The Vatican’s Sex-Abuse Tribunal and the Cover-Up that Went Unpunished

This week the Vatican announced the creation of a new tribunal to hold bishops accountable for sex abuse cover-ups. A Vatican spokesman echoed the pleas of many victim advocates when he went beyond the topic of individual predator priests and singled out negligent bishops.

“This is another kind of responsibility and shortcoming, and has to be judged in an appropriate way with appropriate rules,” he said.

While conservatives may have serious qualms with Pope Francis, his handling of sex-abuse cover-ups provides an opportunity to practice humility when seeming ideological allies are implicated. This week’s tribunal announcement should remind us of earlier actions the pope has taken to combat cover-ups. Embarrassingly, not all of us have welcomed his efforts.

Pope Francis listens to a speech during a special audience he held for members of the FOCSIV Italian Catholic volunteers, at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis listens to a speech during a special audience he held for members of the FOCSIV Italian Catholic volunteers, at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Last February, hundreds of priests rustled into the Paul VI Audience Hall for a meeting with Pope Francis. Some of them, dressed in the now-rare black cassocks that were once commonplace before the Second Vatican Council, must have shifted in their seats as the Holy Father delivered his remarks. The word “traditionalist” echoed through the hall several times, and it sounded almost derogatory coming from the progressive pope.

Zenit News reports:

[Pope Francis] referred to the case of some bishops who accepted “traditionalist” seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because “they presented themselves very well, very devout.” They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have “psychological and moral problems.” … It is not a practice, but it “happens often” in these environments, the Pope stressed, and to ordain these types of seminarians is like placing a “mortgage on the Church.”

The Holy Father did not specify which cases he was referring to, but some of the priests in his audience could guess: Recent headlines tell the story of Father Carlos Urrutigoity of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, where Pope Francis recently removed a traditionalist bishop who had accepted and even promoted Urrutigoity, despite the priest’s long and gruesome reputation as a sociopathic homosexual predator.

Carlos Urrutigoity’s “Intimate Acquaintances”

Shortly before landing in Paraguay, Urrutigoity escaped prosecution for molesting a minor in the U.S. (thanks to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations). “John Doe,” the minor who came forward, was a student at St. Gregory’s Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylcvania, where Urrutigoity served as a chaplain.

St. Gregory’s Academy was a tiny, experimental school run by Catholics devoted to the traditional Latin Mass, who barred their students from TV, CD’s, and cell phones in an attempt to shield them from the decadence of modern popular culture.

But according to whistleblowers and sworn testimonies, this “experiment in tradition” went horribly wrong: Heavy underage drinking, bed-sharing, and group nudity were standard occurrences among students, and the Academy’s close, unwholesome atmosphere provided an easy playing field for Urrutigoity’s methods of manipulation and seduction, which included plying students with alcohol and tobacco, and convincing them to sleep in his bed as part of their “spiritual direction.”

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis kneels in prayer in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary inside St. Mary Major Basilica, in Rome, Thursday, March 14, 2014. Pope Francis opened his first morning as pontiff by praying Thursday at Rome's main basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a day after cardinals elected him the first pope from the Americas in a bid to revive a Catholic Church in crisis and give it a preacher with a humble touch. Credit: AP
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis kneels in prayer in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary inside St. Mary Major Basilica, in Rome, Thursday, March 14, 2014.  Credit: AP

After a federal lawsuit forced the priest, his Diocese, and the Academy’s owners to make a joint settlement of over $400,000 to the victim, many felt that the school’s administrators still posed a threat to students. Even the attorney who had represented the plaintiff in the suit remained disturbed: “[The] degraded atmosphere at the school revealed in the depositions would require nothing less than a total house-cleaning to get the school on the right track.”

Short of such an overhaul, he offered a grave warning to parents: “stay away.”

Second-in-command of the Academy at the time of the scandal was Howard Clark. According to a whistleblower who worked briefly with Urrutigoity before helping uncover the scandal, Clark withheld important facts in depositions, aiding in a cover-up of the priest’s predatory behavior. As for the underage drinking that was reportedly routine under Clark’s management, two sworn eyewitness depositions state that students drank with Urrutigoity in Clark’s presence.

St. Gregory’s Academy was closed by its sponsors in 2012. Alarmingly, Howard Clark refounded the school in 2013 as Gregory the Great Academy in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He serves as its president, and hired as faculty and staff several devoted alumni of the original school, “intimate acquaintances” of Urrutigoity’s who aided Clark during the reported cover-up.

The new Academy shows every sign of carrying on under the same style of leadership that reportedly paved the way for Urrutigoity’s abuses. Clark hired as its headmaster an alumnus whom a whistleblower once described as a “devoted cult follower” of Urrutigoity’s. When Urrutigoity was accused in 2002, this future headmaster helped to form “Friends of the Society of St. John,” a small group devoted solely to asserting the innocence of Urrutigoity and other accused members of his Society.

Defenders of Urrutigoity at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

Other veterans of St. Gregory’s Academy, including two members of “Friends,” continued their careers as staff and faculty at the traditionalist Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (TMC) in Merrimack, New Hampshire, having found a friend in the college’s president, William Fahey. As a student at the college when some of them were hired, I grew increasingly disturbed. But I never guessed how intimately tied the college was to Urrutigoity and his enablers.

In the Fall of 2012, during the intervening year between the closing of St. Gregory’s Academy and its reincarnation as Gregory the Great Academy, President William Fahey invited Howard Clark’s team and their students to spend a year in the TMC dorms.

I transferred immediately to another school. When others heard the news, they wrote to Fahey, demanding to know why he would associate with Clark and his followers. In response, Fahey not only defended Urrutigoity, but attacked the credibility of the priest’s victim:

In Urrutigoity’s defense, he cited the fact that the priest had been cleared by Fr. Benedict Groeschel—the same friar who referred to Penn State sex abuser Jerry Sandusky as “this poor guy,” and who suggested that priests are frequently the victims of “seductive” teenage boys. … “Many of the … accusations rest largely on the testimony of one very troubled boy from the Academy,” [Fahey] wrote to a parent. “If you sift through the court documents of the central case … what emerges is that that [sic] this accuser had very serious alcohol and substance abuse problems.” What Fahey failed to mention is that Mr. Doe had developed those problems at a school where, according to depositions, priests got teenage boys drunk while administrators such as Howard Clark looked on.

Concerned for the wellbeing and safety of students, I have sent and re-sent the article cited above to the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization that specializes in recommending the best Catholic schools to parents and prospective students. (TMC is on the Newman Guide list of recommended schools.) As of this writing, I have yet to receive a reply.

Friends in High Places: A Cover-up of a Cover-up?

One wonders why such alarming facts about places like Gregory the Great Academy and TMC continue to go egregiously underreported in Catholic circles. Might the resounding silence have something to do with people like Howard Clark and William Fahey having friends in high places within the Catholic subculture?

Bishop James D. Conley was named “chaplain to his holiness” and given the title Monsignor by Pope John Paul II in 2001. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI made Conley Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Conley is a regular guest on the popular Catholic radio program “Catholic Answers,” where he answers doctrinal and moral questions from live callers. His writings can be found in many traditionalist-friendly publications, from First Things to National Review. He has served as a chaplain and adjunct theology professor at two NewmanGuidecolleges, and is closely associated with Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, a well-respected monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahoma, which offers the traditional Latin Mass, and hosts pilgrim visitors.

A general view shows people waiting for pope's first Angelus prayer at St Peter's square on March 17, 2013 at the Vatican. Pope Francis begins his papacy in earnest today ahead of his formal inauguration mass, with a weekly prayer address used by previous pontiffs to comment on international affairs. The pope's first Angelus prayer, delivered from a window high above St Peter's Square, is a chance for the first Latin American pontiff to begin to sketch out a more global vision for the role of the Roman Catholic Church. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
A general view shows people waiting for pope’s first Angelus prayer at St Peter’s square on March 17, 2013 at the Vatican. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Along with Conley, regular visitors to the Clear Creek Abbey include Howard Clark, his students from St. Gregory’s—and now Gregory the Great—Academy, and TMC President William Fahey, who, incidentally, belongs to the Abbey as a Benedictine oblate. The Abbot, Brother Phillip Anderson, appears occasionally on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), and his lectures have been advertised by the Cardinal Newman Society.

Brother Anderson attended the University of Kansas during the 1970’s, where he converted to Catholicism while attending an experimental Integrated Humanities Program. Howard Clark also attended the University of Kansas in the 1970’s, and also converted to Catholicism while attending the same program.

Bishop Conley was an enthusiastic supporter of St. Gregory’s Academy during and after the scandal, and now sits on the board of directors of Gregory the Great Academy. In a letter, Conley once defended his “close, life-long friend” Howard Clark against the “internet attacks” of whistleblowers, praising both Clark and the man who served as headmaster during the scandal: “I have known Alan Hicks and Howard Clark for many years, beginning in our college days as roommates at the University of Kansas….”

In 2001, Conley, then serving at the Vatican, lent his authority to Howard Clark as a member of an “advisory board” that “investigated” accusations that administrators of St. Gregory’s Academy covered up Urrutigoity’s actions at the school. The board was made up of various highly placed Catholics from around the country, each of whom, without one exception, was an alumnus of the same obscure program at the University of Kansas, and a life-long friend of the accused cover-up artists’. Unsurprisingly, the board concluded that there was no evidence to support the accusations. The chair of the board went so far as to dismiss as “malicious and unmerited” the accusations which the victim brought against the predator priest himself.

[sharequote align=”center”]“We need the traditional mass … so what if some boys get abused?”[/sharequote]

Conley wrote another letter when St. Gregory’s Academy was closed in 2012, which announced his joint effort, along with Howard Clark, to refound the school. Brother Anderson forwarded the letter to devotees of his monastery in Clear Creek, along with a personal message of appeal:

As in the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, we are engaged in a struggle to save Western Christian culture from the barbarians—only this time they have cell phones. I would like to introduce you to a high school that is fighting against this new barbarism….

On Gregory the Great Academy’s website, there is a page entitled “Testimonials,” where accolades are given for the school by a familiar cast of characters: The only three testimonials listed are by Bishop James D. Conley, Dr. William Fahey, and Brother Phillip Anderson.

Back to Pope Francis at the Paul VI Audience Hall in Rome:

The underlying problem is that some bishops are sometimes overwhelmed by “the need for new priests in the diocese.” Therefore, an adequate discernment among candidates is not made, among whom some can hide certain “imbalances” that are then manifested in liturgies. In fact, the Congregation of Bishops – the Pontiff went on to say – had to intervene with three bishops on three of these cases, although they didn’t occur in Italy.

Traditionalists have since speculated that the pope, intent on outflanking them, simply tied Urrutigoity-like perversities to their agenda in an effort to sink traditionalism in guilt-by-association. A serious accusation for traditionalists to make, which if true should discredit Pope Francis’s comments as profoundly cynical. On the other hand, those who seek to defend tradition should not fall into the trap of defending sociopathic monsters who claim to be part of their cause.

In any event, men like Carlos Urrutigoity, and even Howard Clark and William Fahey, have proven themselves more than capable of attracting powerful defenders on their own. In response to Pope Francis’s well-aimed lecture against traditionalists, lovers of tradition would be wise to heed the words of Rev. Richard A. Munkelt, a former member of Urrutigoity’s cult who later blew the whistle on the priest:

No genuine traditionalist would say: “We need the traditional Mass … so what if some boys get abused, as long as it is not my son!” Wherever gross negligence lies in this regard, it must be brought to justice. The Church of Christ, namely, the holy Catholic Church, and the traditional movement will be better for it.

Stephen Herreid is an Associate Editor of the Intercollegiate Review and a contributor to TheBlaze.com. His work is archived at candidworldreport.com, and has been published at Crisis Magazine, Aleteia.org, CatholicVote.org, The Intercollegiate Review Online, and other publications. Reach him at sherreid@candidworldreport.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHerreid

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