Two months after Bp. Steven Raica was forced to remove pederast priest James Holtz from long-time ministry in a parish run by Raica's vicar general, the bishop of Gaylord, Michigan bitterly lashed out at Church Militant and a two-month-old local watchdog group, referring to them as agents of Satan.
During what appears to be a carefully written 17-minute homily delivered April 4 at St. Anne Church in Cadillac, Raica likened himself to Jesus and accused those who have questioned his administrative decisions as "modern-day Pharisees" whose goal is to prevent "hearts and souls from hearing the saving words of the master."
Bishop Raica has come under blistering media scrutiny since early January, when he punished whistleblower priest, 33-year-old Fr. Matthew Cowan, for taking his complaint public about several instances of sex abuse and harassment that the bishop had been tolerating for years. One local TV station aired an investigative report titled "Betrayal of Trust" about Raica's toleration of the known pederast as a teacher of altar boys.
The part of Fr. Cowan’s complaint is two years of unwanted, sexually-tinged touching when he was associated pastor St. Francis Church in Pastor, by his immediate supervisor, Fr. Dennis Stilwell, 71, who is also vicar general of the diocese.
Fr. Cowan was removed from active ministry on Jan. 7 for harming the "unity of the presyberate," as Bp Raica said in a secret meeting Jan 15. Father Cowan's ordeal has been widely publicized by a watchdog group, Gaylord Diocesan Watch, which formed in late January by four laymen who know Fr. Cowan and are raising money for his legal defense in the Vatican Rota.
GDW hosted a press conference in early January for local media to publicize the situation and has since issued several press releases detailing other instances in which Raica has either violated Church policies regarding the handling of sex offenders or ignored complaints of possible sex abuse from priests.
Bishop Raica has refused to meet with anyone associated with GDW and his director of communications has likewise refused to answer questions from Church Militant.
On March 29, the diocese announced on its website that its review board has decided Cowan's allegations against Stilwell have been investigated and none of them rise to the level of concern.
A document titled "Statement Regarding Recent Investigations" states: "The Diocesan Review Board has concluded that the allegations received against Fr. Dennis Stilwell are not credible or substantiated for sexual misconduct, sexual harassment or grooming. Bishop Steven Raica has accepted their conclusion and the matter is closed."
The statement also indicated that, unbeknownst to the public, the review board had also investigated allegations about Bp. Robert Lynch, who visits the Petoskey area frequently, and also cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Bill De Lyon, one of the founders of Gaylord Diocesan Watch, said Raica's problems did not end with his review board's decisions.
"Even though Bishop Raica refuses to talk to the laity about concerns of his lack of leadership, the laity can communicate to him financially," De Lyon said. "Contributions to St. Francis Church are down by at least 30% in the last month, and this will likely continue."
De Lyon also provided Church Militant with a detailed analysis he compiled of the overall situation regarding the scandals that emanate from St. Francis Church titled "What have we learned about Bishop Raica and the sex-related allegations," published in full below:
What have we learned about Bishop Raica and the sex-related allegations
The initial complaint against Fr. Dennis Stilwell filed on Aug. 21, 2018 concerned allegations of "workplace sexual harassment" that began in 2015. The diocesan review board concluded those allegations did not reach the level of "credible and substantiated sexual misconduct."
What does that actually mean? The review board does not deny the substance of Fr. Cowan's complaint, which he said happened many times over a long period of time, only that the allegations did not rise to a certain level.
Father Stilwell has posted on Facebook and stated from the pulpit and in the St. Francis Church bulletin (April 7, 2019) that he was found innocent, which is not true. Nowhere does the published response from the diocese claim he was innocent. Indeed, in a phone conversation with a diocesan official in the chancery, a caller from the parish was told Fr. Stilwell has not been deemed innocent. Father Stilwell is a canon lawyer and is spinning his version of events, while Fr. Cowan is under a strict gag order and cannot even talk about his situation to the media or to others.
The Fr. Cowan situation gets quite complex and it is hard to follow the details, including that after Fr. Stilwell was cleared of the August allegations, the diocese opened a second investigation when Fr. Cowan offered additional information.
However, the bishop declines to mention that a witness claims to have seen the harassment, as Fr. Cowan described it. Additionally, the diocese states it "also received a letter from another individual stating that he had remembered two occasions that Fr. Stilwell touched him (patted his facial cheek and touched his abdomen)."
This is the final statement issued by the diocese: "These investigations have now been completed. The Diocesan Review Board concluded that the allegations received against Fr. Stilwell are not credible or substantiated for sexual misconduct, sexual harassment or grooming. Bishop Steven Raica has accepted their conclusion and the matter is closed."
Sadly, this final statement about the Fr. Cowan complaint is being rejected by many faithful Catholics and it seriously undermines the bishop’s credibility.
Regarding the 2.5-year-old complaint involving Bishop Robert Lynch, which was made public by Gaylord Diocesan Watch in February, we were surprised to learn that the diocese had even begun an investigation. True to form, Bishop Raica demonstrated that he is unwilling to take these situations seriously unless pressured by sensational media coverage.
As we might expect, the diocese stated that the 2016 complaint of "possible grooming by an adult male of our diocese involving Bishop Robert Lynch … was deemed not credible for sexual misconduct or sexual harassment." However, the review board noted that "the reports seem to suggest features might be consistent with grooming."
Again, what have we learned?
Father Stilwell brought Bishop Lynch to Saint Francis Xavier, who carries a particular stench wherever he goes. A simple Google search reveals information about accusations against Bishop Lynch while in Florida including some of which were of a homosexual nature, and which carried a settlement price tag of over $150,000. Even so, Fr. Stilwell saw fit to declare in the parish bulletin in August that he "is a great and holy man and one of my heroes." Stilwell likewise boasted last September that he and bishops Lynch and Raica both dined together. This sound likes friends of a feather flocking together.
All faithful Catholics are dismayed that Bishop Raica has never even acknowledged the dramatic nature of his decision to allow known pederast and former priest James Holtz to work at St. Francis. Nearly all parishioners had no idea he was on the list of "Clergy credibly Accused of Sexual Abuse of Minors in the Diocese of Gaylord," or that he was permanently removed from public ministry in 2002 by Bishop Cooney.
His involvement at the parish means everyone must question how Fr. Stilwell, the vicar general, could for years have a teacher in the parish who could never the pass Church's much-vaunted background check. Among others, I complained about this last October and never received a response.
Bishop Raica went on TV and said he learned about Holtz in 2016 and talked to an assistant pastor and thought "it was taken care of," but he never mentioned the name of the assistant pastor, who would have been Fr. Cowan. It was Fr. Cowan who first told Fr. Stilwell that Jim Holtz should not be working at St. Francis and when that fell on deaf ears Fr. Cowan went to Bishop Raica. Father Cowan had no authority to remove Jim Holtz!
It is troubling that Bishop Raica only last August, in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report could claim on his web site that "all who work in the parishes have to have background checks," and then write that he was "asking our priests, religious and staff to double down on their efforts to secure safe and maintain a safe environment for all as we go forward in faith."
Bishop Raica also in that statement said, "Call us out when our behaviors or words do not correspond with the heart of Christ." He does not seem to be sincere when he asks the laity to call him out when he strays so far from the heart of Christ.
Bishop Raica, on Jan. 15, stated in Lake City in front of about 400 people that Fr. Cowan was placed on "administrative leave" because he violated the rules of the diocese they were supposed to follow. He never said what those rules were and admitted that he never spoke with Fr. Cowan before he took away his faculties.
Father Cowan's faculties were taken away; he cannot serve as a priest and only gets a small stipend that he cannot live on so he has to live with his family. He has to appeal to Rome to get his priestly faculties back and had to hire a canon lawyer at the cost of thousands of dollars which he personally does not have. Why!? After seeing Jim Holtz inappropriately touch an altar boy, he warned some parents. His conscience would not allow him to be silent. He told the truth!
Father Cowan's complaint exposed that Fr. Stilwell and Bishop Raica knew about Jim Holtz and Bishop Lynch and did nothing to protect our children! Bishop Raica and Fr. Stilwell can violate diocesan policy, bring and allow a known abuser to work at SFX and there is no consequence.
The bottom line is that Fr. Cowan tried to stop Fr. Stilwell from harassing him. He tried to keep James Holtz from working around minors per diocesan policy. He also tried to prevent Bishop Lynch from serving at St. Francis because of accusations about him in Florida and Petoskey.
Father Cowan is being punished because neither Bishop Raica or Fr. Stilwell did anything about the complaints.
In order to protect the children and minors he made it public! That is it in a nutshell. By speaking out and making it public, he was severely punished.
We hope the faithful will continue to pray and financially support Fr. Matthew Cowan in his time of need.