Is Catholic publishing sexist?

If women want to succeed in business, politics, or entertainment, they have to put out. The sexual revolution didn’t create this state of affairs; it only gave plausible deniability to predators who’ve been doing their thing since long before the 60’s.

It’s only now, in 2017, that society is listening to women’s age-old complaints of institutional sexism, and it’s only now that corporations are cracking down on the male predators they employ. Whether this response is a passing mood or a lasting change, it’s too soon to say.

Is the Catholic working world different?

I don’t know if I can bear to dig too deeply into this question. Certainly, countless Catholic men have discovered that a combination of authority and spirituality makes a fine snare for the vulnerable. The priest sex abuse scandal, especially the ongoing Legion of Christ debacle, illustrates that horror all too well. And, just as in the secular world, many Catholics will excuse and forgive predators and discredit their accusers, and will blame women and young people for tempting and seducing those who prey on them.

But what about in the Catholic working world that extends beyond the actual Church? Are women constrained more than men? If women want to succeed, are they expected to behave in a certain way? Or are Catholics better than the secular world?

It’s becoming more rare, in mainstream Catholicism, for women to be shamed and castigated for simply working outside the home, but sexist attitudes are still pervasive in more conservative circles. Even in online groups specifically dedicated to supporting Catholic working moms, the very members of that group will sometimes suggest that, if a working woman is struggling in any way, maybe the Holy Spirit is telling her to quit work (or to trade in her actual career for an MLM scam).

In some professional Catholic circles, if you do your work, meet your deadlines, and don’t cause scandal, your work is respected, whether you’re male or female. But in other circles, you’ll still hear that it’s actually wrong for women to go to college. I reject the tired notion that the Catholic male priesthood is evidence of systemic sexism, but it’s undeniable that Catholics use the male priesthood to justify that sexism.

You’ll hear that it’s just to pay women less than men, because men are supposed to be the breadwinners, and women who work are robbing men of opportunities (and their manhood). You’ll hear the word “feminine” used as a synonym for “shoddy, inferior, and trite.” You’ll hear that women are, as a species, too emotional and flighty to contribute much of intellectual value.

My personal experience is limited. I only know what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in Crisis and from the Catholic authors at The Federalist. But one thing I’ve actually lived is Catholic publishing, and here’s what I learned:

You can say whatever you want in your Catholic lady book, as long as it’s 90% uplifting, joyful, and encouraging, amen.

Did you ever wonder why I initially self-published my book about NFP? It’s because I approached several Catholic publishers (with the NFP book and with previous book pitches in the same vein), and they told me my book was too dark, too negative, too discouraging, too snarky, too problematic. It frankly acknowledged the struggles of living the faith, and that was unacceptable. It might possibly lead people astray. No one claimed it was was heterodox. It simply wasn’t joyful enough.

I thought they were wrong. So I published it myself, as an ebook. It was exceedingly popular, and then Catholic publishers — including more than one that had rejected my proposal for the very same manuscript — approached me, looking for printing rights. It seemed there was a market for my problematic negativity after all. (And yes, I cackled like Yosemite Sam as the offers poured in.)

Now, once upon a time, Catholic readers tolerated something less than joy-joy-joy from women writers. Dorothy Day, Maisie Ward, Caryll Housleander, and even the humorists Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck spring to mind as non-saints who acknowledged that Catholic woman could find Christ in other places besides kitchen sinks, nurseries, and fields of daisies. (Note that Kerr, Day, and Bombeck were published by secular presses, and Ward started her own company to publish her work, Houselander’s, and others’.)

Today, Heather King, Eve Tushnet, Leah Libresco, Emily Stimpson, Jennifer Fulwiler, Amy Wellborn, Sherry Weddell, Leah Perrault, and Elizabeth Scalia come to mind as Catholic female authors who don’t shy away from troubling questions. I’d be interested to know whether they felt constrained to uphold a certain image of Catholic womanhood, or if they felt free to speak their minds.

Whatever their answer, my own experience is undeniable, and it left a mark. Catholic women writers aren’t required to put out. Instead, they’re all too often required to stuff down. Stuff down anything ugly, anything problematic, anything risky, anything that doesn’t end up with an edifying bow on top.

I’m not naive. Catholic publishers bear a responsibility under which secular publishers do not labor. Catholic publishers must, like everyone else, know and please their audience; but there’s more. What if they publish something by an author who’s so gritty, authentic, and honest that, two weeks after the book debuts, it’s revealed that the author has slid past authenticity and straight into debauchery? A secular publisher doesn’t want to get caught out promoting an author who turns out to be a liar or a pervert, and a Catholic publisher doesn’t want to get stuck with six thousand copies of a Catholic book by someone who doesn’t act remotely like a Catholic.  What Catholic publisher in its right mind would take that risk?

Well, they might, if the author is a man.

In our conversation of several weeks ago, Jessica Mesman Griffith told me that several years ago, she pitched a memoir to Loyola Press. The name inspired by her daughter’s pretend game which involved the seasick pilgrims on the Mayflower. Together, they drew stick figure pilgrims with X’s for eyes, suffering through their strange journey.

Griffith told me:

I always wanted to do something with that title. It was so resonant with what my own spiritual life was like. I’d had this private dream to start a publishing house. I was really inspired by Sheed and Ward, loved reading about their philosophy of publishing and their approach.
I wanted something for Catholic writers where you didn’t have orthodoxy policing. I wanted a space where people would be Catholic, or cultural Catholics, or lapsed Catholics, where we could talk about beautiful things that inspired us.
Loyola declined the book, and the project was put on the back burner. Mesman then met Jonathan Ryan when he was acquisitions editor at Ave Maria Press. In December of 2015, she agreed to co-blog with him at Patheos, and they decided the name “Sick Pilgrim” (again drawing on her daughter’s game) would work well.  The blog, and the accompanying online discussion and support group, took off and developed a wildly devoted following.
Griffith says:
That’s when Loyola came back and said to pitch the book again, but with Jonathan as co-author. Even though it was the exact same book and same title. They said the male voice brings something special.
She emphasized that phrase several times. “The male voice brings something special.” Griffith said:
I recoiled. But, you’re a writer, you’re broke, someone offers you money . . . you do it. It was essays I had already written, about my spiritual life, my background, how I came back to the Church as an adult. I saw how [the blog and group] Sick Pilgrim was affecting people in a good way. I felt like it was its own kind of ministry for people who feel excluded. I saw people coming back to the Church, just from having another voice out there saying, “Whatever, I messed up, and I still go [to Mass].” The good outweighed the bad, even though I was reluctant. 
 And so Griffith agreed to co-author the book with Ryan. It was her idea, her essays, and her title, drawn from her life. But, Griffith says, Loyola didn’t want to publish it unless there was a man involved.
Then, in November of 2017, less than a month after the book debuted, it was spiked . . .  because that same man was involved.
This is just one example. And my own experience is just another example. And what I read in comment boxes is just what I read in comment boxes — those are all just more examples.

After a while, you have to wonder how many isolated examples there can be, before they form a pattern spelling out “Catholic publishing is still sexist.”

So you tell me. Is there a problem in Catholic publishing, or in the Catholic working world at large? Are women allowed to admit to being human beings with complex, untidy experiences? Are women expected to conform to ideals of womanhood, while men are given more latitude? If there’s a problem, is it getting better?  What do you think?

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EDIT and clarification, 12/7/17: After some justifiable criticism, I have taken out a few sentences that referenced an essay by Jody Bottum. The essay wasn’t actually a good example of what I’m talking about, and bringing it up distracted from the point of this essay. I don’t blame Bottum for being annoyed to be dragged into it.

I did frame my essay as a question, and I wish I had made it more clear it was a sincere one, not a rhetorical one. Several people have answered by suggesting that the more prevalent problem is Catholic publishers being unwilling to publish anything that’s too risky (by way of being honest, not-altogether-tidy, etc.), whether it’s written by a man or a woman.

It happens that women are probably more likely than men to accommodate their editors by toning things down, trimming away the darker stuff, and adding a tidy bow. The result is that women authors get published plenty, but what they publish tends to be more facile and shallow than what men publish. But there can be reasonable argument as to whether that’s due to sexism or more complicated issues.

Image: Detail from photo by Andrew Toskin via Flickr (Creative 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.

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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.
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“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.”
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“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.
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Griffith says she believes his behavior has been escalating, “becoming sloppier and more erratic.”
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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.