Canadian college, church, and community ignored predatory choirmaster’s red flags

By Damien Fisher with additional reporting by Simcha Fisher

Uwe Lieflander used his position as a youth choir leader, music teacher, and college professor to spend years grooming the child he is accused of sexually assaulting when she became a young adult.

Lieflander’s alleged predation didn’t happen in a vacuum. The members of his small Canadian community, parents of his students, colleagues, and even a priest ignored red flags and explained away the behavior that Lieflander himself likened to grooming, and he was welcomed back to work with children even after the victim said he raped her.

Lieflander, 59, is now a fugitive from justice, having left Canada in 2017 for his native Germany before warrants were issued for his arrest. He now records YouTube travel videos under the name “The Vespa Idiot,” and some of the people and institutions that harbored him have yet to reckon with his abuse.

Lieflander in a 2021 Vespa Idiot video

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Sam, now in her late 20s, grew up in a large, strict, Catholic family in the Barry’s Bay, Ontario area. 

“My whole family are ultra-conservative Catholic,” Sam said. 

She said the family practiced a sort of manichaean, patriarchal faith, believing that the body is bad and shameful, and women and children are meant to be silent. 

Barry’s Bay in Madawaska Valley is home to a community of Polish immigrants who practiced an old-style form of Catholicism, but in the 1990s that started to change. New groups of traditional-minded Catholics began moving into the rural and isolated region, including apocalyptic novelist Michael O’Brien, and an early iteration of the right-wing Lifesite News. 

Some moved to the Madawaska Valley region to escape what they were sure was going to be the end-of-civilization event of Y2K; others came to build a traditional community. It was there, in Barry’s Bay, that Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy was founded in 1999. The young college with a handful of students made its place sometimes in the very homes of the local Catholic families, like Sam’s, who allowed the school to hold classes on their property. Sam’s family became enmeshed with the school, and it was Our Lady Seat of Wisdom that employed Lieflander. 

Sam agreed to share her story, and supply supporting documentation and contemporaneous witnesses. Her real name will not be used, and some information that could identify her will be obscured in this article. 

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom was originally founded to offer one-year degrees for mostly homeschooled students. The school’s unaccredited degrees were generally not recognized by other colleges, and for a long time the school served as a feeder program for larger Catholic colleges such as Christendom, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Thomas Aquinas College.

The college’s motto is Veritas Vos Liberabit: “The Truth will set you free.”

The school’s program continue to grow. In 2017, the Canadian Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development granted the school the right to offer Bachelor’s degrees. And this year, demonstrating the school’s continued growing acceptance by the mainstream community, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke agreed to allow Our Lady Seat of Wisdom theology professors Scott Nicholson and John Paul Meenan to teach remote catechism classes for the diocese.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in 2016

Sam was 15 when she first saw a performance by one of Lieflander’s youth choirs, known as a “Sparrows” choir, at a nearby Catholic parish in the fall of 2008. Lieflander was then a part-time music teacher at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and he operated several Sparrows Choirs throughout Ontario. He also founded the Sacred Music Society in Ottawa.

Lieflander started working at the private college in 2007 and became renowned as a musician and voice teacher. He had come up through the Regensburger Domspatzen (“cathedral sparrows”) boys choir in Germany, where, according to a report, over 500 boys had been sexually abused. 

Around 2008, Sam longed to be part of the charismatic Lieflander’s Sparrows choir operating in Barry’s Bay. She wanted to learn about music, but also sought some kind of escape from her deeply dysfunctional home life.

Although she was too young to attend college, she was allowed to join Lieflander’s Sparrows choir, and she also took private lessons for him at the college, which he used as a base for his private work. He also taught at several Catholic schools. He presented himself as a caring person, an “uncle” figure who looked after his students. Sam said there was a pattern of Lieflander forging especially deep connections with vulnerable children like her.

“Once you were one of his favorites, you really felt important,” she said.

Lieflander’s lessons included probing into her home life, and also his trademark method of touching children during rehearsal as part of his teaching method.

“There was a lot of touch,” Sam said about her lessons. Lieflander taught over 14,000 students. 

Lieflander is described as a musical genius who could draw out remarkable performances from children. He would place his hands on them as they sang, in order to get them to understand where the sound was coming from. 

A few Sparrows parents were uncomfortable with the practice, but most accepted the explanation that touching was necessary to his method, according to our source. He would also have children sit on his lap, and routinely played “chasing” and “grabbing” games with them. Around 2015 and 2016, a small number of parents involved with Lieflander’s choirs pushed for him to stop touching children as part of his singing education. 

When a small number of parents confronted Lieflander about his unorthodox teaching style and demanded that he change, Lieflander reportedly pushed back. Lieflander, who liked to consider himself something of a friendly uncle to his students, told the parents he had studied the grooming process of child abusers and determined there were 12 steps abusers used, the source said.

“I do all 11 of them, but not the 12th,” Lieflander reportedly said, according to our source.

Lieflander in a 2021 Vespa Idiot video

The source said so many parents and others let their guards down around Lieflander, in part because he was so open and brazen about his behavior. In retrospect, he may have been bullet proofing himself against any accusations that might come out, our source said.

Eventually, in 2011, the Ottawa Catholic School Board expressed concerns about his habit of touching children during Sparrow choir rehearsals. Rather than stop touching the children, he resigned. His resignation caused a media stir, and parents at one school protested the school board’s actions, saying they did not object to the touching. Lieflander continued leading private Sparrows choirs, and Our Lady Seat of Wisdom continued to employ him.

As Sam and Lieflander’s student-teacher relationship intensified, he began discussing her home and family life in more detail. When she was 16 and 17, Lieflander decided that her family was not up to the task of caring for Sam, and he told her he was going to take greater control of her life, for her own good. Sam’s home life did not improve during the next couple of years, and her mental health spiraled. She started cutting, and Lieflander began encouraging her to run away from home.

At 18 she fled to a relative, but her emotional crisis did not abate, and after several months she went to what was billed as a Catholic rehabilitation facility in Florida. Sam spent two years there before she returned home to Barry’s Bay. 

It was 2014, Sam was 21, and numb from her years in Florida at a center that she described as a cult. Severe dysfunction still plagued her family. Soon after she got back, she went to another Sparrows concert and Lieflander picked up with her where he left off, making her feel both special and dependent on him.

“I was still in awe of him,”she said. 

She restarted music lessons with Lieflander and told him about her troubles. Lieflander directed her to call him “Dad.” He told her he would make all decisions for her, and that he expected her total obedience.

“He completely took control,” she said.

Over the summer of 2014, his control grew to include threats of emotional isolation if she ever disobeyed him, she said. He also persuaded her she was part of his family. She had to give his home address as her home address, for example, and he would randomly demand she recite it for him. 

Lieflander got her to attend Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in the fall for a year, earning one of the one-year degrees the school granted in Christian Humanities. They held hands, and he told her she was his child, and that she was emotionally 11 years old, she said, and he continued to insist she call him “Dad.”

“I am going to let you be the child you were never allowed to be,” Sam recalls him telling her. 

He also used the nearness of the school to exert more control over her, Sam said. As a student at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, she had to check in with him on a daily basis, and he required that she have a bedtime that he set for her, she said. If she displeased him he would put her under a “house arrest,” she said. 

As their relationship intensified, he started giving her 20-minute hugs in his office at the school, and had her sit in his lap so he could look down her shirt, she said. The encounters at school behind closed doors felt like a kind of molestation, Sam said. Lieflander told her to keep their relationship private, but at least one other Our Lady Seat of Wisdom staff member noticed an oddness to their relationship. When the subject was broached, the staffer said that the administrative response was: “That’s just Uwe.” 

Lieflander in 2021

During her time at the school, Sam sometimes had emotional meltdowns, and Lieflander was allowed at least once to enter her dorm room and “put her to bed.” At the time, the school did not allow men and women to be in each other’s dorms. Only a family member, like a parent, would be allowed. The school denies knowing these bedtime visits happened, but one instance has been confirmed by a witness. 

In 2015, Sam graduated with her one-year Christian Humanities diploma and started work in Ottawa as a nanny, but she kept seeing Lieflander, and would go back to the school with him. Lieflander continued to foster a controlling paternal relationship with Sam, telling her she needed him.

“He would say if withdrew his support for even 15 seconds, I would die,” she said. 

He ramped up the sexual relationship as well. He started getting her to take her clothes off in front of him, so that he  could “help her heal from her wounds,” she said.

“He told me he owns 51 percent of me, and I own 49 percent of me,” Sam said.

The sexual conduct finally escalated to rape, she said. It did not take place on campus. Sam did not want the details of the assault included in the story, but disclosed them in interviews with us, and her story is supported by the criminal charges brought by law enforcement.

During this time she started to self-harm again and she developed an eating disorder. Lieflander kept exerting control over her as a possessive father-figure, she said. 

“He would say “I always know what’s best for you and what you want, because I own you and you can’t live without me,” Sam said. “He said I was a nymphomaniac because he was too, I had his DNA because I was his daughter, so I was, too.”

It was cancer that finally disrupted their relationship. Sam was diagnosed with lymphoma in early 2017 and scheduled an appointment for pre-chemotherapy. The woman she had nannied for went to that first appointment to offer support, and it was there Sam told the nurse she was sexually active. Then Sam disclosed to her friend whom she was sexually active with.

“I told her it’s Dad (meaning Lieflander).  She freaked,” Sam said.

Sam had been sheltered from the world and naive about sex when she started her relationship with Lieflander. Her friend and her friend’s husband had to sit Sam down and explain to her how wrong Lieflander’s actions were.

“Deep down I knew she was right. It broke me,” Sam said. “People would ask how’s the cancer going. I lost all my hair, but nothing could compare to what I was feeling inside. How’s cancer? Oh right, cancer.”

Once she got her bearings, Sam started telling people about the abuse and rape. This was in May and June of 2017. She wanted to make sure the college knew and could protect any other possible victims. She also started contacting the many parishes where Lieflander still operated Sparrows choirs, to make sure they knew. Sam was aided by a friend, who was able to corroborate that the disclosures were made.

One of Lieflanfder’s attorney’s, Tamara Bubis, an associate with criminal defense law firm Engel & Associates, declined to comment on the case when contacted.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom responded to Sam’s disclosure by not renewing Lieflander’s contract, she said. The school, in a statement made just days ago, four years after the events, now claims it fired him. The school never followed up with its own investigation or review of Lieflander’s conduct on campus. It did not inform parents or students about the alleged abuse, and it did not contact law enforcement. Lieflander’s Sparrows choirs began shutting down because of Sam’s disclosures, and he left the country in the summer of 2017, and returned to Germany.

One of the people Sam told about the abuse was Fr. Marco Testa, then the pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Port Perry. Testa was reportedly supportive and sympathetic when Sam disclosed the alleged abuse, but she later found out that Testa brought Lieflander back for concerts at Immaculate Conception in January of 2018, after he heard allegations that he had groomed and raped her. 

Lieflander rehearsing for the Sparrows concert at Immaculate Conception in 2018

Testa is no longer serving at Immaculate Conception. Neil MacCarthy, public relations and communications director for the Archdiocese of Toronto, refused to divulge where Testa is currently residing. MacCarthy claims Testa retired at the end of 2020. MacCarthy declined to comment on the 2018 concert with Lieflander. Testa is reportedly aware we have requested to speak to him, but he has so far not responded. 

Fr. Marco and Lieflander at Immaculate Conception in 2018

Sam went to police a few weeks after the January of 2018 concert.  Charges were not brought forward until January 2019 when Ottawa police obtained warrants for Lieflander’s arrest.

Lieflander, who has yet to face charges in court, currently posts videos to Youtube about his scooter riding adventures under the handle The Vespa Idiot.

Lieflander in a recent “Vespa Idiot” video

He started a trip from Germany to Africa on his scooter last week, documenting his international journey to Casablanca online. This week he was in the South of France, according to his Youtube videos.

Christine Schintgen, interim president for Our Lady Seat of Wisdom and one of the school’s founders, declined to be interviewed for this story. Schintgen did agree to answer questions submitted via email. Her answers sought to distance the school from Lieflander.

“This was allegedly perpetrated on an alumna, but only after her time as a student at SWC was over. None of the alleged abuse is alleged to have happened while she was a student here. The alleged abuse was brought to our attention after the victim had ceased to be a student at OLSW. The victim did not bring forward any complaints or concerns to us during her time as a student, nor did anyone else,” Schintgen wrote.

Schintgen stated that the school never made any kind of statement about the allegations until the criminal charges were brought, two years after the school was made aware of the alleged abuse. 

“We are deeply saddened by this case and the damage it has done to the victim. However, there has been no claim that the abuse happened on campus, and no reason to believe that the College was negligent,” Schintgen wrote. 

Schintgen refused to address the alleged grooming that took place on campus when Sam was a student, and she deflected when asked why the school continued to employ Lieflander after the 2011 controversy over his touching students.

“In 2011 Uwe Lieflander resigned from his position with the Ottawa Catholic School Board rather than agree to abide by its policy prohibiting any physical contact between teachers and students. He argued that for certain subjects some contact was necessary, for example to correct posture while singing,” Schintgen wrote. “There was no suggestion that there had been a sexual element in the touch he employed or that he was guilty of sexual misconduct. After this controversy he continued to be employed by a number of schools and churches in the Toronto and Ottawa regions.”

Amanda Grady-Sexton, a domestic and sexual abuse survivors advocate in the United States, said an institution like a college should take clear steps when it learns about abuse.

“Best practice would be to report the abuse, notify and warn the college community, put the professor on leave pending an investigation conducted by an independent and external investigator, and to connect the survivor with on and off campus support and resources,” Grady-Sexton said. “It is also important to remind the community of the support in place for staff, students, and alumni. Notice to the community should be as detailed as possible, within HR guidelines, with updates as things change with the status of the case.”

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, according to Schintgen’s answers, did none of that. However, in a statement released on June 29, the college now claims, four years later, that it acted swiftly when it learned of Lieflander’s alleged abuse.

“When we learned of this case involving a former student, we acted swiftly, leading to the end of his employment with us,” the new statement reads.

In the statement, the college for the first time publicly encourages any student who may have experienced abuse perpetrated by Lieflander to come forward to the authorities. 

We have strong policies and procedures in place to handle allegations of harassment or abuse, and we communicate them clearly to all incoming members of the College community. We welcome complaints of sexual abuse and harassment, and want to promote a spirit of openness and comfort around disclosure of such incidents so that they can be dealt with in a thorough, just, and proactive manner. We also welcome scrutiny that holds us to a high standard in this regard,” the statement reads.

A former college staffer who pushed for years for the college to deal with the Lieflander accusations said the statement coming years later was “heartbreaking and scandalous.”

“When I became aware of the situation with Lieflander, I asked three different presidents at SWC to make an internal statement for the sake of providing an environment where victims could come forward. The response varied from silence, to threats and hostility,” the former staffer said. 

The statement comes weeks after Schintgen became aware of our forthcoming story, and four years after the alleged abuse was first disclosed. Sam was never contacted by the school ahead of the statement’s release, which came as a shock to her.

I am furious and appalled with their statement that lacks truth and does not reflect the reality of the situation and undermines the credibility of SWC. Their motto, which is Veritas Vos Liberabit, ‘the truth will set you free’ rings hollow and empty across from the statement they produced and without external accountability their internal credibility is corrupt,” Sam said in a statement she provided to us Wednesday night. “Even one person and their story has more value than the whole institution and they have forgotten the human value. Even one victim is too many. Shame on them.”

Women are not safe at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Sam said. 

The college did eventually give Sam $1,000 to help pay for therapy, though Schintgen denied to confirm that, saying the matter is confidential. Sam is currently cancer-free and back studying at a different college.

“I’m just kind of worn out. Life didn’t get easier,” she said.

 

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EDIT July 1, 2:40 PM: A previous version of this article erroneously labelled the featured photo as the main academic building of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom college. It is actually St. Hedwig Church. We regret the error. The photo has been removed. 
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Comments are closed for this article. Anyone wishing to contact Damien or Simcha Fisher regarding this story may use the contact form on this page. 

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Image sources:
Concert rehearsal video
Lieflander and Fr. Marco
Vespa Idiot and Vespa Idiot

Christendom College prof jailed on charges of sexually assaulting a child

A Christendom College professor emeritus is being held without bail after he was arrested on Friday on charges of sexually assaulting a child.

William R. Luckey, 72, is jailed at Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail on one count of solicitation of prostitution of a child under the age of 16, and two counts of indecent liberties against a child under the age of 15.

Luckey is listed as a professor emeritus on the school’s website. Luckey is a frequent writer for publications Faith and Reason, as well as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty’s publication, The Journal of Markets and Morality. He has written on Catholic social teaching and the economy for Crisis Magazine, as well.

Luckey is listed as an adjunct scholar for the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, as well as a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the advisory board for the Center for Economic Personalism. 

The small Catholic liberal arts college in Front Royal, VA began awarding a William R. Luckey award for Political Science and Economics in 2015, when Luckey retired as a teacher. Two days after the arrest, Luckey was still listed on Christendom’s website as a Professor Emeritus. 

College representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday. It is not known if or how the news of Luckey’s arrest has been conveyed to students and their families. It is also not clear if Luckey had been active on campus. 

Records indicate Luckey was arrested Friday evening by members of the Warren County Sheriff’ Department in Front Royal, Virginia. There is no case information currently available online through the Virginia Court system’s website, and law enforcement representatives were unavailable on Sunday.

Christendom President Timothy O’Donnell apologized in 2018 after we reported on the school failing women who had been sexually assaulted on campus. At the time, the school pledged to bring in experts to review the school’s policies and protocols dealing with sexual assault and harassment.  

The story will be updated as information becomes available. 

UPDATE June 28 Christendom College issued the following statement on their website:

Christendom College has learned that a former professor, Dr. William Luckey, was charged with sexual offenses late last week. The charges have no connection to the personnel or students of Christendom College. Luckey served as a professor from 1984 until his last class and retirement back in 2015. 

The college asks for the prayers of the community for the Luckey family and those involved during this extremely trying moment, as the legal process moves forward and more information comes to light.

 

Image: Booking photo of William Luckey from Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail

 

 

NH Reporter: Legion school sheltered several more abusers than originally reported

The Legionaries of Christ acknowledged in a 2019 report that it had two sexual abusers in its ranks in NH, for a total of four in all of North America. But according to police records, at least four other abusers were reported in Center Harbor, NH, which was home to an all-boys Legion school. The chief of police in Center Harbor also believes the Legion habitually moved the accused out of the country to avoid investigation.

The founder of the school only notified state investigators about one abuse allegation after he became aware journalists were talking to the victim. 

Read the entire story with extensive original reporting by my husband, Damien Fisher, at NHReporter.com.

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Related: A year ago, we reported on how the Legion lied to police when a victim reported abuse to them, and how they classify criminal abuse as “boundary violations” to make it seem like they have fewer abusers in their ranks than they really do.

 

Photo: Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, NH. Photo copyright Damien Fisher

 

Victim says Legion lied to police about her abuse

Legion falsely told police the victim didn’t want a criminal investigation;
classified criminal sexual abuse as “boundary violations”

By Damien Fisher
The Legionaries of Christ have published a list of credibly accused priests, and they claim they are open to hearing testimony from more survivors of abuse. But what happens when a victim does contact them with a complaint?  Are the allegations taken seriously? How accurate is their list? Do they tell the truth to law enforcement about allegations of criminal abuse?

Ashley (not her real name) thought she could help the Church when she made the agonizing decision to come forward in 2015 and tell authorities about the sexual abuse she suffered from a Legionaries of Christ priest as a middle schooler in the 1990s.

“I wanted to protect anyone he might still be hurting,” she said.

In September of 2015, Ashley and her attorney, Tom Brandt, met with Legion priest Fr. Peter Hopkins and another Legion priest to formally report that the Legion priest assigned to the Highlands, a private Legion school she attended in the Dallas area, repeatedly groomed and molested her in the confessional. The abuse she suffered, as she described it, rises to the level of a criminal offense. But when the diocese released its list of credibly accused abusers last year, Ashley’s abuser wasn’t on it, and he wasn’t on the list the Legion published in December.

Both the Legion officials we spoke to and the Dallas officials we contacted called the criminal abuse “boundary violations.”

Dallas Diocesan Chancellor Mary Edlund, who used that phrase in a letter to Child Protective Services, was not at the meeting. “The diocese refused to send a representative to our meeting,” Ashley said.  

Ashley thought coming forward would protect other young girls. She thought that reporting her abuse would alarm the Church, pushing them to investigate further, root out corruption, and reform the Legion. She expected someone to pursue her abuser.

“I was an optimist,” she said. 

When Ashley saw the records, she realized the Legion apparently lied to police about her case, and about her alleged abuser. 

“They really are not reformed,” she said.

Ashley agreed to tell us her story on the condition of anonymity. The alleged abuser has yet to be criminally charged, and so we are withholding his identity at this time. He has not responded to our requests for an interview. According to the information we have obtained, he is no longer a priest. He is the subject of an active police investigation, as recently as last month. 

Ashley went through years of self-doubt, guilt, and shame before she finally came forward. For years after her abuse, she didn’t understand that what she had endured was abuse.

“I didn’t realize there was a crime committed,” she said.

“If your mom asks what you are doing in here, tell her ‘spiritual direction,” the priest said.

The priest spent months grooming her when she was a middle school student at the Highlands, mostly in the confessional. The assaults took place in 1993 or 1994, around the time Ashley was 12 to 13 years old, according to the statement she gave to the Legion, to the Dallas Diocese, and eventually to police. The priest was a family relation of school officials, and he celebrated mass and heard the confessions of the students, according to her statement. The Highlands School in Irving is a private pre-K through grade 12 school that is part of the Regnum Christi network of schools. Regnum Christi is the lay apostolate of the Legion. 

Ashley was going to confession every two to four weeks during this time, usually after school. After one confession, she went around the confessional to thank the priest, and that is when he first forced her to sit on his lap, she said in her statement.

“He somehow pulled me down into his lap. He did not verbally ask me if I wanted to sit in his lap, but somehow I ended up there,” she said in her statement. 

Ashley was made to feel she had a “special friendship,” with the priest who obligated her to sit in his lap after each confession. Sometimes he would stand and embrace her, and whisper things into her ear, she said. 

“At one point while embracing me, whispering and nuzzling my hair he said ‘If your mom asks what you are doing in here, tell her ‘spiritual direction,’” Ashley said in her statement. “I assumed that he was telling me the truth, that this was in fact spiritual direction.”

That spiritual direction seemed to be taking a different course during her last confession, she said in her statement.

“The last time I remember confessing to him, afterward while embracing me he pressed his body up against me. I could feel his erection touching me through his cassock,” she said in her statement. “I was very uncomfortable with this and had no frame of reference for what was happening or how to respond. So I did nothing and after several minutes he was done embracing me and I left the confessional.”

Ashley started going to a different priest for confession after that, and her alleged abuser cooled toward her in their interactions outside the confessional, she said. In one instance she tried to give him a hug when there were other people around, and he brushed her off. 

“I was hurt and couldn’t understand why his behavior was so different in public,” she said in her statement. “After that I decided that he must have decided that I wasn’t his friend anymore, and to avoid awkwardness I did not return to confession with him.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she had children of her own, that she realized what had happened, and that her alleged abuser had been grooming her and encouraging her to lie to her mother about what they were doing alone.

Legion and Archdiocese both soft pedal criminal abuse allegation 

When she was ready to tell her story in 2015, Ashley got an attorney and  informed the Dallas diocese and then the Legion that she had been abused. With her attorney she pressed these Church officials to contact police, and to contact the Child Protective Services about the priest. She wanted to see some justice done. 

“I did tell the diocese and then the Legion that a police report needed to be filed, and if they did not file one, then I would,” she said.

A report was made to the Texas Child Protective Services department by Dallas Diocesan Chancellor Mary Edlund. The letter Edlund sent provides only scant details from Ashley’s story, and Edlund downplays Ashley’s encounters with the alleged abuser.

“Although this does not appear to be something which must technically be reported to your office, I am doing so out of an abundance of caution,” Edlund wrote.

A Legion priest spoke to police October of 2015. The name of the priest making the report is redacted throughout the police report we obtained, but he is described as the “head priest” at The Highlands at the time. His account to the police is full of inaccurate statements. 

The head priest also downplayed Ashley’s story when he spoke to police. He said it was some “inappropriate” behavior by a former priest at the Highlands. He also told police that Ashley “recalled within her statement feeling what she thought was an erection.”

Legion falsely claimed victim did not want criminal investigation

Strikingly, the Legion priest making the report told police that Ashley did not want to pursue criminal charges.

“According to [the head priest] during his meeting with [Ashley] she didn’t detail that she wanted to pursue any charges,” the police report states. 

Ashley said after reading the report that she realized the priest didn’t tell the truth to police about her meeting with the Legion. When she reported the abuse to Legion priests, she told them she did want a legal investigation pursued, but indicated to them she was not interested in pursuing a lawsuit against the Church.

“I stated in the meeting with Tom Brandt and the Legionaries that my intent in bringing this forward was justice, accountability, and protection of future victims, and that to that end I wanted to see that things were properly reported on the civil and ecclesiastical side, as well as to know that I had done what I could to prevent future victims at his hands,” she said during follow up questions we asked her.

At no time did she state to Legion officials that she did not want to pursue criminal charges, she said. She told them she wanted an investigation. We have made several attempts to speak to her then-attorney, but he has so far declined our requests for comment.

Legion falsely claims there were no other allegations against priest

Further, during the October 2015 police report the unnamed Legion priest made to police, he told the investigators that there were no other allegations against the alleged abuser. 

“I asked if there were any other allegations against [the alleged abuser], and [the head priest] stated that no other complaints or reports had been made against [the alleged abuser]” the police report states.

Ashley said that’s not true. She said that the Legion priests she met with, along with her attorney, also claimed that she was the only person to claim abuse at the hands of her alleged abuser. She said she knows now of at least one former Highlands student who had been abused.

“That’s what I thought was so crazy,” she said. “I don’t remember their exact words, but they definitely said something to the effect that this is the first that we’ve heard of him having issues. I knew that wasn’t true.”

We contacted Legion spokeswoman Gail Gore last year, and she said that Ashley’s case is one of a “boundary violation” and not sexual abuse. Gore has not responded to our recent request to discuss the specifics of this case, including questions about what the Legion told police. 

Not on any list

Ashley’s alleged abuser is nowhere to be found either on the Dallas list of credibly accused priests, or on the Legion list, because he is considered to have committed a “boundary violation.” According to the Legion’s own code of conduct, put out in 2019, a boundary violation is “an infraction of the Code of Conduct that is significant, but does not rise to the level of sexual abuse of a minor or sexual misconduct with an adult.” 

After she made her report, Ashley never heard from investigators with the police or the CPS as she expected. Instead, a representative with Praesidium contacted her. Praesidium is the outside firm that the Legion hired to conduct a child safety audit and to help develop its code of conduct. 

The Legion, which was founded by notorious sexual predator Fr. Marciel Maciel, claims that there are only four credibly accused priests or brothers in all of North America, following their own in-house investigation. However, the order claimed in December when it released the investigative report that there may be more information about “boundary violations” made public at some point in the future.

“In November 2018 we also asked Praesidium to conduct a full review of all our territorial files, this should be finalized soon. Should new information arise we will update the list accordingly. The list does not reflect unsubstantiated claims, open investigations or boundary violations. We are in the process of reviewing our policy on when and how we communicate about boundary violations,” it said in a statement.

After Ashley came forward, her report apparently hit a dead end. She did eventually get a letter from Fr. John Connor, then the Legion’s territorial director for North America, in May of 2016, six months after the police report. He apologized to her for the “boundary violation.” Connor’s letter indicates the Legion took it upon itself to see an “investigation” was done into her allegation. The Legion apparently concluded that the appropriate response to their investigation was an apology, and no more, because what had happened to Ashley wasn’t technically abuse.

“As you know, the Legion asked the safe environment firm Praesidium to investigate. They found what you said very compelling. They concluded that it was clearly a very sad violation of boundaries, totally unbecoming of a priest,” Connor wrote. 

That would have been the end of it, until May of last year.

Raid on Dallas diocese brings Ashley’s case back to life

Ashley’s case came alive again shortly after Dallas police raided the Dallas diocesan offices as part of an effort to uncover information police say was hidden from investigators. 

According to the Dallas Morning News: “The Dallas Police Department’s Child Exploitation Unit last year (in 2018) assigned Detective David Clark, a 20-year veteran, to the full-time job of looking into cases of sex abuse involving minors within the local diocese.

After Clark felt stonewalled by the diocese and its lawyers for months — issues he detailed in a search-warrant affidavit — police officers and FBI agents seized files from the Dallas diocese Wednesday as part of the ongoing investigation into sex abuse allegations.”

In the weeks after the Dallas raid, Ashley contacted Dallas police with her story. Soon, investigators sought her out for an interview about what had happened to her at The Highlands. The police wanted to know if she knew of other victims. She did.

“They told me they are building a case against [the alleged abuser], and they have met in person with another woman who was one grade ahead of me, but was there at the same time,” she said.

We have confirmed that police were investigating Ashley’s alleged abuser as recently as January and are looking to build a case for prosecution against him. 

Connor is no longer the North American territorial director, but is now the superior for the worldwide order. He was announced as the next superior for the Legion last month, and soon stories came to light in which Connor, as territorial director, allegedly mishandled a case of “boundary violations” involving a Legion priest, according to the Catholic News Agency.

“The Legion paid them off. I’m free to speak.”

Ashley said she throughout the course of the ordeal in reporting her abuse, she has actually met many good Legion priests. She’s also met many victims of Legion abuse, victims who are not willing or able to come forward.

“I know far too many people who have stories to tell, but they can’t tell them because they signed a non disclosure agreement because they desperately needed the money and the Legion paid them off,” she said. “I’m free to speak.”

An Italian court case alleges that victims have been paid off and told to not tell their stories, or in some cases to lie about what happened. The family of a Legion victim was reportedly offered 15,000 euros in exchange for the recanting his testimony against his abuser, according to Crux.

Though there are Legion priests she respects, Ashley knows what a Legion priest did to her, even if the Legion continues to minimize the criminal abuse she survived by calling it a “boundary violation.” Now that she has seen how the Legion seemingly covered up her abuse, she is ready to see the order die. 

“I would like to see the order suppressed,” she said. “I don’t think this is a legitimate order, but some of the vocations might be legitimate. Highlands should not be in my diocese, and I would like to see the Legion not be in my diocese and not be anywhere.”

Legion acknowledges four abusers, including two in Center Harbor, NH

By Damien Fisher and Simcha Fisher

The scandal-plagued Roman Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ has released a report acknowledging four sexual predators among its priests and brothers in all of North America. Two were from the now-closed Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, NH, according to the letter sent out on Saturday.

The Legionaries of Christ released the letter just days before Christmas, along with a report that acknowledges the decades of horrific abuse by their founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, a conman, incestuous sexual predator, and drug addict.

In the letter sent out to members of the Legionaries and its lay apostolates, Fr. John Connor, North American director for the order stated that a commission tasked with reviewing Legionaries’ abuse files found 175 minors were abused by 33 Legion priests worldwide. That figure includes 60 victims of Maciel alone, according to the report.

In New Hampshire, Francisco Cardona, now deceased, and Fernando Cutanda, now laicized, both abused students at the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, according to the Legionary commission’s report.

“We abhor the actions of those priests who have misused their priestly authority for their own purposes,” Connor wrote in his letter.

According to the commission’s report, the vast majority of the victims were boys between the ages of 11 and 16, and of the 33 priests who committed abuse, 14 were themselves victims of abuse by Legionaries.

In the Legionaries’ minor seminaries, or high schools, 15 priests worldwide abused 65 victims, according to the report. Another 90 students were abused by 54 seminarians in formation. 46 of these seminarians did not reach the priesthood, the report states.

“It is worth noting that 111 of the victims were either victims of Father Maciel, or were victims of his victims or of a victim of one of his victims. This represents 63.43 percent of the 175 victims of priests in the Congregation. Today, none of these 11 priests involved in this chain of abuses publicly exercises priestly ministry in the Congregation. Three of them have passed away,” the report states.

The Legion report strives to distance its current character from the crimes of its founder; yet even after Maciel’s crimes were revealed, the Legion continued to celebrate Maciel’s birthday, hang photos of him in their centers, and refer to him as “Nuestro Padre” until they formally forbade these practices in December of 2010.  Steve Skojec, who lived in and worked with Legion communities for several years, describes the spiritual manipulation inherent in the Legion’s very structure, and notes that they continued to extol Maciel and his legacy as late as January of 2019.

“A total of 33 priests of the Congregation committed abuse as priests or deacons. This number represents 2.44 percent of the 1,353 ordained throughout the history of the Congregation,” the report states. “The last known case of sexual abuse in a minor seminary of the Congregation occurred seven years ago, in 2012.”

But the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. RAINN cites FBI statistics noting that out of every 1,000 sexual assault, only 230 victims will come forward to report their abuse to police. These statistics suggest that the true number of victims of abuse by Legionaires is closer to 700 than 175.

The Legion has launched an accountability site called Zero Abuse through which victims can report their allegations of abuse to the Legion. On its homepage, the site says “the Legionaries of Christ seek to be transparent regarding the abuses committed by some of its members throughout its history.”

Abusive Legion clerics from NH not included in Diocesan list

Earlier this year, the Diocese of Manchester published its own list of known abusers, naming 73 priests accused of sexual abuse of a minor since 1950. The list includes names, ordination date, status, and assignments of accused priests, but it does not include details of the accusations.

The Manchester list also did not include any Legionary clerics, nor did it include monks or religious brothers who are not priests, even if they lived and worked in New Hampshire.

Thomas Bebbington, spokesman for the Manchester Diocese, said when the Manchester list was released that the bishop has no control over the Legionaries.

“The Legionaries of Christ is a religious order and its members are not incardinated in the Diocese of Manchester. The list only includes members of religious orders assigned to ministry by the bishop of the Diocese of Manchester,” Bebbington said. “A bishop does not have control over priests and religious who are not incardinated in his diocese. They report to the superiors in their own orders, rather than to the diocesan bishop.”

Bebbington also said that a bishop does not have control over who is assigned to institutions such as private high schools or colleges.

Lawsuit alleged Fr. Carroll knew of abuse at his school

Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor and the Legion of Christ, Inc., were named in a lawsuit in Connecticut in 2017. The plaintiff said that, when he was a student at ICAS in Center Harbor, Fernando Cutanda, or “Brother Fernando,” a “supervisor, mentor, and spiritual leader” employed by the Legion-run school, repeatedly raped him in several locations on the school property.

The lawsuit states that the alleged victim told a Legionaries of Christ priest, identified in the lawsuit as Fr. O’Carroll, what had been happening after feeling guilt and shame. O’Carroll, whom the legal documents describe as “in charge of ICAS at the time,” allegedly told the boy to say five rosaries “for his sins” and told him “God will take care of things.”

According to the lawsuit, “Brother Fernando” allegedly raped the boy again after Fr. O’Carroll allegedly heard of the abuse. The school was dismissed as a defendant in 2017, and the Legion settled with the victim in October of 2018. Although the school is in New Hampshire, the lawsuit was filed in Connecticut since the Legion of Christ, Inc., is headquartered there.

Envelopes of cash and cured Spanish hams

Marcial Maciel’s now notorious behavior reportedly included drug addiction, fathering several children with at least three different women, the sexual abuse of his own children and others. As outlined in Jason Berry’s reporting on the Legion, Maciel got away with his crimes thanks to the wide-spread corruption inside the Vatican.

“For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each. Priests involved in the gifts and larger cash exchanges say that in hindsight they view Maciel’s strategy as akin to an insurance policy, to protect himself should he be exposed and to position the Legion as an elite presence in the workings of the Vatican,” Berry wrote.

The Vatican’s own assessment of Maciel, leveled in 2010, is devastating in its frankness describing Maciel’s true nature.

“The very grave and objectively immoral actions of Father Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies, in some cases constitute real crimes and manifest a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning. This life was unknown to the great majority of the Legionaries, above all because of the system of relationships constructed by Father Maciel, who was able skillfully to create alibis for himself, to obtain trust, confidence and silence from those around him, and to reinforce his personal role as a charismatic founder,” the Vatican statement reads. “Not infrequently a deplorable discrediting and distancing of those who entertained doubts as to the probity of his conduct, as well as a misguided concern to avoid damaging the good that the Legion was accomplishing, created around him a defense mechanism that for a long time rendered him unassailable, making it very difficult, as a result, to know the truth about his life.”

Legionaries will review the report on the Legionaries

According to Connor’s letter, the report will be reviewed by members of the Legionaries in Rome.

“This report will be reviewed by the Legionaries of Christ General Chapter delegates when they meet in mid-January, in Rome,” Connor wrote. “The delegates will also review several proposals for next steps in continuing our worldwide efforts for safer environments in all areas of our ministries.”

According to the commission’s report, Marcial Maciel had complete control over the order, from its 1949 founding until 2005, including control over how allegations of abuse were investigated and handled. He was considered “the superior general and the highest authority” within the organization.

“According to the Constitutions of the Congregation at that time, Father Maciel, as superior general, had direct responsibility for all important government decisions, including appointments, admissions to priesthood, investigations and sanctions, and the pastoral assignments of all members,” the report states.

Pope Benedict XVI barred Maciel from active ministry in 2006 after his history of pedophilia became incontrovertible.

BREAKING: Fulton Sheen beatification postponed

The beatification of Fulton Sheen has been postponed. Originally scheduled for Dec. 21 of this year after a protracted legal battle over his remains, the beatification has been put on hold “at the request of a few members of the Bishop’s Conference who have asked for further consideration,” according to a Dec. 3 statement from the diocese of Peoria.

“In our current climate, it is important for the faithful to know that there has never been, nor is there now, any allegation against Sheen involving the abuse of a minor,” the statement said.

Peter Jesserer Smith, a reporter for the National Catholic Register, said on Twitter:

“The Vatican will have potentially a year’s worth of lawsuits, with depositions and court findings of fact, to sift through. This is the ultimate test of Sheen’s beatification: either he’ll be stained by the abuse crisis, or the vindication of his holiness will shine like the sun.”

In July of 2019, a blog and some chatter on Twitter referenced an unsourced allegation that Sheen walked in on a priest abusing a female child, but that he merely told the priest to put his pants back on, called the victim a “slut,” and proceeded to help cover up the crime.  My husband and I made a thorough assessment of the credibility the accusation and its sources. We concluded that the allegation and sources, according to all available information, were not credible. In fact, there was considerable reason to doubt that any victim had even actually made an allegation. Essentially, there was a rumor, spread by un-credible sources, that there had been an allegation; there is no evidence of a victim, and there is nothing to investigate. 

The rumor also claimed that the Cause for Sheen’s canonization knew about the allegations and did not respond to them. But Monsignor Soseman, who was delegated by Bishop Jenky to oversee the Cause, told us “no such letter [as the one described in the allegations] ever arrived at the office in Peoria,  nor have I ever heard of any such allegation, in any of the extensive testimonies we took.”

Read our investigation of the rumored allegations

In its statement today, the Diocese of Peoria said:

“the life of Fulton Sheen has been thoroughly and meticulously investigated. At every state, it has been demonstrated definitively that he was an exemplary model of Christian conduct and a model of leadership in the Church. At no time has his life of virtue ever been called into question.”

In the statement, it says that the Bishop of Peoria, Bishop Daniel Jenky, was “informed by the Holy See” that the beatification would be postponed. 

 

The Peoria statement says:

“Since a few members of the Bishop’s Conference have requested a delay, the Diocese of Peoria remains confident that Archbishop Sheen’s virtuous conduct will only be further demonstrated. Bishop Jenky has ever confidence that any additional examination will only further prove Fulton Sheen’s worthiness of Beatification and Canonization. The Diocese of Peoria has no doubt that Fulton Sheen, who brought so many souls to Jesus Christ in his lifetime, will be recognized as a model of holiness and virtue.”

The statement says: “Bishop Jenky is deeply saddened by this decision. In particular, Bishop Jenky is even more concerned for the many faithful who are devoted to Sheen and will be affected by this news.”

Read my interview with Bonnie Engstrom, the mother of the boy who returned to health after his heart stopped beating for sixty-one minutes, and his parents prayed to Fulton Sheen. 

The statement continues: 
[Bishop Jenky] is firmly convinced of the great holiness of the Venerable Servant of God and remains confident that Sheen will be beatified. Bishop Jenky has every intention of continuing the Cause, but no further date for Beatification has been discussed.”

The Diocese of Peoria is not offering any more information at this time. 

 

 

Legionaries of Christ will publish list of credibly accused priests “soon”

By Damien and Simcha Fisher

The scandal-plagued Legion of Christ will publish a list of its own clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. Gail Gore, spokesperson for the priestly order founded by sexual predator, morphine addict, and charlatan Marcial Maciel, said in a recent email exchange that the Legion will publish its list “soon.”

“We will be releasing our list of Legionaries who have received substantiated claims of sexual abuse soon,” Gore said. “The Legionaries of Christ are committed to creating and maintaining a safe environment for all children and all people who interact with its members and are involved in its ministries.”

Since 2002, a growing number of dioceses and religious orders in the United States publish their own lists of credibly accused clergy members, but very few include members of the Legionaries of Christ, despite lawsuits, police reports and direct victim statements that name Legion priests. 

There are, for example, no Legionaries on the credibly accused list of clergy in the Diocese of Manchester, despite at least one lawsuit alleging the sexual abuse of children, and subsequent cover-up, at a Legion school in Center Harbor, NH. Legionaries are also absent from the Dallas, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles lists.

We have obtained documents indicating that, in at least one major diocese, Legion officials quashed a police investigation of a Legion priest by lying to detectives about the wishes of the alleged victim. 

Gore has declined to comment on the actions of other dioceses, and she did not respond to questions about how soon the Legion list will be published. 

Maciel’s notorious behavior reportedly included drug addiction, fathering several children with at least three different women, and the sexual abuse of those children and others. Jason Berry of NCR has reported that Maciel took advantage of widespread corruption inside the Vatican to cover his crimes.

“For years Maciel had Legion priests dole out envelopes with cash and donate gifts to officials in the curia. In the days leading up to Christmas, Legion seminarians spent hours packaging the baskets with expensive bottles of wine, rare brandy, and cured Spanish hams that alone cost upward of $1,000 each. Priests involved in the gifts and larger cash exchanges say that in hindsight they view Maciel’s strategy as akin to an insurance policy, to protect himself should he be exposed and to position the Legion as an elite presence in the workings of the Vatican,” Berry wrote.

The Vatican’s 2010 assessment of Maciel is devastating in its frankness about Maciel’s true nature.

“The very grave and objectively immoral actions of Father Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible testimonies, in some cases constitute real crimes and manifest a life devoid of scruples and authentic religious meaning. This life was unknown to the great majority of the Legionaries, above all because of the system of relationships constructed by Father Maciel, who was able skillfully to create alibis for himself, to obtain trust, confidence and silence from those around him, and to reinforce his personal role as a charismatic founder,” the Vatican statement reads.

“Not infrequently a deplorable discrediting and distancing of those who entertained doubts as to the probity of his conduct, as well as a misguided concern to avoid damaging the good that the Legion was accomplishing, created around him a defense mechanism that for a long time rendered him unassailable, making it very difficult, as a result, to know the truth about his life.”

Edward Pentin reports that Rome knew about accusations of abuse by Maciel as early as 1943

Pope Benedict XVI barred Maciel from active ministry in 2006 after his history of pedophilia became incontrovertible, but the Legion continued to celebrate Maciel’s birthday, hang photos of him in their centers, and refer to him as “Nuestro Padre” until they formally fobade these practices in December of 2010.  Steve Skojec, who lived in and worked with Legion communities for several years, describes the spiritual manipulation inherent in the Legion’s very structure, and notes that they continued to extol Maciel and his legacy in January of 2019

According to Zenit, “[T]he norms [adopted by the Legionaries in 2010] do allow Legionaries and consecrated members of Regnum Christi to keep a photograph among their personal belongings, and to read Father Maciel’s writings or listen to his talks in private. Additionally, the writings of Father Maciel may be used when giving talks and sermons, but without citing the author.”

When asked whether Maciel’s name will be included on the upcoming list of credibly accused Legion priests, the spokesperson did not respond. 

Disgraced priest, Luke Reese, now caretaker for Church charity

By Damien Fisher 

The disgraced Roman Catholic priest Luke Reese, who was convicted of beating his wife and holding her against her will, is now living as a “caretaker” on a property listed as the headquarters for a charity under the legal control of the Archbishop of Indianapolis.

Also living on the property, according to the records we reviewed, is Sister Judith Ayers who is listed as treasurer of the charity, and who publicly defended Reese’s innocence.  The charity in question, Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc., has not filed federal tax returns in more than a decade.

Reese was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism with his wife and seven children, and was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in 2016. He served as Parochial Vicar of Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. Reese’s status was somewhat ambiguous, as he served in the Indianapolis Archdiocese but was under the authority of the Ordinariate, which is based in Houston. In September of 2017, he was placed on leave after assaulting his wife. The Ordinariate bishop, Steven Lopes, then removed him from Ordinariate ministry and suspended his faculties.

Neither the Ordinariate nor the archdiocese have agreed to answer any questions about Reese’s current living situation, and both institutions have been uncooperative since we broke the news of Reese’s arrest 

We found the information about Reese’s new home as the Indianapolis Archdiocese finds itself mired in scandal over the treatment of gay teachers at Catholic high schools. The archdiocese is currently being sued by one teacher fired from an archdiocesan school, and the diocese stripped Jesuit Brebeuf Preparatory School of its official Catholic identity when the Jesuit leadership refused to fire a gay teacher at its school. The two teachers in question are married to each other.

Reese was convicted last year after a trial on a felony charge of criminal confinement with bodily injury, as well as misdemeanor charges of domestic battery and battery resulting in bodily injury, according to court records.

On the day he was convicted of beating his wife, Holy Rosary offered a Mass to commemorate the anniversary of Reese’s ordination.

Reese was sentenced to one year of house arrest, as well as probation. On June 20 Reese’s request to transfer his probation to Owen County was granted by the court in Marion County. The new address, according to the court’s order, is in the town of Spencer in Owen County. The same address Reese gives for his new home in court records is also given as the principal address for an legal entity named Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc.

Because of privacy concerns for the Reese children, we are not disclosing the address.

According to documents on file with the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office, Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc., is a charity with a sole member, the Archbishop of Indianapolis. The articles of incorporation, filed in 2009, list John Jay Mercer, the archdiocesan attorney, as incorporator, and Monsignor Joseph Schaedel as the registered agent. Schaedel’s address is given as the Archdiocesan offices of 1400 North Meridian. St. Sister Judith Ayers is listed as the treasurer. Ayers, according to the Archdiocesan magazine, “lives a life consecrated to God outside of a religious order.”

According to the articles of incorporation, the only “member” of the charity is the archbishop. The “member” is given authority to set the bylaws for the charity. While the charity is supposed to have a three-person board of directors, the “member” can designate one person to operate the charity, according to the articles of incorporation.

We do not know how the charity is set to operate, either with a board, or with one person designated by the archbishop. That is up to the archbishop. The board, or designate, control the charity using the bylaws set by the archbishop. 

Schaedel has since been replaced by Monsignor William Stumpf, and Stumpf lists the same North Meridian Street address. Stumpf did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Mercer. 

Archbishop Charles Thompson was not the archbishop at the time Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc. was formed in Indiana, but when he became archbishop, he assumed the mantle of sole member under the charity’s terms of the articles of incorporation.

The documents do not give any indication as to what, exactly, Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc. does as a charitable organization, and the group has not filed a federal tax return, a 990, since 2002. That return was not immediately available. The only constant is Ayers. The principal address of the organization listed in Indiana state filings often mirror Ayers’s own address.

Ayers was listed as the treasurer of the organization when it was active in Arkansas in the 1990s. It is not clear how much money the organization collects in revenue, where that money comes from, or how it is spent. 

Heart of Mercy Solutide Inc. listed the Spencer property as the principal address for Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc. in October of 2018, according to state records. The property is described as a 30 acre property with two houses on site, one for Ayers, and one for Reese and his children when he has them for visitation, according to the notice for relocation Reese filed in court as part of his divorce case.

Reese touted the property in the relocation notice, stating that there is ample outdoor recreation, and enough space for his children to have their own living space as they get older. Reese’s filing does not disclose what he pays, if anything, for rent on the property.

“Father was offered a position as caretaker for the property which offers him access to the property’s amenities such as fishing, hiking, and gardens. The home is more affordable yet has many amenities,” his filing states.

The term “father” for Reese in the relocation notice notes his parental status and not his clerical state. However, as recently as January, Reese identified himself as a Roman Catholic priest in good standing in court records, even though his faculties have been suspended.

The owner of the Spencer property told us he is renting the property to Ayers, though he declined to disclose the monthly rent. The property is more than 50 miles from Indianapolis, where five of the children live with their mother, and where Reese works as a manager in a restaurant.

Ayers has a history of supporting Reese, and has made public statements blaming the victim for the assault, which Reese himself has also done. Using the screen name “Soli Beata,” Ayers said on this site:

“There is a lot of misinformation regarding this article. I am a member of that church… The alleged incident as reported sounds like author is a writer seeking sensationalism and being fed intentionally to garner sympathy for an adulteress.”

Ayers also said: 

“The events alleged regarding Father beating wife never happened either in church or elsewhere. The church was descecrated, by the two adulterers… But that was not covered by this article.”

Ayers’ assertions about the case are not backed up by the court records. 

Ayers did not respond to an email seeking answers about the charity and about Reese’s living situation.

Archdiocese spokesman Mike Krokos initially said he would get answers as to what Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc. actually does, and what Thompson knows about the charity and the Reese matter. Three days later, Krokos said he would not be answering questions about Heart of Mercy Solitude Inc.

Krokos does not answer our phone calls unless we block the caller ID function. 

Representatives for the Ordinariate, based in Houston, declined to comment on this new development.

Last month, A.G. Stockstill, Business Manager for the Ordinariate, which ordained Reese, stated in an email that Reese’s faculties were suspended in 2017, soon after his arrest. 

“Father Luke Reese was removed from ministry in the Ordinariate by Bishop Lopes on September 27, 2017, at which time his faculties were suspended.  Any further or permanent determination of Father Reese’s status as a priest is the competency of the Holy See,” Stockstill wrote.

 

Did Fulton Sheen witness and cover up the sexual assault of a child?

BY DAMIEN AND SIMCHA FISHER

Did Fulton Sheen witness and cover up the sexual assault of a child?

Less than a week after Sheen’s beatification was announced,  Rebecca Bratten Weiss’ Patheos blog echoed recent chatter on Twitter, sharing text that alleges Sheen saw a priest sexually abusing a child. The text claims Sheen walked in as the abuse happened, but he merely told the priest to put his pants back on, called the victim a “slut,” and proceeded to help cover up the crime. The text alleges that the Cause for his canonization knew about the allegations and did not respond to them. 

“I knew there was something fishy about Fulton Sheen,” tweeted Mary Pezzulo, another Patheos blogger, after the documents were shared. 

We are well aware the Church has an abysmal record of abuse and cover-up. We also believe that allegations of abuse should always be taken seriously and investigated if possible. But we do not believe these allegations are credible. Here’s why.

The only reference we can find to these allegations comes from that text, which was posted on BishopAccountability.org sometime in 2007. BishopAccountability.org is an invaluable clearinghouse for documents regarding sexual abuse and cover-up in the Church, and we are grateful for its work; but it does not claim to vet or verify any documents it shares. According to the site:

“It is our goal to assemble on the Internet a collection of every publicly available document and report on the crisis …
Our standards of inclusion are broad … BishopAccountability.org makes no claim regarding the accuracy of any document we post, and we have tried to include the full range of viewpoints, so as to provide a fully documented landscape of the crisis.”

This is not a criticism of BishopAccountability.org, but merely a clarification of what they do.

The allegation against Sheen is part of a lengthy text that purports to be a lawsuit complaint prepared by New York attorney John Aretakis sometime in 2007 on behalf of former priest Robert Hoatson. Who are Hoatson and Aretakis, and what is their history?

Hoatson and Aretakis first filed a $5 million federal RICO lawsuit in December of 2005 against The New York Archdiocese, Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archdiocese of Newark, Archbishop John J. Myers, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, and a number of individuals. The federal complaint was amended a few weeks later. 

Neither the original December 2005 complaint nor the amended January 2006 complaint mentions Sheen at all.

In February of 2007, the RICO lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning they may not file those claims again. The court also sanctioned Aretakis and ordered him to pay $8,000 ($2,000 to each of the major defendants). 

The presiding judge, Judge Paul Crotty, had harsh words for Aretakis’ behavior and credibility when he dismissed the case, saying in his ruling: 

“Taking Mr. Aretakis’s behavior in this case as a whole, it is clear that his conduct is sanctionable because it is sloppy and unprofessional; the pleadings are so far removed from adequate that they cannot be said to have been filed in good faith or after a reasonable inquiry; the bulk of the allegations dealing with sexual abuse are wholly irrelevant to the RICO claim, and; the Title VII claim is admittedly without basis in law.”

Crotty noted in his ruling that Aretakis and Hoatson made a splash the day they filed the lawsuit, holding a high profile press conference. He also noted that Aretakis has a history of filing RICO lawsuits that get dismissed.

Crotty’s ruling did not dismiss all the legal claims Hoatson brought, allowing him to refile the lawsuit in state court. In 2007, Aretakis filed a New York State lawsuit on Hoatson’s behalf against many of the same defendants.

While we can independently verify that Aretakis did file a state lawsuit on Hoatson’s behalf, we have been unable to find a verified copy of the complaint. We do not know if the complaint text on BishopAccountability.org, where the sole public accusation against Sheen exists, is the actual complaint filed in court. It was provided to the site by writer Matt C. Abbott, who has written copiously about the abuse scandal in the Church. Abbott himself said: “It should be noted that I do not necessarily agree with every assertion/conclusion made in the complaint.” Abbott referenced the document in a column he wrote for Renew America, but the column is no longer available online

Let’s assume for the moment that the complaint that appears on BishopAccountability.org was actually filed in court. Here is the section that mentions Sheen, which is part of a long litany of allegations against several different priests:

“The plaintiff is counseling a victim of a New York Archdiocesan priest whose sexual abuse continued for over ten years. One day, while the victim was being abused in the offices of the Propagation of the Faith in New York City, Bishop Fulton Sheen walked in on the abuse, called the victim a slut, told the priest to put his pants on, and did nothing to report the incident or comfort the victim. Bishop Sheen covered-up the crime. The priest abuser remains a pastor and had a prominent role in national television coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. When the plaintiff wrote to the promoter of the cause of canonization of Bishop Sheen to inform him of Bishop Sheen’s actions, his letter was ignored and went unanswered. Bishop Sheen’s sainthood is steamrolling ahead despite his cover-up of child sexual abuse, while the plaintiff continues to be harassed, retaliated against, and fired.”

There are no names, except for Sheen’s. This is not a first hand account, but claims to speak on behalf of Hoatson supposedly counseling an unnamed victim. It is hearsay, not evidence. It is precisely how one would operate if the goal were to create buzz for a potentially lucrative legal case by making accusations against a famous dead man. Judge Crotty, in his federal RICO dismissal ruling, specifically chides Aretakis for using this strategy:

“Finally, further evidence of Mr. Aretakis’s motives is the drumbeat of publicity which Mr. Aretakis has sought. The day he and his client filed this complaint, he held a press conference to announce his lawsuit. This appears to be his common practice. The immediate link between the filing of the complaint and the press conference support the inference that Mr. Aretakis’s intention was to injure. That intent is confirmed by Mr. Aretakis’s statements in which he describes himself as an activist for clergy sexual abuse victims and is quoted as intending to ‘continue to humiliate and embarrass the Church’ by bringing incidents of sexual abuse to light, even if he cannot bring them in court. This intent to humiliate and embarrass is further manifested in the amended complaint which is littered with wholly irrelevant, inflammatory, and embarrassing facts concerning defendants and non-defendants alike that have no bearing on the actions brought, such as ‘it was widely known that he [one of the defendants] was an alcoholic.”

The state lawsuit was dismissed in October of 2009, and the New York court ordered Hoatson to pay the defendants’ court costs. 

In October of 2009, a sexual abuse survivor sued Hoatson, claiming he used his position as founder of his non-profit, Road to Recovery, to extort sexual abuse settlement money from him, according to public records. The case was dismissed without prejudice, partially because the victim was seeking $10,000, while the minimum for federal lawsuits of this nature is $75,000.

Road to Recovery, an organization set up to help survivors of sexual abuse, collected  $117,907 in contributions in the last reported year, paid out more than $100,000 in management expenses, and paid another $13,000 for program expenses.  Yesterday, I erroneously stated that its tax exempt status has been revoked. It has not. I regret the error. According to the NJ Consumer Affairs, Road to Recovery is listed as “compliant” as a charity in the state.

According to public records, Aretakis’ law license suspended for one year in 2008 after he was found guilty of professional misconduct by the New York Committee on Professional Standards. Among the charges was that Aretakis made false accusations against judges, engaged in frivolous conduct, and entered into court actions meant to harass people. 

We cannot confirm independently that the accusation against Sheen is actually part of a real lawsuit. The information contained in the text which includes the allegations against Sheen appear to come solely from Hoatson’s account of what he says various sex abuse survivors told him. Hoatson was using these stories in his $5 million lawsuit.

In summary: There is no actual evidence that a crime occurred or that there is a victim, and there is no evidence that Hoatson or anyone else contacted the cause for Fulton Sheen and was ignored, as is asserted. The allegations of abuse and cover-up, and the allegations that the Cause didn’t respond, come entirely from a text that has yet to be verified, by a source and his attorney who both have significant credibility problems. 

We reached out on Friday to the Archbishop Fulton Sheen Foundation and to Monsignor Soseman, who was delegated by Bishop Jenky to oversee the Cause, to ask if they had heard of these allegations and whether they were investigated. But the team tasked with investigating and recording information regarding a candidate for beatification are sworn to secrecy, in order to encourage people to divulge sensitive information; so we suspect the office of the Cause would not be able to tell us if an investigation had taken place, or even whether Hoatson contacted them, as he claims. If he did approach them with the same information he claims to have shared in court — that Fulton saw an unnamed priest abusing an unnamed child in an undisclosed year — it’s unclear how any investigation could proceed.

Regardless, we have not yet heard back. Since the text making allegations have been circulating, we thought it was important to follow up quickly with more information; but we will update this story if and when more information becomes available. 

We continue our call for complete transparency from the Church. Justice is not served by covering up the truth, but neither is it served by eagerly believing the worst.

UPDATE AND CORRECTION July 14, 2019 3 PM eastern:

I erroneously stated that Road to Recovery’s tax exempt status has been revoked. It has not. I regret the error.

Monsignor Soseman responded from Rome:

I do know that no such letter [as the one Hoatson says he sent] ever arrived at the office in Peoria,  nor have I ever heard of any such allegation, in any of the extensive testimonies we took.  I finished my work with the cause in 2008. Since then it has been at the Vatican. I do know that both offices of the propagation had open floorplans with very few doors. 

 

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We will continue to update this story as necessary. 

Image: Fulton Sheen by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain] via Wikepedia (image cropped) 

Fr. Luke Reese loses court appeal after savage beating; still calls himself priest in good standing

Fr. Luke Reese’s wife-beating conviction stands. Reese, Indiana’s first married Catholic priest, has lost his court appeal to overturn his conviction for confining and beating his wife in a jealous rage. Reese’s priestly faculties are suspended, but as of January this year, he is still referring to himself as “a priest in good standing,” according to court records we obtained.

A.G. Stockstill, Business Manager for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which ordained Reese, stated in an email on Tuesday that Reese’s faculties were suspended in 2017, soon after his arrest. 

“Father Luke Reese was removed from ministry in the Ordinariate by Bishop Lopes on September 27, 2017, at which time his faculties were suspended.  Any further or permanent determination of Father Reese’s status as a priest is the competency of the Holy See,” Stockstill wrote.

But in recent court documents we obtained, Reese still describes himself as “a priest in good standing, although he is not active at this time.”

Reese was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism with his family and was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Ordinariate in 2016. He served as Parochial Vicar of Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis until September of 2017, when he was placed on leave after assaulting his wife.

Reese was employed by the church as a priest for another six months after the arrest, until his conviction in March of 2018, according to court documents. In August of 2018, the Ordinariate said in a statement that “steps are being taken to change Reese’s status as a priest.” Parishioners of Holy Rosary said on social media that they believed Reese had been “defrocked.”

There has been no public announcement regarding Reese’s canonical status. The Ordinariate, which functions like an archdiocese, does not have a legal or canonical obligation to report or publicize the status of a priest. There may be an exception if a laicized priest is not complying with the requirements set out in the decree of laicization — for instance, if he is dressing as a priest or publicly celebrating sacraments after he has been barred from doing so. In that case, the bishop would probably inform the parish that the priest has been barred from functioning. 

The Ordinariate did not confirm or deny that there is an ongoing canonical penal process against Reese.

Reese is currently working as the manager of a seafood restaurant, according to court documents.

Reese was found guilty of one felony and two misdemeanors: One count of criminal confinement with bodily injury, one count of domestic battery, and one count of battery resulting in bodily injury. He appealed his conviction, and the appeal was rejected on May 22 of 2019.    

“The whole thing is my wife’s fault.”

In his appeal, Reese argued he was only trying to protect his wife because he thought she was suicidal. According to court documents, “Reese asserts that he was justified in committing the offense because he was simply protecting [his wife.]”

In other court documents we obtained, Reese stated, “I have never been
violent or abusive in any of my relationships or to my wife.”

Reese argued in his appeal that the court denied him due process by not preserving “photographs and text messages as evidence” that “could have been used to impeach [his wife’s] testimony as to the causes of her injuries and credibility in general.”

According to various court records, the photographs and text messages were on his wife’s phone, which he confiscated during the protracted assault. He gave the phone to his superior, Fr. Ryan McCarthy, pastor of Holy Rosary, when McCarthy visited the couple in their home after the assault, according to the appeal. McCarthy reportedly returned the phone to Reese’s wife a few days later. 

In his appeal, Reese argued that that the court “failed to establish that he had committed the offense knowingly.”

During the course of the assault, which lasted over twenty-four hours, according to court documents we obtained, Reese hit his wife in the stomach and head and punched her in time to heavy metal music while he drove her to her grandmother’s house to make her confess to wrongdoing. He hit her in the eye, confiscated her keys and phone, drove her to a cemetery, pushed her onto her knees on the marble floor of the sanctuary of the church, violently pulled her hair, applied pressure to her neck and threatened to choke her while they were in front of the altar, and shoved her against the church wall, according to the documents. He reportedly continued to punch, degrade, threaten and otherwise assault her when they finally reached their home.  According to court documents we obtained, Reese’s wife sustained permanent eye damage from the assault. 

Reese asserted in various documents we obtained that he was merely defending himself from aggression by his wife, and attempting to protect her from herself. Shortly after the assault, he stated, “This whole thing is my wife’s fault,” according to the documents.

Reese also argued in his appeal that “the State failed to present sufficient evidence to support his conviction for criminal confinement” and”failed to prove that his actions were done without [his wife’s] consent” and “failed to prove that he had caused any bodily injury to [his wife].”

The court rejected his appeal and affirmed his conviction on May 22, 2019. Reese was sentenced in August of 2018 to three years of home confinement with electronic monitoring. Two years of his sentence were suspended, and he will be on probation for one year.

Reese filed for divorce from his wife on December 19 0f 2017. The Reeses have been married for 26 years and have seven children, four of whom are minors.

Reese’s lawyer, Oliver Younge, did not respond to my call or email. 

How did the church respond to Reese’s behavior before and after the assault?

According to documents we obtained, Mrs. Reese said that, some time before the assault, Reese shared a website containing pornographic and white supremacist material with his then-teenaged son, and directed him to share it with his friends. The church responded by sending Reese to counseling. It’s not clear whether the Ordinariate, which is based in Houston, was informed of Reese’s behavior, or whether Holy Rosary of Indianapolis made decisions about how to manage Reese before the assault.  

According to the court documents, his wife says he psychologically abused her and their children and sexually abused her throughout their 26-year marriage. Mrs. Reese said her husband has been ousted from three churches due to his behavior. She said that he holds white supremacist, racist, and misogynist views which he has attempted to pass on to his older children, and she submitted to the court “letters from other individuals who supported these concerns about Mr. Reese’s character, beliefs and temper,” according to court documents.

According to the same documents, Reese had a long history of hitting his wife, making his children sit alone in a dark basement as punishment, threatening them with hell for not praying the rosary correctly, and subjecting the family to constant harsh criticism and ridicule.

According to court documents describing the assault, Fr. Ryan McCarthy, the pastor of Holy Rosary where Reese was Parochial Vicar, went to the Reese house the day after the assault and saw Mrs. Reese’s black eye and swollen mouth. In response, McCarthy “recommended that [Reese’s wife] stay somewhere else.” He also accepted the phone that Reese had confiscated from his wife. Days later, he returned the phone to Mrs. Reese.

After Reese was arrested, Fr. McCarthy announced in the church bulletin that Reese would go on “leave” that would last “at least a few months.” He admonished the parishioners, “mind your own business.” Although he had  seen clear evidence of a violent crime against Mrs. Reese, he announced “I am very grateful for Father Reese’s service to our parish. He will be greatly missed during this leave.” The day Reese was convicted, his parish offered Mass to commemorate the anniversary of his ordination. Reese’s name was not removed from the parish directory until after we broke the story of his arrest.

Although he defended Reese during and after his criminal conviction, there is no evidence that Fr. McCarthy faces sanctions by the diocese of Indianapolis or by the Ordinariate for his response. Parishioners on social media referred to McCarthy as a good and holy priest and called him a hero.

What has the Ordinariate learned?

The Ordinariate can ordain its own laymen as priests, but it primarily receives former Anglican priests and then forms and ordains them as Catholic priests. This was the case with Fr. Reese.

If an Anglican priest wants to join the Ordinariate, it’s not clear whether the Catholic Church does its own vetting process, or if it relies on the vetting the Anglican Church has already done. Because there is a dire need for priests, and perhaps as a courtesy to the Anglican Church, the Church may be tempted to hurry through the process. 

According to court documents we obtained, Reese’s wife asserts that, before he was ordained in the Ordinariate, “he has been ousted from three different churches due to his behavior.”

According to those document, “Ms. Reese reported [to the court that] Mr. Reese holds white supremacist and misogynous attitudes and that he is racist … Ms. Reese submitted letters from other individuals who supported these concerns about Mr. Reese’s character, beliefs and temper.”

I asked the spokesman for the Ordinariate whether the Ordinariate vets or screens candidates for the Catholic priesthood who have already been through the Anglican seminary, or whether it relies on the Anglican Church’s vetting process. 

I asked whether, in order to avoid future debacles like the Reese one, the Ordinariate will change its standards or process.

No one from Ordinariate responded. 

 

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Our previous coverage of this story:

 Why the Fr. Luke Reese scandal is everybody’s business.

Will Holy Rosary be reconsecrated after desecration by Fr. Luke Reese?

Bishop Lopes’ statement on abuse fails to mention Luke Reese

No jail for Luke Reese after wife beating conviction

Luke Reese, married priest, convicted of beating his wife

Indianapolis priest charged with beating wife inside church

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Image: Mug shot of Luke Reese courtesy of Fox 59 News; Coat of Arms of the Personal Ordinariate of the Seal of St. Peter via Wikipedia Alekjds [CC BY 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)]