Allegations of spiritual abuse and sexual misconduct throw Sick Pilgrim into turmoil

Books are being destroyed, and an online community is in shock following the revelations of alleged sexual and spiritual misconduct by one of the founders of Sick Pilgrim.

Sick Pilgrim, the popular blog and online community for Catholic misfits, announced Friday afternoon that it’s severing ties with its co-founder, Jonathan Ryan, a.k.a Jonathan Weyer. Sick Pilgrim, which is hosted on multi-faith blogging platform Patheos, also announced that it’s spiking the newly released spiritual memoir, Strange Journey, which Ryan/Weyer co-wrote with Sick Pilgrim’s co-founder, Jessica Mesman Griffith.

The book’s publisher, Loyola, said in an email on Friday:

“Loyola Press has ceased publication of the Work titled Strange Journey: How Two Homesick Pilgrims Stumbled Back into the Catholic Church,  and the corresponding publication rights in that Work have reverted to the authors.”

According to a statement by Griffith, all remaining copies of the book will be destroyed.

“[T]he relationships Jonathan had formed with several women he met through the blog and in the community had in fact been inappropriate, predatory and exploitative.”

Sick Pilgrim, founded in 2015, recently partnered with Notre Dame in hosting a Catholic literary conference, Trying to Say God. Sick Pilgrim won the Wilbur Award for best faith-based blog in 2017.

Griffith refers to the Sick Pilgrim online community as “a de facto support group for those recovering from spiritual abuse,” and says, “Jonathan betrayed our trust and manipulated people who were attracted to our writing and the online group for this very reason. It is for their protection that he was swiftly and decisively removed.”

Griffith counts herself among the women Ryan manipulated and exploited. Since Griffith posted her statement, more women have come forward to say that Ryan exploited them.

Griffith’s entire statement can be found at the bottom of this story. It was shared first in the closed Facebook community, and then publicly on another Patheos site.

On Thursday night, Jonathan Ryan confirmed he is no longer associated with Sick Pilgrim.

“I was kicked out, actually,” Ryan said,

Ryan, who is 43, said he was removed from the blog for allegedly using the blog and Facebook group to meet women. Ryan said he has had three consensual relationships with women he has met through Sick Pilgrim, but that he has done nothing wrong.

“This is not a Harvey Weinstein situation,” he said.

The first relationship, Ryan said, was an “emotional” relationship with a woman who contacted him about a post he wrote for the blog. Ryan says they developed a deep relationship, but says, “Nothing happened, a lot of emotions going back and forth and that’s it.”

In a phone interview on November 16, Ryan denied, with qualifiers, that the relationship was sexual.

“No sexting that I remember. At least, I don’t think we did,” he said.

In a November 14 email from Ryan to Mesman and the board of Sick Pilgrim, Ryan said,

“The only woman from [Sick Pilgrim] that I’ve met or asked for a relationship is Donna. I’ve not sought, to my knowledge, to meet anyone other than Donna.”

“Donna” refers to Donna Provencher, who made a public statement a statement alleging exploitation by Ryan.

“(I)t may not be illegal to target vulnerable women whose spiritual lives have been exposed to you, who are openly struggling with depression and anxiety, who have told you all their deepest, darkest secrets — to tell them you want to marry them, keep them a dirty little secret, sleep with them, dump them, and start dating your next soulmate before the milk in your refrigerator expires – but it’s certainly a grievous breach of ethics for even an ordinary person, let alone one literally in the business of souls and bound to uphold integrity and Catholic ethics.”

Provencher’s entire story is here.

The second relationship Ryan acknowledged, in the phone interview of November 16, involves his blog partner Griffith. Ryan claims that the two shared a kiss after a night of drinking while recording a podcast. He says they ended up at his house, and that the contact was mutually consensual.

Griffith says she had newly arrived in Indianapolis after separating from her husband. She said, in a phone interview on November 17, “Ordinarily, I do not enjoy being in the same space as him.” Ryan told her his priest was coming to his house to bless it. Griffith says she was “in severe emotional distress, and he knew it. She says she told Ryan she “needed something holy” and that it “would do her soul good” to be there for the blessing.

But when she got there, the blessing was already over. Ryan and the priest, who is his employer at Zionsville, Indiana, were sitting outside on the patio drinking whiskey.

Griffith says she was in a terrible emotional state and hadn’t eaten in three days. She accepted a glass of whiskey and then another. She says she recorded the podcast, but was not conscious of what she was saying. She says Ryan told her he later deleted it, because it was “a drunken mess.”

“This never happens,” said Griffith. “It’s not like me. I was conscious, but not aware. The last thing I remember, I was sitting on the patio. The next thing I remember is waking up on his sofa in his living room with his hand up my shirt.”

Griffith says she immediately drove home and spent the next two days crying. “I was so horrified, I didn’t say anything,” she said. She says Ryan sent her “an outrageous love letter as if we’d had some deep meaningful experience. I wrote back one line, saying I’m traumatized this happened. He became angry and sent me an abusive response, as if I had wronged him.”

“I’m not denying the fact that something happened,” Ryan said.

Ryan claimed to have emails that he and Griffin shared in the days following this incident in which they were joking. He did not provide copies of the emails.

Ryan also denied, in a phone conversation on November 17, that he trash talked Griffith behind her back in order to diminish or undermine her, as Griffith alleges in her statement. “The fact is,” he explained, “she’s just a fucking nut to work with.”

When asked to explain that statement in light of his denying he spoke badly about Griffith, Ryan said he would tell people that Griffith can be difficult to work with.

In an email dated September 5, Ryan told Griffith (who is separated but still married),

“[I]f you want [our relationship] to be something more, and feel like all of this happened for a reason (us moving to Indy, etc and so on), then I’m here for that too. This is what I feel. I think all of this did happen for a reason and its not accident . . .
“I look at the picture of us in the graveyard, with you bending around the corner of the tombstone and smiling at me, and it just feels right. Full disclosure, I even have that picture on my desktop right now.”

 

Griffith said, “I was with a colleague and a member of the clergy. I felt I was in a safe space to have a meltdown. But there was a predator there.”

The incident happened in late August. Two weeks later, Griffith says, Ryan began a relationship with Donna Provencher. Provencher has saved all the emails from her relationship with Ryan, and will be expanding on her allegations in a forthcoming article here.
Griffith says he told Donna she was an egomaniac, that she wanted full control of Sick Pilgrim, that she was a bad mother and an alcoholic.

In another conversation later Friday afternoon, Ryan said that after Griffith and the board of Sick Pilgrim they were severing ties with him, he sent a letter to Griffith and Sick Pilgrim leadership seeking reconciliation. He does not want to rejoin the blog, but he does want to come to an understanding with them.

“I’m trying to do this the way Christ would do it,” Ryan said.

Ryan blamed Griffith and the others in Sick Pilgrim fro blindsiding him with the accusations, saying he wished they had come to him first.

“I’ve really been hurt by this whole thing,” Ryan said.

Ryan wants Griffith to select a priest or spiritual director to mediate with them, rather that going through a court battle.

“That’s not how Christ would do it,” he said.

In her statement, Provencher said:

“[Ryan] sent an email to another girl in Sick Pilgrim telling her he loved her and that God had destined them to be together for all time on Sept. 4th; that he was telling me the very same thing by Sept. 23rd; and then dumped me and started dating a close friend of his within a week or so of breaking up with me Oct. 23.”

Asked about the accusations that he acted in a predatory manner in his relationship with Provencher, Ryan said it was a consensual relationship. He initially denied knowing that Provencher has mental health issues, but when pressed Ryan said that Provencher had shared her mental health diagnosis with him. He then said he initially did not think of Donna Provencher as mentally ill, nut the she had a “histrionic” personality.
“That one’s a little fuzzy for me,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who is Pastoral Associate of Evangelization at Alphonsis Liguori Catholic Church in Zionsville, Indiana, said he simply wants to move one and be at peace with Griffith and the other in Sick Pilgrim.

“I want to do what Christ wants me to do, and that’s not pious bullshit,” Ryan said.

“He’s one of these people that sees the holy spirit speaking to him daily,” Griffith said in a conversation of November 17. He would talk openly about what the Holy Spirit wanted him to do, she said, and then change his mind the next day.

Griffith said she ignored red flags about Ryan’s behavior because the entire mission of the Sick Pilgrim online community, which includes about 200 people, was to make a place for odd people.

“We’re all weirdos,” she said. “It’s our charism. That’s the danger of a group like this. You say you’re open to everyone, but it’s hard to know where to draw the line. But this was beyond tolerating weirdness. This was getting predatory.”

People used the Sick Pilgrim online group as a place to “talk about stuff they felt like they couldn’t talk about in church,” Griffith said. “Many are on the fence about leaving, and have found a way to be Catholic again by finding this community.”
The group, says Griffith, “attracts vulnerable people, abuse victims, the mentally ill. But vulnerable people attract predators.”  Griffith says that she would occasionally have to warn people to be cautious, especially about making physical contact with people you’ve met online.
Griffith said she only had to remove three people in three years for inappropriate behavior; but with Ryan, she noticed open flirtation with women in the group that would escalate quickly, then disappear, and then the woman would leave the group.
“This happened a couple of times. This woman [Donna Provencher] was talking very openly about her challenges with mental illness. I saw open flirtation [between Provencher and Ryan], and then suddenly she left the group. Immediately after, Jon posted a very dramatic narrative about being in love with another woman that the Holy Spirit told him he was in love with.”
So Griffith reached out to her to ask if there was anything she could help with. She says Provencher wrote back within thirty seconds, saying she had been “dying to talk.” When she heard Provencher’s story, she said she had to act. Griffith says that Ryan made elaborate promises to Provencher, encouraged her not to trust anyone else in the group, met with her, had sex with her, then abruptly broke off the relationship.
 
In a phone conversation, Ryan described the relationship as “completely normal.” He called his removal from the blog, and the spiking of
Strange Journey, and overreaction.

“It is overkill,” he said on Thursday. “I have proof of everything I’m saying.” 

As of Friday evening, Ryan not yet provided this proof. 

An interview with the Provencher is scheduled for Monday. (Update: Provencher’s story is here.)

Ryan expressed concern that this development could cost him his job. He said no one had ever come to him about any potential issues in the past few years over his behavior.

Before he co-founded Sick Pilgrim, Ryan converted to Catholicism. He had been a Presbyterian minister.  Griffith says Ryan, who is divorced, initially claimed the had quit that job, but then admitted he had been removed, saying it was “not a good fit.” Ryan is also the author of two paranormal thrillers.

Griffith says that after her conversation with Provencher, she immediately went to the administrative board of Sick Pilgrim. They discussed the women’s testimony, and then consulted an attorney, afraid that the woman would be subject to retaliation. In addition to Provencher, two other women came forward at that point, providing testimony and screenshots that demonstrated predatory behavior by Ryan. These women are not willing to speak on record.

It was only at the end of the summer that Griffith discovered that Sick Pilgrim, which was established over three years ago, is in Ryan’s name only, although Griffith is the one who conceived of the blog, came up with the title, vision, and image, moderated the community, and edited all the essays for over seventy contributors. When she asked Ryan whether he had been paid during that time, he said the money had gone to direct deposit and he didn’t really notice it, and would pay her later.
In a phone conversation, Ryan said he spent the money that came in on things for Sick Pilgrim, such as podcast equipment.

The blog will remain dormant.

“I don’t know what will come of it,” Griffith says. “I don’t need scorched earth. I just don’t need him in a position to hurt vulnerable women.”

Griffith says it’s incredibly painful to see the destruction of the book she worked on for years, the site she founded, and the community she fostered. But “the book makes him appear a trustworthy spiritual guide,” she says. People assumed he was reliable because she associated with him, she says.

“I hate to think he’d use that to groom someone else. I’m not going to provide a henhouse for him to raid.”

***
Correction November 18: This article originally stated that Ryan is 41 years old. This was a typo. Ryan is 43.

***

BELOW IS THE OFFICIAL STATEMENT FROM JESSICA MESMAN GRIFFITH:
This is my official statement. I wanted to share with you before posting on the blog, as it contains more information and I didn’t want it to come as a shock to anyone. You should hear it from me. You’ve become like family to me. I can only say I’m sorry I didn’t speak out sooner as maybe it would have spared others some pain. #metoo indeed.
*
On Sunday, November 12, 2017, it came to my attention that there have been relationships between Jonathan Ryan, the co-founder of the Sick Pilgrim blog, and various women in the Sick Pilgrim online community–a community that had become, over the last year, a de facto support group for those recovering from spiritual abuse, in addition to a place for artists and writers to come together to discuss what inspires us and/or troubles us about the Catholic Church. (This Facebook community is a private group–one must request to join–but it’s not a secret. We have advertised it on the blog and on Facebook multiple times and invited anyone interested to send us a request to join.)
It quickly became apparent, upon investigation of these claims, that the relationships Jonathan had formed with several women he met through the blog and in the community had in fact been inappropriate, predatory and exploitative.
By Tuesday, November 14, the Sick Pilgrim administrative staff had collected enough testimony and evidence to send Jonathan a formal letter notifying him that he had been removed from the online community and should no longer publish any work or give interviews or public lectures under the name Sick Pilgrim.
We have always been committed to making our community members safe and have removed people from the online group for less. We have had a zero tolerance policy for online harassment that has often been controversial, but I’ve always wanted to err on the side of protection of the vulnerable. I consult with the admin team, but I take full responsibility for the decisions to remove members from the group.
Our decision to dismiss Jonathan Ryan from both the group and the blog–and to publicly denounce his actions–was based on the following:
–His position in the group was not that of a peer. It was that of a co-founder, former Presbyterian pastor, and current Catholic ministry leader, a holder of public trust. For this reason, he had a responsibility to the members of this group to carry himself with self-control and safety. He did neither.
–He private messaged women in the group with romantic intent, making plans or suggesting to meet with more than one of them in person. At least one has reported that when he met her in person, they had sexual intercourse.
This woman was (1) a good deal younger than him; (2) struggling openly (as narrated in the group) with mental illness; (3) in extremely stressful life, financial, and relational transition, and thus (4) quite obviously vulnerable. The power and position dynamics were simply inexcusable and unconscionable. We have evidence that he indicated to this younger woman that she could expect marriage–going so far as to pick out the chapel where they were to be wed–and that intercourse was part of that trajectory. Even if, at the time, this intercourse was consensual, the woman in question gave her consent under false pretenses. Again, the power and trust differential was severely abused.
–We have received, from multiple people, written statements and screenshots from conversational threads in which Jonathan narrated conflicting accounts of a disturbing predatory experience that I, personally, had with him in August of 2017. None of these accounts corresponds with reality, which included him groping me after I’d had too much to drink. I also received evidence that he was maligning my character and calling into question everything from my writing to my parenting and even my adherence to church teaching, presumably to undermine my credibility in advance of me telling my story.
This is why I believe the women who have come forward. I’m one of them.
Sick Pilgrim–the blog and the group–in addition to being a place for artists and “weirdos” to talk church, was conceived and designed as “a field hospital for the spiritually wounded.” Jonathan betrayed our trust and manipulated people who were attracted to our writing and the online group for this very reason. It is for their protection that he was swiftly and decisively removed.
Jonathan also wrote a number of posts condemning the narcissism and predatory behavior of abusive men–after assaulting me–which now strike us, at best, as disingenuous and at worst, as part of a pattern of grooming women to trust him as an ally.
The Sick Pilgrim community unequivocally repudiates Jonathan’s actions. We are an informal group of artists, writers, and theology buffs–not a legal entity, not a lay apostolate of the Catholic Church, not an intentional community. But it is important–essential–that we protect the marginalized and vulnerable among us, who have come to us for spiritual companionship and support. I will do everything in my power to do so.
To that end, I have also contacted Loyola Press, publisher of the book Strange Journey, which Jonathan and I co-authored about our experiences of healing and wonder in the Catholic Church. As a result, Loyola Press has terminated our contract. All remaining copies of the book will be destroyed. I stand by that decision and applaud Loyola for their swift response.
To say that I am deeply sorry for the wounds this has caused those who trusted us as friends, companions, colleagues, spiritual leaders and Catholic writers is the understatement of my lifetime. I began Sick Pilgrim in part as a project for my own healing from spiritual and emotional abuse, and these experiences and revelations have broken my heart all over again.
If you have questions or concerns or further information regarding this story, you may contact the administrative team of Sick Pilgrim at admin@sickpilgrim.com.

13 thoughts on “Allegations of spiritual abuse and sexual misconduct throw Sick Pilgrim into turmoil”

    1. If you could click on “report this ad” underneath the ad, that would be very helpful! It’s mostly driven by blog content and by viewer’s browsing habits, but it does miss the mark sometimes. Thanks!

  1. If someone comes a’tellin’ you that the Holy Spirit rattled something off in their shell-like ear , call Uber or your mom to come get you. The dictates of the Holy Spirit are tested and tried by the Church, and I tend to think we only see them in the rear-view mirror, if only because Holy Mother Church rightly takes Her own sweet time in parsing these things out. There is only one Savior and if a guru hails you, run.

  2. A lot of needy, hurting people, some of them with substance abuse problems, talk online and in person about deep emotional and spiritual issues… and then some of them end up doing things they regret? How surprising is this? I don’t mean to minimize or make light of anyone’s suffering. But this does not sound like something that should be unexpected. Troubled people sometimes do troubled things, especially with other troubled people. It might be “predatory,” or it might be the results of people with problems behaving in problematic ways, because that is how they often behave — and it sounds as if there is nothing built into this group (always meeting up in groups, having ground rules about drinking and about dating other people in the group, etc.) to counter such tendencies. When deep emotions and problems are involved, it’s very important that people have strict boundaries — like those between a counselor and the person counseled. Plenty of groups formed for self help have degenerated in this way before, it’s very sad but has happened often. I’m so sorry to hear this, but people really need to understand that online or in-person interest groups, support groups, etc., are not necessarily set up well or full of well people.

  3. This is national inquirer type reporting. Jonathan Ryan is a predator, women are hurt and suffering, and a whole community has to deal with the fallout of this and here you are engaging in voyeuristic predation masked is “journalism.” You’re a joke.

  4. Is he friends with Fr. Luke Reese in Indianapolis, by chance? (Incarcerated for assaulting his wife) Interesting that all this is occurring at the same time….

  5. Maybe Ryan can join Fr. Corapi’s Black Sheepdog Ministries.

    I see all kinds of red flags: 41, unmarried and dating, Holy Spirit talks to him constantly, private group with admission only for those who are deemed worthy, discussions about sex/morality among singles…

    When my Mom’s maid of 35 years came to her and claimed a leader of the Serra club (that she’d met at a fundraiser at our house)had sexually abused her, my Mom asked her why she had slept with him. “He promised to marry me” was the answer. That was before Maria found his secret stash of photos of his prior conquests. He kept them like offerings to his massive male virility.

    Then there was the pro-life Casanova that slept with a whole harem of the pro-life ladies, unmarried and married.

    Maybe when daughters become teens, Moms need to put up a framed list of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder next to the framed Beatitudes and the John 3:16. It seems like girls need to be coached to more easily spot the sociopaths and Vampire Peter Pans. — The script that the dogs follow isn’t that complicated at all.

    1. I’ve heard so many horror stories, both public ones like this and ones from family and friends, that I hold most people in leadership positions at arm’s length now, even priests. If someone is in a position of power or influence over you, free peer-to-peer friendship is off the table. We’ve had the parish priest over for supper, but I wouldn’t let him stop by unannounced the way I might someone else.

      Strict boundries are the only way I see of avoiding this sort of thing, but not everyone is mentally able to enforce or discern them. I hope it’s something i can teach my kids.

      1. I used to be so brainwashed that I thought that stories like these were made up by liberals to make conservatives look bad. If it was proven that bad behavior happened, and a conservative was guilty of something, the victim was considered the culprit who got herself in that position by having loose morals.

        I can’t believe I fell for their sick, manipulative crap. How repulsive. How naive. The antithesis of the Faith.

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