bishop said the plan was designed to reassure Vermont churchgoers who feared the potential loss of their parish holdings.
“They had no part in these awful events of the past,” he said. “I think it’s unfair to penalize them and say they are responsible.”
Matano wasn’t the only Catholic official aiming to shield assets. U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, for example, was head of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2007 when he worked to move nearly $57 million in church holdings into a cemetery trust to protect them “from any legal claim and liability,” he wrote in a letter to the Vatican.
O’Neill believes the act of shifting assets into trusts broke Vermont’s fraudulent deeds law, which bars any transfer “with intent to avoid a right, debt or duty.” He filed state and federal cases in 2009, charging the diocese not only shielded parish property but also $3.8 million into a pension fund and another $3.7 million into a Vermont Catholic Charities account.
“You can’t take property you have, transfer it and then say it’s beyond the reach of your creditors,” the lawyer explains today.
Headlines about the trust plans soon gave way to news of more lawsuits, more settlements and a string of trials. Juries went on to slam the church with a record $8.7 million verdict in May 2008, a nearly $3.6 million verdict in December 2008 and a $2.2 million verdict in October 2009.
“It’s a very, very large amount of money,” Matano told reporters at the time. “It has a very serious impact on a small, rural diocese.”
To ensure the church paid, a judge placed liens not only on the 32-acre Burlington headquarters and the site of the former St. Joseph’s Orphanage but also a portion of its investment portfolio. By the start of 2010, a second judge overseeing more than two dozen additional lawsuits proposed merging the cases into an unprecedented joint trial.
The diocese, fearing bankruptcy, announced it wanted to settle rather than try to defend against the cases.
With most of its assets in the trusts, the church raised $10 million by selling its Old North End offices and campus — the largest open tract of land on the Lake Champlain waterfront in the state’s most populous city — to the alternative liberal arts Burlington College in 2010.
“This will be truly transformative for the college,” the school’s head, Jane O’Meara Sanders, said at the time.
“I think Bishop Coyne is trying to deal with the legacy problem of abuse,” O’Neill says. “I perceive him as someone who wants to be fair. But whether the amount of money the diocese has is adequate to resolve the cases remains to be seen.”
The diocese didn’t respond to calls for comment other than to report Coyne was away this past week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s returning home to a church that’s financially stable. But that could change if the latest lawsuits go to trial.
Settling what he thought were the last of the abuse cases long ago, O’Neill dropped his fraudulent deeds fight and allowed the six-year statute of limitations for contesting the issue to pass. But if a future jury awards a big payoff to one of his clients, the lawyer believes a judge could rule the parish trusts to be diocesan assets and therefore available for tapping.
“The fact the bishop is the trustee makes the trusts more vulnerable to attack,” he says. “You’d have to have a judgment before it became a real issue, but if the diocese is unable to pay, we will have no hesitancy to reach for those assets. The church may have transferred them, but who’s controlling the puppet strings?”
Campaigners have gathered in Rome to call for the lifting of a ban on female priests that would “save the Catholic Church” where it is failing to ordain enough men.
Activists from the Women’s Ordination Worldwide (Wow) group protested outside the Vatican on Tuesday as the church’s hierarchy pondered the idea of allowing married men in the Amazon to become priests in order to plug the shortage in the region.
The activists argue that ordaining women priests would solve the issue as effectively and should be prioritised.
”Empowering women would save the church,” said Kate McElwee, a Rome-based representative of Wow. “Our church and our Earth are in crisis – and empowering women in roles that they are already serving in their communities is a solution. We’re advocating for equality and that includes ordination.”
The church has been struggling with a shortage of priests for decades, particularly in Europe and North America, which have had sharp falls in church membership as well as devastating sexual abuse scandals. In some places, priests have been moved from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where the church is flourishing, to fill vacancies.
While Pope Francis has opened up more discussion about women’s roles and appointed women in key Vatican positions, the topic of them becoming priests is still very much taboo. A huge number of women serve within the church around the world, outnumbering men in some countries, but they are denied the privilege of voting at Vatican synods, such as the one on the Amazon currently taking place, because they are not ordained.
“The consequences of this massive injustice are far-reaching beyond the church,” said Miriam Duignan, from Wow’s unit in the UK. “It’s not just a matter of who stands at the altar each Sunday and blesses the bread … women are silenced and sidelined, and this has a tidal effect beyond the priesthood in terms of how women are seen.”
The campaigners, who held umbrellas to shield themselves from the afternoon sun, said they were often insulted during protests, with one Rome police officer telling them to move away and close their umbrellas because they featured a “women priests” slogan.
Their biggest fear over the idea of allowing married men in the Amazon to be ordained is that the many women who already carry out ministerial roles in the region could be supplanted by men.
“The church would not be alive in the Amazon if it wasn’t for women,” said Duignan. “They are undertaking priestly roles without having the title of priest.”
Pat Brown, also from the UK, said the situation for women serving the church in the developing world is more acute. “It’s not so bad for us but they suffer this misogyny: the church endorses sexism.”
The Amazon synod, which wraps up on 27 October, has discussed the role of women in the region, with Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the president of the synod, proposing that “a suitable ministry” be established for “women community leaders”. Many bishops have supported the ordination of married men despite criticism from more conservative factions.
The pope has previously said he would be open to allowing married men to be ordained in areas where there was a scarcity of priests, while maintaining the requirement for most priests to be celibate. He has also spoken about “allowing space for women in the church at all levels”.
As the event draws to a close, the Vatican on Tuesday lambasted the two extreme conservative Catholics who stole Amazonian statues from a church near the Vatican and dumped them in the Tiber River.
The wooden statues, which depict a pregnant woman and represent an indigenous Virgin Mary, were presented to the pope at the start of the synod but critics consider them to be pagan. Paolo Ruffini, the Vatican’s head of communications, said the theft was “a stupid stunt”.
The four statues were stolen from the Santa Maria in Traspontina church on Monday and the stunt filmed by the perpetrators.
“In the name of tradition and doctrine, an effigy of maternity and the sacredness of life was dumped in contempt,” said Ruffini, adding that the “violent and intolerant gesture” had “passed from hate on social media to action”.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”