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DES MOINES, Iowa (ChurchMilitant.com) - The woman at the heart of an allegation of impropriety is being victimized by the bishop who won't hear her testimony to clear a deacon's good name.
"I never felt so welcome in a church," Jessica Crouse said of St. Augustin Church in Des Moines, Iowa. Crouse said Deacon Mike Manno and his wife, Luanne, helped to get her back to practicing her Catholic faith after several mistakes and a divorce that left her alienated from her family.
Crouse told Church Militant that the women of the parish were "amazing" and she started to get really involved in the parish, saying she "felt like I was part of something." Deacon Manno and Luanne were her "parish parents" and their spiritual guidance helped Crouse find her spiritual home.
All of that changed in April 2017, when Bp. Richard Pates of the diocese of Des Moines, Iowa told all priests, deacons and Pastoral Center staff that they have "received two concerns relative to Deacon Mike Manno."
One of those allegations was that he was having a sexual relationship with "little Jessie," as she was known in the parish. Crouse said she would have learned of the allegations when the parish secretary asked her about them, if Deacon Manno hadn't warned her first.
Crouse said she "couldn't breathe" and felt sick to her stomach when she learned that was one of the concerns. She again spoke of the Mannos as her "parish parents" and said, "He took something so sweet and innocent and turned it into something disgusting."
The diocese never reached out to her, never sent her a letter, offered her counseling or any support.
"Nothing. I've had to walk through this alone," she said, adding the Mannos' support has been unwavering.
Church Militant learned that it is diocesan policy to utilize a third-party to reach out to the parties involved in allegations of abuse or impropriety.
"It made me feel like I was abused all over again," Crouse said. In her youth, she was abused by an older man and she had difficulties trusting men. Saint Augustin was the one place she began to open up and be herself, and now there was a cloud of suspicion over her.
Shortly after the accusations were made public, one woman she was friends with said to her, "You're always going to be marked now." Crouse was deeply hurt and stopped going to Mass at St. Augustin after that.
"It's made me question my faith," she said, explaining being Catholic has always been a part of her.
Crouse said she had to initiate contact with the diocese and tried several times to meet with Bp. Pates. Shortly before she was to arrive at one meeting, she was called by his secretary and told the meeting was canceled.
"He's making so many things up," Crouse said of Bp. Pates. The shame and guilt she felt over Deacon Manno's suspension made her feel like "he opened that wound again," she explained. "I can't help but think Deacon Mike wouldn't be suffering like this if he hadn't met me."
Crouse met Deacon Manno several years ago when she was in the Bridges of Iowa program. Every Sunday, Deacon Manno volunteered to drive the young adults in the substance abuse treatment center to Mass. Crouse said she got to know Deacon Manno on those long drives when he would talk to them about the Catholic faith and help them with their problems.
She also credits Deacon Manno with helping her regain custody rights of her children after her ex-husband attempted to terminate her custody rights and alienate her children from her. Through his contacts as a lawyer, he was able to find legal counsel for Crouse.
Crouse said the allegation surfaced a couple of months after she won her custody battle, when the Mannos asked her to stay with them.
She was living alone in Sioux City, working two full-time jobs to support herself and be able to provide for her children. On one of those drives to work, she rear-ended a car stopped on the freeway while she was driving 55 miles per hour. She didn't break any bones, but nearly all of her internal organs were badly bruised.
After a week in the hospital, she was discharged and told she couldn't work or even walk up or down stairs for one to two months. During those first few weeks, Crouse was staying with a family she knew but ended up falling down two stairs and returned to the hospital.
Crouse knew when she was discharged, she would have nowhere to live — she couldn't go back to their house, she was alienated from her family and she couldn't afford her apartment after she had lost both her jobs.
Crouse had called Deacon Manno after her first hospitalization, but she said he came to visit her this second time out of divine providence. She said he explained, "Lu and I want you to come stay with us. This is where you're loved."
While Crouse lived with the Mannos, she said, "I saw them pray together." She said the first part of their day was to pray, then get ready for the day. She said the evening Rosary was another daily devotion. "They are the most through and through Catholic couple I have ever met — 100 percent God first," she said.
In addition to the law degree he earned in his thirties, Deacon Manno also has a degree in journalism and is an author of two books, Murder Most Holy and The End of the Line. He used all of his knowledge to co-host a weekly hour-long radio program about religious liberty issues, Faith on Trial, with Pam Briddell.
A natural spin-off of that radio show for Deacon Manno was to write occasional articles for The Wanderer, a weekly Catholic newspaper, to educate the faithful on religious liberty issues. After a few months, Deacon Manno was offered a regular column to write on religious liberty issues.
Bishop Pates wrote to Deacon Manno noting that he wasn't allowed to write for the publication without his express permission. Being a lawyer and very familiar with canon law, Deacon Manno wrote back saying that he didn't need to because his writing wasn't pertaining to faith and morals, it was about legal matters, religious liberty and murder mysteries.
The two went back and forth a number of times, but they had never settled on a resolution.
It was around this time that the "two concerns" surfaced about Deacon Manno. Crouse said the diocese dragged their feet on many issues and it took months for them to find out who made the allegation. It was another troubled woman that Deacon Manno had known for decades. She was a known alcoholic and spent time in and out of jail. The diocese hadn't acted on her report for over a year.
Manno has known and worked with Bp. Pates for many years — even co-hosting the bishop's radio program, In the Heartland, with him. Out of good faith and knowing he had nothing to hide, Deacon Manno took the diocese's suggestion and took a voluntary leave of absence for the duration of the investigation — a move that has left him powerless to appeal for reinstatement to the Vatican after 15 months of inaction from the diocese.
The Wanderer and Bp. Pates have a long and cantankerous history. In the 1980s, before being elevated to a bishop, Pates was the rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He was highly criticized for his permissiveness of the gay culture at the seminary.
In 2004, The Wanderer ran a story about a Minneapolis parish that was rebuked by the Vatican for having gay pride material on its website. Bishops Pates and Frederick Campbell, both auxiliary bishops, were sent to inform the pastor of the Holy See's request.
Despite the Vatican rebuke and the visit from Bps. Pates and Campbell, the parish went on to host a number of gay advocacy programs including a lecture series hosted by the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). The Wanderer reported: "CPCSM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is not directly related to the archdiocese but is involved in promoting homosexuality in Church structures, especially Catholic schools."
Only one month before Deacon Manno was admonished not to write for The Wanderer, his column covered the court battle over the California law that banned all licensed mental health providers from helping gender-confused or same-sex attracted minors in any way other than affirming them in either the transgender or homosexual lifestyle.
Crouse said she had no idea why the bishop is doing this but his actions are "coming from hate."
"It is obviously something to punish Mike," she said.
Church Militant reached out to the diocese of Des Moines for comment but has not heard back by press time.