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Michigan Priests And Injustice

Father Matthew Cowan at his 2014 ordination. His bishop recently suspended him for actions related to his blowing the whistle on an alleged abuser (Diocese of Gaylord website)

Two stories about Catholic parish priests suffering what look like injustice crossed my transom this morning.

The first is about Father Edwin Dwyer, a young priest of the Diocese of Saginaw, who was removed from his parish by Bishop Walter Hurley in a controversy over his introducing traditional elements into mass celebration there. Excerpts from the National Catholic Register report:

In a recent interview with a Saginaw television station, Bishop Hurley elaborated on the cause of Father Dwyer’s removal.

“He brought in a style of worship that many people found very difficult,” he said. “So there’s a great deal of turmoil in the parish. So the issue is not so much Father Dwyer; it’s more about the issue of the division in the parish.”

What did Fr. Dwyer do? Why, he molested the Novus Ordo! More:

On Jan. 21, Father Dwyer held a parish meeting to explain his celebration of the liturgy — including the use of incense and bells, the traditional black cassock and white surplice for altar boys, and Latin and Gregorian chant.

In a prepared statement he read to parishioners attending the January meeting and published online, Father Dwyer noted that these elements of the celebration were in keeping with the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s current liturgical norms. One of the most visible changes to the parish liturgy itself, he said in the statement, was a modest increase in the use of Latin.

“I do intend to use more Latin Mass parts (i.e., Agnus Dei/Lamb of GodSanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus/Holy, Holy, Holy),” he said in the statement. “I will do so slowly, and with proper catechesis. This is in keeping with the call of Vatican II to preserve Latin in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium36.1) and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM, 41).”

Father Dwyer also indicated in his prepared statement to the parish that he had hired an individual to provide Gregorian chant at Mass, a decision that is also in accord withSacrosanctum Concilium.

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC, 116),” Father Dwyer said.

Since the debut of chant at the parish during Advent 2018, Father Dwyer said, “no less than five young adults have asked me about learning this chant. Younger Catholics have told me how much they enjoy that music and look forward to its regular use.”

Corrupter of youth! Note that Father Dwyer says that he does not intend to celebrate the Tridentine mass, but is rather bringing back approved Catholic liturgical practices to the Novus Ordo mass. Why is he trying this? Well, let him tell us:

In changing the way the parish liturgy was being celebrated, Father Dwyer said, during a Dec. 1 homily at the parish that was also published online, that he hoped to address the declining Mass attendance at the parish.

He cited a 7.3% reduction in Mass attendance in 2018 for the Diocese of Saginaw, a 23.7% reduction since 2013, and a 45% reduction since 2005. He also noted that Our Lady of Peace, “down a bit over 5.3% from last year,” while “better off than every other parish in Bay City percentage-wise,” still indicated to the priest a necessary call to action.

“While that may be better than our neighbors, it is still a decline,” he said in his homily, “and it is my responsibility as your shepherd to replenish the pews, and do so with your help.”


Such timeless traditions, Father Dwyer said in his homily, include those elements of the liturgy that remain at the heart of the Church’s liturgy today.

“Believe it or not, tradition works,” he said. “So-called ‘old ways’ are quite popular among younger Catholics. Smells, bells, classic hymns, chant, prolonged silence, and, hold on for this one, Latin are all largely embraced by the younger generations of the Church. Furthermore, when younger non-Catholics experience these traditions, they are struck by how different they are from everything else they experience in a noisy, secular culture. These ‘old ways’ are beautiful to them, and beauty is a great place to introduce young folks to Jesus Christ.”

Read the whole thing.  Unless there’s something going on here that I’m not seeing, it sounds like Bishop Hurley — aged 81, and ordained in 1965, the year the Second Vatican Council ended — would rather manage the decline of the parish than accept any element of tradition back into liturgy, even though, as I write in The Benedict Option, some young people prefer it to happy-clappy liturgy.

The second story is darker. A reader sent me this page from a lay Catholic group in the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, in support of a suspended priest there named Matthew Cowan:

Due to what appears to be a possible unfolding scandal regarding a whistle-blower, a new activist group of Catholics in the Diocese of Gaylord is calling on Bishop Steven Raica to immediately reinstate a young priest.  Bishop Raica suspended Fr. Matthew Cowan last month after Father Cowan filed a complaint of sexual harassment against a top diocesan official.

Bishop Raica admitted during a meeting attended by 400 parishioners at Fr. Cowan’s parish in Lake City, on January 15th, 2019, that he did not even talk to Fr. Cowan before suspending him, and he is unwilling to admit that he and his subordinates have terribly mishandled the investigation into the allegations and violated the rules of the diocese they are supposed to follow.

Here’s the group’s timeline of what happened:

Summer 2015

When the then 30-year-old priest came to St. Francis in the summer of 2015 for his new assignment, to be tutored by the elderly Fr. Dennis Stillwell, who is vicar general for the diocese (the second-most-powerful official in the chancery),  Fr. Stilwell insisted on giving the new priest a tour of the rectory.

Over the next two weeks Fr. Cowan documented four instances of unwanted physical contact initiated by Fr. Stillwell in the presence of at least one other person.  These included hugs, patting and rubbing his stomach and a slap on the butt.

Aug. 5, 2015

Fr. Cowan confronted Fr. Stillwell and told him “there will be problems if this happens again.”

Summer 2018

Fr. Cowan explained in his email: “After the news of the homosexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in June of this year, followed by the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report in August of 2018, I realized that what happened to me by Fr. Stilwell was no longer an isolated incident or outlier in the Catholic Church. I then decided at the end of August to file a sexual misconduct allegation with the Diocese, asking them simply to deem the following to be credible or not.”

Late August 2018

Fr. Cowan filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment with the Diocese of Gaylord and included hand-written notes in a letter to the diocesan attorney with more explicit details than in the original complaint.  In his January 2019 meeting, Bishop Raica admitted that the diocese had referred the complaint to the local prosecutor.  This would reflect the contention that the complaint was credible.  Father Stilwell was NOT put on administrative leave as is customary practice in these types of investigations.  If a credible allegation was brought to a prosecutor regarding sexual abuse, shouldn’t the person be placed on administrative leave until the situation has fully been investigated?

Sept. 12, 2018

Following phone calls to various diocesan officials in August, Fr. Cowan met with an “investigator for the diocese” who: “… told me his opinion that it is okay for a gay man to be a priest and that perhaps the Church should change its teaching about this. Jim said he decided to share this in order to know ‘where he stood on this’. I assume in order to establish rapport.”

The investigator also asked Fr. Cowan if he was “homophobic.”

Nov. 18, 2018

In response to an emailed complaint two days earlier to a chancery official in which Fr. Cowan complained that nothing was being done about his complaint, the investigator wanted to conduct “one more interview with someone and then will submit a final report to the review board” and that he did not “anticipate a long wait one the final investigation report is complete; however that is just my impression.”

Nov. 29, 2018

Fr. Cowan examined the formal policies of how complaints of sex-related issues are supposed to be handled and concluded the diocese was violating its own standards, perhaps running the clock out until the aged accused priest would retire sometime soon in the following year.

The group goes on to say that frustrated that nothing was being done about his situation, and fearing that the bishop was going to bury it, Father Cowan sent copies of his correspondence about the alleged sexual harassment to others in the chancery. That did it! More:

Jan 15, 2019

Bishop Raica holds a meeting to discuss the suspension of Fr. Cowan at St. Stephen Church, where Fr. Matthew was previously stationed.  About 400 people attended.  During the one-hour, 36-minute meeting Bishop Raica explained that Fr. Matthew was suspended because he had revealed confidential information about his complaint as well as correspondence from the chancery he had no right to reveal:

“..I do not stop people from sending emails but must know if emails are not respectful or one is going against unity of the presbyterate or diocese, there may be consequences.”  (emphasis added.)

So Father Cowan, who alleges that he was repeatedly the victim of unwanted sexual attention from an older priest, and who was tired of the investigation dragging on, embarrassed the bishop. Apparently that’s “going against the unity of the presbyterate or diocese.”

Again, there may be more to the story, but based on the facts available — including Bishop Raica’s own statements — the bishop (ordained 1978; 66 years old; a 2014 Francis appointee) is covering his backside with the scalp of a young priest who, unlike previous generations, was not willing to endure quietly sexual harassment from senior clerics.

The lay activist group, Gaylord Faithful, writes:

  • Why was Father Stilwell not put on administrative leave when an accusation of sexual harassment was filed against him?

  • It appears the Diocese of Gaylord did not follow its own guidelines for investigating a serious charge of sexual abuse. Why not?

  • Why was Father Matthew Cowan stripped of his ability to say mass, hear confessions, and even enter a parish church in the Cadillac area when his dedication and leadership has been impeccable? Is he being made an example so that others who report sexual abuse will be intimidated into silence?

  • Why was Bishop Raica unable to list the specific canon laws that Father Matthew supposedly broke?

  • Why does Bishop Raica not respond to Emails, letters, and other correspondences from concerned Catholics in his diocese?

I welcome you readers sending in information that counters the claims in both the Father Dwyer and Father Cowan cases.

UPDATE: A reader who works in a diocesan bureaucracy (neither Saginaw nor Gaylord) e-mails to say:

Senior parishioners have a death grip on most parishes. They constantly decry the lack of youth participation but refuse to actually allow youth to be heard. Church staff often feel like they are in a polite but persistent struggle to get anything accomplished thanks to this demographic.

Any changes made, from scheduling to music to trying to actually be compliant with the IRS and Dept of Labor, can cause an uproar. It’s assumed that if any significant change is made to liturgy you will lose parishioners with no guarantee that new parishioners will replace them.

If your congregation is already dwindling significantly then liturgy changes can be seen as a Hail Mary pass. If you’re already losing people, what do you have to lose?

If you are a young Catholic you quite literally can’t trust anyone over 40. This is not a traditional/progressive thing, but a basic building block of current church culture.

That said, the only churches I see with large numbers of active young people have one thing in common: young priests and traditional liturgy. And they are very aware that they are a minority and that even the Pope himself doesn’t like them.

And for the older Catholics trying to preserve the VII church they grew up in, this is really heartbreaking. They really believe deeply in human-centered liturgy and social justice. The Catholics of change are so incredibly resistant to change themselves. In a decade or two their big minimalist church campuses are going to look like ghost ships.

Sometimes I want to shout, Hey! You can have the rosary AND a social justice program! But they won’t give an inch to traditionalists even to save the church their great-great-grandparents built.

UPDATE.2: I’m having an interesting exchange with that Catholic reader, writing from inside the institutional bureaucracy. More:

And it’s important to understand that VII Catholics actually see traditional Catholicism as morally wrong. I have heard older Catholics be angry that people pray the rosary before or during Mass because they aren’t participating in the community. It isn’t just aesthetics or politics for them.

Like Millennials, traditional Catholicism is seen as narcissistic, impractical, arrogant, and a failure. I think young people are more concerned about their individual soul, and not so much the “greater good” of the community. And they are definitely more interested in a strong identity. They are proud of their faith, where older Catholics have a lot of shame. I heard a middle-aged Catholic talk about how they feel complicit in the abuse scandal. I thought to myself, what a clever trick! Make the laity feel guilty for the crimes of the institution and they will never feel they are able to challenge the institution!

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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