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

This week, Fr. Luke Reese of Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis will stand trial for allegedly kidnapping, beating, and sexually assaulting his wife over the course of eighteen hours. Some of the alleged assault occurred in front of the altar of the church.

Why did we break this story, knowing that the couple’s children would read it? And why is it the business of some freelancer in New Hampshire who doesn’t even go to that church? What good can come of publicizing yet another scandal?

When Fr. Reese was arrested, the Holy Rosary pastor, who allegedly saw Mrs. Reese’s battered face, only informed his parishioners that Reese would be going on leave.  The pastor said in the bulletin:

 If you do ask [about what happened], I will politely but firmly tell you to “mind your own business.” Additionally, do not make Father Reese and his family the subject of speculation or gossip. This is a sin. Please do remember to pray for him and his family. I am very grateful for Father Reese’s service to our parish. He will be greatly missed during this leave.

But the Fr. Reese story is everybody’s business. Here’s why:

If a Catholic priest is accused of brutalizing his wife inside a church, it’s news. It just is. If someone who works in child protective services is accused of abusing children, it’s news, and the community has a right to know. If someone who prepares food to the public is accused of serving poison, it’s news, and the community has a right to know. If a priest whose job it is to act in persona Christi is accused of betraying his family in such a scandalous and public fashion, it’s news, and the community has a right to know.

But there’s more to these allegations than a compelling story.

Questions the parishioners of Holy Rosary Parish have a right to ask:

Is this the first time Fr. Reese has been accused of physically abusing his wife while he was parochial vicar at Holy Rosary? If not, who was aware of the allegations regarding his behavior? If there were other allegations, why did no one call the police, and why was Fr. Reese allowed to continue as priest?

The affidavit that describes the alleged brutalization of Mrs. Reese doesn’t describe a brief, intemperate lashing out in a moment of distress, but a many-hours-long ordeal wherein he allegedly drove her to various places, allegedly assaulted her in different ways, and even allegedly forced her bodily into his own church in front of the altar where he says Mass, allegedly continuing to assault her there.

In light of these accusations, we must ask what kind of advice Fr. Reese had been giving in confession? What would he say to a penitent who is beating his wife? What would he say to an abused wife? Was he involved in marriage preparation, and was he tasked with teaching young Catholics about the Church’s approach to married life? According to a statement by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 2016, Reese’s duties included “offer[ing] pastoral counseling to people experiencing family difficulties.” Are those he counseled aware of the allegations made against him?

We ask again: Will Holy Rosary be reconsecrated, since the crimes alleged would clearly constitute desecration? The congregation has a right to know if their church and altar have been desecrated, just as they’d have a right to know what happened if someone stole the tabernacle, broke a window, or embezzled funds from the soup kitchen. It is their church.

Questions about the Church’s legal and financial responsibility:

Fr. Reese is a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is a relatively new and growing institution established in 2012 to enable groups of Anglicans to join the Catholic Church “while preserving elements of their liturgical and spiritual patrimony.”

As more Anglican priests join the Ordinariate, often bringing their wives and children into the Church with them, the laity may reasonably wonder what the Church’s legal and financial responsibility is to these priests and their families.

Will the Ordinariate, which has authority over Fr. Reese, pay his legal fees? When Reese was ordained, the archdiocese of Indiana said that “leaders in the ordinariate and the archdiocese have worked to make sure that he’ll be able to financially support his family through what he’ll earn through his priestly ministry.” If the couple divorces, as the Reeses plan to do, will the Ordinariate or the Archdiocese of Indianapolis be legally responsible for Mrs. Reese’s alimony? If Reese is removed from ministry, will the Church help to support the Reese’s seven children? If he is convicted, is the Church legally responsible for what their priests do, especially if they are done inside the church building?

Questions about how Ordinariate priests are formed and vetted:

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

What kind of formation do these formerly Anglican priests receive before they are ordained in the Ordinariate? Is their formation as extensive and comprehensive as seminarians not in the Ordinariate?

The Catholic Church makes an effort to filter out seminarians who are psychologically or temperamentally unfit for ordination. If an Anglican priest wants to join the Ordinariate, does the Catholic Church do its own vetting process, or does it rely on the vetting the Anglican Church has already done? Are priests sometimes hurried through the process, either as a courtesy to the Anglican Church, or because there is such a dire need for vocations in the Catholic Church?

What precedent will Bishop Lopes set?

After Fr. Reese’s legal case is complete, we will be watching very closely to see how Bishop Lopes and other ecclesial authorities will respond.  Because the Ordinariate is so new, whatever Bishop Lopes does will set a precedent. There is no reason to doubt his integrity as he faces the monumental challenge of developing an entirely new canonical structure; but by definition, he is making it up as he goes along. The Fr. Reese case will put severe pressure on a system that isn’t yet fully formed.

The Anglican Church is already understandably sensitive about the Ordinariate, and there is also some resistance to it from some corners of the Catholic Church. It’s already a difficult balance to proceed “as an instrument of Catholic unity.” No one hoped that the Ordinariate would  debut with an ugly scandal; and yet this is the challenge Bishop Lopes faces.

And so the bishop has a choice. He can, in the name of unity and charity, sweep this story under the rug, so as not to tarnish the reputation of the Ordinariate and further complicate relations between the Anglican and Catholic Churches.

Or, he can take this scandal as an opportunity to show the world that the Catholic Church is done sweeping scandal under the rug.

In a statement in February of 2018, the Ordinariate said:

Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter has pledged the diocese’s full cooperation with the civil authorities conducting the investigation. The Ordinariate is committed to collaborating with authorities to ensure justice is provided for all concerned, and affirms the Catholic Church’s clear teaching that domestic violence is never justified.

It breaks my heart to say so, but in the year 2018, we do not have the luxury of assuming the Catholic Church will do the right thing. Wave upon wave of scandal still continue to break.

If Luke Reese is convicted, we hope and pray that Bishop Lopes will respond with a clear message: No more hiding abuse in the name of avoiding bad press. No more cover for predators in the name of Christ. Never again
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Mugshot of Luke Reese courtesy of Fox59 News