Last autumn, Emma Green of The Atlantic published a report about St. Marys, Kansas, a Catholic village dominated by priests and lay members of the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist Catholic religious order that broke away from the Catholic Church over Vatican II. Green wrote:
Throughout American history, religious groups have walled themselves off from the rhythms and mores of society. St. Marys isn’t nearly as cut off from modern life as, say, the Amish communities that still abjure all modern technology, be it tractor or cellphone. Residents watch prestige television on Hulu and catch Sunday-afternoon football games; moms drive to Topeka to shop at Sam’s Club. Yet hints of the town’s utopian project are everywhere. On a recent afternoon, I visited the general store, where polite teens played bluegrass music beside rows of dried goods. Women in long, modest skirts loaded vans that had enough seats to accommodate eight or nine kids—unlike most American Catholics, SSPX members abide by the Vatican’s prohibition on birth control. At housewarming parties and potluck dinners, children huddle around pianos for sing-alongs.
In their four decades in St. Marys, the followers of SSPX have more than doubled the town’s size. Even with six Masses on Sundays, parishioners fill the Society’s chapel to capacity; overflow services are held in the gym of the Society’s academy, which inhabits an imposing campus built by the Jesuit missionaries who called St. Marys home in the 19th century. The school is constantly running out of classroom space. The parish rector, Father Patrick Rutledge, has to scramble each summer to accommodate rising enrollment. Real estate sells at price points closer to those of Kansas’s big cities than of its other small towns.
She also connected St. Marys to the Benedict Option:
Dreher addressed his book to fellow conservative Christians, but in calling for a strategic retreat from society, he tapped into an impulse felt by a range of groups in America. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C., contemporary followers of Marcus Garvey, the 20th-century Pan-African activist and thinker, have built infrastructure designed to free black people from systemic oppression: community gardens to provide food in neighborhoods devoid of grocery stores, and Afrocentric schools that teach black pride. Young leftist Jews skeptical of assimilation have founded a number of Yiddish-speaking farms in upstate New York, in an effort to preserve their ethnic heritage as well as Judaism’s agrarian tradition. Environmentalists have established sustainable settlements in rural Virginia, which serve as both utopian experiments in low-impact living and shelters for the climate disasters ahead.
These groups ostensibly have little in common, but they share a sense that living according to their beliefs while continuing to participate in mainstream American life is not possible. They have elected to undertake what might be termed cultural secession. Katherine Dugan, an assistant professor of religion at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, who studies Catholicism in the U.S., describes the desire for protected, set-apart communities as “a natural American response to not liking what the cultural context is.”
It made perfect sense that she did that. St. Marys sounds like exactly the kind of place you would expect from a Catholic trad Benedict Option. A number of readers asked me why I wasn’t commenting on Green’s piece. I couldn’t tell you at the time. Now I can.
When Green’s report appeared, I had just met a man named Kurt Chione at a Ben Op conference. Chione told me he used to be part of the St. Marys community, and taught at the school. He told me that he had been driven out after a student confided to him back in the late 1980s that he had been molested by an SSPX priest, and he (Chione) went to the local police with the story. Nothing was done for the boy, and Chione was fired. The boy later committed suicide. Days before I met him by happenstance at a hotel breakfast bar, Chione said he had been interviewed by agents of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who were looking into the case, and came across Chione’s name as someone who tried to help the boy.
I had no reason to disbelieve Chione, but was also not in a position to do any kind of real investigative work to see if Chione’s allegations had merit. But they were substantive enough, and fit an all too familiar pattern, that I could not in good faith comment on Emma Green’s story. With Chione’s permission, I sent the information I had from him to several journalists for both secular and Catholic publications. I have no idea what, if anything, they did with it.
Now Christine Niles of Church Militant, a muckraking conservative Catholic web journal, has broken the story, under the headline, “SSPX: Sympathetic To Perverts.” Church Militant has a take-no-prisoners attitude toward sex abuse in the clergy — and now, they’ve turned their cannons on the SSPX. This is no doubt going to upset a significant number of Church Militant‘s readers, which are strongly on the Catholic Church’s right flank.
According to Niles’s story, the boy Kurt Chione tried to help was named Michael Gonzalez. He killed himself in the year 2000. Most of what Chione told me (except for the name of the boy, and his alleged assailant) he seems to have shared with Niles.
Niles has far more information about sex abuse allegations against SSPX priests and affiliated laity, and publishes it, quoting whistleblowers and others. Let me be clear: I do not know if these stories are true, and am not claiming that they are. I link to it because SSPX takes the report seriously enough to issue a sharp response (more on which in a moment), and because I talked at some length with Kurt Chione about all this last fall, and tried to interest other journalists in checking out his story. While offering here no final judgement on the substance of Niles’s reporting, it does seem clear that she has brought to light some troubling information that cannot be easily dismissed. I hope other journalists will finally get interested in what happened in St. Marys, and within the culture of the SSPX. Michael Gonzalez and his family deserve justice.
Here’s one strange twist in the story. In the bit below, “Jassy” is Jassy Jacas, a longtime parishioner at St. Marys, who in 2015 informed SSPX officials that Father Pierre Duverger had behaved inappropriately with her in the confessional, and had allegedly sexually assaulted a different woman. Jacas claims she got the runaround, and was told to stay quiet about Father Duverger, for the good of the SSPX:
The SSPX was thrown into a panic after Church Militant contacted them with a query about Fr. Duverger.
In their eventual email response, they didn’t realize — until it was too late — that they had accidentally included in the email thread a series of behind-the-scenes emails among leadership strategizing about how to respond to Church Militant. Their emails reveal an organization devoted more to protecting the institution than of concern for victims.
Most of the strategizing came from James Vogel, communications director for the U.S. district for the SSPX. He’s editor-in-chief of Angelus Press, the official publisher of the SSPX.
In an email dated February 24, 2020, Vogel acknowledges to others in the thread — again unaware that Church Militant would see the email — the ugly history of sex abuse in the SSPX: “We cannot issue a blanket denunciation of the accusers and say he [Duverger] is innocent of everything. Church Militant has already dug into some of our ugly cases in France; what if they find out the history here?”
He goes on to say, “We can admit he’s been placed under restrictions, but I still think MOST people will find it bizarre he is allowed to teach/run a school under the circumstances.”
After some back and forth with Fr. Wegner, Wegner writes, “Here is it not about mollifying Church Militant. If we go down that road they will judge us as Jassy does. For them, as for Jassy, the only proper outcome would be to have him in a religious prison.”
Making clear their concern is to stem further inquiry, he goes on to ask, “But what is the right middle between saying pretty much nothing and soothing them?”
Vogel responds, “It is an interesting strategy, but it is a kind of deflection … which might not be bad as an interim decision! … Whatever we say or decide: They will respond. … It will not end with Fr. Duverger; Jassy’s claims and contacts will be a veritable ‘gold mine’ for them.”
After all this behind-the-scenes strategizing, the SSPX chose the way of silence, issuing Church Militant a curt response, Fr. Wegner claiming he could not discuss the matter and instead referring us to SSPX attorneys. When Church Militant contacted the attorneys, they also refused to talk.
Astonishing. Today, SSPX published online a formal response, denouncing the Church Militant article as “yellow journalism.” Excerpt:
Through Church Militant’s story, it wishes to expose a culture of coverup in the SSPX. Instead, it exposed its own gross lack of ethics when it took private internal correspondence, which was accidentally sent to it and quoted from it out of context. Even so, as the quoted passages make clear, the discussion did not center on covering up any public wrongdoing but focused instead on how best to respond to Church Militant’s inquiries.
Well, no, the quoted passages do not make that clear, at least not to me. There was nothing at all unethical in Church Militant quoting that email inadvertently forwarded to it, especially because the information in the e-mail was directly about the SSPX’s attempt to keep Church Militant from learning damaging information about its operations. Still, Church Militant should reveal the entire e-mail, so that its readers can decide whether or not CM quoted the e-mail out of context to make SSPX look bad. If it doesn’t, there is nothing preventing SSPX from doing so, to prove its claim here.
More from SSPX:
It is well-known that Church Militant is not a serious journalistic enterprise but a repository of sensationalized stories, hit pieces, and videos featuring the opinions of its controversial founder, Michael Voris. Further, Church Militant has repeatedly used the SSPX’s name to generate web-clicks and revenue while hoping to stoke the fires of public controversy by baiting it into a war of words. Prudence dictates caution when dealing with a tabloid, and we will not be so baited.
The SSPX is committed to full transparency in all of these cases. We will be releasing detailed responses to every allegation.
I will be looking forward to those responses. SSPX is correct that Church Militant is a muckraking tabloid, but that doesn’t mean that they are wrong here. It only means that the reader should approach its claims carefully. But sometimes, it takes muckrakers to expose the truth. As Ross Douthat wrote in 2018:
The first time I ever heard the truth about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., finally exposed as a sexual predator years into his retirement, I thought I was listening to a paranoiac rant.
It was the early 2000s, I was attending some earnest panel on religion, and I was accosted by a type who haunts such events — gaunt, intense, with a litany of esoteric grievances. He was a traditionalist Catholic, a figure from the church’s fringes, and he had a lot to say, as I tried to disentangle from him, about corruption in the Catholic clergy. The scandals in Boston had broken, so some of what he said was familiar, but he kept going, into a rant about Cardinal McCarrick: Did you know he makes seminarians sleep with him? Invites them to his beach house, gets in bed with them …
At this I gave him the brushoff that you give the monomaniacal and slipped out.
That was before I realized that if you wanted the truth about corruption in the Catholic Church, you had to listen to the extreme-seeming types, traditionalists and radicals, because they were the only ones sufficiently alienated from the institution to actually dig into its rot. (This lesson has application well beyond Catholicism.)
In truth, I hope SSPX can credibly knock down every one of Church Militant‘s allegations, because stories of sexual abuse and cover up by clergy are sins that cry out to heaven for justice. CM’s report includes an account of a father from the St. Marys community who is now in prison for raping his own children:
In St. Mary’s, Kansas, for example, just this year, two SSPX parishioners — Dean Johnson and Peter Palmeri — have been jailed for serious sex crimes against children, the latter a father who raped his own children — while three SSPX priests who had certain knowledge of his deeds refused to report him to authorities.
Palmeri was arrested and charged last year on multiple counts of rape and child sex assault. He’s now in prison. He’s father to a large family that are longtime parishioners of the local SSPX chapel and worked at St. Mary’s Academy.
According to one eyewitness, not one, not two, but three SSPX priests knew of his abuse and said nothing, even ordering him to stay quiet.
That man goes on the record with Christine Niles, using his name. This is not an anonymous informer. It is a man who was once engaged to a daughter of Peter Palmeri, and a victim of his. That witness, Kyle White, names three SSPX priests with whom he says he had personal contact about Palmeri, and who told him to stay quiet.
Is that charge true? If so, those priests deserve to be held responsible for this morally indefensible behavior. This didn’t allegedly happen in the distant past, but just a few years ago. Those poor Palmeri children, my God.
I am no longer a Catholic, but I am generally quite sympathetic to trads. My longtime readers know this, which is why they were understandably surprised that I did not comment on Emma Green’s favorable story about the SSPX village. I hope Emma Green will revisit her St. Marys story in light of these new allegations. Were I a Catholic trad, I would have been strongly tempted to move to St. Marys, based on Green’s sympathetic and beautifully written piece. And now?
Truth is the most important thing. A society built on lies and cover-ups deserves to fall, so it can rebuild on the foundation of truth. This is not the first time SSPX has been accused of harboring sex abusers. In 2017, a Swedish documentary hit the society pretty hard on this front. If what Christine Niles and her sources say happened really did happen, then it needs to come out. All of it. Everything. The moral and spiritual credibility of the SSPX is on the line here. It especially needs to come out because there are people who even at this late date, hold the belief that sex abuse is a problem of liberal churches, and liberal theology. In fact, theological orthodoxy is no guarantee of moral decency.
UPDATE: Some of you seem to believe that my agreeing with the SSPX spokesman that Church Militant is a “muckraking tabloid” means that I criticize CM for that. Not at all! “Muckraking tabloid” is not a negative term in my world; it’s just a description of a journalistic style. Remember, I was a columnist for the New York Post. I am a fan of tabloids, in general. They have their weaknesses, just like the more respectable publications, but a healthy journalistic ecosystem needs both. I recall going to a Catholic journalism conference in the early spring of 2002, shortly after the scandal broke, and listening to the then-publisher of the National Catholic Register, a Legion of Christ priest (the Legion owned the paper at the time), congratulating himself and his publication for not rolling around in the gutter reporting on the scandal, like other publications. I wanted to stand up and yell, “You are using propriety to disguise your cowardice and corruption!”
This is why I quoted Douthat above: sometimes, the more outrageous sources — those on the fringe — are the only ones who can see the truth, and have the courage to tell it. I don’t give a toss about whether or not Church Militant played nice here; all I want to know is: are they telling the truth about sex abuse in the SSPX, and if they are, are they doing so without breaking the law?