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Peter Mitchell Fallout

Reactions to a former priest's callout of one of US's most conservative dioceses

Prof. Janet Smith, a moral theologian who is a legend among orthodox Roman Catholics, in part for her steadfast defense of Humanae Vitae, posted to her Facebook page a link to former priest Peter Mitchell’s piece about his experiences in the Diocese of Lincoln. She adds:

Few things in this whole mess have saddened me more than this testimony. Peter Mitchell was a student of mine at the University of Dallas. A very fine man and I think when you read this candid article you will see that he remains fundamentally such. He didn’t need to write this. God bless him!

A priest, Father Timothy Ferguson, adds to Prof. Smith’s comment thread this corroboration of Mitchell’s story:

Wow. This is sad, but at the same time, healing for me.

After I was kicked out of Mundelein in 1992, I tried, with every effort, to get back in. When my diocese, the Diocese of La Crosse, gave me a final “no,” I was advised by a priest friend to go to Lincoln. I spent a weekend and my experience was much like Peter Mitchell’s. There was alcohol — a bit too much in my mind, and a late-night trip to an Iowa casino (I had never been to a casino before in my life). I think I played a hand or two of blackjack, and then spent the rest of the evening walking around, wondering why God had brought me to such a place.

I met with Msgr. Kalin the next morning, and told him of some of my concerns. He sat stonily and said very little. I left that afternoon and when I returned to Wisconsin, there was a voicemail left for me by Msgr. Kalin telling me that he didn’t think I was traditional enough for the diocese of Lincoln, and didn’t seem to have the right “esprit de corps” for him to recommend me to Bishop Bruskewitz.

Frankly, I was relieved, thinking that, if that was the priesthood in Lincoln, despite all the obvious orthodoxy, I was not suited for it.

But others, commenting in the thread under Mitchell’s article, remember things otherwise:

I was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1989 to 1994 and returned to begin grad school in 1998 at the end of the Kalin years. I would occasionally attend events at the Newman Center and knew Msgr Kalin.

I was not heavily involved as I personally found Kalin’s personality to be a bit dry, gruff and off-putting with moments of unexpected humor. I attended Mass there perhaps half the time and other half at St Mary’s across from the Capitol. Nonetheless, I would drop by occasionally for daily Mass as it was a reverent place, full of orthodoxy and genuine people.

However, I never doubted his sincerity of wanting to win souls for Christ and saw many students flourish spiritually during his time there. I benefited spiritually from a life-changing weekend retreat where an impressive priest (not associated with the Newman Center) was invited to run the event. Kalin was present but humbly faded into the background for the most part.

While I obviously cannot speak of the private moments Peter Mitchell mentions, I can address his public comments, many of which I find inaccurate. His reported bad experience appears to have perhaps colored his memories.

I have no particular interest in defending or condemning Kalin. Let the truth out; in that regard I find some of Mitchell’s statements incorrect. Sure, I’m opening myself up to charges of picking at nits and missing the larger, more serious offenses, but if we’re aiming for truth then we need to be truthful also in small particulars, too.

“Kalin had a widespread reputation for heavy drinking, chain-smoking, frequent gambling…”. I never observed any of this. Did I ever see him with a drink or cigarette in his hand? Yes. Heavy drinking or chain-smoking? No. If his reputation otherwise were ‘widespread’, I would have known.

“…clean cut, well groomed…regimented life of Masses, rosaries and daily prayers…”. Yes, I recall him being like that and wishing it of others.

“…Kalin always kept a close circle of attractive, handsome young men around him…”. I don’t recall seeing that. There were just as many young women around the Newman Center and I would not characterize those men or women most involved as particularly attractive compared to the average sorority, fraternity or athletic team on campus. In all honesty, many would have been a cut or two below. He did not exclude or discourage young women from his company and was eager to see many of them consider religious vocations as well.

I never at any time perceived any kind of gay culture, ‘vibes’, atmosphere or innuendo from Kalin or anything/anyone associated with the Newman Center.

“I was bewildered to find that the social life at the Newman Center centered around a culture of partying and alcohol.” This is simply libel in my estimation. I recall a couple parties per semester being held, perhaps two or three. I don’t recall anyone getting drunk and wasted. It would have been deeply frowned upon. Someone may have at some time, but there is no way that student life within the Newman Center of my era centered on partying and alcohol. It centered on evening Mass, studying in the dining/reception room and similar. There was a cadre of students who volunteered to do free janitorial work about the building which I found overly servile (I wasn’t going to do that!), but they weren’t doing anything wrong either.

I never attended the annual South Padre Island trip, but I do recall that the photos I saw from those who did were Rosary Walks on the beach. I’m sure there was some drinking and dancing, but heard nothing from participants about it being a bacchanal.

I know nothing about Las Vegas, casinos or east coast trips, so I can’t comment on that. Perhaps Kalin lived a double-life of sorts. Perhaps not. I do know that many others attempted/completed seminary or religious sisterhood during his time, so it should be possible to either collaborate or refute Mitchell’s claims.

A priest:

Msgr. Kalin was a complicated man- I was always baffled at the duality between his hyper-piety alongside his worldliness. He did me much good and (by his controlling nature) some harm. I never heard a hint of sexually inappropriate behavior (I was in contact with him about 10 years before the author). Maybe because I never got into the inner circle. After a few years, I distanced myself.

I also want to say I was in group of young men on one of Kalin’s east coast trips to visit the seminarians in the early 80s. In our hotel room there were 2 beds and Fr. Kalin and 3 students. Fr. Kalin stated that it would not be appropriate for a student to share his bed and so one of us slept on the floor.

Another reader, who is a layman (I looked him up based on his e-mail address):

I was a seminarian for Lincoln at the same time as Peter Mitchell. I can spot several out-and-out lies in the above article (like Msgr. Kalin and Peter being at the seminarian get-together in New Jersey – neither of which were there). There was also a tremendous amount of presumption on the part of this former-priest. For instance, condemning the Padre Island trip. The reason we went to Padre Island over Christmas-break was that the beach was completely empty and we did have a retreat complete with spiritual exercises. Yes, there were parties, but to insinuate that these were immoral affairs is far from the truth. Is Lincoln perfect? No. Was the priestly formation perfect? No. But come get to know the priests of the Lincoln diocese – they are second to NONE. If the kind of abuse that Peter claims was really taking place, would the priests have turned out this good?

Another priest — not a Lincoln guy — writes in reaction the Mitchell column:

I think Mitchell’s article gets at the heart of the problem in many ways.  Again, it’s not principally sexuality, it’s power.  When you mix that power in with sexuality is where you get this abuse and dysfunction just like any abusive marriage or relationship.  Then when homosexuality is stirred into the mix it gets even more disordered.

Some thoughts:

1.  Mandatory celibacy isn’t going to end.  People can rail for it all they want but most Catholics actually don’t want it because they want their priests and their beck and call.  Secondly, the Church is not set up financially in any possible way to handle it.  Third, it, along with paying priests a low wage, is the way that bishops maintain control over their priests.  Without celibacy and low wages there would be no vow of obedience.  If I had a wife do you think I’m listening to my bishop first?  Hell no!  If priests have enough money to leave when their bishop abuses his power over them and becomes corrupt do you think they would treat their priests as badly as they currently do?  Nope.  No way it happens.

2.  I spoke with a good lay friend of mine yesterday who is very active in varied ministries in the Church.  I mentioned McCarrick.  He said, “Man, I don’t even think about that.  No one is talking about that.  And bishops aren’t in danger of losing their authority for good, they lost it years ago.”  He just laughed and said, “The laity are not listening anymore.”  I told this to a close priest friend who said, “You know, no one has brought the McCarrick thing up to me at all.  I have to bring it up and when I do most people don’t really know about it and they don’t seem to care.”  This has been my exact experience as well.  I realize on the Catholic blogs people seem to care but my experience in the parish is no one cares.  My read on that is they have become desensitized to it.

3.  What this tells me is that the Catholic Church is likely to devolve into a type of “congregationalism” if it hasn’t already.  And this is probably a good thing.  People have stopped listening to bishops and they have gravitated to parishes that give them life in some way.  They test out the pastor and see if he is dependable and trustworthy to some degree and they focus on the parish.  I think they have largely given up on a more corporate view of being Catholic.

4.  This leads to my prediction of what is going to come of all of this.  I think the bishops put in some kind of new procedure for reporting bishops and it basically ends there.  Yes there is some bad press, but I don’t think the bishops are hearing it from the laity, they are hearing it from the media.  The laity are exhausted and done with it.  They are just over it.  It’s not that they don’t want change, I think they have figured out change isn’t coming.  So they are just going to make the changes they need for themselves.  Some of them are doing what you suggest in The Benedict Option, others are just gravitating to parishes and pastors they trust and many are simply leaving the church.  Look at the statistics.  In 20 years when most of the Boomers have died who will be left anyway?  How many priests? How many laity?

I was e-mailing with a very prominent Catholic layman just now. He’s furious about all this, and desperate for more to come out. Yet his cynicism tracks that of the priest I just quoted: he predicts that the bishops will scapegoat McCarrick, pass a few procedures, and that will be the end of it. Said this layman, of McCarrick: “But he is not alone…we all know this and it has been obvious for years.”

UPDATE: Here’s a link to a Nebraska Facebook account where a couple of men who had experience with Kalin, and in the seminary there, say they never saw anything inappropriate happen. However, another one says:

I’m glad someone has finally spoken about this. A fellow-seminarian (now-priest) and I were tormented by MK’s behaviors for a long while. Our experience was part of what led +Fabian to order that at least 2 people accompany MK on the stadium walks. I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

UPDATE.2: This just in from a priest, whose name I agreed to withhold:

I know Peter Mitchell. I knew him to be a man of integrity as a seminarian and I see that he still is. I do not feel that the seminaries really adequately prepare men to take on the commitment of celibacy. I’ve been in three of them on both coasts.

UPDATE.3: This in from a reader who asked me to withhold his name:

I was a seminarian for the diocese of Lincoln in the late seventies and early eighties. I am now a retired professor of theology. I would like to respond to the article by Pete Mitchell.

1. Full disclosure: I disliked Father Leonard Kalin. I am no defender of his and I am not on here to defend his honor out of some sense of misplaced loyalty. In fact, my distaste for Fr. Kalin’s style was one of the reasons I switched from the diocese of Lincoln to the diocese of Arlington Virginia in 1981.

2. Nevertheless, I find Pete Mitchell’s article full of distortions and, sadly, what can only be described as fabrications. That fact alone would not prompt me to write this email. I am writing because his accusations against Kalin also contain accusations against many fine priests in Lincoln who were formed by Kalin as well as insinuations that the Newman Center under Kalin was a hot bed of parties. Indeed, he makes the Newman Center sound like a Catholic bacchanalia. It was hardly that.

3. He claims that the culture of the Newman Center was centered on alcohol. It most certainly was not. It was centered around the night Mass at 10:00 PM. A very reverent Mass. There might have been two big social parties a semester that had alcohol but that was it. There is simply no truth whatsoever to the claim that the culture of the place was booze centered.

4. Did Fr. Kalin drink and smoke and gamble? Yes. And he treated his seminarians like he was a drill sergeant and they were in boot camp. He was hard on me and on others. Alternately, however, he could also be quite kind and compassionate and was not simply a rogue autocrat imposing his will on docile seminarians. I found him to be both harsh and avuncular at the same time. He was far from perfect. But in the entire time I was there I never once heard even the slightest hint of sexual impropriety. And trust me … that information would have gotten out had anything been happening.

5. Talk to and visit the priests Fr. Kalin formed. They are good and solid men. Wonderful priests and pastors. I highly doubt if Fr. Kalin was philandering with many of them that that would have remained a secret. There were far, far too many good men who were part of the Newman Center culture and who were close to Fr. Kalin for any such activity to have been kept a secret. One of them would have leaked it. One of them would have blown the whistle. I know I would have.

6. There were A LOT of seminarians who hated Fr. Leonard Kalin. Many of them quit the seminary and many switched dioceses. He was not everyone’s cup of tea. And yet… despite loads of former sems who absolutely loathed him … not one ever came out with an accusation of sexually inappropriate activity on his part. And trust me when I tell you that some of them had a visceral hatred for the man and would have outed him. Not everyone was Kalin’s “groupie” and the insinuation that this was cult-like guru worship is nonsense. He inspired many young men, inducing loyalty, and he was hated by many others, inducing intense criticism. But not once was he accused of anything sexual.

7. I also notice that Pete Mitchell likes to play a guilt by association game. Cardinal McCarrick had a beach house and took sems there. And Kalin did too. Therefore, despite there being zero evidence given, the direct link is made and Mitchell accuses Kalin of McCarrick like behavior. This is just calumny. I was with Fr. Kalin on some trips (not to the beach) and never once saw him act inappropriately in a sexual way or heard any rumors to that effect. And I WOULD HAVE. I do not like the fact that Kalin took seminarians to Atlantic City. I think that is a poor way to form men for the priesthood. But Mitchell provides not one scintilla of evidence to back up his claim that there was something sexual going on there. And he is claiming it since he makes the McCarrick association clear. And no seminarian ever said a word to that effect either. Unlike McCarrick. I was at Mount Saint Mary’s and I was there with Metuchen seminarians when McCarrick was their bishop. In fact, one was my roommate. And let me tell you Rod… they ratted McCarrick out left and right in the gossip-circuit. EVERYONE KNEW as you like to say. I told that to Bill O’Reilly when I appeared on the O’Reilly Factor 2002-2005 to discuss the priest sex abuse crisis. I kept asking him when he was going to out McCarrick. And he said “nobody will go on record or we would”. But Kalin is different. Supposedly, according to Mitchell, he too was a gay predator. And yet the opposite is true in his case: NOBODY KNEW. And that makes me doubt its truth as a claim. Somebody would have outed him. And yet nobody did. Until now. Ten years after the man’s death by an ex priest who admits he violated his own vows of celibacy and now blames it on Kalin. I quit the seminary after violating chastity as well. Got married. I don’t blame it on Kalin.

8. I went to the South Padre trip. It was fun and uplifting. It was like a retreat at the beach. Daily Mass, rosaries, Adoration and…. Yes, some alcohol. But never in excess and appropriate for a college age trip. Pete Mitchell says he did not go on these trips, nor does he offer any evidence or testimony that they were just booze-sotted junkets. And yet it does not stop him from impugning the good character of the young people, such as myself, who were there.

9. I was also at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland as a seminarian when Kalin brought some Newman Center kids there. Yes, Fr. Kalin asked some of us to go get some booze for a social hour that night. He also told us to get the Rector’s permission. Which we did. In fact, the Rector joined us for drinks that night. That hardly counted as being asked to sneak booze in and flaunt the rules.

10. There is the constant insinuation that Kalin surrounded himself with a bevy of buff and handsome guys. That is just risible. Mitchell says Kalin had these handsome “janitors” and he puts “janitors” in scare quotes as if to imply they were’t. I was one of those janitors. Kalin believed seminarians should engage in manual labor. And in the summers he had three or four of us cleaning toilets, painting, and polishing floors. In the school year he had guys who were discerning priesthood do it. And I can assure you we were anything but a gaggle of buff stud muffins. Nor were we being groomed in a predatory way. We cleaned toilets….. Furthermore, Kalin’s “inner circle” included many females as well and not a few rather ugly seminarians. lol. And when I was there his true inner circle were two older ladies who were the true gatekeepers to the place and were delightful and hysterical. There was no “closeted gay inner sanctum”.

11. Did Fr. Kalin ask me once in a while to stay after Mass for a one on one session with him despite how late it was? Yep. And if I had not been talking to him I would have gone out with friends after Mass as was our custom. And if you had an early morning and told Kalin you would have to see him another time he said “oK’ without further ado. Mitchell makes it sound like it was some pressure cooker interrogation, which it was not.

12. Finally, the Newman Center in Lincoln is just flat-out fantastic. And it got its start from that very complex and strange priest, Fr. Leonard Kalin. It is busting its seams with students. They had to build a new Church to accommodate everyone. Its spirit is one centered on the Eucharist, and Mary and the saints. I find Pete Mitchell’s characterizations of the place offensive in the extreme. And wildly inaccurate.

13. As I said, I did not really care for Kalin’s style. Too harsh and filled with a kind of “toxic masculinity” in the real sense of that term.
But I reject completely the idea that he was a predator and that his Newman Center and his seminarians were cult members who were devoted to him no matter what.

Such are my two cents. If you want to publish this email please feel free, but also please redact my name. I don’t want to get into a social media pissing contest with anyone. I just wanted to not my extreme displeasure with what I found to be a highly tendentious article.

UPDATE.4: The author of the last lengthy comment wrote back to give permission to use his name. He’s Larry Chapp, a retired professor of theology.



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