Last night in Krakow, I met an American friend for dinner. She’s a Catholic, and a theological conservative. I guess the Jeffrey Epstein news back home came up, I’m not sure, but we quickly got to talking about the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. We discussed it for a while in the context of it being impossible to understand accurately through ideological lenses (e.g., the Bad Guys are the liberals, or the conservatives). I talked about how one of the most disillusioning things for me back in the early 2000s, when I was still Catholic, and writing about the scandal, was learning early on that my own “side” was equally as likely to have on it abusers, liars, and priests (and lay leaders) who were willing to do whatever it took to suppress knowledge of the scandal.
I told her about how, in early 2002, a priest tipped me off about Cardinal McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians. A day or two later, a prominent closeted gay Catholic conservative called my editor, saying he was representing Cardinal McCarrick personally, and asked my editor to kill the story. My editor refused, but in the end, I couldn’t write the piece, as nobody would go on the record. I discovered quickly that only one person was in a position to rat me out to McCarrick: the late Father Benedict Groeschel, who was a real hero to conservative Catholics back then. The priest who tipped me off told me that the only person he told about the story was his spiritual adviser, Father Groeschel. What the priest didn’t realize is that Groeschel ran for years a center that treated and released abusive priests. And he didn’t realize that men like Groeschel are almost always loyal to the System over truth and justice.
Later that year, I saw this work personally in a case when a Dallas Morning News journalist tried repeatedly to telephone Groeschel to get his side of a story involving the mishandling of an abuse case. Groeschel refused his repeated phone calls. The reporter called me out of the blue, wondering if I had an in with Groeschel, as I was a conservative Catholic like Groeschel. I did not. When the newspaper finally published the story, Groeschel went ballistic, and issued a press release lying about the reporter’s attempts to contact him. Of course Father Groeschel’s legions of supporters bought it hook, line, and sinker, because no good conservative Catholic friar would deceive people to cover up for clerical abusers, right?
Groeschel finally stepped down from his popular EWTN program after he gave an interview in which he said that minors abused by priests are sometimes the aggressors in these cases, and that first-time offenders shouldn’t necessarily go to jail, because they may not have meant to do it.
This morning I’ve read a gut-wrenching “open letter” to particular leaders (at least one of them now dead) at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, from “Karen,” a young woman who was sexually abused by a now-deceased priest there. In her letter, she details the entire process of her abuse at the hands of a priest there who led student ministry, and how specific figures at FUS protected him, and encouraged her to stay quiet about it. (Much of this story was told last year in a long piece in National Catholic Reporter.) She eventually reached a settlement with the university over the abuse, but refused to sign a confidentiality clause — which I suppose is why she feels at liberty to make these allegations in public now. Excerpts:
Fr. Christian Oravec, your failure disappointed me the most. Considering the extensive list above, this claim carries a lot of weight. You worked through the settlement with me. It was a long and painful process. Yet, months after completing this settlement, you and Fr. Mike Scanlan allowed a very public memorial and dedication of the Portiuncula to Fr. Sam, complete with a poster size glossy photo of him placed in the Portiuncula. I don’t know whose idea it was, and all the people involved, but you knew the truth and allowed it. A failure that pierced my heart.
Fr. Christian Oravec, you and your lawyer insisted on a confidentiality clause, and I refused. You and your lawyer insisted on so many things, and I refused them because they defied the charter from the USCCB on handling these matters. You said that, as a religious order, you were not bound by those rules. I still wonder how many women there are who are not free to speak up, because you bound them in your web of silence? The USCCB called for integrity and honesty. You claimed exemption. You failed all of the women that are bound in these clauses. If you truly want Integrity and Truth, unbind these women tell their stories and be free of the burden of silence you have placed on them.
Fr. Christian Oravec, you failed every victim after me. I fought to include a clause in my settlement where you would create a system of advocacy and care for victims. You signed a legal document agreeing to set this system up to help victims avoid the hell I went through in the process. You legally agreed to protect future victims and provide an advocate to help them through the process. Then you never set this up. It has been over 13 years, and victims are still being misled, manipulated, lied to, and treated as the enemy. You promised to help these women, but you failed them, and you failed me. You failed deeply.
Fr Christian Oravec, Fr. Nicholas Polichnowski, and Fr. Richard Davis: you were the minister provincials after my settlement. I don’t know exactly where the disconnect happened, but NONE of you made sure the legal requirement signed off on by Fr. Christian was followed through on. Actually, the settlement seems to have disappeared from Fr. Sam’s file. Maybe it was never placed in there – or maybe it was removed? I don’t know by who or when. But, the cover-up goes to the top.
FUS outed Fr. Sam as an abusive priest last fall, but a month prior to that, Fr. Richard Davis shocked us by the news that Fr. Sam’s file with the province was empty except for family contacts. Where are the documents from my case? Where is my settlement? What about his loss of faculties imposed by the diocese of Steubenville? Where is the information about his stay at the treatment center? And all the other women who came forward – where are they? Minister Provincials of the Sacred Heart Province, you have failed me with your complicity in this cover up. You have failed all the victims after me by not following through on the advocate system you agreed to.
In April 2019, FUS released the results of an independent review of its files, which found five priests, including Fr Sam Tiesi, who are believed by the university to have sexually abused at least one person. And yet, if “Karen,” author of the open letter, is telling the truth, then no one involved in the decades-long cover-up has been brought to account for it. Faithful Catholic mothers and fathers are sending their children to this university, which is renown for its orthodoxy, and into the hands of a leadership that has not yet come clean on what happened, and how it happened.
I don’t know how many of the men Karen names are still alive. Father Sam Tiesi is dead, as is Father Christian Oravec, who was the provincial of the particular Franciscan religious order that runs the university. Still, if Karen’s letter is credible, it describes a deep and extensive culture of corruption, one that has to be confronted and exorcised (I speak metaphorically). If things have changed there in the past few years, I hope the current leadership will address Karen’s allegations, in detail, to reassure the faithful. If they haven’t changed, I hope the current FUS leadership — especially its new president — will admit these failures frankly, and commit itself to real and verifiable change. That is the only way to rebuild any kind of credibility.
If Karen is not telling the truth, or exaggerating, that needs to come out too. What is no longer acceptable is silence. Here in Poland, a conservative Catholic man in his 20s told me that there are a number of conservative bishops who are still under the illusion that people believe what they say simply because they are bishops, and hold authority. Even in a country as devout as Poland, episcopal credibility among the younger generations is shot even among many churchgoing Catholics, at least according to what I’ve been told. These young people grew up on the Internet. They know what happened in America, and elsewhere — and they don’t think that their own country is immune.
This is not simply a case of liberal vs. conservative. It never was. Not long ago, I was in conversation with a Catholic friend about all this. She said that she had given up any hope, however thin, that Pope Francis would clean up the Church. She said, “I don’t think the bishops have any idea how furious the laity are at them.” Finally she threw up her hands and said, “Burn it all down, and let’s start again from the ruins.” What she meant was that she’s so sick and tired of the corruption that she would rather stand out in a field praying with Catholics who wanted Christ more than anything else, and who cherished truth, as opposed to institutionalists who are devoted to protecting each other’s power and position more than anything else.
The friend who said that to me is really conservative, and devout. I bet she never imagined in this or any lifetime that she would be saying things like this.
In Poland, as in every other country in the former Eastern Europe that I’ve visited in researching my book, I’ve heard older Catholics say that the sex abuse scandal is just starting to arrive here, but they are sure that this is a campaign against the Catholic Church, and that there’s nothing to it. Meanwhile, the younger Catholics I talk to say otherwise. They say that a long-overdue reckoning is finally at hand.