One of the less reported on aspects of the many appearances by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in US Bankruptcy Court is the Archdiocese's requests to keep information under seal (meaning filed with the Court but protected from becoming part of the public record). This week, one such request related to information regarding settlements paid to victims of sexual abuse by clergy. The Archdiocese sought 'wide discretion' in withholding information about settlements, including financial details, but that motion was challenged by the Star Tribune, which argued that 'a policy of openness promotes actual fairness and the appearance of fairness, and enables the press to perform its watchdog function'. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kessel seemed to agree, ruling that the Archdiocese's request was 'too vague'. All parties were in agreement that the names and identifying information of victims would remain confidential.

Of course, this is not the first time that the Archdiocese has sought to protect its information from disclosure, especially information that could be perceived as detrimental to the Archdiocese or its leadership. I am sure that you recall the (unsuccessful) motions filed in court last year to try and block the releases of the names of accused clergy and also the deposition of Archbishop Nienstedt. These arguments generally repeated the Archdiocesan mantra that such actions would cause 'irreparable harm to the Archdiocese and its clergy'. For instance, the Archdiocese challenged an earlier court decision requiring it to disclose the names of all clergy accused of sexual abuse of minors after 2004, arguing that it was obligated to 'vigorously defend the rights of clergy members who have been the subject of false, frivolous or malicious claims against them'. We now know that this attempt included files such as that of Father William Stolzman.

It may have been this connection between the Archdiocese's expensive and exhaustive attempts to protect 'its' information (based on arguments that to do otherwise violated 'the Archdiocese's constitutional due process, equal protection and free exercise rights of the United States Constitution'), and Father Stolzman that called to my mind the contrast between the Archdiocese's aggressive legal protection of clergy and settlement records and its laissez faire attitude towards the records of the lay faithful, and in particular the sacramental records of Catholics in this Archdiocese.

To his credit, Father Stolzman was one of the first to sound the alarm regarding this, even prior to my time as Chancellor (2007). If I remember correctly, this came about when a parishioner from his parish in Shakopee, who happened to work at one of the local historical societies, casually mentioned that the Society had a copy of the microfilmed records of the parish. From approximately 1993-1995 the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis had systematically microfilmed the sacramental records of all parishes and institutions, informing reluctant pastors and parish staff that doing so was necessary in order to preserve the records. Necessary, yes, but expensive as well, and so to offset the cost (large for a small budget department like Records Management but not nearly large enough to be listed in any of the recent filings) the Archdiocese sold copies of the microfilms to historical societies, genealogists, ethnic and heritage preservation groups, and basically anyone with the wherewithal to ask and the money to pay for them. 

Learning of this Father Stolzman was, rightly, horrified. While it might make sense, or at least be permissible, to make such records available for those who are long deceased, the records that were sold were complete up until the date of the microfilming (1993, 1994, 1995). In other words, my records were sold, as were yours (providing that you received the sacraments of initiation or marriage/holy orders in this Archdiocese). For many of us, those records are simply a reflection of otherwise public events, and not particularly confidential. However, for those who gave children up for adoption, who had unacknowledged paternity, contracted secret marriages or even more secret divorces, were dispensed from vows, or were involved in a host of other situations, the promise of confidentiality around these records was a sacred obligation, not to mention at times a legal one (e.g. closed adoptions). 

When Father Stolzman sounded the alarm, the wholesale distribution of these records stopped. This made little difference, of course, since the films were already out there. Once I became Chancellor we were a bit more aggressive, seeking legal opinions regarding our options for reclaiming the films and sending threatening letters when all else failed. In most cases we were successful in removing the records from online search engines, but many historical societies and individuals retain the microfilms in their collections, and they are frequently searched. 

The contrast between the perceived obligations of the Archdiocese to protect its own interests as opposed to protecting ours is worth noting in this instance as in so many others. The selling of sacramental records is also another example of serious mismanagement and the adoption of policies and practices contrary to the teachings and expectations of the universal church. Most importantly, however, this situation demonstrates to what extent the Archdiocese is willing to posit legal arguments that flatly contradict its actual practices. The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is quick to accuse the civil courts of forcing it to violate the Code of Canon Law, but is more than willing to set aside those same provisions whenever it suits it to do so. And that, frankly, is hypocrisy.

It is possible, if not likely, that if the bankruptcy mediation fails more records of the lay faithful will be exposed. At issue will likely be the way in which confidential information, and especially financial and demographic information, is shared between what the Archdiocese is so-far categorizing as 'separate' organizations, especially when permission to do so has not been sought or received. In the meantime, I advise you all to look carefully, and question appropriately, the ways in which your parish or institution (including Catholic schools) is protecting or failing to protect your information. 
 
 
Thank you to the many of you who have emailed me or commented publicly about the bulletin column written by Father Patrick Kennedy. As I said in an earlier post, I think Father Kennedy gets some things right. However, where it comes to me and my situation, his errors extend beyond his misspelling of my name.

For instance, I too was surprised to see his statement that I had 'ruined' the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Yet, what I really took issue with was his assertion that what I am engaged in is 'a war of words'. When I think of a war of words, I think of a protracted argument or dispute over a debatable topic- the sort of back and forth politicians might engage in. I have no interest in engaging in a prolonged dispute with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, or our Archbishop. My interests are and always have been to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults in our parishes and schools, and to see that we act with justice towards those who have been harmed. Regrettably, I am not yet convinced that these interests are shared by those working in the Chancery. And so, until I am convinced otherwise, I will continue to point out those areas in which this Archdiocese is still deficient. 

My post on the Stolzman file from earlier this week should be an indication of why I remain concerned, but I wouldn't expect the parishioners of Father Kennedy's parish to need such a reminder. Surely they would recall the Archbishop's statements from October and November of 2013 pledging 'zero tolerance' and ensuring the faithful 'there are no offending priests in active ministry in our archdiocese.' The same parishioners would just as likely recall that less than two months later it was 'discovered' that an offending priest was still in ministry, and at their parish! And, the parish of Saint Olaf did not just play host to one offending priest, Reverend Kenneth LaVan. In my affidavit for the Doe 1 case I referred to a situation where a 'pimp' was contacting the Chancery to try and get payment for services provided by one of his prostitutes to a priest of the Archdiocese. Prior to contacting the Chancery, the 'pimp' had tried to get payment from the priest himself- as he was leaving Saint Olaf after having celebrated daily Mass (Affidavit, pp. 52-53). 

I was also surprised to see Father Kennedy refer to the current Vicar General, Father Charles Lachowitzer, as having the 'presence of mind' to engage plaintiff's attorney Jeff Anderson in 'a different kind of conversation'. I find it highly unlikely that Father Lachowitzer had any mind in the matter whatsoever- I believe it was almost entirely the brain-child of Briggs and Morgan attorney Charlie Rogers, as was even alluded to at the time. Father Lachowitzer's sympathies flow in a different direction, as he made very clear just a few months prior to his appointment as Vicar General when the Pioneer Press ran a story regarding Father Daniel Conlin, who was exercising ministry at Father Lachowitzer's parish (and at Saint Olaf!). I am posting Father Lachowitzer's letter to parishioners regarding the Conlin story below. I am sorry to disappoint Father Kennedy, but I am afraid the only 'different' type of conversation engaged in by the Archdiocese (or its direct agents) in October of 2014 was in making very real threats to file for bankruptcy (we now know they had engaged a bankruptcy attorney several months earlier). 

Which brings me to the second point I found interesting about Father Kennedy's column- the idea of an olive branch being extended, and that a reconciliation of sorts would occur between the Archdiocese and myself. Father Kennedy does not specify on what basis or through what means such a reconciliation would occur, he merely believes that without it the Archdiocese will be stymied in its attempt to emerge from bankruptcy. In this he is probably right. 

Despite Father Kennedy's comparison, there is no parallel between the Archdiocese's situation with Jeff Anderson and its situation with myself. First, Jeff Anderson is not Catholic, and I am. More importantly, Jeff Anderson's role is now and always has been to represent the best interests of his clients. It was not Jeff Anderson who agreed to the 'historic settlement', it was his client, known to us only as Doe 1. And, in speaking softly or in acting in a conciliatory manner towards the Archdiocese, it is an additional one-hundred-and-twenty-plus people Jeff Anderson is representing (including the boys hurt by Father Curtis Wehmeyer). It is entirely possible- if not probable- that this conciliatory posture is being required of him in order to ensure that the bankruptcy process does not drag on as it has in Milwaukee.  I have no doubt that, if so, the requirements of the job are a bitter pill for him to swallow, but I am not convinced that they are the result of any thaw in relations. I think it is simply a matter of him believing the well-being of his clients requires it. As Father Kennedy writes, Jeff Anderson 'has his job to do'. Other attorneys have chosen another path.

I, on the other hand, am not bound by any such terms (or any confidentiality agreements). I have no clients in this matter, but neither do I consider myself to be acting for me alone. I am a Catholic of this Archdiocese, with as much- and perhaps more- of an investment in its people, its past, and its future as anyone else. The Archdiocese frequently tries to put limits on my knowledge and experience, saying, for instance, that the alleged abuse would have occurred “decades before [my] service to the archdiocese', but that always strikes me as an amazingly limited understanding of my relationship to the Church. It also ignores some important facts, such as that I was baptized at the same parish where James Porter would marry, that I attended a nursery school run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd while Father Robert Kapoun was their chaplain, and that I completed my sacraments of initiation at Saint Odilia, one of the parishes where Father Gerald Funcheon (among others) was assigned. Those priests never hurt me (no priest ever has), but they did hurt people to whom I will always be spiritually tied. 

I stand and will continue to stand with those people, who are the real ones to whom an olive branch should be extended. As long as they need me to point out the lies and subterfuge in the Archdiocese's actions and inactions, I will do so, just as I will continue to alert parents and other concerned parishioners when and where there are dangers. For instance, Catholic Schools Week is probably a good time to point out that two of the five priests I identified in my affidavit as being my top level concerns (and whose names have not been made public) are presently assigned to parishes with schools (Affidavit, p. 66). 

In positing a reconciliation- in suggesting a need to 'make peace with our enemies'- Father Kennedy seems to be missing the point of all my efforts. I left my position in the Archdiocese because I could no longer tolerate the activities of my coworkers and superiors. More than a year and a half later, my objections to conspiring with them are stronger than ever. Like Father Kennedy, I too want to cultivate peace in our community. But, unlike him, I believe that Pope Paul VI provided the model for how this can be done: 'If you want peace, work for justice'. 
 
 
For all of you who were not invited to attend the bankruptcy meetings that are being held this week in three locations around the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, I am attaching the handouts below. From the looks of it, you didn't miss much.
 
 
Throughout the day today several people have contacted me regarding the most recent bulletin of Saint Olaf's parish in Minneapolis, and in particular the pastor's column. If you have not read it, you can access the bulletin by clicking here.

Father Patrick Kennedy, the author, has a unique perspective on the situation in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. First, his parish shares a skyway with the law firm of Greene Espel, which was the firm originally selected to complete the investigation into the conduct of Archbishop Nienstedt (it appears that the Archdiocese subsequently removed Greene Espel from this assignment). Second, his father, Alois Daniel Kennedy, was a founding partner of the law firm of Meier, Kennedy, & Quinn, which until recently represented the Archdiocese in every lawsuit involving allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Finally, he is recently returned from a sojourn assignment in the Diocese of Tucson, a diocese that went through a very successful Chapter 11 process under the leadership of Bishop Gerald Kicanas.

I agree with much of what Father Kennedy says in his column, especially regarding the need to involve more of the presbyterate and laity in conversations about the future of the Archdiocese. However, I think he is missing some important information vis-à-vis his idea of rapprochement between the Archdiocese and myself. I will write a longer post on this tomorrow, but in the meantime I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for the olive branch he recommends.

 
 
When the file of Father William Stolzman was released on January 14, 2015, it generated very little attention. That is not necessarily surprising, especially considering that it was released along with five other files, the documents didn't appear to contain any 'smoking guns', and the alleged abuse is said to have occurred many years earlier. Accordingly, there was no press conference, no victims' photos, and no emotional statements for TV and other news outlets to record. The media had plenty of reason not to notice.

But for those who are following the saga here in Saint Paul (which I understand the current Vicar General likes to refer to as my 'crusade'), the Stolzman file is a veritable gold mine. In it, you can find hints of everything that led us to where we are today: the palpable decline of a once vibrant Archdiocese, the erosion of policies and protocols regarding just about every significant aspect of ecclesiastical life, and the institutional adoption of what I came to think of as the cardinal rule: 'Don't go looking under rocks'. 

For those willing to wade through the documents, there are other titillating finds. There are cameos of important personages (including the newly-installed Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich), hard fought battles over liturgical practices (Dixie cups for the Precious Blood?), and an apparently frank explanation of how one homosexual priest attempted to sublimate his desires in order to conform to divine law and to maintain celibate chastity. And then there is page upon page of seeming minutiae. 

So, what is so important about the Stolzman file?

Well, for starters, it provides some of the most detailed information available to outside observers as to how the Archdiocese operates and has (mis)managed its Pension Plan for Priests. For, while in the process of incardination, Father Stolzman, who is a stickler for detail on financial matters, engaged in protracted and often one-sided conversations about how he could ensure that his pension was appropriately funded so that he could retire with full benefits at age 70. The file shows that time and time again Father Stolzman pressured diocesan officials to determine the extent of the contribution for prior service required from the Jesuit order, and that for more than two years diocesan officials generally ignored his efforts. The quarterly statements to his parish, which are included in the file for this time period, also demonstrate how parishes were billed and remitted payments to the priest pension plan and insurance plans through a single payment to the Archdiocese.

Even more interesting in terms of the Archdiocesan management of the pension plan is the memo from Mary Lynn Vasquez dated December 4, 1992, where she poses the question of whether diocesan officials intend to follow the terms of the plan document when establishing pension benefits for Father Stolzman (Stolzman file, p. 90). In my experience (and apparently hers), this was always an open question. The memos between Mary Lynn and Father Austin Ward show her efforts to try and keep the Archdiocese operating within the terms of the plan documents, often with little success. The memos also draw attention to the problem of pension payments for international priests, which are held by the Archdiocese outside of the usual pension accounts. We have not heard anything about the status of those funds in light of the bankruptcy filing, but as a matter of justice we should pay careful attention to how those funds are safeguarded, especially given that, as the Stolzman file notes, there is no real pension plan for these men in their home countries. 

There is nothing in these communications that reflects poorly on Father Stolzman. If anything, he should be commended for his heroic attempts at stewardship and financial planning, especially in the face of the apparent indifference of the Archdiocese. Moreover, you can favorably contrast his attempts to ensure that his retirement is fully funded with the agreements made with notorious offenders like John Bussmann, who was granted 23 years of (unfunded) service in the priests' pension plan prior to his arrest and incarceration in 2003, even though he actually served as a priest for only a fraction of that time. 

The extensive process undertaken in order to transfer Father Stolzman from the Jesuit order to the diocesan priesthood of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis also shines a favorable light on previous processes. The ordered, input-driven analysis of the priest's strengths and weaknesses, and the way he would 'fit' in the Archdiocese, was sorely lacking in the incardination process used beginning in 2007, when the emphasis was placed on making final decisions prior to the transfer of power from Archbishop Flynn to Archbishop Nienstedt, and even more so from 2010 on, when the process was put under the control of Bishop Piche and the decisions that were taken simply defied reason (see my Affidavit, pp. 86-87). A significant number of priests that entered the presbyterate during this latter time period did so without any transfer of pension benefits, meaning that even as it was sliding towards bankruptcy the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis continued to recklessly commit itself to providing for the retirement of additional priests. (Careful readers will also note that a source of tension in the incardination process was the participation of Eugene Burke, who is also mentioned in my affidavit.)

For me, however, what is most significant about this file is how the Archdiocese responded (or failed to respond) to the accusation that Father Stolzman had sexually abused a minor during his time on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Before getting into a discussion of that, I would like everyone to click on this link to the Vatican website, and quickly review the procedural norms established in 2001 for cases involving sexual abuse of a minor. In particular, I would like you to pay attention to this section:

This procedure  was/is restated in the Essential Norms that accompany the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, as well as in the 2010 revisions of the Vatican norms, Article 16:
It should be abundantly clear to anyone reviewing Father Stolzman's file that at no time has the accusation against the priest been reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). It should also be clear based on the file and the Archdiocese's statement of last Friday that no preliminary investigation was undertaken (there are no decrees, no documents, etc). 

So, why was this?

It was not because the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis was not aware of this requirement. The files contains multiple copies of emails between Father McDonough, Andy Eisenzimmer, and myself, in which I reference the document SST (Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela) to which I referred you before, and which had been in effect for seven years by that time. 

Now, we all known that Father McDonough was not going to do anything just because I said he should, but I was not alone in pointing out the need to complete the required procedures. Archbishop Cupich, who served as Chair of the Bishops' Committee on the Protection for Children and Young People, also reminded McDonough of the need to proceed 'in accord with established norms', as did the Jesuits, whose files were flagged as being incomplete without documentation of a canonical investigation and its conclusion.

It also can't be said that the formal investigation and report to the Congregation were not required. The norms require such a report whenever an ordinary [bishop, vicar general, etc] receives a report of a more grave delict [sexual abuse committed by a cleric against a minor], which has at least the semblance of truth. According to the documents in the file, in 2008 the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis was informed by the Bishop of Rapid City that an inmate of a local prison was alleging that he had been sexually abused (fondled) by Father Stolzman when the man was between 9 and 13 years old (1971-1975) and Father Stolzman was assigned to the Rosebud Reservation. The priest-chaplain of the prison, along with the prison-counselors the inmate was seeing, considered the accusation 'as real'. The victim was willing to be identified, prepared a consistent, hand-written description of what occurred, and also met with law enforcement. His stated motivation in coming forward was to ensure that no one else experienced what he had. There is no mention in the file of a request for compensation or any claim for damages. Furthermore, the alleged incident was not time barred since the canonical statute of limitations can always be set aside in cases of child sexual abuse by clergy. 

Given the statements regarding the credibility of the report, and since there is no question that Father Stolzman was at the reservation at that time, and especially given that he does not deny having known the family of the alleged victim, there is little to suggest that the accusation does not have at least the semblance of truth. That is not a determination of guilt or innocence on the part of Father Stolzman, but merely an indication that this ought to be looked at seriously, and that appropriate steps should be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of all involved. Those steps were to have included a review by an 'outside set of eyes' (the CDF) to ensure that there was no unjust bias clouding the Archdiocesan response. 

But, as the file demonstrates, that is not what happened. Instead, the handling of this case shifts away from the statements of those involved and the documentary evidence that is available, and instead is driven by the recollections and opinions of Father McDonough. For instance, we see him report back to the prison-chaplain that 'this is the first such concern we have received about this priest' (Stolzman file, p. 376), when in fact there was a 1997 report that Father Stolzman had child pornography in his rectory that led to an evaluation at the Anodos Center in Philadelphia. In 1997, without speaking to the individual that made the report or anyone else who had directly seen the materials, Father McDonough concluded that the incident did not involve child pornography, which may be the reason for his otherwise false statement to the prison-chaplain (Father Stolzman did admit to using pornography, but expressed more interest in 'blue material', pp. 285-286). There is also no reference in any of McDonough's reports to the fact that Father Stolzman's departure from Indian ministry was precipitated by an emotional breakdown that resulted in his receiving seven months of inpatient therapy at the Southdown Institute.

Again, none of this is proof that Father Stolzman sexually abused a minor, nor am I suggesting that it is. But, it is certainly information that should be taken into account when assessing the allegation, as well as when determining the appropriate Archdiocesan response. 

And what is that response? Well, according to the information in the file there was no response from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for more than six months after the victim made his initial report. Clearly the Diocese of Rapid City, under the direction of Archbishop Cupich, responded promptly to the receipt of the allegations. According to the documents in the file, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis was first informed of the accusation on March 18, 2008. By March 27, the priest-chaplain was offering to facilitate admittance to the prison for the purpose of interviewing the alleged victim, and he and the victim had developed and executed a plan to complete a written statement as to what is alleged to have occurred. By March 28, the priest-chaplain (who appears to be getting rather frustrated with the Archdiocese) stresses that the victim would like some written communication from the Archdiocese in response to his report.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People requires dioceses to 'reach out to victims/survivors and their families and demonstrate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being'. Surely then, at the very least, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis had an obligation to respond to this request of the alleged victim, and at the very least should have written to him to acknowledge receipt of his allegation and to inform him of the initiation of a formal investigation and what he could expect of such a process. There should also have been a response from the Archdiocesan Victims Assistance Coordinator, who should have written to the victim and informed him of what services were available to facilitate his healing and recovery. Yet, there is not a single document in the Stolzman file to indicate that the Archdiocese made any attempt to respond to the victim's request for communication for more than six months after he made his report

Sadly, this was not unusual. In my affidavit for the Doe 1 case I wrote of how, in my experience, any 'investigation' undertaken by the Archdiocese was always done in such a way as to ensure that little, if any, useful information was collected, and would proceed so slowly that victims would become frustrated, discouraged and would eventually abandon their efforts. This situation is a perfect example of this. 

No attempt was made to respond to the victim, but Father McDonough did meet with Father Stolzman in April of 2008. Unsurprisingly, McDonough concluded that Father Stolzman's 'denial has a good deal of credibility', and he based that conclusion on his own particular brand of logic, writing that because of Father Stolzman's high level of involvement with minors on the reservation, if he had sexually abused any of them 'we should have heard at least a few other complaints in the intervening 32 years' (Stolzman file, pp.390-391). This statement is outrageous even if one is not aware that McDonough himself, at the time that he wrote this, knew that it was false (I will say more about this in a bit).

Yet, based on little more than those astute observations, the file shows that nothing more was done in this matter from April of 2008 until September of 2008. Nothing. Despite all of the policies in place, all the procedures that had been mandated, and even despite the request of the alleged victim and those in the Diocese of Rapid City who were assisting him, nothing was done. No restrictions were placed on Father Stolzman (nor is there any suggestion that the 'circle of disclosure' was put  in place), he was not asked to seek an evaluation, the Archdiocesan Clergy Review Board was not informed that an allegation had been received, no preliminary investigation was undertaken, and, above all, no attempt was made to contact the victim.

According to the file, it was not until September of 2008 (when the Jesuits called the Archdiocese for information because they had involved their review board), that anything further was done. By that time the victim had left prison, and the Archdiocese (through its own fault) had no way of contacting him. The Chancellor for Civil Affairs, Andy Eisenzimmer, was able to learn that neither the local authorities nor the FBI were investigating the matter because it had been determined that the alleged incidents were 'beyond any criminal statute of limitation', and his email of September 17, 2008, also contains the first mention of anyone in the Archdiocese suggesting that an attempt should be made to contact the alleged victim for additional information (Stolzman file, p. 398). As one would expect of the Archdiocese, this contact was not going to come from the Victims Assistance Coordinator or anyone who would appear non-threatening. Instead, the contact would come from Richard Setter, the Archdiocese's go-to investigator who Andy would admit in his deposition never concluded a single investigation into alleged sexual abuse of a minor with a finding of guilt on the part of a member of the clergy (Eisenzimmer, p. 46). 

The file does not indicate what methods were used by Mr. Setter to contact the victim, with the exception of vague references to a letter that was sent. In fact, it would appear that no other information was received between September of 2008 and June 30, 2009, when Father McDonough concluded, in a memo of that date, that there was 'insufficient evidence to consider the complaint against Father Stolzman to be credible' (Stolzman file, p. 419). McDonough's rationale, as explained in the same memo, was as follows:
  • The complainant was in prison at the time and 'has not followed up with the Archdiocese either while in prison of thereafter, in spite of various direct and indirect appeals from us that he do so'.
  • The complainant has attorneys
  • The FBI did not open an investigation
  • The priest-chaplain thought the complainant was acting in good-faith but 'competent civil investigators decided not to open the case'. 

Not one of these statements is supported by the documentation in the file. The complainant gave both verbal and written statements regarding his accusations and asked for contact with the Archdiocese while in prison, and made himself available to investigators during that time. The lack of follow-up was entirely on the part of the Archdiocese. There is no indication in the file that the complainant hired an attorney to pursue matters with the Archdiocese, although one would expect someone in prison to have an attorney for matters relating to his prosecution. Furthermore, the reason the FBI did not open an investigation didn't have anything to do with the merits of the case, but only with the fact that there was no possibility of filing charges because of the statute of limitations. Finally, no mention is made in this memo of any information that could be seen as prejudicial to Father Stolzman, including the earlier allegation.

Still, McDonough submitted his opinion 'with great confidence', and after a cursory review by the Clergy Review Board the matter was closed on April 20, 2010. Father Stolzman continued to exercise ministry in the Archdiocese as he had been, meaning as a retired priest substituting at parishes throughout the Archdiocese. Once again, the system of checks and balances put into place by the Catholic Church was bypassed, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not informed or given the opportunity to provide instruction.

Obviously, none of what I have stated proves one way or the other whether the victim was abused and/or whether that abuse was perpetrated by Father Stolzman. But it does show that the Archdiocese knowingly failed to comply with the established protocols and procedures of the universal Catholic Church, and that in doing so it harmed both the victim and the alleged perpetrator (for, if innocent, Father Stolzman would have greatly benefited from a thorough investigation of the allegations, not in the least because it would have prevented his file from being made public at this late date).

An outsider reviewing this file would likely conclude that the Archdiocese acted in a way that was incompetent, and likely negligent, in not responding to the allegation in a timely and appropriate manner. But, that would only be half the story. For, as an insider, I can tell you that there is a whole aspect to this story that is missing from the documents that have been made public. And, unlike with previous disclosures, what is missing is not a 'privileged' document or an email or even a psychological report. What is missing is the institutional knowledge that made this case, more than any other, one where Archdiocesan leadership was loathe, if not positively opposed, to 'go looking under rocks'. What is missing is the fact that Archdiocesan officials knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that boys had been abused on the Rosebud Indian Reservation during the time period in question. 

We knew it because, as Archbishop Nienstedt was forced to acknowledge in November of 2013, one of the priests serving with the Jesuits at that time had admitted to sexually abusing several young boys and a teenager on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. That priest was Father Clarence Vavra, ordained for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in 1965 and sent to the reservation after several unsuccessful assignments in the Twin Cities and an unspecified 'leave of absence'. 

Vavra admitted to the abuse in 1996, a year before the Jesuits would receive the first report of abuse having taken place on the reservation during the time period in question. Even when it had that knowledge, however, the Archdiocese did not report the matter to law enforcement, nor did they make any effort to trace the victims of the abuse. They also resisted all attempts to make Vavra's abuse public, allowing him to quietly 'retire' as opposed to being 'removed' following the adoption of the Charter and the Essential Norms.

Significantly, until the story broke in November of 2013 no one from the reservation had come forward with any allegations of sexual abuse by Father Vavra, a fact that Father McDonough was very well aware of when he was suggesting that Father Stolzman's denial was credible for the same reason. Father McDonough would have also been aware of the 1997 report to the Jesuits.

The result was to make what occurred on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in the 1970s a very big rock that the Archdiocese didn't want to look under, because even without looking they knew what they would find. If the Archdiocese made any serious attempt to investigate the allegations received in 2008, the result almost certainly would have been to flush out additional allegations, possibly involving Father Stolzman but almost certainly including those known to have been abused by Father Vavra. The Archdiocese had a serious interest in letting sleeping dogs lie, and they were perfectly willing to cast aside their obligations as Christians, not to mention as Archdiocesan officials bound to the provisions of the Charter, to protect that interest.

By this point (January of 2015), I doubt many of you are surprised to hear that the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis did not respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse of minors prior to October of 2013. Then again, what makes the Stolzman file so very interesting is that it shows that the Archdiocese didn't respond appropriately to allegations even after October of 2013. 

For, in response to Minnesota Public Radio's reporting of the abuse by Father Vavra, Archbishop Nienstedt issued a statement saying, 'Serious errors were made by the archdiocese in dealing with him [Vavra]. In the spirit of offering him a path to healing and redemption, too much trust was placed in the hope of remedying Vavra's egregious behaviors. Not enough effort was made to identify and care for his victims.'

Nienstedt went on to promise, 'For the sake of the dignity of each human person and for the sake of our souls, we must fix this problem of sexual misconduct right now. For the sake of the God we love and serve, and for all who are counting on Catholic leadership to live by our beliefs and our word, I will not allow it to stand.'

And yet he did allow it to stand. For, at the very time that the file of Father Stolzman was released by Jeff Anderson and Associates following a determination by the Special Master, Father Stolzman was still in active ministry. In other words, even after the Archdiocese reluctantly submitted the file to the District Court, and even after they lost battle after battle to keep it sealed, and even after a settlement was reached in the Doe 1 case that was to have brought it new child protection protocols, no restrictions were placed upon Father Stolzman.  He was not being monitored, and no further action had been taken to ensure the safety of children, even though the Court-ordered 'outside pair of eyes' (the Special Master) had concluded the allegation had enough credibility that it could be made public. 

It was not until January 23, 2015, a week after the file was released, that the Archdiocese announced that it was reopening the investigation into the allegation and that Father Stolzman would be placed on a 'leave of absence' until its conclusion- seven years after the victim made his report. Perhaps most significantly, this decision was not the result of any new Archdiocesan staff, any new policies, the file review, or even the new commitment to a 'victims first mentality'. The investigation was reopened because of a settlement that was reached in a lawsuit- a lawsuit that the Archdiocese had fought tooth and nail.  

And that is perhaps the greatest thing the Stolzman file demonstrates. The more things change, the more things stay the same. 

 
 
I, perhaps more than anyone, want to believe that the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has changed. I want to believe the statements of leadership that they are putting the needs of victims and the safety of children above self-interest and the protection of clergy, and I want to believe that all of their new employees and new initiatives are having a positive impact on the way the Archdiocese is responding to sexual abuse committed by clergy.

But I don't.

From where I stand, the old adage applies: changes wrought from turbulent times do not impact the reality of the situation except to cement the status quo. Never was this more obvious than with the absolutely unconscionable situation that resulted from the release last week of the file of Father William Stolzman

The release of Father Stolzman's file, amongst six others, had been agreed upon as part of the ongoing negotiations of the Doe 1 settlement.
Along with the release of the six files, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis issued the following statement:

Statement Regarding Unsealing of Priest Files

Date: Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Source: Anne Steffens, Interim Director of CommunicationsFrom Archbishop John Nienstedt, Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

By virtue of an agreement reached between Jeff Anderson and Associates and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the Doe 1 case, the files of seven current or former priests previously assigned to the Archdiocese have been unsealed. One of the files, that of Rev. Michael Keating, was publicly released earlier this week.

Two of the priests are/were of religious orders. Of these seven men whose files were unsealed, one left the priesthood in 1990, one is deceased, one is retired, one is prohibited from ministry, one has restrictions placed on his ministry, and two are on leaves of absence.


What this statement does not say (following a long tradition in the Archdiocese of telling people what they want to hear, rather than what is true), is that one of the seven was- at the time of the announcement- actually a regularly scheduled Sunday presider at a parish in the Archdiocese (even on days when the Children's Choir would be present),
as well as an Archdiocesan-appointed chaplain to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee.

As you might imagine, the fact of a credibly accused priest still being in ministry (despite numerous promises to the contrary) came as a surprise to parishioners and other concerned individuals, and they brought their concerns to the attention of Chancery officials, who initially explained the oversight as being the result of a lack of communication between Chancery staff and the attorneys working with the Special Master.
This morning, however, the Archdiocese posted a new announcement on its website:

Statement Regarding Rev. William Stolzman

Date: Friday, January 23, 2015

Source: Anne Steffens, Interim Director of Communications

From Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

In 2008, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis received an allegation that the Rev. William Stolzman sexually abused a minor in the 1970s. Law enforcement investigated and did not refer the case for criminal charges. After an investigation by the Archdiocese, the Clergy Review Board reviewed the case and recommended that Rev. Stolzman remain in ministry. Rev. Stolzman retired in 2008.

The Archdiocese has reopened its investigation of the alleged 1970s abuse. Rev. Stolzman has been placed on a leave of absence and will not exercise priestly ministry during the current investigation.


The Archdiocese has since removed Father Stolzman's name from the list of those involved in Archdiocesan Correctional Ministries, but I saved a copy of the page yesterday and am adding it below. You can also find Father Stolzman listed as the weekend presider in the bulletins of Saint Michael's in Farmington, beginning with the week of December 7, 2014.


I plan to post a longer piece on the contents of the Stolzman file later today. In the meantime, I want to express what I believe many of you are probably feeling as a result of reading this post:

Enough. Enough of the lies, enough of the subterfuge, enough of the excuses.


Enough.


 
 
The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has sent out the following FAQs to participants in the priest and lay pension plans. For a less optimistic view of the status of the plans in light of the bankruptcy filing, I once again recommend reading the articles in The Economist and 'Minnpost'. 
 
 
A few days ago I wrote about the assertion of Richard D. Anderson, attorney for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in its bankruptcy proceedings, that the Archdiocesan Finance Council 'did not consider matters relating...to a potential Chapter 11 reorganization' prior to October of 2013.  As I said at that time, I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Anderson is being honest in his statement. However, it continues to puzzle me how the Archdiocesan Finance Council could have been left out of the discussions about potential bankruptcy and the need to protect church assets given that these discussions began long before October of 2013. 

These conversations took place in different contexts and with different purposes. Within a short time of my arrival at the Chancery in 2008, for instance, I participated in a series of meetings between Archdiocesan officials and the staff of the Catholic Finance Corporation in which we identified certain problematic decisions and practices that left assets at risk in the event of bankruptcy or even punitive damages awards. Initially these conversations were occurring at times when neither bankruptcy nor litigation was threatened and our concerns were not to shield Archdiocesan resources from legitimate claims and settlements, but instead to fulfill our obligations as stewards of the resources that had been generously given by the faithful of the Archdiocese. 

As was generally the case, while everyone could agree to the logic of taking certain actions, the will to do so was not there, and as such these concerns, and mine in particular, were pushed aside. This situation continued until 2012, when two things occurred that brought these issues to the fore. The first was the discovery of the abuse committed by Father Curtis Wehmeyer, which was immediately identified as having potentially disastrous consequences should it reach litigation. The second was the publication of an article in The Economist about the finances of the American Catholic Church entitled 'Earthly Concerns'

The conclusions presented in that article are grim indeed. In fact, the title of this post ('The picture that emerges is not flattering.') comes from the very text of the article. Drawing its deductions from pre-2012 church bankruptcy proceedings and confidential interviews with church officials, the article concludes that 'the financial mismanagement and questionable business practices [found within the Catholic Church in the United States] would have seen widespread resignations at the top of any other public institution'.

The article, and the concerns that it highlights, resonated deeply with many in Archdiocesan leadership, including priests with important positions in the Archdiocese. It was Father Dan Griffith, I believe, a member of the College of Consultors, who distributed the article to his fellow consultors as well as to the Archbishop and tried to generate conversation about some of the issues which were known to be all too true of the Archdiocese. This movement picked up steam in the winter of 2013 when the Minnesota Child Victims Act was introduced in the state legislature. By March of 2013 the Archdiocese had recognized that bankruptcy was a possible, if not likely, outcome of the bill passing, and began to belatedly take steps to protect its assets. 

I resigned at the end of April of 2013, and so am not aware of what actions were taken between then and last week's filing. I look forward to reviewing the bankruptcy documents as they become available. However, it is unlikely that any actions taken in the interim would mitigate my concerns. The three primary areas of concern, or weakness, that I had identified were the Catholic Community Foundation, the Interparish Loan Fund, and the Priests Pension Plan. 

The Catholic Community Foundation

As a result of the Doe 1 case, church leaders have finally admitted what was generally understood all along- the Catholic Community Foundation was established to provide a means for donors to contribute to the Church's mission in such a way that those donations could not be used to pay legal settlements or other fees arising from sexual abuse by clergy (McDonough, pp. 302--303). That was legally fine, if morally iffy, for funds collected going forward. But at the time that the CCF was established it was funded in part by a transfer of money from the Archdiocesan coffers. Significantly, the establishment and transfer occurred in 1992, after a 1990 court decision that granted nearly $2.7 million in punitive damages to a victim of Thomas Adamson, the first time any Catholic diocese had been penalized in that way, and in the midst of a similar case involving Father Robert Kapoun. 

While the establishment of the Catholic Community Foundation would be contested in subsequent abuse cases against the Archdiocese, the real weakness in the Archdiocese's transfer of assets went largely undiscovered except by those church officials involved in the process. For, while the Archdiocese seemingly complied with the civil law requirements governing the establishment of such a fund, it did not 'pull the trigger', if you will, on the internal and external church processes that were also required. In other words, while to outside observers the foundation seemed to have been established as an independent corporation, from the Church's perspective it (and the donated money) remained the property of the Archdiocese and under its control. This situation continued for more than ten years, despite numerous warnings about the potential exposure this created. And, if what I am hearing is correct, it was only rectified in October of 2014, after the Archdiocese had hired lawyers to guide it through bankruptcy and at a time when an enormous punitive damages award seemed highly likely. 

It will be interesting to see how this is viewed if the bankruptcy gets before a judge. In the past, Church officials have counted on the courts to accept its assertions about the independence of civil corporations as well as its interpretation of canon law. But, those arguments may not be available in this case in light of some of the assertions that are being made in preliminary filings. For instance, in his affidavit in support of the bankruptcy petition the Vicar General, Father Charles Lachowitzer, emphasizes the canonical regulations that govern the redistribution of ecclesiastical property. He states, 'all property acquired, retained, administered, or alienated by a public juridic person [e.g. a diocese] is governed by the provisions of canon law...' (Lachowitzer, p. 3), a risky statement for a diocese that has played fast and loose with the canonical regulations for church property for so long. It may be that the Archdiocese will have to acknowledge that the assets seemingly transferred to the Catholic Community Foundation in the 1990s actually remained Archdiocesan assets until recently, which could mean that million of dollars will suddenly become available to satisfy the demands of its creditors.

The Interparish Loan Fund

Ah, the loan fund. This too made an early appearance in bankruptcy filings, with one parish, the predominantly Vietnamese community of Saint Anne- Saint Joseph Hien, presenting itself as one of the top twenty unsecured creditors of the Archdiocese due to its nearly $500,000 deposit into the fund (regrettably, but predictably, the name of the parish- and the corresponding Saint- is misspelled in the Archdiocese's own filing documents).

In 2007, staff of the Catholic Finance Corporation informed then-coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt that the interparish deposit and loan program had approximately $8 million in its fund, which was primarily used as working capital loans to parishes. However, by 2013, when I raised the issue of needing to protect those parish assets in light of a potential bankruptcy filing, I was informed that was not actually the case. While the deposits and loans appeared on the books, the interparish loan fund was basically in the red. In short, there were no assets to be protected.

The article in The Economist provides some insight into why that might be. Researching the finances of bankrupt Catholic dioceses, the author writes,

'The documents that have been disclosed reveal that some bishops in the bankrupt dioceses presented the diocesan funds of parishes, schools, hospitals and retirement accounts as separate when they were really simply book-keeping entries in the same pooled investment account. The diocese of San Diego, for instance, reported to the bankruptcy court that it had over 500 accounts. But these were merely entries in a “Parish, School Diocese Loan Trust Account”, maintained in a single bank account at Union Bank of California.

Such pooling saves on administrative costs and allows dioceses to use a surplus in one area to cover shortfalls in another, often a legitimate course of action. But it has presented problems when it comes to working out which assets belong to whom in bankruptcy proceedings.'


No wonder the parish of Saint Anne-Saint Joseph Hien, which sold several tracts of commercial property in the 2009-2010, appears as a creditor. The article continues:

'The vast majority of parishes that commingled their funds with those dioceses now in bankruptcy lost all their investments. In some cases they were misled into believing that the money would be kept separate from the main diocesan funds, and thus safe in the event of bankruptcy. The judge in the Wilmington bankruptcy, Christopher Sontchi, said parishes that had suffered this fate had grounds to sue the diocese for breach of fiduciary duty. None has—but that is hardly surprising, given that the bishop and the chancellor of the diocese sit on the five-member board of trustees of each parish.'

The parish does not list an attorney in the filing documents, but hopefully it has one, and one that has not been provided by the Archdiocese. Perhaps then we will see a lawsuit for breach of fiduciary duty, especially given that the trustees of this parish could join with the pastor, who is not a diocesan priest but a member of a religious order, in seeking recourse. 

The Pension Plan for Priests


Yesterday, the Archdiocese invited pastors and parochial administrators to attend meetings 'regarding the archdiocesan corporation’s filing for reorganization' that will take place January 25, 26, and 27. However, the email invitations noted that 'because of the large number of people invited and space limitations at the sites, only those in the roles noted above are invited to attend these meetings.'

This leaves out the parochial vicars or assistant priests, retired or senior priests, chaplains, and priests who serve as educators at the seminary or other schools- some of whom have an equal or greater interest than the invited attendees in ending speculation about the 'potential impact of Reorganization on 403(b), pension, medical or other priest benefits'. [1/22- This morning, pastors received an email telling them to invite their parochial vicars to attend one of the meetings.]

For, again, the Pension Plan for Priests made an early appearance in bankruptcy filings, appearing as an unsecured creditor for an unknown amount arising out of an unfunded pension liability (at the very least). This is not surprising, given that The Economist reported that Richard Vega, past president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, estimated that 75-80% of clergy pension schemes are underfunded. 

But clergy pension funds also do not fall under all of the same federal standards as other retirement plans. Commentators have noted that this looser regulation has allowed dioceses to manipulate church pensions in ways that a corporation or government agency would never be permitted. To understand how this has been done in other dioceses, and why priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis should be concerned about this possibility as well as about other goofiness with the administrator of the plan, I recommend a 2013 article on the topic that appeared in Minnpost.

Attempting to Mediate

Of course, these concerns may never become an issue if the Archdiocese is able to reach an equitable settlement with its creditors in mediation, as it was ordered to attempt to do yesterday. But, the success of mediation will likely hinge on the willingness of the Archdiocese's insurers to pay up, something that they have so far indicated a reluctance to do. 

And, it is important to note that financial arrangements are not the only things on the table in a mediation process. The creditors, which in this case will include victims of sexual abuse by clergy, can also seek non-monetary forms of compensation. What might they seek, you ask? Well, the comments of one claimant, the mother of the boys abused by Father Curtis Wehmeyer, might be worth noting in this regard. In a statement to MPR following the notice of the bankruptcy filing, she expressed frustration that Archbishop Nienstedt and other Chancery officials had not been forced to resign. She is quoted as saying, 'At least for me and my family that would be another step toward healing. Because as far as transparency goes, all's I see when I look at them is lies.'

Obviously, a bankruptcy judge could never impose the resignation of a bishop as a way of settling a claim. But, in mediation anything and everything is on the table. The Holy Father would still have to accept the Archbishop's resignation, as well as that of any auxiliary bishops whose retirement is sought, but there is nothing to prevent the creditors committee from naming this and other resignations as part of the agreement it seeks.

If such a thing does occur, it will be interesting to see if the other creditors, especially those who are not victims of sexual abuse, will stand with the mother of the Wehmeyer victims in seeking this as part of or in advance of approving a settlement agreement.

The House Always Wins

The one person that I felt most sorry for after yesterday's announcement of the appointed mediator (Arthur Boylan) was his son-in-law. An employee of a parish of the Archdiocese, he has a personal interest in a resolution that could touch on the 403(b), pension, medical or other employee benefits that are currently up in the air as a result of the bankruptcy filing. A former seminarian, classmate of Father Peter Laird, and an all-around good guy, he may be in for some uncomfortable conversations (or lack thereof) both at home and at work for the foreseeable future. The only thing that in any way tempers the compassion that I feel for him as a result of this turn of events is the fact that he cheers for the Blackhawks. 

Go Wild.  


[1/22- In response to one of the comments, please find posted below the email giving the dates and locations of the meetings.]
 
 
This was posted on the website of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis earlier today:

Rev. Paul Moudry has resigned as pastor of the Church of Saint Margaret Mary in Golden Valley. Rev. Moudry has been on a voluntary leave of absence from priestly ministry since November 2013. Over the past year, Rev. Moudry has cooperated with the Archdiocese and the Ministerial Standards Board in a comprehensive review of prior misconduct (with adults in non-illegal activities) from many years ago.

Archbishop John Nienstedt accepted Rev. Moudry’s offer to resign as pastor of Saint Margaret Mary.  Rev. Moudry will continue his voluntary leave of absence and has participated in making appropriate disclosure to his parishioners and trustees.



No additional information has been provided. When Father Moudry's leave was announced in November of 2013 it was stated that he would not engage in any public ministry while on leave. It is unclear whether this agreement remains in place, and it is also unclear how the Archdiocese will provide for his ongoing support.


The other priest who took voluntary leave at the same time as Father Moudry, Father David Barrett, was returned to ministry in 2014 after a very strange and limited disclosure to his parish. I am not sure to which parishioners and trustees Father Moudry has made disclosures given that the announcement states he has resigned his pastorate.
 
 
Today, the United States Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari in the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Baton Rouge v. Mayeux. This means that our nation's highest court will not consider the issue of whether the courts can determine what constitutes a 'confession per se' or whether such courts must 'respect the church's own view that such communications are confessional and absolutely protected from disclosure by the priest on penalty of automatic excommunication'. For the full summary of the issue, please see the SCOTUSblog.

This question is only one aspect of an otherwise highly contentious case which touches on the very nature of the sacramental seal (canon 983, 1). Canon law holds that the seal of confession is inviolable, and imposes 'severe' punishment upon a priest who directly or indirectly reveals the privileged communication. As such, the Diocese of Baton Rouge is arguing that a priest cannot be compelled to testify about the contents of a confession.

In general, I think Catholics support this understanding of the nature of the sacramental seal. However, what makes this case interesting is that the privilege is being claimed, by the priest and the diocese, not for the benefit of the penitent but for the benefit of said priest and diocese, who are being sued for negligence. For, it is alleged that a minor penitent, Rebecca Mayeux, confessed to her priest, Father George Bayhi, that a fellow parishioner, an adult, had molested her. According to nola.com, the molestation was alleged to have occurred in 2008, when both Rebecca and her alleged abuser were members of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Clinton. The Mayeux family alleges that on three separate dates in July 2008, Rebecca told Father Bayhi that the adult parishioner had inappropriately touched her, kissed her and told her "he wanted to make love to her." Bayhi did not report the abuse to civil authorities or take other measures to prevent further abuse from occurring because, he argues, the communications occurred during the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

Generally, priests are exempt from mandatory reporting laws when the information is received in the act of sacramental confession. What makes this case interesting is that the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in May that priests should be subject to mandatory reporting laws if the person who makes the confession waives confidentiality. In other word, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that confidentially in such contexts is intended to protect the person who made the confessions, not the person who receives them. 

Arguments similar to those of the Diocese of Baton Rouge have also been advanced by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis regarding the contents of the communications made to Father John Paul Erickson about the abuse committed by Father Curtis Wehmeyer. A lawsuit has also been filed in that matter, but with the Archdiocese petitioning for bankruptcy protection that case will not go to trial.

It is not my intention to use this post to debate the inviolability of the sacramental seal, or to take a position on the alleged abuse or negligence. However, I do want to take the opportunity to present two points of canonical minutia about the sacrament of reconciliation that have troubled me for some time, and which I think should inform our thinking on these issues.

First, it is a little known fact that from the time of the promulgation of the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law until its abrogation by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, penitents were at times required to divulge certain facts of their confession. Referring to the crime of solicitation (soliciting sexual activity with a penitent in the context of confession), the 1917 Code imposed an automatic excommunication (the same penalty that is threatened for the priest in the Baton Rouge case) on a penitent who failed to divulge the fact of the solicitation and the name of the priest-confessor within one month of the solicitation occurring. Furthermore, the Pio-Benedictine Code mandated that a person who incurred an excommunication for failing to report sacramental solicitation was not be absolved until the required report had been made (1917, canon 2368, 2). 

In the long list of unworkable canonical norms and laws, this one has always seemed to take the cake. First, it requires someone who has been solicited to report that fact to a religious authority, an extremely unlikely event. Second, it presumes that penitents were generally informed of this requirement (even more unlikely). However, in acknowledgment of the inviolability of the seal, priests accused of solicitation were and are unable to respond fully to accusations if in doing so they would reveal or cause to be revealed the nature of the sin that had brought the victim to the confessional. This would seemingly support the claims being made by the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

The second bit of minutia has to do with the actual penalty applied in cases involving the direct or indirect violation of the seal, and the frequency with which the seal is violated. Obviously this can take various forms with different levels of gravity both for the penitent and priest. For instance, it is not unheard of for a priest to forget to shut off his microphone prior to hearing confessions after Mass, or for civil authorities to attempt to record confessions that occur in a prison setting (a violation of secrecy rather than the seal, which binds only priests). 

Most priests, in my experience, will allow themselves some latitude in cases where a penitent has asked them to disclose the information, especially if the disclosure is to aid in something beneficial for the penitent, such as the process for a declaration of nullity of marriage or progress in secular counseling. Although priests might disagree among themselves about the appropriateness of this, I have never heard of anyone being reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a result (since the promulgation of the motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, both direct and indirect violations of the sacramental seal, as well as the recording of confessions, are crimes reserved to the CDF). But, I have known priests to be reported to the CDF for violations of the seal without the penitent's consent, and in cases where the divulged information caused harm to the penitent. In my experience, the Congregation's response to such matters is generally underwhelming. When a priest of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis committed such an offence, the ordinary was instructed to warn and rebuke the priest (canon 1339), which didn't really seem to bother the priest much at all.

These facts offer less support for the position advocated by the Diocese of Baton Rouge. For, as much as I like to hold to our romantic Catholic ideals of priests being tortured and burned at the stake rather than violating the sacramental seal, my practical experience leads me to believe that many priests faced with the dilemma of Father Bayhi would weigh the pros and cons of such a disclosure and then pick up the phone and call the necessary child protection agency, or speak with the parents. I think those same priests would consider any future ecclesiastical rebuke to be a fair price to pay for keeping one member of their flock safe from sexual abuse, and another safe from the crime of committing it. Then again, I don't think it has ever been a question of either/or. Almost every priest has either been instructed on ways to bring internal forum communications into the external forum, or knows someone he could ask if he needed to figure out how to do so.  

So maybe this case isn't really about the sacramental seal at all.  

 

    Author

    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

    To receive notice when a new post is added, follow @jmhaselberger.

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