As is clear if you follow the news, all too often young priests have become the targets of sexual harassment by older clergymen with authority over them. These young priests often find themselves fighting off the unwanted sexual advances of their superiors. Unfortunately their attempts to have their allegations heard within the Church are often ignored by the offices charged with investigating such allegations.
Fr. Matthew Cowan, a 33 year old priest for the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan was assigned to St. Francis Church in the summer of 2015. He was to be tutored by Fr. Dennis Stilwell, vicar general for the Diocese. This means that Fr. Stilwell is the second most powerful official in the Chancery. Fr. Cowan became subject to sexual advances by Fr Stilwell. Even though Fr. Cowan warned Fr. Stilwell, “there will be problems if this happens again,” the sexual harassment continued.
After the news of the homosexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in June, 2018, followed by the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report in August, Fr. Cowan realized that his harassment was neither an isolated incident nor an outlier in the Catholic Church. He therefore filed a sexual misconduct allegation with the Diocese.
Diocesan policy stipulates that after a complaint is filed, the accused priest is to be suspended from ministry immediately until the investigation is completed. Father Stilwell was never suspended. Instead, in January of this year, Bishop Steven Raica, who never spoke to Fr. Cowan about his allegations, suspended the young priest from his position as pastor.
Rather than respecting Fr. Cowan as a victim with a valid complaint, the bishop claimed that Fr. Cowan’s whistleblowing went “against unity of the presbyterate of the diocese, “ and warned Fr. Cowan, “there may be consequences.” Such behavior is classic retaliation that unfortunately has been repeated throughout the country. Regrettably many bishops are still not serious about cleaning up sexual activity within their dioceses and especially if chancery officials are possibly involved.
Fr. Cowan is part of a new wave transforming the Catholic landscape by reporting grave injustices that are largely being ignored by the Catholic leadership. Fr. Cowan has spoken out publically for himself and has a great deal of support among clergy as well as from local groups of lay Catholics.
As a result of going public with his allegations, Fr. Cowan is currently receiving only half of his normal salary and has been forced out of any Diocesan housing. He is currently at home with his parents and has hired a Canon lawyer.
I (Father Donald Kloster) seek to help such priests and am thus in the process of forming a pious association of concerned Catholics (priests and laymen) under the intercession of St. John of Matha in order to financially and spiritually assist priests like Fr. Cowan. A Christian saint of the 12th century, St. John of Matha founded the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and devoted himself to the task of ransoming Christian captives from the Moors. In the spirit of St. John of Matha’s rescue of captive Christians, our association seeks to help priests whose actions are consistent with Church principles while fighting unjust decisions of their bishops.
We are looking to raise $15,000 to cover the legal fees and expenses of Fr. Cowan.
Oremus pro invicem (Let us pray for one another),
Father Donald Kloster, St. Mary’s Church, Norwalk, CT.