A W.Va. bishop spent millions on himself and sent cash to cardinals and young priests before his ouster, confidential Vatican report says

Michael J. Bransfield, then-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., in 2015.

By Michelle Boorstein

In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.

The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.

Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.

The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with numerous emails and financial records.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield, and asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities, “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”

He acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” Lori wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”

The investigation was launched by the Vatican last fall after clerics in West Virginia raised concerns about Bransfield’s behavior. Five lay investigators concluded that the cash gifts were part of a broader pattern of abuse of power by the bishop, including harassing young priests and spending church money on personal indulgences.

“Bishop Bransfield adopted an extravagant and lavish lifestyle that was in stark contrast to the faithful he served and was for his own personal benefit,” they wrote in the final report.

During his 13 years as bishop in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, Bransfield spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, which included flying in chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels, according to the report. Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, it says. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield’s church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom. When Bransfield was in the chancery, an administrative building, fresh flowers were delivered daily, at a cost of about $100 a day — almost $182,000 in all.

Bransfield, 75, drew on a source of revenue that many parishioners knew little about, oil-rich land in Texas donated to the diocese more than a century ago. He spoke of church money as if it were his to spend without restriction, according to the report.

“I own this,” he is quoted as saying on many occasions.

In an interview with The Post, Bransfield disputed the allegations, saying “none of it is true,” but declined to go into detail because attorneys had advised him not to comment. One of his attorneys said Lori has not responded to Bransfield’s request for a copy of the report.

“Everybody’s trying to destroy my reputation,” Bransfield said by phone without elaborating. “These people are terrible to me.”

According to the report, he spoke with investigators in February and “emphatically denied engaging in any sexual harassment or sexual activity with any priest or seminarian, either verbally or suggestively by his conduct.” The report does not include responses from Bransfield to many of the spending allegations, but he told investigators that aides oversaw the renovations at his residence and that back problems left him unable to fly in economy class.

The diocesan property in Wheeling, W.Va., where Bishop Michael J. Bransfield lived during his years there. The West Virginia diocese paid $4.6 million to renovate the residence after a fire damaged a bathroom, according to church records obtained by The Post.

Lori told members of the diocese in a statement Wednesday that he received permission “as of today” to sell the bishop’s residence in Wheeling and use the proceeds to support victims and survivors of sexual abuse.

Just hours after The Post’s inquiries, the statement also addressed the gifts he received from Bransfield. “In the spirit of full disclosure I feel it necessary to acknowledge that I was periodically a recipient of financial gifts in varying amounts by Bishop Bransfield,” Lori wrote.

The documents obtained by The Post provide a rare inside look at the finances of one diocese at a time when Catholic leaders, buffeted by criticism over their handling of clergy sex-abuse cases, have pledged to reform a church hierarchy that gives virtually unchecked power to bishops and cardinals. The records also offer the deepest insight yet into the circumstances surrounding Bransfield’s resignation in September — when church authorities announced an investigation into unspecified sexual harassment allegations — and his subsequent suspension from ministry in March.

Bransfield wrote at least 565 checks that were recorded as “gifts” and made out to the clerics by name. The documents obtained by The Post do not make clear why Bransfield gave the gifts, though the recipients of the largest amounts were among the most influential members of the Catholic Church, clerics whose opinions carry weight with the Vatican.

Among them was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who recently retired as Washington’s archbishop; Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York; Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who sits on the Vatican Supreme Court, and Archbishop Carlo Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States known for his calls for more accountability. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a high-ranking Vatican official who served for years in the District, received two checks totaling $29,000 for expenses related to an apartment in Rome, documents show.

The report does not comment on the propriety of accepting such gifts.

The gifts came as a succession of younger male clerical assistants complained to church officials in West Virginia that Bransfield was sexually harassing them. Similar concerns were raised about Bransfield’s conduct in Philadelphia, where he taught at a Catholic high school, and in the District of Columbia, where he was head of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from 1990 to 2005, the report says.

At least six of Bransfield’s clerical assistants in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston “were broken by the experience,” Vicar for Clergy Anthony Cincinnati told investigators. Seminarians or young priests appealed to leaders in the diocese, to no avail, the report says. They were instructed to “make your boundaries clear,” it says, or told that they had no choice but to join Bransfield in such activities as sleepovers at his residence and on trips.

“Your presence is required,” the report quotes another of Bransfield’s top aides, the Judicial Vicar Rev. Kevin Quirk, telling a young priest.

In a statement, a spokesman for Wuerl said the cardinal had “received honoraria for speaking invitations in the Diocese of Wheeling and other commemorative events, as well as modest gifts to mark personal celebrations, such as an ordination anniversary.”

A Vatican spokesman confirmed that Farrell received “voluntary donations” from Bransfield and others for the renovation of his apartment in the Vatican and said that Bransfield “received nothing in exchange.”

“Cardinal Farrell was not aware of the accusations against Bishop Bransfield for abuses and mismanagement of the financial funds of his diocese,” the spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said in a statement.

Spokesmen for Dolan and Burke did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Nor did Vigano.

Cincinnati declined to comment.

Asked for comment on behalf of him and Quirk, a spokesman for the diocese forwarded the statement from Lori. The statement cast blame on Bransfield, claiming that the judgment of some diocesan personnel was “impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”

The roots of the West Virginia diocese’s unusual wealth date back to the late 1800s, to a friendship struck on a transatlantic cruise ship between a bishop from Wheeling and a New York heiress. When she died in 1904, Sara Catherine Aloysia Tracy left the majority of her estate to the diocese, including a large tract of land in west Texas. Oil was discovered there decades later.

The income from the mineral rights generates annual revenue averaging nearly $15 million in recent years and has funded an endowment now valued at $230 million, according to financial documents. As a result, West Virginia’s parishes are largely supported by the diocese — unlike across the rest of the country, where dioceses must be supported by local parishes.

The state has 78,000 Catholics — just 4 percent of the population, among the lowest per capita in the country.

Bransfield arrived at the Wheeling-Charleston diocese in 2005. He was known to prefer an opulent lifestyle, the report says. Investigators wrote that “a reputation for a party atmosphere attached to Bransfield’s tenure” in Washington.

Three months into his time in West Virginia, documents show, Bransfield began dipping into the diocese’s fortune, sending to some clerics what would be the first of many checks.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston seen in Wheeling, W.Va.

In 2006, Bransfield gave $4,800 to Cardinal Bernard Law, who had by then been ousted from Boston for his role covering up clergy sex abuse. Cardinal Edmund Szoka got $500 after retiring that year as a top Vatican administrator.

In 2011, shortly after Wuerl was elevated to cardinal in the Archdiocese of Washington, Bransfield appeared with him at a ceremony in Rome. Bransfield walked just behind Wuerl in a procession of global dignitaries, video of the event shows. Two weeks later, Bransfield wrote a check to Wuerl for $10,000.

The following year, Bransfield sent a $5,000 check to the newly appointed archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori.

The Rev. Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, known as the Apostolic Nuncio, received checks totaling $28,000 before his death in 2011, the draft report shows. Vigano, his successor, got checks worth $6,000, it shows.

Checks totaling $9,175 were sent to his nephew the Rev. Sean Bransfield, vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, financial records show. His cousin Monsignor Brian Bransfield, general-secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, received $1,350, the records show.

During these years, fellow clerics elected Michael Bransfield president of the Papal Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes millions of dollars to charitable projects on the pope’s behalf. The foundation is run by U.S. cardinals, and its board included Wuerl and Theodore McCarrick, both recipients of Bransfield’s cash gifts.

Bransfield also became a regular visitor to the Vatican. In 2010, he presented a cake to Pope Benedict on the pontiff’s 83rd birthday.

Law, Sambi and Szoka are deceased.

An attorney for McCarrick said he has no immediate comment.

In separate statements, Brian and Sean Bransfield said they were unaware that Michael Bransfield had been reimbursed for the checks. “They always seemed like a typical gift from a family member,” Brian Bransfield said.

Records show that the diocese’s finance officials adopted a method to reimburse Bransfield for the checks. His compensation was increased by an amount that covered the gifts, plus the tax burden that resulted from the increased compensation, a practice known as “grossing up,” according to the report and emails among top diocesan officials. The documents do not describe who initiated the arrangement, but internal emails indicate it became common practice.

“His Excellency would like to receive a check in the amount of $500.00 prepared according to the usual gross-up method,” Quirk wrote to diocese financial officials in a 2016 email regarding a gift that Bransfield sent to Vigano’s successor as nuncio, Christophe Pierre.

In the six years before Bransfield left West Virginia, the same method was used to reimburse him $324,129 for a portion of his personal expenses — clothing, jewelry and “personal services,” the report says. Among the charges paid for by the diocese were 87 purchases totaling $61,000 from Ann Hand, a D.C. jewelry boutique specializing in patriotic items such as gold and sapphire eagles, records show. The report does not say whether the church paid for the jewelry directly or reimbursed Bransfield to cover the cost.

As Bransfield lived in opu­lence, seminarians and young priests who assisted him complained to church officials that he was sexually harassing them.

The report cites nine men in the Wheeling-Charleston diocese who accused Bransfield of touching or groping them, kissing or exposing himself to them or of commenting on their bodies. Diocesan leaders witnessed Bransfield’s “predatory” behavior toward altar servers, behavior troubling enough that one church leader tried to make sure no altar server was left alone with him, the report says.

The text of the report does not name the alleged victims, and it is often vague about when the incidents took place.

There were “troubling hugs” from Bransfield, the seminarians and young priests told investigators. On some of these occasions, they alleged, Bransfield appeared to be intoxicated. Others said he warned them not to “get fat.”

One said Bransfield slapped him on the buttocks at Castel Gandolfo in Italy, the summer residence of the pope. On another occasion, the alleged victim said, Bransfield summoned him into his bedroom and began kissing his neck.

Another said Bransfield let him drink alcohol before he was legally of age, exposed himself, pulled the young man against him and ran his hands over the seminarian’s genitals.

One seminarian recalled sitting on Bransfield’s lap, being kissed by the bishop and thinking: “I either do this, or I have to completely reinvent my life.” Bransfield asked him to take his pants off, but he refused, the seminarian told investigators. The seminarian later suffered an emotional breakdown and became deeply depressed, the report says.

At least two of the men now accusing Bransfield of misconduct received checks from him, typically for between $50 and $300, according to the report and financial records. Those gifts were given during and after the alleged misconduct, the records show.

Throughout his tenure, Bransfield abused alcohol, oxycodone and other prescription drugs, which “likely contributed to his harassing and abusive behavior,” the report says. The report does not include a response from Bransfield on the drug use allegations.

In the interview with investigators in February, Bransfield denied sexual misconduct with the seminarians or young priests, the report says. “He said that at most he would hug these individuals (using the term “embrazzio” to describe the hugs), but there was never any sexual intent with anyone he came into contact with while bishop or during his time at the National Shrine,” it says.

Despite the growing number of people in the diocese who had concerns about Bransfield’s conduct and spending, the few internal checks that existed failed to stop it, according to the report.

The diocese had a finance board made up of officials and lay people who were responsible for overseeing spending, including Bransfield’s compensation. The board was “extremely passive,” the report says.

“There was an almost complete absence of any meaningful review of financial decisions,” the investigators wrote.

Told of the findings, Dwight M. Keating, a longtime member of the finance board, said: “Wow. I didn’t know any of this.”

Keating said the board never discussed or approved reimbursing Bransfield for cash gifts. “Why would we be giving gifts to people outside the diocese? We have enough poor people in the state,” he said.

In 2013, a new finance director, Michael Deemer, noticed the “extreme level” of Bransfield’s spending and concluded that it might violate IRS rules, the report says.

Instead of confronting Bransfield, Deemer arranged for some of those personal expenses to be added to the bishop’s compensation, using the “gross-up” method that had been in place for years to reimburse him for cash gifts.

Tax experts contacted by The Post said the decision to reimburse Bransfield by boosting his income could raise questions at the IRS about whether there was an effort to mask the true source of the money.

Outside auditors also avoided addressing the spending patterns, the report says. A partner at the auditing firm hired by Bransfield told investigators he was “afraid to challenge Bishop Bransfield’s decisions because of the Bishop’s position and his overall demeanor.”

Quirk and Bransfield’s most senior aide, Vicar General Rev. Frederick P. Annie, discussed concerns about the bishop’s conduct with young men but did nothing to stop it, the report says.

“Tell it to the Nuncio,” Annie said when Quirk raised the issue, according to Quirk, referring to the conduit for complaints to the Vatican about bishops.

During his time in West Virginia, Bransfield gave three people who held that role checks totaling $38,000, records show. Annie told investigators that taking a complaint about the bishop to the nuncio would have been “career ending.”

In the spring of 2018, two young priests who had worked as assistants to Bransfield, along with a third priest who had been offered that job, delivered incendiary letters to Quirk. They alleged that Bransfield “had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances, sexual contact, and sexual harassment,” church documents show.

Quirk took the allegations to Lori, along with documents detailing Bransfield’s cash gifts. The Vatican launched an investigation.

On Sept. 13, Pierre, the nuncio, announced that Bransfield had resigned. On the same day, the Archdiocese of Baltimore released a statement saying Pope Francis had directed Lori to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Bransfield. The statement offered few details.

Within days, Lori named a team that included two attorneys from the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder: former Baltimore prosecutor Gregg L. Bernstein and Caroline Judge Mehta. The team also included Diane Barr, the chancellor of the Baltimore diocese; Christopher Helmrath, a financial consultant; and John Moore, a retired lay person in West Virginia. Lori gave them permission to access any relevant documents.

They all declined to comment, referred questions to Lori or did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The team began interviewing dozens of people and waded through years of credit card reports detailing Bransfield’s purchases, as well as personal banking records maintained on his computer.

On Feb. 13, the lay investigators delivered a scathing 60-page report recommending that Bransfield be stripped of his powers as bishop, removed from ministry and forced to pay unspecified restitution.

It also recommended that his three closest aides — Annie, Quirk and Cincinnati — be removed. “By failing to take any action, the Chancery Monsignors enabled the predatory and harassing conduct of Bishop Bransfield, and allowed him to recklessly spend Diocesan funds for his own personal use,” the report said.

The investigators suggested reforms that would enable priests, church workers and parishioners to report sexual and financial abuses without fear of repercussions. They also recommended that the diocese’s external auditors be fired.

Bransfield was removed from ministry in March. Only his successor would be able to remove the three Bransfield aides, Lori said Wednesday. And he said only the Vatican can make a decision about forcing Bransfield to pay restitution.

“My focus is on the healing of the people of the diocese and on preventing such abuses from occurring in the future,” Lori wrote.

Complete Article HERE!

Woman Accuses Cardinal Daniel DiNardo Of Dismissing Sex Abuse Case

Laura Pontikes, a Texas-based construction executive, has accused Monsignor Frank Rossi of drawing her into a physical relationship.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

By

When Cardinal Daniel DiNardo first met Laura Pontikes in his wood-paneled conference room in December 2016, the leader of the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to its sex abuse scandal said all the right things.

He praised her for coming forward to report that his deputy in the Galveston-Houston archdiocese had manipulated her into a sexual relationship and declared her a “victim” of the priest, Pontikes said. Emails and other documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the relationship had gone on for years — even as the priest heard her confessions, counseled her husband on their marriage and pressed the couple for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

She says she was assured that the priest, Monsignor Frank Rossi, would never be a pastor or counsel women again.

Months after that meeting, though, she found out DiNardo had allowed Rossi to take a new job as pastor of a parish two hours away in east Texas. When her husband confronted DiNardo, he said, the cardinal warned that the archdiocese would respond aggressively to any legal challenge — and that the fallout would hurt their family and business.

On Tuesday, three years after the meeting with DiNardo and after written inquiries by the AP last week, the church temporarily removed Rossi, announcing in a statement from his new bishop that he was being placed on administrative leave.

Laura Pontikes, a 55-year-old construction executive in Texas, had been at a low point in her life when she sought spiritual counseling from Rossi, the longtime No. 2 official in the Galveston-Houston archdiocese DiNardo heads. Instead, she said, Rossi preyed on her emotional vulnerability to draw her into a physical relationship that he called blessed by God.

“He took a woman that went into a church truly looking for God, and he took me for himself,” she told the AP.

Rossi’s sexual relationship with Pontikes is now the subject of a previously undisclosed criminal investigation in Houston. Yet it is DiNardo’s handling of the case that poses far-reaching questions for the church in the #MeToo era, when powerful men and institutions are being called to account over sex abuse.

As the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, DiNardo will lead a meeting next week in Baltimore to address the church’s credibility crisis over its failure to fully reckon with sexual abuse, 17 years after it committed to cleaning house. DiNardo is expected to present his brother bishops with new proposals to hold one another accountable for sexual misconduct or negligence in handling abuse cases.

But Pontikes’ case lays bare that even leaders in the Catholic hierarchy who have vowed to do right by victims continue to fail them. Pontikes said DiNardo has been negligent by keeping in ministry a priest who “seduced, betrayed and ultimately sexually victimized” her, Pontikes’ therapist told Texas prosecutors.

The June 11-14 meeting in Baltimore is part of the church’s effort to confront sexual abuse worldwide. In a little more than a year, Pope Francis admitted he made “grave errors” in Chile’s worst case of cover-up, an Australian cardinal was convicted of abuse and a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile.

In the U.S., a Pennsylvania grand jury blasted church leaders for following “a playbook for concealing the truth,” and attorneys general in at least 15 states are investigating sex abuse by Catholic clergy and its cover-up.

The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged an inappropriate physical relationship between Rossi and Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual and didn’t include sexual intercourse. In a written statement to The Associated Press, it defended its handling of the case, saying Rossi was immediately placed on leave and went for counseling after Pontikes reported him.

Rossi returned to active ministry, without restrictions, based on recommendations from an out-of-state “renewal” program for clergy he completed, the statement said.

Pontikes filed a police report in August. Under Texas criminal law, a member of the clergy can be charged with sexual assault of an adult if the priest exploited an emotional dependency in a spiritual relationship.

Rossi’s attorney, Dan Cogdell, said Rossi is cooperating with the investigation and has met with police. He declined further comment.

Pontikes’ allegations against DiNardo add to questions about how he has dealt with abuse in the past. SNAP, a national group of survivors of clergy abuse, has called for him to resign as head of the bishops conference because he allowed predator priests to remain in ministry in Houston, as well as in his previous diocese in Sioux City, Iowa.

And when law enforcement raided DiNardo’s offices in November as part of an investigation into an alleged abuser, they found files locked away in a bank vault that the archdiocese had failed to turn over, according to police documents released last month.

Rossi previously helped handle Galveston-Houston’s abuse cases for more than two decades. But in a church bulletin in February, he minimized the number of abusers nationwide, accused the media of hyping the scandal and insisted that while even one case of abuse was too many, the vast majority of accused were “good men” who simply made a “terrible single decision.”

Pontikes provided the AP with seven years of her email correspondence with Rossi, therapists, priests and friends, along with financial data and communications with the archdiocese. She told the Vatican in April that Rossi heard her confessions after their relationship became physical — a potentially serious crime under church law that DiNardo never asked her about. The Vatican said her complaint was under review.

The church, which has been grappling for decades with the sexual abuse of children, is now being forced to reckon with the idea that adults too can be sexually exploited by clergy. Last summer, amid revelations that ex-

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had preyed on adult seminarians, DiNardo used his pulpit to apologize for the leadership’s failures. “This is especially true for adults being sexually harassed by those in positions of power,” DiNardo said Aug. 27. “We will do better.”

That statement gave Pontikes hope, but nothing changed, she said. She said she came forward to protect other women and expose DiNardo’s handling of her case, which has left her so distraught that she can barely sleep or work.

“They’re not going to play with my life like this,” said Pontikes. “They just can’t get away with it…Somebody had better stand up and tell the damned truth.”

Pontikes first met Rossi in the confessional at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in December 2007. At the time, Pontikes sought to fill the void of an emotionally distant husband and mounting pressures at the family business by throwing herself into her faith, giving sizeable weekly donations at Mass.

Rossi’s easy manner and laughter broke the ice.

Soon the coiffed and charismatic preacher was calling her “Laura dear” and attending family dinners. In 2008, while she showed him a religious painting in their downstairs wine cellar, Rossi slipped his hand under her jacket and rested it on her bare waist, she said.

She froze, embarrassed, but didn’t know what to do, she said. So she did nothing.

During a 2009 dinner, Rossi asked the couple to give to an ambitious capital campaign that included rebuilding the St. Michael rectory where the parish priests lived. Their firm built the new rectory for $900,000, more than half of which the couple donated themselves. In addition, Laura Pontikes donated nearly $250,000 in religious art and furnishings, including $20,000 for an 18th-century scroll depicting the Virgin Mary as the Good Shepherdess, according to a list of vendors provided to AP.

In all, the Pontikeses said they gave the church about $2 million over nine years, and Rossi asked for more, including $750,000 for a new school chapel they couldn’t afford. The archdiocese countered that their construction firm benefited from contracts worth $24 million over that time.

Pontikes began seeing Rossi for regular spiritual direction in 2010, at the same time her husband was trying to get an annulment for his first marriage. The couple wanted their civil marriage of two decades to be recognized by the church.

Rossi married the Pontikeses in a religious ceremony at St. Michael’s in August 2012. Less than four months later, during a session of spiritual counseling in his office, Pontikes said, Rossi started their physical relationship with an intimate, sexual embrace. The next day, Rossi wrote her an email with the subject line “blessings.”

“It was wonderful to visit with you yesterday and continue to unfold the love of God in your life,” he wrote.

She felt blessed and special to him, but also conflicted, knowing a boundary had been crossed. That same confusion tormented her during the many times he induced her to perform sexual acts in his office during spiritual direction, she said.

Pontikes phoned and emailed Rossi several times a day with spiritual musings and work and family problems, and he responded with the attention she sought. In time, she was increasingly questioning her feelings for him.

“I have blocked my faith mightily over my fear of my love for you,” she wrote him Jan. 5, 2013.

Rossi assured her that such feelings are common in spiritual direction and that “holy touches” were not only sanctioned but encouraged by St. Paul the Apostle.

Houston architect Ken Newberry was dismayed at seeing his longtime friend and client fall under Rossi’s spell. “She was like someone that was hypnotized or mesmerized,” Newberry said.

Newberry recognized a process of grooming that he went through when he was abused by a Catholic priest at the age of 15. He eventually told Pontikes he couldn’t bear to hear any more, because it was triggering his own trauma.

“Someone is talking to you about God,” he says, “and they’re pulling you in and telling you that this is right…It is very, very confusing and overwhelming.”

Throughout the relationship, Pontikes said, Rossi was her confessor. On Dec. 20, 2012, about two weeks after their first sexual embrace in Rossi’s office, he agreed to hear her confession: “I would be most happy to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with you if you would like.”

A few months later, Pontikes was rushing to catch a flight to visit a friend whose husband had died. Guilt-ridden about her growing intimacy with Rossi, she wanted to ease her conscience with confession before leaving town.

He was not happy with her request and said he didn’t have time. But she chased him down, followed him out the side chapel and made him hear her, according to Pontikes. She confessed that she had been inappropriate with her priest. He absolved her of their sin, she said, and told her, “Go forth and sin no more.”

The so-called “absolution of an accomplice” crime, one of the most serious in canon law, must be reported to the Vatican and can carry the penalty of excommunication. It occurs when a priest absolves someone with whom he has engaged in a sexual sin, including merely a lustful touch.

The archdiocese claims Rossi never heard Pontikes’ confession during or after their physical relationship, but the emails Pontikes turned over to church officials include several references to confession.

Edward Peters, a leading U.S. canon lawyer and consultant at the Vatican high court, says that “as a matter of good governance” the bishop in question — DiNardo — should have asked Pontikes about possible confession-related crimes. Pontikes said neither DiNardo nor his subordinates ever did.

The sexual relationship grew during a March 2013 trip to Taormina, Sicily, one of several family vacations Rossi joined at the Pontikeses’ invitation and expense. The family also had begun building a guest cottage for him at their weekend retreat on Trinity Bay.

George Pontikes, who knew nothing of the sexual encounters with his wife, reached out to Rossi for advice after the trip. She was growing more distant, irritable and distracted, he said, and the couple was on the verge of separation.

“I don’t know whether I’m asking for help or sympathy,” he wrote on April 3, 2013. “I know Laura listens to you.”

Rossi responded that she was going through strong mood swings. “My gut feeling is that she is on the verge of a breakdown due to the stress,” he wrote.

George Pontikes reached out again two weeks later.

“Frank: Laura is close to losing it,” he wrote Rossi. “I want to help. She does not want it. I think you should give it a try. She trusts you.”

Four days later, on a Friday night after George had gone to bed, the priest and parishioner consummated the relationship in the pool house bathroom of her Houston home, Laura Pontikes said. It was the first of up to half a dozen such sexual encounters over more than a year, according to Pontikes.

“I wish I could have walked away from it, but I just didn’t and I just couldn’t,” she said.

The archdiocese denied key portions of Pontikes’ claim, saying the relationship included encounters of a sexual nature but not intercourse. It also said Rossi ended the physical relationship, but Pontikes continued sending him “hundreds of unsolicited messages primarily by email and phone.”

Although Pontikes acknowledged the continued correspondence, she said she was desperate to hold onto the spiritual relationship because she believed it an essential part of her faith. Rossi assured her that their relationship was “a blessing from God.”

“I am praying fervently and digging deeper and deeper into my own soul,” he wrote her in 2015, after the physical relationship had ended. “I ache at my very core.”

The turmoil tore Pontikes up so much that she sought therapy. Gradually, painfully, she came to believe that Rossi had preyed upon her. Her suspicions were confirmed when she watched him interact with other women, and she remembered seeing him touch one on the bare shoulder at her wedding.

Then two friends told her about his inappropriate attentiveness to yet another woman on a Holy Land pilgrimage. It was the tipping point. She confided in her friends, and they urged her to turn him in.

Pontikes reported Rossi to the archdiocese April 7, 2016. She met with Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz and Sister Gina Iadanza. They didn’t ask questions, Pontikes recalled, but Iadanza wrote down everything she said, and she left them with a stack of email correspondence.

That night, as she sat in the prayer chair in her living room, she finally told her husband. “What have you done?” George Pontikes asked his wife in shock.

Over the next few days, Laura checked herself into a residential clinic to cope with the trauma. George spoke with her therapists, read the emails between Rossi and his wife and began to realize that the priest had manipulated and betrayed them both. He was livid.

Less than a month after reporting Rossi, Laura Pontikes said, she got a phone call from Iadanza. She and her husband listened together.

“She said they had completed their investigation and that a committee had determined that he must be turned over to the authorities,” Pontikes said. “I panicked. I did not want to ruin anyone’s life, even as mine appeared to be in shambles.”

The archdiocese maintained that it was not legally obliged to report Rossi to police at the time, and that Pontikes “vehemently resisted” their suggestion that she do so. However, Joe Bailey, a onetime assistant district attorney in Harris County who is now advising the Pontikeses, said Rossi’s wrongdoing is clear and should have been reported immediately. The archdiocese did report the case last year, and said it is cooperating with the investigation.

For Pontikes, this case is as much about DiNardo as it is about Rossi.

DiNardo’s archdiocese is known for its secrecy among victim advocates. In the November raid on the diocese, prosecutors backed by 60 members of the Texas Rangers and federal agents seized records related to the Rev.

Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, who has been charged with sexually abusing minors. Two of LaRosa-Lopez’s alleged victims have accused DiNardo of downplaying their claims and keeping him in ministry, around children, until his arrest in September.

DiNardo also allowed the Rev. John Keller to celebrate Mass on the same day his name appeared on the archdiocese’s list of accused priests, even though allegations that he fondled a 16-year-old boy had been public since 2003.

In 2002, during his tenure as bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, DiNardo apologized for allowing the Rev. George McFadden to continue working as a priest after he molested at least 25 children.

Rossi, for his part, helped handle Galveston-Houston’s abuse cases as vice-chancellor, chancellor and vicar general of the archdiocese. Pontikes recalls he boasted that his bosses couldn’t take action against him since “I know where all the bones are buried.”

In 1998, Rossi signed a form letter stating that the Rev. Jesse Linam was a validly ordained priest who had been granted “complete retirement for medical reasons,” according to documents obtained by AP. The letter didn’t mention that Linam had been removed from ministry five years before after admitting to sex abuse. In a 2003 letter with a $2,000 loan to Linam for legal fees, Rossi wrote, “Jesse, I realize that this has been a very difficult time for you. It has been for Bishop (Joseph) Fiorenza and myself as well.”

In his new posting in east Texas, Rossi continues to express sympathy for accused priests.

“These men need our prayers, as they too are suffering due to the harm they know they have caused,” he wrote in the Feb. 2-3 parish bulletin.

A month after Pontikes reported him, Rossi sent an email to the staff of St. Michael’s with a letter to parishioners announcing his resignation as pastor, effective May 7, 2016.

“I am being faced with some very difficult personal issues affecting my priesthood which require my full and single focused attention;” Rossi wrote. He vowed to return after “a period of renewal.”

Pontikes said Iadanza later told her that Rossi would never be a pastor again, and that the archdiocese was looking for a position for him as a port chaplain or in prison ministry — where he wouldn’t have access to women. The archdiocese said Pontikes’ account of Iadanza’s comments is “not accurate,” but did not elaborate.

The Pontikeses found out about Rossi’s return to Houston when they learned a parishioner had invited them all to the same Christmas party. George Pontikes pressed DiNardo in a subsequent meeting to hold Rossi accountable, but said he came away feeling threatened.

“He told me that this could be headed for some type of civil or criminal matter and that we should resolve this problem because ‘Laura can’t handle it, you can’t handle it and your business can’t handle it,’” George Pontikes recalled DiNardo warning him.

“I told him, ‘Neither can you.’ He said, ‘You’re right. I’ll put money, art and everything on the table. Let’s have a mediation.’ “

Scott Allen, an attorney representing Pontikes, also thought the church was bullying the couple. After a May 31, 2017 meeting, he wrote that archdiocesan lawyer Robert Schick had tried to warn them off litigation by mentioning the “public domain exposure to Laura, George their business” as well as the potential for “St. Michael’s community fallout.”

“Despite attempt at ‘cordiality,’ I found the tone and content purposefully vaguely & opaquely threatening and somewhat insulting,” Allen wrote.

The archdiocese didn’t respond to questions about the exchanges.

Rossi’s “retirement” from the archdiocese was announced that spring, along with his new appointment as pastor of Our Lady of the Pines in Woodville, Texas, a humble parish that seats about 100 people. Laura Pontikes said Iadanza assured her Rossi would be under a strict monitoring protocol. In the meantime, DiNardo defended his actions to George.

“They started telling me things like, ‘His life is ruined, George. We’ve already punished him,’” George Pontikes said. “‘We’ve sent him out to east Texas… He will never ever be looking at an upward mobility anymore.’”
By October 2017, Dr. Ken Buckle, Laura Pontikes’ Catholic therapist, had outlined mediation proposals. They included a formal apology for actions by Rossi and by the archdiocese; ongoing monitoring of Rossi along with five years of therapy, with annual reports to the couple; and “more compassionate” policies in cases of inappropriate conduct.

But Pontikes said that during two years of mediation, the church focused exclusively on a financial settlement.

What happened between Pontikes and Rossi is under investigation by the Houston police department, and Harris County prosecutors have subpoenaed her therapists in the name of a grand jury.

In an affidavit seen by the AP, Buckle wrote that Pontikes was in crisis as a result of “sexual and religious abuse” and that the decision to relocate Rossi to another parish was “highly distressing” to her. Texas law states that sex is without consent if a clergyman exploits a person’s emotional dependency on him.

“It’s recognized that the person really can’t give consent,” said Tahira Khan Merritt, a Dallas lawyer who represents abuse victims. “And the church knows that.”

The archdiocese said it informed Rossi’s new bishop of his violation of his vow of chastity and time in a renewal program.

Beaumont Bishop Curtis Guillory didn’t respond to questions about what other information or monitoring recommendations DiNardo had provided. He told AP that he accepted Rossi into his diocese as a retired Houston priest “in good standing,” and that he has received no allegations of misconduct in his parish. In a press release Tuesday put on the Beaumont website, he announced Rossi had been placed on temporary administrative leave pending the investigation.

Until the suspension, neither the criminal investigation nor the years-long mediation with the archdiocese appeared to have crimped Rossi’s ministry. As usual, he led a 13-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jordan in early November. The pews at his new parish were full on Palm Sunday, when Rossi celebrated Mass and then greeted visitors in near-perfect Spanish.

“At times, we betray the Lord, through our evil acts of sin,” Rossi said in his homily. “And then we regret our sins.”
Rossi’s parish bulletins included posts on spousal love and sexuality, including how husbands and wives should communicate. Laura Pontikes read them in disgust, seeing them as an attempt by Rossi to find women in troubled marriages who might seek counseling.

She enclosed the bulletins in her April letter to the Vatican, including one from November that read: “Holding hands, kissing, embracing and sexual intimacy are all ways of communicating marital love… For a person whose primary love language is touch, physical contact with their spouse is essential.”

Complete Article HERE!

Vatican establishes new rule for sexual abuse complaints and coverups involving bishops

Pope Francis greets a crowd during the weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.

By Chico Harlan

Pledging that clerical sexual abuse should “never happen again,” Pope Francis on Thursday issued a sweeping new law aimed at holding leadership more accountable while overhauling how the Roman Catholic Church deals with accusations of abuse and coverup.

The rules — a mix of common-sense requirements and more technical provisions — are the church’s first major step to formalize all stages of fielding and investigating abuse claims, a process that has previously been subject to improvisation.

When the rules come into force June 1, priests and nuns will be required for the first time to report abuse accusations to church authorities. Dioceses will be given a year to set up offices or other systems for receiving abuse complaints while offering protection for victims and whistleblowers. And perhaps most significantly, a new method will be used to investigate complaints of abuse or coverup against bishops and other higher-ups — an attempt to address one of the scandal-plagued church’s long-standing trouble spots.

“We must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past,” Francis wrote in the introduction to the edict.

The rules are Francis’s latest attempt to contend with an abuse crisis that has eroded the reputation of the church and his papacy. The Vatican document comes nearly three months after Francis hosted a landmark clerical abuse summit in Rome and pledged concrete action to address the scourge.

“This is a very strong signal,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a Vatican official who has investigated abuse cases. “Nobody in the leadership is above the law.”

But some church watchdogs said the new rules fall short, because they keep the handling of cases in-house.

Zach Hiner, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the church erred in thinking it could eradicate abuse by changing the rules but still relying on “the very same church structures that have been receiving and routing abuse allegations for years.”

The rules also do not address the contentious question of how to punish clerics convicted of abuse or coverup in church trials.

The law is in place for a three-year trial run and could be changed after that, depending on how the new rules play out. It is unclear, for instance, how the church will safeguard whistleblowers and whether an institution known for protecting its own can alter a culture through legal changes.

Predictions among experts on Thursday ranged widely over which aspects of the law, if any, would be most transformative.

One major aspect, though, regards the policing of bishops — an issue that has long confounded the church. Bishops are answerable only to the pope, and for decades they have been able to escape rigid oversight.

The new provisions outline a way in which bishops can help police their own ranks, the first time such a system has been put in place.

The rules lean on a miniature, de facto hierarchy within regions. If a bishop is accused of abuse or coverup, a metropolitan bishop — the figure who heads the largest regional diocese — can begin looking into the case with the backing of the Holy See. The metropolitan bishop is supposed to work on a set timetable and deliver his findings to the Vatican.

But there are exceptions to this system. If a metropolitan bishop himself is accused, another bishop in the region is chosen to investigate, based on seniority. And the Vatican has the option to choose somebody else entirely. In all cases, lay experts can be involved, though it is not a requirement.

The steps for handling complaints of abuse and coverup against bishops borrow heavily from a proposal made by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during February’s summit on abuse. Cupich is a close Francis ally.

In presenting his ideas, Cupich said that “this past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops.”

The laws also require all priests and nuns to swiftly report allegations of abuse or coverup to religious authorities. Previously, there was nothing on paper mandating them to report, though some were compelled by their conscience.

Although the clerics aren’t explicitly required to report abuse allegations to police — a contentious issue within the church — the laws do state that church officials should comply with “any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.”

The guidelines cover cases of sexual abuse not only against minors, but also against vulnerable adults and seminarians who are abused by someone in power. Over the past year, the church has faced an onslaught of cases in which higher-ups have been implicated — a notable shift from earlier decades, when the focus was primarily on individual priests.

In the United States, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked earlier this year after a church trial found him guilty of abuse. In Australia, Cardinal George Pell is appealing his criminal conviction for the sexual assault of two boys. In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was convicted in March of failing to report abuse accusations, the first time a church higher-up has faced criminal punishment in such a case

The guidelines released Thursday could provide a starting point for discussions among U.S. bishops, who are preparing for an assembly in June. At a prior meeting in November, those U.S. Catholic leaders were set to vote on measures that would improve the handling of abuse cases. But the Vatican, controversially, intervened to stop the vote.

In a statement Thursday, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the United States already has a framework in place that involves zero tolerance, the use of lay experts and a stipulation for reporting abuse to civil authorities. U.S. Catholics, he said, are positioned “readily to bring the Holy Father’s instructions to action.”

DiNardo said national-level bishops’ conferences still have the “latitude” to enact their own measures.

“In publishing this new law, which is applicable to the Church throughout the world, Pope Francis has made clear that protection and healing must reach all of God’s children,” DiNardo said.

Complete Article HERE!

‘If ex-Catholic was a religion…’

Why independent Catholic churches are flourishing

by Jess Rohan

On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.

But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.

It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.

Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.

“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”

The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.

“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.

Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.

And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.

But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.

She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”

Monsignor James Michael St. George — “Father Jim” — the pastor at Saint Miriam Parish, and Sean Hall (left) greeting members of the congregation arriving for a traditional Holy Thursday service last week. St. Miriam’s is an independent (non-Vatican affiliated) Catholic church in Flourtown.

St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.

Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.

St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”

Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.

Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.

“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.

When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.

“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”

These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.

At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.

“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.

St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.

Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.

Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.

For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.

“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”

St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”

“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”

Complete Article HERE!

How Catholic Church used treatment centers to protect priests accused of child abuse

Monsignor William Lynn was the first U.S. Catholic Church official to be convicted of covering up clergy sex abuse. After Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court vacated Lynn’s conviction, he faces another trial this year.

By Ian Nawalinski

In 1995, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an internal church study on child abuse. The two-volume study surveyed bishops in more than 100 dioceses nationwide about their use of treatment centers to assess and care for priests believed to be sexually abusing children.

The result: 87% of bishops (127 out of 145 dioceses surveyed) reported using treatment centers for clergy accused of child abuse.

Two decades later, following the August release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church — one of three released by the state attorney general since early 2000  — dioceses in multiple states and at least one state attorney general have disclosed their own lists of credibly accused priests.

The Pennsylvania report focuses on many small towns throughout the state.  One of those towns — mentioned more than a dozen times — is an outlier. It’s a town you wouldn’t think to look for unless, like me, you were born and raised there.

In 2002, around the same time the Boston Globe published its bombshell report on sexual abuse of children in Archdiocese of Boston, I was a freshman at Bishop Shanahan, a Catholic high school in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

I don’t remember paying much attention to the Boston Globe report. Nor was I aware that, during this same time, multiple priests accused of child abuse were being sent to a clergy treatment center directly across the street from my high school.

Downingtown is home to the longest-running behavioral health facility in North America still in use by the Catholic Church. It’s a place where  —  according to the reports  —  at least 50 priests accused of molesting children in Pennsylvania were referred for evaluation and treatment.

That treatment time was often referred to in their employment history as “sick leave,” and many priests were inevitably discharged and permitted to return to active ministry. Others were transferred to church-run retirement homes where they received fully paid benefits. The church commonly called that retreat a “life of prayer and penance.”

St. John Vianney Center

Founded in 1946, the St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown is staffed by clergy, psychologists, and nurses. It offers inpatient and outpatient services for behavioral and emotional issues, addiction, compulsive behaviors, and weight management. It is fully funded and administered under the purview of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In detail, the grand jury report  — much like the 1995 USCCB study  — offers rare insight into the church’s use of “treatment” centers, the psychiatric facilities for clergy with addiction, depression, and sexual disorders, among other conditions. According to the grand jury report, the Catholic Church used these treatment centers to “launder accused priests, provide plausible deniability, and permit hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry.”

The report goes on further to state that Catholic bishops relied on three treatment centers in particular: Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico; St. Luke’s in Suitland, Maryland; and St. John
Vianney Center. All three remain open.

Downingtown, less than an hour south of Philadelphia, is no stranger to scandal involving the church. Most recently, in 2017, a pastor at the nondenominational Calvary Fellowship Church, across the street from Downingtown East High School, pleaded guilty to institutional sex assault, corruption of minors, and child
endangerment after sexually assaulting and impregnating a teenage girl. He was sentenced to up to six years in prison.

Five years earlier,  Monsignor William Lynn  —  who was serving at St. Joseph’s parish across the street from Downingtown West High School  —  became the first high-ranking U.S. Catholic Church official to be convicted of covering up clergy sex abuse. In addition to three priests and a parochial school teacher, Lynn was
charged and convicted of one count of endangering the welfare of a child. He is now free after serving nearly three years of his three- to six-year sentence. He may face another trial on the charges this year.

St. Joseph’s Church in Downingtown remains the second largest parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The recently renovated facade, with its towering white steeple, sits just off Route 322. Every Sunday, parishioners fill the parking lot before Mass. Every summer, the same lot is transformed into the annual Community Festival: a five-day carnival that is a hallmark of the small suburb.

On the opposite side of town is St. John Vianney Center. Unlike St. Joseph’s parish, on display as a beacon to area Catholics, the treatment center is hidden from public view. It sits at the end of a long driveway at the top of a hill, surrounded by trees and nestled between a country club and Bishop Shanahan High School across the street.

The only clue toward its existence is a small sign outside the entrance. It’s a fitting appearance for a place shrouded in a culture of secrecy characteristic of the church itself.

 A look at two cases

One of the four men charged along with Lynn  in 2012 was the Rev. Edward Avery, who  received treatment at St. John Vianney over the course of four days from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 1992. Following his evaluation, the treatment center recommended further in-patient care. Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who had allowed Avery to remain in active ministry for nearly 11 months after his victim first reported the abuse to the archdiocese, approved the recommendation.

Avery was discharged from St. John Vianney on Oct. 22, 1993. In a memo to the church, Lynn shared the treatment center’s recommendations for Avery, which included a ministry excluding adolescents and with a population other than vulnerable minorities. The treatment center also advised that an aftercare team supervise Avery.

Yet Lynn recommended that Avery return to a parish with an elementary school, and Bevilacqua ultimately agreed. Avery would later testify before the grand jury that he continued to celebrate Mass, with altar servers, usually twice a weekend. He heard the confessions of children and was never told to restrict his activities with the youth of the parish.

The aftercare team that was supposed to be supervising Avery didn’t meet with him for more than a year after he ended treatment. Furthermore, the chaplain at St. John Vianney warned Lynn that Avery was “neglecting his duties” and instead “booking numerous disc jockey engagements” to gain access to children. Avery remained in active ministry until Dec. 5, 2003, a decade after first receiving treatment.

Avery’s case is one of many revealing exactly how the Catholic Church used St. John Vianney and other treatment centers to launder accused priests and, in some cases, return them to ministry in defiance of the treatment center’s own recommendations.

And while it’s worth noting that many of the allegations contained within the grand jury report are from decades ago, the case studies involving treatment centers cover allegations ranging from as early as the 1960s to as recent as 2004.

In a separate case, on April 22, 2004, diocesan documents show that Pennsylvania State Police searched the room of the Rev. Ronald Yarrosh  —  then assistant pastor at St. Ambrose in Schuylkill Haven  —  and found a “tremendous amount” of child pornography.

A week later, he was suspended from ministry and placed into treatment at St. John Vianney.

Across the street, I was just about to finish my sophomore year of high school.

On May 12, 2004, State Police filed charges: 110 counts of sexual abuse of children.  Yarrosh was sentenced pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement that included three to 23 months in prison. He was discharged from St. John Vianney on May 3, 2005, and was later incarcerated for nearly four months until his release on Dec. 6, 2005, as a convicted and registered sex offender.

According to the grand jury report, upon his release, Yarrosh remained a member of the priesthood and the diocese granted him residence at a retirement home for priests in Orwigsburg — only a few miles from St. Ambrose parish where he had been arrested two years earlier.

In 2006, according to the grand jury report, Yarrosh took trips to New York City with a 7-year-old. Yarrosh was also found to be in possession of pornography in violation of his court supervision. He was sentenced to
four to 10 years in state prison. In June 2007, the Yarrosh was finally dismissed from the priesthood.

The current president of St. John Vianney, David Shellenberger, did not return requests for an interview.

Time for a mea culpa

I’ve driven past St. John Vianney hundreds of times in my life. I spent four years, every day, directly across the street. And yet, I never knew what that place was until I discovered it on my own, by accident, reading the grand jury report.

Much like the abusive priests written about in the reports, the truth was always hiding in plain sight. If the Catholic Church is serious about reform within the priesthood, it will do more than simply condemn the accused.

The church must acknowledge and recognize that bishops across the country have, for decades, institutionalized a culture that not only fosters abusive priests but also aims to protect the accused and silence victims. Simply put, the only reason child abuse has become an epidemic is because the Catholic Church has allowed it to happen.

What the #MeToo era revealed, beyond a litany of heinous acts committed by sexual predators, is that the allegations themselves rarely tell the full story. Instead — whether it be the Catholic Church or Michael Jackson or Jeffrey Epstein — the full story often involves those in power exploiting their influence and privilege to circumvent the criminal justice system and maintain the appearance of infallibility.

Perhaps the first step toward reform in the Catholic Church is a collective confirmation that members of the clergy are no more pious than anyone else. They are, in fact, only human — some of them deeply flawed — and all of them in need of self-reflection.

Perhaps, a life of prayer and penance is in order.

Complete Article HERE!