Christendom says it’s changed. Can we believe them?

Christendom says it’s changed. Can we believe them?
.
On Wednesday, after we published two essays detailing Christendom College’s inadequate response to sexual assault by and on its students, the college released a statement. Out of professional courtesy, we referred to the statement as an “apology.”
.
The statement, which rape survivors from Christendom referred to as a “non-apology” and a “slap in the face,” briefly offers that the school  “would like to apologize to any of those in our community who feel they were not properly responded to concerning an alleged sexual harassment and assault.”
.
It then asserts that the school has made significant changes in policy, so as to prevent sexual assault and to be more responsive if it occurs.
.
The statement opens by claiming that our two essays contained “misleading information and serious inaccuracies,” but it did not specify what those might be.
.

We published that statement in full on Wednesday, with the intention of responding to it on Thursday.
.
But on Thursday evening, a newspaper local to Christendom published an article titled “Christendom responds to claims it brushed off rape charges.”  It makes the same reference to “misinformation and inaccuracies” that the school’s statement does, also without specifying what that misinformation or inaccuracies are.
.

Then it quotes Executive Vice President Ferguson saying:
.
“We offered to speak to the author and they declined because they said they wanted to release the information before we could have a meeting,” Ferguson said. “Extremely odd. So they didn’t have any desire to get to the truth of the article.”
.
This is false. This is the opposite of what we tried to accomplish.
.
We wanted very much to get President O’Donnell’s comment on our essays before they went to press. On Friday, Damien called the school four times and they called us twice. Damien left a message for Timothy O’Donnell. That call was returned by Nial O’Donnell, who said he would try to get Damien an interview with Dr. O’Donnell. Damien told him we were planning to publish over the weekend.
.
Nial O’Donnell then called back and explained Timothy O’Donnell would not be able to call back until Tuesday. Hoping to encourage him to call back sooner, Damien told Nial O’Donnell we did not plan to wait.
.
Nial O’Donnell then said he would try and get Timothy O’Donnell to call before Tuesday. He did not specify a time of day.
.
So we waited until Tuesday. When the call did not come, we published the essays.
.

On Friday, Amanda Graf called Damien and confirmed that Christendom did not have a sexual assault policy in the student handbook until 2013. Graf is Director of Student Affairs. On Friday, Damien also called former dean Jesse Dorman, who did not return the call; and he attempted to reach Dr. Marschner, formerly of Christendom.
.
In summary: We held the piece longer than we wanted to, calling repeatedly, hoping to get a statement from O’Donnell. The school said O’Donnell would try to call before Tuesday. He did not. We published on Tuesday. Ferguson’s account of the exchange, that the school offered to talk and we refused, is made up of whole cloth.
.
This message was shared with alumni:

.
This account is also false. At no point did anyone from the school tell Damien that O’Donnell would be available to speak between 2-4 PM on Tuesday. They told Damien O’Donnell would call us “before Tuesday.” We “moved ahead without talking to him” because, when Tuesday arrived and he had not called, we assumed he did not intend to call and there was no longer any reason to wait.
.
Ferguson also said in the North Virginia Daily story, “I cannot comment legally [about alleged sexual assault], due to confidentiality laws around sexual harassment and Title IX specifically because I’m bound to keep that information confidential.”
.

However, as we reported in our original piece, and as Ferguson himself says later in the NV Daily article, Christendom does not receive federal funding, and so is not subject to Title IX regulations, including anything to do with confidentiality or with collecting or reporting data on sexual assault or harassment.

The article says, “Ferguson said he was not aware of any sexual harassment or assault claims made by a student at the college in his five years at Christendom. However, Ferguson said college officials have conducted interviews with students about potential infractions.”
.
So let’s think about this, based on the way the school has responded to this story so far.
.
What would happen if a hypothetical student contacted the office today to report a rape?  Would Ferguson leave the calls unanswered, but then report to the world, “We offered to speak to the victim, but she declined”?
.
What would happen if a prospective parent asked about current rates of sexual assault by Christendom students? Would Ferguson claim that he cannot say, because of confidentiality laws he’s not actually bound by?
.
The school says that is has changed. Many sources close to the school affirm that Amanda Graf is very dedicated to her job and wants Christendom to change its ways.
.
But the administration that saw no need to institute a formal sexual abuse policy for decades, despite many stories of sexual assault like the ones we detailed in our essays? That administration is still there.
And they’re still not returning our calls. (Yes, we’ve continued to call, including on Thursday night.)
.
If you’re a current Christendom student, do you trust that the school has changed?
.
If the school has not changed, and sexual assault continues to be minimized by the administration, do you trust the school to be transparent about that?
.
We urge any past or current student or parent of students to contact us with information about student life on campus right now.  We want the truth. This has always been our goal. We are the Catholic parents of eight daughters. We want to know what life is like on the Catholic colleges we’re considering.
Does life at Christendom reflect the “respect and honor for women” that President O’Donnell claims it now does?  Our contact information is simchafisher@gmail.com or damien.t.fisher@gmail.com.
.
And once again, for the sixth time, we extend an invitation to Timothy O’Donnell to return our numerous phone calls. We are eager to speak about student safety.
***
Image: detail of photo By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Christendom College issues official apology

Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, has just posted this official response to our recent  two posts. Tom McFadden, VP for enrollment, has verified that it was written and posted by the college, and that the same statement will be posted on the Christendom homepage on Thursday, January 17.

We are glad the school took the trouble to respond. We are nowhere near done with this story. 

***

OFFICIAL RESPONSE FROM CHRISTENDOM

A recent blog, which contains misleading information and serious inaccuracies, was posted about Christendom College. Despite those inaccuracies, the hearts and prayers of our entire Christendom College community go out to all involved in the incidents described and to anyone who may be a victim of sexual harassment or assault.

We would like to apologize to any of those in our community who feel they were not properly responded to concerning an alleged sexual harassment and assault.  Christendom College will continue to do everything it can to understand how to best respond to these very difficult and tragic situations. In retrospect, the College may not have served these victims as well as we could have, and for this hurt we are truly sorry for any additional pain that this may have caused.

Please be assured that Christendom College is committed to maintaining an academic environment free of discrimination and all forms of coercion that impede the academic freedom, security, or well-being of any member of the community.

As a campus dedicated to following the teachings of the Catholic Church, we strive to foster an environment where every student feels safe and respected and where the dignity of the human person is upheld and honored. Sexual harassment and assault is inimical to such an environment. As part of this commitment, the College undertakes to educate the student body about sexual harassment and assault.
•       We have a new sexual harassment and assault policy published in the Student Handbook with instructions on how to report sexual harassment and assault and how to receive resources for recovery (page 29 of the student handbook).
•       New student orientation includes a session that covers sexual harassment and assault, reporting, and on-campus resources for support.
•       RAs are now trained in responding to and reporting sexual harassment or assault.
•       Our on-campus nurse and counselor are available at no cost and can help with trauma and recovery.
•       We now have a formal grievance policy students can use to make a complaint against any campus community member who is not covered by the student policy (e.g. faculty, staff, etc.). We can use this process to address inappropriate comments or unreasonable behavior that makes students feel uncomfortable.
•       A female Residence Life staff member now lives in the women’s residence halls. This gives women more of an opportunity to share a concern or incident with a staff member they trust. A male Residence Life staff member also lives on campus to assist the men.
•       We now offer both a men and women’s monthly formation series that addresses mental health, healthy relationships, and other gender-specific topics.

If some believe that our efforts and policies have failed to bring justice to their particular situations, please understand that despite being fallen human beings, the faculty and staff do their very best every day to provide a just and safe environment.

Respect and honor for women was at the heart Christ’s mission and therefore it is at the heart of the mission of Christendom College. We are committed in our policies, our procedures, and in our on-campus culture to uphold and promote the dignity of women and men.

We will continue to do so in fidelity to our mission: to restore all things in Christ.

Dr. Timothy T. O’Donnell
President
Christendom College

Are women safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part II

In Part I of this article, Adele Smith related how she was raped by a fellow student from Christendom College, but the school failed to acknowledge the rape or punish the student for it, imposing only minor sanctions for harassing her after the rape.  Smith claims the school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture actually facilitates sexual assault — and that the administration works harder to protect its reputation than it does to protect its students.

Smith is not the only female student who makes this charge.

This has happened before

Adele Smith mentioned that there was nothing to prevent a rape like hers from happening again at Christendom. In fact, it had already happened, more than once.

A female student, a friend and classmate of Adele Smith’s older brother, says that her boyfriend raped her just off campus, too, in January of 2005. The woman has told very few people about the assault, and she does not wish to use her name.

She didn’t even know to use the word “rape” to describe what happened to her, until the moment she heard that yet another friend, a former Christendom student, had also been raped by yet another Christendom male student just off campus.

“I honestly thought it was just me,” she said. “Then I started hearing more and more stories, and I realized it was happening to a lot of people.”

“That’s Christendom culture.”

She believes if she told anyone on campus she had been raped, she would have been blamed, and would have heard, “What were you doing? What were you wearing?”

“That’s Christendom culture. We had hours and hours and hours of talks on modesty, dress code, how to act, how to keep boys chaste, all of those things,” she said. “The guys were just told to wear ties to Mass. I didn’t realize at the time there was any imbalance. What a girl wore and how she carried herself or what she said  . . . she was responsible for both her actions and men’s.”

She describes the PDA policy in the same way as Smith did.

“It was almost like you’d see in a prison: No touching! Even just to sit next to a person, you had to go off campus. Which made it easier to go further,” she said.

Her boyfriend was a Catholic young man she had met that year at Christendom. He wanted to take her out after they got back from Christmas break, and she was excited at the prospect of a “real date” off campus.

Dressing for the evening was “above and beyond your average giggling and getting ready for a date,” she said. She remembers going to her RA twice to check her outfit, to make sure it was not only nice, but “classy and feminine, modest and dignified, all that good stuff.”

“He was the man.”

She was disappointed when her boyfriend told her their date would consist of simply sitting in his car and watching a movie on his laptop.

“He was the man. He planned the date, he decided things, and I went with him,” she said.

They drove out to a local park in Front Royal. She doesn’t know where they went. It was dark. She says it seems crazy now, but she didn’t feel she had the right to question him.

He suggested they move to the back seat where there was more room. She became alarmed, because “that’s what people do in movies,” but told herself that, while she was short, he was tall, and he probably just needed more leg room.

She says she didn’t mind him getting physically affectionate at first, but as he persisted, she became uncomfortable, and told him several times to stop.

“He had me give him a blow job,” she said. “Forcibly, he held me there. It can’t have been very good, because I had no idea what I was doing.”

She told him she didn’t want to do it, but “that didn’t matter.” He was very strong. She pulled away several times.

“I didn’t hit him or anything. I couldn’t put what was happening together with what should be happening. It was just too unreal,” she said.

He then penetrated her with his fingers. She told him “No,” and pushed him away several times, but again, “That didn’t matter. ” She was in “complete shock.”

About ten minutes later, he abruptly told her, “We can’t keep going like this.” He then said he was afraid she might get pregnant, and that they needed to break up.  He immediately drove her back to campus.

Some of her friends were watching a movie in the gym, and she blindly went and sat with them.  One friend later told her that he could see there was something wrong, but he thought she had just had a bad night.

“I hoped he would forgive me.”

She later told her friends she and her boyfriend had broken up, but never said why. She blamed herself for not being a good enough girlfriend. “Was I not dressed modestly enough?” she asked herself.

After the rape, she saw herself as “a complete failure, as a Catholic, as a woman, as a horrible girlfriend who had caused him to sin.” She repeatedly apologized to him, hoping he would “forgive her” and maybe take her back as his girlfriend.

“That makes me want to barf now,” she said.

A source close to Christendom says that people send their children to Christendom because “they’ve raised them in a bubble and they want that bubble to continue.”  She said mothers of students have told her they don’t want to talk to their children about consent, because it might make them curious about sexual matters. She says that, in recent years, the male students have been given more talks and education about how to treat female students with respect and dignity, but the word “consent” is not used.

“Is there a poster hanging up in a common area, telling you what to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted? No. I’d bet my right arm on it,” this source said.

“Didn’t something like that happen to you?”

The young woman who was assaulted that night in 2005 revealed small portions of her story to a friend, who suspected that what she was describing was rape. The story was passed among friends, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the young woman acknowledged to herself that it was rape. The realization happened when another student told her she’d heard another story which sounded horribly familiar: A girl was parked with her boyfriend, a Christendom student, off-campus to watch a movie on a laptop, and he raped her. The male students was friends with the male student who perpetrated the first assault. The first woman’s friend asked her, “Didn’t something like that happen to you?”

The first young women immediately drove to the house of the woman who had just been assaulted, to talk to her about what had happened.

“This happened to me, and I didn’t say anything until literally right now,” she told her. “I don’t want to force you into something, but I don’t want you to make my mistake. I’m just now realizing this is a big problem.”

She persuaded the second young woman to go to the hospital and get a rape kit done. The second young woman also went to the police, but, because she didn’t have any bruises or cuts, they advised her that her case would not go anywhere.

“This is Front Royal; no judge is going to convict a rapist.”

An official whom the first woman describes as “the battered woman counsellor” told the second young woman, “I’ve seen a lot of these, and I can tell you right now it’s not going to go anywhere. This is Front Royal; no judge is going to convict a rapist, even with evidence.”

She was also told that, in Front Royal, a prosecutor will assume that a religious young woman such as herself is simply feeling guilty for having had sex, and is calling it “assault” to assuage her conscience. So the second young woman stopped pursuing a legal case.

According to the first young woman, all of Front Royal is “a notorious boy’s club.” She says a female employer once told her, “Basically, guys don’t have anything to worry about.”

The second young woman went to the Christendom administration with her complaint, according to the first young woman.

“She was confident it was going to be dealt with seriously and professionally,” she said. “I was less sure.”

Just looking for drama

Nothing ever came of the complaint. The Christendom student who assaulted the second young woman ended up transferring out, which was hailed as good news for the girls. The young woman who was raped in 2005 said that one professor told her the female students were making too much of it, “just looking for drama.”

She says sexual assault is “something we stick our heads in the sand about, as conservatives, as Catholics. ‘Don’t be a slut, and it won’t happen to you!’ But that’s not how it works.”

The ordeal has not damaged her faith, but it has changed her perspective.

“By the time I saw [the school] brushing things off, I had moved to a place where I could say, ‘No, that’s wrong. They’re not representative of the entire faith,’” she said.

She was able to separate their actions from Catholicism itself; but she was disillusioned with Christendom.

“A lot of their policies create an environment where stuff like this can happen, and especially where it can go unreported,” she said.

Perception is so important.

She says the school heavily promotes the idea that the campus is like a safe, happy family, that “[p]arents can send their homeschooled, sheltered, don’t-know-anything-about-the-world kids there, and they will be safe. Curfew’s at ten, everyone wears skirts, and it’s just perfect. The closest thing to having them at home.”

But current students and alumni say the school has a “boys will be boys” attitude which allows the male students to harass and grab at the women. If a young woman is raped or assaulted, the other students are ready to assume she did something wrong. Several students interviewed for this story made a distinction between “rape” and “date rape,” and only acknowledged when pressed that rape is rape.

The school administration has a vested interest in failing to punish male students who commit sexual assault.

“People see it to be a traditional Catholic School, and there’s a tendency to whitewash anything that did happen,” Elizabeth Foeckler, former RA, said.

More than one alumna said that many of the teachers at Christendom are excellent and caring, and that many of the students are sincere and faithful people. When asked what they would say to a student interested in attending Christendom, they said it could work out, as long as you go in with your eyes open.

In many cases, says a source close to the college, the rules regulating campus life arise from an ideology, and not from a practical understanding of student behavior. The lower echelons of the administration, those who deal directly with students, struggle with trying to convey ideas like safety and consent without subverting the founders’ notions of what virtuous student life looks like.

The result is an unusually vulnerable population of young women who don’t know how to navigate basic relationships, and who are terrified to express their wishes for fear of being rude, and are afraid to speak out when they or their friends are hurt.  They don’t have the words to describe what happened to them if they are assaulted, and they feel very strongly that they will be blamed for anything that happens to them.

And there is the reputation of the school to guard. “Perception is so important,” said the woman who never reported her rape at Christendom. “We have to evangelize, so everything untoward would be covered up.”

Adele Smith says there was a running joke among the student body about the fountains on campus.

“The school had lots of fountains,” she said, “But the carpets were the original carpets. They were thirty-eight years old. If you lived in the dorm, you were going to be sick. They installed fancy fountains, visible to everyone. But in student living, you can’t get new carpets.”

“Let’s craft and paint the outside,” she said. “But if the inside is not so good? It’s okay.”

Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom, was unavailable for comment when we called. He is still welcome to return our call.

***

This story was researched and reported by Damien and Simcha Fisher. Part I can be found here. 

 ***
***
Image credits:
christendom sign: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Statue By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
regina coeli hall By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352616
student center By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352611
front royal clock  Clevergrrl via FLickr
church By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
men’s dorm By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
seal By Niall ODonnell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Are women safe in Christendom’s bubble? Part I

Christendom College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts school in Front Royal Virginia, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Christendom is praised as a safe haven where young students can focus on their studies, grow in their faith, and “breathe the Catholic air.” But several former and current students say the school’s sheltered, highly structured campus culture actually facilitates sexual assault — and that the administration works harder to protect its reputation than it does to protect its students.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which publishes an authoritative annual guide to Catholic Colleges, says Christendom “makes a point to emphasize virtuous living, which translates to a faithful Catholic lifestyle and strong friendships. With this goal in mind, the College utilizes single-sex dormitories, visitation policies to promote chastity, planned weekly events as a way to proactively promote sobriety and counter any temptation toward a ‘drinking scene,’ and spiritual programs to foster students’ prayer lives and spirituality.”

Adele Smith, class of 2012, experienced some culture shock when she arrived at Christendom. Accustomed to a large, sociable, extended family, she knew Christendom would be conservative, but was bemused by the strict segregation of males and females. She describes the “open houses” that would take place in the dorms once a semester.

“The girls would get baked goods and candy, and the guys would come into the dorm and take a tour. It was very much like a museum, like an exhibit. It was the same with the guys’ open house, except they’d have TVs and video games. ‘This is how the native people on the men’s side of campus live!’ This is not how young people engage in a normal way. It felt like a human zoo.”

The school’s rigid rules governing male and female interaction weren’t just awkward, though. Smith claims they are dangerous.

Rigid student life rules drive students off campus

She says that the rules against romantic public displays of affection were so restrictive, it drove couples off campus. Because Christendom is in a rural, isolated spot with few restaurants, clubs, museums or theaters, going off campus generally means going into the woods or into a field.

“It’s just a natural human need to connect with someone you’re in a relationship with,” Smith said. “Just to hold hands, they’d go off campus for a date; and by ‘off campus,’ it could in be in the woods, or in a field down the road. There are not a lot of options if you don’t have a car. So you end up having couples potentially isolate themselves. They should be able to express themselves romantically in a public setting, which is a safer setting to learn how to navigate as a couple. Instead, you’re put into remote, isolated areas where things can get out of hand.”

That’s precisely what happened when Smith was raped by her then-boyfriend, a fellow Christendom student. The rape occurred on Friday, October 2, 2009, on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about thirty minutes away from the college campus. We contacted the young man and he has not yet responded, so we are not using his name at this time.

“He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith, who was then a sophomore, says she was so naive, she didn’t even know to use the word “rape” until many months later. She told her friends, “He had sex with me, and I didn’t want to.”

Smith had hurt her back in a car accident when she was a freshman. On the day of the rape, she re-injured her back while cleaning her room for Homecoming Weekend, and so her new boyfriend suggested that they have a low-key, relaxing date.

He didn’t have a license, so, at his suggestion, they borrowed a friend’s car and she drove them up to a scenic point overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. He told her her back might be more comfortable in the back seat, and they could put the laptop in the center console to listen to music.

“In retrospect, I can say, ‘You’re a dummy!’ But back then, I was nineteen. He was my friend, I knew him, I knew his sister, and it felt very natural sitting in the back,” Smith said.

He started kissing her. She had no objection, as they had kissed before. But when he started putting his hand inside her shirt, she told him “No,” and pushed his hand away. She said, “I’m not comfortable with that,” and he said, “Okay.”

“Then he tried it again, and I pushed his hand away, and said, ‘Please, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ Then he tried a third time,” she said.

They were in a confined space; the young man was around six feet tall, and Smith is five feet tall.

“If it was me vs. a kitten, the kitten would win,” Smith says.

“I can’t stop him, apparently.”

She had been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder after graduating high school, and her anxiety kicked in at this point. She said she realized she could not stop the man.

“He’s not stopping. I’ve told him three times not to. I can’t stop him, apparently,” she recalled thinking.

The young man then started unbuttoning her jeans, and she again told him “No.” He pulled her down so she was flat on the back seat.

“I had my arms pushed together, my elbows to my hands pushed together in front of my chest, trying to keep myself covered. He pushed my arms apart with his hands. My legs were tightly closed. He took his knee and pushed my legs open, pulled my shirt off, and pulled my jeans down. I felt him,” she said.

“Up until that point, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable,” she said. “But it took me a second to realize what was happening. I remember thinking, ‘Is that what I think it is? Is that what’s happening right now?'”

“Why are you making such a big deal of it?”

Smith does not remember getting dressed after the rape. She remembers standing outside the car, smoking a cigarette and shaking, and her boyfriend saying he didn’t know why she was making such a big deal out of it. So she drove them down the mountain and back to campus.

It took all of her strength not to drive off the mountain. She returned the car to her friend, went back to her dorm, sat down in the shower fully clothed, and cried.

Although Smith’s patron is Maria Goretti, the teenaged saint who was stabbed to death while resisting rape, Smith said the concept of rape was foreign to her. She didn’t want to accept that something so ugly had happened to her.

“When I tried to figure out what had happened, I would say, ‘He had sex with me, but I didn’t,’” she said.

Smith texted her boyfriend the next day, saying she didn’t want to see him again. He responded by calling her a bitch and a prude, and saying, “You know you liked it.” She blocked his number.

The victims always blame themselves.

Smith skipped many classes her sophomore year, unable to endure being in the same room with him. Her GPA slipped to 1.2.

It wasn’t until the beginning of her junior year that she heard the word “rape” applied to her ordeal. She was at a party hosted by her theology teacher, Eric Jenislawski, after a meeting of the Chester-Belloc Debate Society. Smith and her brother stayed long after midnight talking, and Jenislawski told her he knew something had happened to her. He said she noticed a change in her, and wanted her to know he was there to help her if she wanted to talk.

Smith told him what happened

“I’m so sorry you were raped,” Jenislawski said.

At first she didn’t want to allow that word, and grew defensive, blaming herself for the assault.

“When you’re Catholic you’re taught that your virginity is one of the best gifts you have, a gift you can give your husband,” Smith said. “I had been a virgin. I had been waiting for marriage. I was that fallen woman, and I didn’t want my parents to see me that way. That was not how my parents were, but sex assault is unique crime. The victims always blame themselves.”

But Jenislawski was the first one who made her feel like the rape wasn’t her fault. He encouraged her to get counseling and to tell the school administration what had happened. An RA friend, Elizabeth Foeckler, also encouraged her to go to the administration.

“I had seen already something was wrong, something had happened,” Foeckler said.

The idea of reporting her rape scared Smith. The young man was charismatic, well-known, and well-liked on campus. When she told a few of her friends that something had happened between them, he began circulating the story that she had seduced him and then regretted it.

“Hit me.”

He then began approaching and provoking her on campus. One day, she was sitting and waiting for a friend to come out of his dorm, and the young man who had assaulted her came out. He sat beside her and began to make small talk, putting his hand on her leg. She felt frozen and could not reply. After what felt like hours, he left. She fled to her dorm and went to bed.

Another day, while other students played some sort of game on campus, the young man approached her and began to insist that she slap him across the face.

“He kept saying, ‘Hit me.’ He kept grabbing my hand and trying to make me slap him,” Smith said.

Smith thinks he might have been trying to make it appear that she was the one who assaulted him. He also told some students that she pulled a knife and forced him into sexual acts.

Smith’s grades continued to slide, and her mental and physical health suffered as students and even outsiders, people she didn’t know, would approach her in the dining hall to talk about the ordeal.

The chances of going to trial are very low.

In April of 2011, Smith decided to tell the police about the rape. Front Royal Police told her it was out of their jurisdiction, since it had happened in a national park. Discouraged, Smith hesitated, then eventually called law enforcement rangers and met with them at Shenandoah National Park.

They explained to her that a prosecutor would take her case, but that the chances of going to trial, much less of the young man being prosecuted, were very low.

Smith’s father consulted with a lawyer friend, who said that the best they could realistically hope for would be that the young man’s record would include an accusation of rape. If he was accused again in the future, the record would help support that accusation.

“But the job of the press would be to make me out a liar,” Smith said, noting that rape victims often find the trial to be more traumatizing than the actual event. “The idea of being torn apart in court by someone with a law degree, and it being in the paper, was too much for me to imagine. So I pinned all my hopes for justice on my Catholic, conservative college, to uphold moral principles.”

So she went to the then-dean, Jesse Dorman, and reported the rape and subsequent harassment. The school promised to conduct a “complete and careful investigation.”

In loco parentis

Next came many months of frustration for the Smith family. In a letter dated May 16, 2011, Scott Smith, her father, wrote to Timothy O’Donnell, the president of Christendom,

“Adele’s grades plummeted that first semester of her sophomore year. She sought psychological help from Dr. Patrick Divietri. She has nightmares about the incident. She developed Crohn’s disease, a disease exacerbated by severe stress. Adele has no ‘bad girl’ reputation on campus. Her subsequent behavior is entirely consistent with that of someone who has been traumatized and assaulted. She implored [her brother] Peter to continue to live in Front Royal and to visit the campus often because she felt so unsafe.”

Scott Smith states in his letter that he left messages for nearly a week before he was able to arrange to speak to the dean, and that the telephone conference was “disquieting.”

“We clearly received the impression that Mr. Dorman wasn’t going to do anything . . . Mr. Dorman showed no apparent interest in pursuing any sort of investigation,” Scott Smith wrote.

Dorman, who no longer works for Christendom, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Smith’s parents also drove the four hundred miles to meet with the dean, hoping to encourage him to take the charges against their daughter’s rapist seriously.

“Forgettable as most commencement addresses are, I remember yours clearly,” Scott Smith wrote to O’Donnell. “You spoke to the parents of the graduating students gathered there of the profound sense of responsibility you felt of acting in loco parentis for our children and your gratitude that we, as their parents, had entrusted our children to you . . .

“But here Christendom has done the opposite. It has sent the implicit message to women at Christendom that the such attacks ‘within the Christendom family’ will be tolerated, that the attacker will receive no punishment, that women who are attacked will have to endure the fear of retaliation, both on a physical level, and on the level of damage to their reputations.”

“So now my daughter must endure the presence of her attacker on the campus. Each day that goes by, she is reminded that nothing will happen to him. Each day she is persuaded that the college has no intention of supporting her.

A week later, in a letter dated May 23, 2011, President O’Donnell responded.

“Respectfully, I must disagree with your recollection . . . [in loco parentis] is not a phrase that I use with any frequency,” O’Donnell wrote toward the end of his letter to Scott Smith. “But more importantly, I think that you might be using the term more broadly than is appropriate in this matter. In speaking with our counsel, it is my understanding that under Virginia law, the doctrine of in loco parentis as applied to colleges and universities simply means that Christendom has a responsibility to provide a safe campus for its students. Christendom is very diligent in making sure that it provides a safe campus for the education of our students.”

Throughout the letter, O’Donnell refers to the young man by his last name, but refers to Adele Smith by her first name.

In the letter, O’Donnell tells Smith’s father that the school “understands the anguish” the Smith family is feeling as they wait for a judgment against the young man, and that the college will make “a complete and careful investigation of [Smith’s] allegations before rendering a decision that will impact both the life of the accused and the accuser.”

“After a prior incident”

Two months later, the school explained what the young man would be charged with: harassing Smith “after a prior incident.” The charges do not mention rape.

In the charge letter delivered to the young man on July 19, 2011, then-dean Jesse Dorman wrote:

“The intent of the Student Life Office is to support each student as he or she works to grow in virtue . . .

“we have reports that indicate that you have violated the Code of Student Conduct by harassing another student and causing emotional harm. The reports indicate that Adele Smith indicated, after a prior incident with you, that she no longer wanted a relationship with you. Then on November 24, 2009, you sat next to her on a bench and made unwanted contact with her by placing your hand on her knee. Furthermore, it is alleged that you continued to harass her by trying to provoke her to slap you, hit you or kiss you. Another student instructed you to leave her alone but you continued. After Adele did slap you, you allegedly said, ‘If you slapped me really hard and it really hurt, I wouldn’t want to kiss you.’ It is further alleged that on other occasions you went out of your way to volunteer with groups of friends that Adele had seduced you.

“Therefore, you are being charged with violating the Code of Student Conduct.”

A disciplinary conference was scheduled for July 28 of 2011. The school determined the young man was “responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

His punishment: He could not live on campus for one semester, and he could not contact Adele Smith.

Smith and her family were floored. There was no mention of her accusation of rape, either in the charge letter or in the sanction letter. The entire passage describing his offense is as follows:

“Specifically, you admitted: to placing your hand on Adele Smith’s knee, attempting to provoke her to slap you and or to kiss you to deal with her frustrations with you, and finally for telling some students around campus that she had seduced you. You did emphasize at length with regards to the first two incidents that they were not done maliciously and you found them to be normal interactions. As I informed you at the meeting, I do not find these interactions with Adele to be acceptable, appropriate, or in keeping with our Code of Student Conduct. Therefore I found you responsible for the violation of Harassment.”

What does the handbook say?

The school apparently based its response on two facts: First, there was, in 2011, no clause in the student handbook prohibiting sexual assault. Amanda Graf, the current Director of Student Affairs at Christendom, confirms that student handbook did not include a policy against sexual assault until 2013, two years after Smith reported her rape.

Second, the rape occurred off campus; and so the school considered itself helpless to respond to it.

“[T]he alleged assault of Adele did not take place on campus. Rather, the incident apparently occurred in a national park several miles away from Christendom’s campus,” O’Donnell wrote in his letter to Scott Smith. “Moreover, both Adele and Mr. [redacted] are adults — meaning that Christendom faculty and staff have inherently limited options for enforcing standards of appropriate (or even prudent) conduct, especially when students leave the confines of campus.”

When you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.

Students are, however, punished for coming back to campus drunk, even if the drinking took place off campus — for instance, at “The River,” a popular drinking spot where even professors are known to visit and socialize. “The River” and the drinking that occurs there is an open secret that the administration is aware of.

“I always find it interesting they always try to punish students for drinking off campus, if you come back to campus drunk,” Smith said. “I say, if you rape off campus, when you come back to campus, you’re still a rapist.”

Smith says that the administration cracked down on professors hosting off-campus parties, because they involved drinking. The message delivered was clear, according to Smith.

“We care if you drink off campus, but not if you rape off campus,” she said.

Sanctions

Although the school imposed sanctions on the young man, he was taken under the wing of one of its founders and professors, William Marshner, and he lived in Marshner’s house for the semester he was barred from living on campus. Marshner has since left Christendom.

After the sanctions were imposed, Smith and the young man still had classes together, including core classes that were required for all students.

“It was up to me to avoid him,” she said. “I would go down the road to the convenience store, and he’d be sitting outside, and I couldn’t walk in. I would go to the only cafe in town, and he’d be sitting outside. I would turn around and drive right back. All his body language was hostile and arrogant.”

Her focus and concentration were gone.  Her grades continued to be low for the rest of her junior year.

“It was my story.”

Then, one day during her senior year, her friend texted her that Marshner was talking about her in his moral theology class, using thinly veiled language.

The teacher gave the class a hypothetical example of a young man and woman who were dating and decided to go off campus to Skyline Drive. In the example, they decide to fornicate, but then the young woman regrets her choice, and decides to claim the young man attacked her.

“In what world is this okay?” Smith said. “It was my story. Everyone knew.”

Smith complained to the school, and she says they gave Marshner “a slap on the wrist.”

Smith considered leaving the college, and looked into other schools. Her parents, brother, and friends encouraged her to transfer.

“But the stubborn Irish in me determined if I left, he would win. He’s taken enough from me; he’s not gonna take this.”

But he did take it away from her, she says.

“I can’t get into grad school with my GPA. It’s hard to explain why my GPA is so poor.”

It takes a long time to change the handbook.

The young man left Christendom in Smith’s senior year. His absence helped her reclaim some of her focus. But in that year, 2012, a year after she reported her rape, the school still had not added a policy against sexual assault to their student handbook.

“There was nothing to stop this from happening again,” Smith said.

Smith says the school claimed it “takes a long time” to implement changes in school policy.

“No, it takes opening a word document and writing it up: ‘Don’t rape people.’ If there’s a single member on your board who has an issue with that, they shouldn’t be on that board,” Smith said.

Smith continued to call the school after graduation to see if they had changed the policy. In 2013, after Smith had graduated from the school, she again downloaded the student handbook and was aghast to see there was still no language forbidding sexual assault by students. It wasn’t until August of that year  that the language was added to the handbook.

The student handbook now includes a sexual assault policy.

Christendom College does not receive federal funding, and so is not subject to Title IX regulations, which would legally require it to respond to and remedy hostile educational environments. This also means there is no publicly available data about sexual assaults or other crimes taking place on campus, as is required of Title IX schools.

***

This story was researched and reported by Damien and Simcha Fisher.

 This is the end of part I. Part II can be found here. Below are pdfs of the four letters referenced above.
***
Image credits:
christendom sign: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Statue By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
regina coeli hall By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352616
student center By AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49352611
front royal clock  Clevergrrl via FLickr
church By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
men’s dorm By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
seal By Niall ODonnell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Weyer no longer employed at parish

Jonathan Weyer, a.k.a, Jonathan Ryan, no longer works at St. Alphonsis Luguori parish, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Weyer, who was pastoral associate of evangelization at the Zionsville, IN church, was co-founder of the Sick Pilgrim blog and had just released a book, but he came under sudden national scrutiny after several woman accused him of sexually and psychologically exploitative behavior and spiritual abuse. The blog’s other founder and his co-author, Jessica Mesman Griffith, also accused Ryan of sexual assault.

As of Wednesday evening, ten women, including this anonymous blogger, have reported predatory sexual behavior by Weyer. One of those women is Donna Provencher, who first revealed to Griffith that Weyer was using Sick Pilgrim’s Facebook community as a place to meet, groom, exploit, and isolate vulnerable women.

Griffith immediately met with the blog’s administrative board, and they determined that Weyer should be removed from any involvement with the site. Griffith also decided to halt production of the book they had just released together.

Weyer posted a statement on his Facebook page Tuesday afternoon, saying he would leave it up for twenty-four hours, then deleting it within half an hour. Weyer denies that he sexually assaulted Griffith, and claims he thought their contact was “motivated by mutual desire.” He says he was sexually abused as a child.

Provencher, and other women who wish to remain anonymous, say that Weyer deliberately targeted them for their psychological and spiritual vulnerabilities and used his position of alleged spiritual authority to exploit them sexually, then made wedding plans with them, abruptly announced the relationship was over, and gaslit them about their accounts of what happened, all the while simultaneously propositioning and grooming other women online and over the phone.

Weyer says, “I admit I misread emotional cues in my adult, consensual relationships” and that he “sought to make genuine connections with women.”

Shortly after deleting his published statement, he told Donna Provencher via text that their relationship had been a “stupid-ass drama,” and he berated her for making him look bad.

Donna Provencher, who shared her complete account of her interactions with Weyer on Saturday, responded with her own public statement, which she shared on her Facebook page. Her statement is as follows:

I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say,” Servant of God Dorothy Day once wrote, “and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.”

That Mr. Weyer was molested as a child is tragic, and for what he has suffered I am truly sorry. But it is at our sacred behest as Catholics to create beauty from broken things: out of suffering, redemption. To use one’s childhood wounds as any sort of diversion or scapegoat for a prolonged and pernicious pattern of abuse toward women is unconscionable.

Many of us – including many of Mr. Weyer’s now-ten known victims – were sexually abused as children or adults, and it is precisely because of our experiences that we stand, as with one voice, to denounce and decry Mr. Weyer’s sexual, spiritual, and psychological abuse of the vulnerable in our midst. This is not at our option; it is our moral imperative.

Whenever we make an act of contrition, our prayer is threefold: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, to do penance, and to amend my life.” By this standard, Mr. Weyer in his statement demonstrates no true penitence; he vehemently denies allegations of sexual assault against Ms. Griffith, and vaguely alludes to possessing proof of innocence which he has failed to produce. He reduces the trauma he inflicted upon a friend and partner to a “terrible misunderstanding,” and in a stunning display of cognitive dissonance, in the next breath claims he “recognizes [he] caused her deep emotional pain” and is “truly sorry.”

He relegates me, along with the other unnamed victims, to a subordinate clause about two-thirds of the way through his statement – telling, perhaps, of the value in which Mr. Weyer holds the unique, precious, unrepeatable, irreducible human beings whose lives he has shattered by his actions. He speaks of “landing himself in this mess,” as if he were an innocent bystander or passive participant in his own contemptible abuses, manipulations, and deceptions.

Mr. Weyer has demonstrated no sincere regard for the good of his victims. On Nov. 21, he attempted to call me and texted me asking if we could talk, and when he received no response later texted me an apology for his actions. He then forwarded me his public statement, which he also posted to his Facebook (where it was not visible to his victims) and then took it down within the half hour. A few hours later, he sent me rage-induced text messages in which he referred to the duration of our relationship as a “stupid-ass drama,” lamented that he has “paid dearly for [his] sins,” and accused me of making him “look like a devil in the press.”

On more than one occasion, Mr. Weyer has admitted the facts as presented in my case to be factually true, most notably to the administrators of Sick Pilgrim upon his dismissal Nov. 14. These facts are what I have presented to the media, and I stand unequivocally by my previous statements. If Mr. Weyer finds the facts of the narrative so damning, perhaps he should examine more closely the lifestyle they reflect.

Lastly, Mr. Weyer writes: “Despite news reports, my faith is real; I’m just terrible at practicing it.” Yet Aristotle counsels us that a man is what he repeatedly does. And in the Holy Scriptures, we read: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith – apart from works – is dead.” (James 2:19, 26)

We bear no ill will against Mr. Weyer, and as a child of God, we wish salvation for him. We hope that he receives the psychological help and spiritual counseling he so urgently needs, and we pray that he may someday have the humility and grace to make a genuine act of contrition and, acknowledging the enormity of the sexual, spiritual, and psychological abuse he has inflicted upon women, do penance and amend his life.

St. Kateri, pray for us.

–Donna Provencher, Nov. 22, 2017

***
Image: Jonathan Ryan, detail of photo by Michelle Sterling, used with permission

Jonathan Ryan/Weyer still Pastoral Associate of Evanglization at Lafayette parish

This article is the third in a series of investigative reports covering allegations of spiritual and sexual abuse by Jonathan Ryan, a.k.a. Jonathan Weyer, co-founder of Sick Pilgrim. Part I is here; Part II is here.  This series is a collaborative effort by Simcha and Damien Fisher.

***

After revelations that Sick Pilgrim co-founder Jonathan Ryan has been accused of committing a series of exploitative and spiritually abusive acts against several women, St. Alphonsis Liguori Church in Zionsville, Indiana, which employs him as Associate Pastor of Evangelization Pastoral Associate of Evangelization has not responded to inquiries about his status at the parish. The Diocese of Lafayette and the Bishop’s office have also not responded to inquiries. Ryan’s name was removed from the parish website on Monday.

Donna Provencher, who recently revealed her allegations of harrowing spiritual abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of Ryan, said on Monday afternoon that she sent emails to the HR department of the Diocese of Lafayette, but they declined to give her any information about whether Ryan will be dismissed.

“The diocese called me today and they informed me he is being investigated but still employed there,” Provencher said.

She says the HR spokesman told her there will be no way of victims or the public getting answers about his employment because “we won’t be allowed to tell you.” Provencher says the HR spokesman said that Monday morning was “the first she was hearing of [the situation].”

“I’m horrified,” said Provencher.
.
“Remember that time when [the Catholic Church] buried a sex abuse crisis and shuffled perps around from diocese to diocese and we all realized that was a terrible idea and they made a whole movie about it? Maybe let’s not do that again.”
.
“I’ve heard from two women now who he met in the very early days of the group who had similar experiences [of sexual and spiritual exploitation]. It’s possible it was going on at this rate all along.” The Sick Pilgrim blog was launched in 2015.
.
Griffith says she believes his behavior has been escalating, “becoming sloppier and more erratic.”
.
Griffith has rediscovered a post Ryan wrote for Sick Pilgrim in February of 2016, titled “Dark Devotional: The Devil Inside.” In it, Ryan says that, when he was younger, he deliberately cultivated a “man of God” persona to become more attractive to girls.

“Because, let’s face it, there is nothing more erotic to Christian girls than a guy who loves Jesus. I spoke in tongues and used my tongue,” Ryan wrote.

Ryan, who sometimes uses the name “Jonathan Weyer,” continues:

“When I reached my twenties, my thirst for spiritual recognition and power led me to becoming a Presbyterian minister (when, in my heart, I just wanted to be a history professor and writer). That was a disastrous decision that eventually blew my life apart. I got divorced and started my life over again at 41 years old. All because of choices I started making in high school: to value my reputation, to grab for power and to allow a deep-seated spiritual arrogance to rule me. I failed all three tests because I failed to remember one simple thing: when religion offers power, control and manipulation, it’s always a very, very bad thing.”

Griffith says she rolled her eyes at the time, thinking he was “trying to be some kind of sexy bad boy,” but now she considers this essay a strong clue about why he was removed from ministry. The behavior he describes as in his past is precisely the behavior he is accused of as recently as Friday.
.
Provencher notes that, at the bottom of Ryan’s post is a link to the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.””He was actually outing himself while pretending to be repentant,
Provencher said, “and thumbing his nose at everyone while he did it.”
.

Near the top of the website for the Diocese of Lafayette is this message:

“The Diocese of Lafayette and the Office of Safe Environment are pleased to announce that we have been notified by the auditing firm appointed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that we are again in full compliance with all data requirements for the 2015-2016 charter audit period.  The Office of Safe Environment has met all requirements since the inception of the Safe Environment Program and will continue to carry out all that is needed in order to protect our youth throughout the Diocese.”

Ryan was responsible for hiring and overseeing the St. Alphonsis Liguori youth ministry coordinator, according to an ad posted August 29, 2017.

Provencher says the Zionsville local newspaper has contacted her about her involvement in the story, and she hopes this will encourage the church to dismiss Ryan promptly.

 

***
Image: Jonathan Ryan, detail of photo by Michelle Sterling, used with permission
 EDIT November 21, 12:34 a.m.: Ryan’s title at Alphonsis Liguori is Associate Pastor of Evangelization, and not Pastoral Associate of Evangelization.

Sick Pilgrim turmoil, Part 2: Donna Provencher’s story

The following is an account of recent events by Donna Provencher, who accuses Jonathan Ryan (a.k.a. Jonathan Weyer) of spiritual and emotional abuse. Ryan has been removed from his position at Sick Pilgrim, which he co-founded, and his upcoming book has been spiked by the publisher after numerous women, including cofounder Jessica Mesman Griffith, have come forward to accuse Ryan/Weyer of abuse and sexual assault.
This account comes from a conversation Donna Provencher and I had via a Facebook voice call on Saturday, November 18. At the end of Provencher’s story, I have included some pertinent screen shots and excerpts.
***
My life mantra, cribbed from Nora Ephron is: Above all else, be the hero of your life, and not the victim.
I had been a lapsed Catholic, self-identifying as an agnostic for six or seven years when I entered Sick Pilgrim.
I grew up very, very conservative. My parents were hard-line, knee jerk, republican, homeschooling Catholic conservatives. I went to Christendom College and encountered a lot of hypocrisy, spiritual abuse, and invoking the Holy Spirit as a cover for bad behavior and mistreatment of people. I didn’t like it!
I had spoken to a friend who works for the Register earlier this year. He said, “I think you’ve been fed this very specific definition of what Catholic spirituality looks like, and you’ve rejected it on those grounds. But there’s room for Oscar Romero spirituality, and Dorothy Day.” He considered me a “rebooting Catholic,” not a fallen-away Catholic.
Then one of my friends added me to Sick Pilgrim. I thought, “These are my people.” I was living between worlds, hanging out with secular humanists, theater people, journalists, but also very conservative friends. I had lost sight of the fact there’s a happy medium.
So Sick Pilgrim was this refreshing, “coming home” experience. I finally recognized my own yearning and my own thoughts and ideas in other Catholics. They’re all about being misfits, but they’re some of the most loving people you’ll ever meet. I saw something deeply good there. It was people, not doctrine, that had turned me off the Church, so it was people, not doctrine, that brought me back. Like Thomas Merton says: “It’s the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
I wasn’t there very long before Jonathan approached me. It was probably less than a week.
He posted a picture of himself making breakfast, and I made some kind of offhand comment about “I want bacon!” or something. He PM’d me and said “Come visit, I have bacon!” I kind of laughed it off, we started talking, and that’s how it began.
The first day we talked was September 20th. [It was about a month previous to this that Ryan allegedly sexually assaulted Jessica Mesman Griffith.] That was on Facebook chat, and we talked for many hours. He asked if he could call the next day, and we talked all night on the phone. It was Sunday the 24th that he told me he loved me. I had been opening up to him about my struggles with an eating disorder, giving him a vast array of detail I hadn’t given anyone else before. It was in the midst of that that he said it for the first time.
Jonathan is a tremendously charismatic individual His Myers–Briggs type is ENFP (which is mine, as well) tend to be very personable, extroverted people who rally a group together. They end up in leadership positions because they are very adept and intuitive about what makes people tick.

That set of traits is a double-edged sword. It’s like the Spiderman deal: With great power comes great responsibility. He had all these gifts and charisms, and he used them for evil. There’s no other way to say it. His personality was enormously compelling, but it enabled him to be a narcissistic predator who could tap into people’s deepest needs and yearning, and reprogram them. It’s so much more tragic because he’s someone who has such potential for good. It’s diabolical.

He started almost immediately talking about marriage, in the next day or so. He was talking about the chapel he wanted to get married in, and would send me pictures of it. We fought about whether or not he would wear a tux. It was signed, sealed, and delivered. He was so convinced and convincing that this was something predetermined by God.
It’s hard for me to talk about, as someone who was an agnostic for so many years. How did I not see this was predatory behavior? How did I not step back from the teeming religiosity, and thinking, “This is not how God works”?
This is because he is incredibly skilled at inserting himself into leadership spiritual roles.
I was raped a year ago. My mother is schizophrenic and homeless, wandering around Detroit somewhere. My divorce had just been finalized. He sold a very convincing story that not only was it God’s will I should come back to the Church, but it was my vocation to be with him and marry him.
 He has a preoccupation with St. Kateri Tekakwitha. He named his house “The St. Kateri House,” and he took a trip to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. A lot of the real manipulation started when he latched onto this tidbit that my name is Katherine with a “k.” She was my patron saint growing up. I had religious images of her in my bedroom, dressed up as her for All Saint’s Day.
He told me he pulled over sobbing on the side of the road, asking God where I had come from, since I was so intelligent, and wonderful and vibrant, and had just fallen into his lap out of a clear blue sky. He said he knew it was because St. Kateri had sent me to him. This was happening simultaneously with his exploitative behavior with other girls.
Later, when out of the blue he said, “I’m done with you” (the day after he had sex with me), I was crying in my backyard. I kept praying and thinking about a passage in Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, about someone who really devastates her, and she prays God will give her His love for this man. God will give us the more perfect way. I was praying that over and over again.
But God’s love is terrible as an army with banners, sometimes. I realize now that, when someone is exhibiting a pattern of exploitative, predatory, and cruel treatment of women, the loving thing to do is call them to amend their live — and protect other women from them.
I got this idea to pray a novena to St. Kateri. But I did not pray for Jonathan to come back. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have all the details yet. I had this sense I needed to pray “God’s will be done, no matter what that looks like.”
I had a friend who didn’t know the St. Kateri details of the story, and he was telling me how, in some cultures, specifically in Iroquois culture, sex abuse, assault, and rape are almost unheard of, because they thought of women as god-bearers. It’s kind of a prescient thing, hearkening forward to the Theotokos. They believed women had the Creator’s gift in them, and if you defiled them, heaven would rain down justice. They would bring down destructions on themselves.

I just broke down crying, because I hadn’t told him about St. Kateri! And he was like, “St. Kateri doesn’t put up with that shit.” That was a healing realization.

 So, I had been going to Mass again for all of four weeks when I went to Indiana to visit him. He had been beating this drum about how premarital sex isn’t really wrong because we’re getting married, you’re my soul mate, it’s just a nominal thing. He’d joke about doing the marriage ceremony in front of the neighbor’s dog, for a witness.
I didn’t think God was fine with it. But Jonathan really is damnably — and I mean that in the literal sense, like infernally — persuasive when it comes to getting what he wants out of women.
He had sex with me multiple times. He was sexting with me before that. It had been sexualized from the get-go.
I had been going back to Mass, but was terrified of confession. So after having sex with me several times, he made an appointment for me with a sympathetic priest. I went to confession for the first time in seven years, an incredibly daunting confession.
I knew he wanted to have sex afterwards. I was like, “I know I’m not a very good Catholic, but I feel there is something wrong with what you’re advocating here!” I just kind of lived in that insane amount of cognitive dissonance. I was madly in love with him. He had groomed me to be in love with him.
So he had sex with me immediately afterward, and had zero problem with going to Mass the next day. He actively defended receiving Communion, and bullying me into receiving Communion, because it would make him feel guilty if I didn’t. He was sowing the seeds of chaos.
Last night, I talked to someone who had the exact same experience. Someone who wasn’t in Sick Pilgrim, but the same experience, even unto taking Communion right after having sex. Our jaws dropped. She was my alter ego in a different state. This was several months prior to what he did to me. He’s been exhibiting this pattern of behavior for many years. It breaks my heart to think of how many other people might be out there. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Spiritual abuse hinges on targeting specific types of people. Jonathan went for writers, single moms, women struggling with depression and anxiety, and some who had previous relationships with a narcissistic abuser.
And these aren’t just hearts and minds at risk. People’s lives, their sexual health, is at risk. If you’re sleeping with someone who’s been lying about their sexual history, it’s tremendously dangerous. This is protracted form of potential physical abuse.
It’s one of those moments where someone needs to stand up. This ends with me. This stops now. The next girl, who’s suicidal — and he’s had messages to that effect, and I’ve been in those shoes — next time, someone might commit suicide. It might be a girl twenty years younger, instead of eleven years younger. It would be unconscionable for someone not to stand up, once the pattern has been established.
If you Google “Catholic sexual harassment,” my name is the second one down. It’s humiliating. I did not anticipate my fifteen minutes of fame looking like this.
But Jess and I realized that we couldn’t leave it at “let’s kick him out of Sick Pilgrim.” That’s transplanting an abuser, hoping he assaults some other girl. I’m not about that. He will wound another woman the way he has wounded Jess, and other girls, and he will do that again over my bleeding, broken body. This man does not need to be in ministry, around hurting people, Catholic, protestant, or otherwise.
I was in Indiana from October 20th till the 22nd. Some of my son’s holidays have been kind of shoddy, so we went to a pumpkin patch. I carved a pumpkin with Lucy and Tumnus. He carved a pumpkin with the Sick Pilgrim logo. But he was adamant we don’t tell anyone in Sick Pilgrim I was going to see him. He wouldn’t let me post pictures of us in the group. He was very irked, and made me cry, yelling at me about how he didn’t need Sick Pilgrim people up in his business. He said they had deviated from the true faith, and said he hated them, that they were awful people. He said this was special, and just for us. Classic abuser tactics.
He introduced me to his parents and colleagues. In hindsight, I realize he always introduced me as his “friend,” even though the wedding was set. He was suggesting we should get married right away, so he could put my three-year-old on his insurance.
He had good reasons. He didn’t want his kids and ex-wife to know the details of his personal life; he didn’t want the Sick Pilgrim people to know, because they are heretics who haven’t seen the light. I trusted him. We want to believe we can trust the people we love.
The night before I left, we went on this hayride, and we had a weird conversation. We had been talking about having more kids. He even named the children: Theodore, and Eowyn Kateri. But after the hayride, we had another conversation.
He said he saw the way I looked at babies and played with kids, and he knew I desperately wanted more kids, but he didn’t want any at all. Nope, no more kids, not gonna do it.
I told him, you’re kind of a Catholic figurehead. How are you gonna manage that? He joked about getting a vasectomy. And suddenly the hammer came down: You’re young. You want more kids. I never said I wanted more kids.

He never came to bed that night. I was upstairs crying. He was downstairs watching Stranger Things. That’s my favorite show. Now I have a “Friends don’t lie” tattoo.

He dropped me off at the airport like a sack of potatoes. It was like something just shut off. the only way I can describe it was like he got body snatched. He was cold, angry, warping reality, attributing terrible motives to people.

On the plane, I wrote to him, so in earnest, so in love with him. I wrote this long letter on those airplane barf bags, wrote and wrote and wrote. I told him I loved him, and we could work through the issue about kids.

But look, I’m just now coming back to the Faith. To quote Julia Brideshead, “Probably I shall be bad again.” Like C.S. Lewis, I was the unhappiest convert in all of England. I had found that Catholicism was the worst way of living, except for all the others. I told him, I’m not going to go through all of that — divorce, rape, eating disorders, a suicide attempt at age nineteen — and then be a halfhearted Catholic, not in a Catholic marriage.

There are layers upon layers. I run the risk of someone reading this story and saying, “That girl is a bad Catholic, and disingenuous.” To that person, I say: Yes. We’re all bad Catholics. But Jonathan’s behavior was bad on a fundamental human level, fundamentally violating the social constructs we need to survive as a society. It goes beyond “I messed up.”
I’m not setting myself up as a bastion of Catholicism. I like to talk about Dorothy Day, but I’m no Dorothy Day. I get that. That’s why it’s so difficult to come forward, knowing people will think I’m complicit in my own sexual abuse. But these were massive, massive violations against women. How can it be informed consent if you’re not informed about someone who is not who they say they were?
When I got home, I sent him that letter, saying I want to have a truly Catholic marriage. And he dumped me the next day, in a Facebook message.

I had applied to a number of positions in Indiana, at his urging. I told him I had sent a résumé to a job there, and he said, “Are you sure you don’t want to go back east with your family?”

And then he said, “I’m done.”

I’ve had some bad breakups in my life. This was not a bad breakup. There’s a difference between the necessary evil of realizing a relationship isn’t meant to be, and someone who has deliberately misled you from the beginning. At this point, he was already with his new soulmate.

I was extraordinarily confused and broken. I had attempted suicide when I was nineteen, but this was hell. I didn’t know which way was up. He had gone out of his way to isolate me from the Sick Pilgrim group, saying terrible things to me about Jess from the day I joined, because he perceived her as rejecting him after he sexually assaulted her. He very intentionally engendered this profound distrust of everyone in that community. So I left.
You had this person in a position of spiritual leadership, a paragon of Catholic virtue that every girl wants to end up with, and he had positioned himself as a spiritually authoritative voice. He knew all my darkest secrets. Jess says abuse by narcissists is “soul rape.” I’ve experienced both kinds. It’s an apt analogy.
It also had a catastrophic effect on my just-burgeoning spiritual journey. That was a mine field to navigate. I had just come back. I actually did believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. I tried not to, but I do. I had just come to that point in my life. I had left the Church over spiritual abuse and hypocrisy, and this was a horrible déjà vu. It reminded me of that passage in [C. S. Lewis’] A Grief Observed: The danger is not that we will come to believe there is no God, but that this is what God is really like: deceive yourself no further.
Jonathan was so inextricably entangled with my reversion experience, it poisoned everything. He sees himself as a Christ figure. It permeates his entire interview with you.  He says, “This is how Jesus would handle it.” Actually, Jesus wouldn’t be in this position of defending Himself from abuse allegations! Baptizing his cruel behavior in the name of Jesus. So repugnant.
I’ve been rewatching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I feel like I got sucked into some weird Ryan cult. I will openly admit I haven’t been to Mass since I got back from Indiana. I feel terrible. I want to go. I just can’t. There’s this internal shattering.
I don’t blame God for any of this. God is not at fault when evil people do evil things. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out where my faith began and where Jonathan’s sticky fingers ended.
This is going to sound strange, but the last week has been one of the most painful weeks of my entire life, but also the most freeing and liberating. Jonathan underestimated this. He didn’t think he’d eventually target the wrong person.
When Jess messaged me last Sunday morning [after I left the Sick Pilgrim group], she said, “You don’t have to tell me anything, but Jonathan’s behavior has been erratic. Do you want to talk?” And I just cried. I just wept. She was the first person who reached out. She was so gentle and compassionate. That’s who Jessica is. I just told her everything.
I’m never going to play the Holy Spirit card again — never say He inspired some action or event. I’m a little squicky about that. But something prompted Jess, who had just walked out of Mass. We were not friends at all. We had briefly exchanged editorial messages about a thing I had written about Stranger Things. Jonathan had terrified me about her.
The first thing she said was, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.” She let me talk about everything. She let me tell my story, and honored that, and listened to my heart, which was a mess. I don’t remember when she told me about her own experience, and others’.
So I thought, “Maybe these Sick Pilgrim people aren’t so bad after all. There’s a predator out there. It’s not Sick Pilgrim’s fault, and not the Church’s fault.” That was a huge healing.
She told me about Jonathan’s new girlfriends, and it was so freeing, like in Dawn Treader, with Eustace’s scales being pulled off: It hurt like billy-oh, but it was so good to see it come away. Life had been salvo after salvo, blast after blast, but it was so profoundly healing to be believed — and to have the community take immediate action.
A number of people, five or six people, signed off on his dismissal letter. But he didn’t respond to all of them. He wrote an intimidating, threatening, “lawyer up” email, and sent it only to the two who were his victims. It was very calculated. He sent me a text: “I hope you’re happy. You got your revenge.”
One of the admins, Matt Lafleur, wrote this beautiful post about how it’s part of the behest of Catholics to look out for broken things. He has his own physical disability, and this was very moving to me. Remember, I had been in the group six days before Jonathan came along. But they wholeheartedly embraced me. They gathered evidence and sent Jonathan a letter dismissing him by Tuesday afternoon. I posted my testimony to the group Tuesday evening.
This is how we are supposed to deal with predators in our midst. They do not represent the Church, or the Holy Spirt, or St. Kateri, but they are in fact blasphemers. Abuse against women is a sacrilege, an interpersonal sacrilege.
This week was empowering. I feel like myself again. Narcissistic abuse is like a drug addiction, and truth is your serum, your anti-drug, combatting it. The light of truth was jarring, but restorative to my faith.
I am planning to go back to Mass for the first time this weekend. I feel like I had fallen into a well, a very narrow well with a very long shaft, and I was sitting at the bottom in the muck. I was desperately suicidal, and nothing made sense. People were calling to me, and telling my life was bigger than this, but I couldn’t hear it. It sounded far away. I was locked in this echo chamber of pain.
I give immense credit to the Sick Pilgrim community, and to Jess, specifically, for pulling a front page-worthy rescue, drilling a parallel well, pulling me out of there fist over fist. I give them tremendous credit for such decisive action and such compassion. It made me able to identify Jonathan’s actions as diabolical, not God-ordained.

It’s really important we call things by their proper names. Sometimes we tiptoe around these terms, “spiritual abuse,” “emotional abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” and “psychological gaslighting.” We call it “mistreatment.” Let’s call it for what it is. J.K. Rowling says fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself. The word isn’t scary. The thing is scary. Let’s call them out properly for committing these heinous actions.

I’m not allowed the privilege, as a Catholic, of believing anyone is beyond the reach of redemption. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that someday he will be able to acknowledge the wrong he has done and the people he has hurt. So far we’ve seen complaining, how persecuted he is, and how much other people have hurt him. He’s not expressed sincere concern for the people he has harmed.
I had this conversation with him about going to confession and then having sex. I said, “When I say the act of contrition, I say I’m not gonna do it again. But I’m gonna do it three hours later.”I told him part of repentance is amending your life. He hemmed and hawed. He said God didn’t really mean it. He fought with me about it.
I loved this man. I loved who I thought he was. I hope my speaking up (even if it means coming up in a Google search for the rest of my life), and Jess and other victims coming forward, will make him take stock of what he has done, and he will change his life.
I pray for Heaven for him. I don’t hate him. I really do hope he stops posturing as the victim. He is not the victim. We are.

 ***

[end of Donna Provencher’s story.]

The image at top is composed of three messages from Jonathan Ryan.
The first is from the Sick Pilgrim admin group. This was his first response when the admins sent him a letter terminating him from work with Sick Pilgrim. Ryan says “I fully admit what happened to Donna. I’m not proud of it.”
The second image is from the first message he posted in a secret splinter group immediately after he got kicked out of Sick Pilgrim (he apparently did not realize that Donna was a member of this group). Ryan tells his friends: “I vehemently deny anything that was said.”
The third image is a message he sent to Donna. He says: “I hope you’re happy. You got your revenge. Congrats.”

More reading of interest:
On August 28, after Ryan allegedly assaulted Jessica Mesman Griffith and before he began his relationship with Donna Provencher, Jonathan Ryan posted an essay about abusive narcissists on Sick Pilgrim. The post has since been scrubbed, because it upset so many of the readers. Here are two excerpts that have been preserved:
Trump is the Incarnation of all narcs, but we don’t even have to go that far afield. There are men who seek the utter destruction of women, not their not their flourishing. Most of them don’t look like Trump or have large, obnoxious personalities. Indeed, they are charming angels of light, with cut jaws, put together appearances and neat, orderly cars. But, these angels of light seek destruction of the light and the annihilation of the Image of God in others. They do anything they can to negate the talent, the intelligence and the beauty of the women in their lives. They don’t want ‘power,’ they want destruction by being in love with concepts of themselves and in doing so, twist things that ought to be good. Their God-given maleness becomes twisted into a prison-made shiv that plunges into the heart of every woman who comes into striking distance.

[…]

In the years since my divorce, I’ve befriended a number of women who have come out of relationships with men who are narcissists of the most heinous kind. I’m horrified at how these strong, accomplished and put-together women are often sucked of their God-given personalities and talents to the point of considering suicide. Indeed, in a few cases, the women have tried and thankfully failed. But in one particular case I know of (a friend of a friend), the man talked the woman into killing herself and is reaping the narcs ultimate dream: adulation for his bravery and the sympathy of other soon-to-be victims. It is truly diabolical. And it makes me wonder how much I may have done this to women in my own life.

 

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.