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While Gaylord Bp. Steven Raica refuses to communicate directly to Catholics in his northern Michigan diocese about complaints — going back years — of sexual improprieties at St. Francis Xavier Church, parishioners are sending him a clear message by withholding money from the Sunday collection basket.
According to figures published in the parish's Sunday bulletin, donations have dropped significantly from a weekly average of about $16,000 at this time of year to as low as $10,000.
"We definitely know many people are withholding money from the parish because there is no other way to communicate with Bishop Raica," said Bill De Lyon, one of the co-founders of Gaylord Diocesan Watch (GDW), a lay watchdog group formed earlier this year to protest the suspension of 33-year-old associate pastor Fr. Matthew Cowan following his complaint of workplace sexual harassment by Fr. Dennis Stilwell.
A week after hosting a Feb. 6 press conference for local secular media about Fr. Cowan, GDW revealed that former priest James Holtz, who had been removed from ministry by the diocese in 2002 for a credible complaint of abuse of a minor, had been working under Stilwell at the parish for as long as eight years.
GDW's main complaint, according to the group's spokesman Dr. Richard Brenz, is both secrecy about the Cowan situation and contradictory information from the bishop. Brenz is a long-time parishioner of St. Stephen Church in Cadillac where Fr. Cowan was assigned before being removed and said he trusts the young priest and supports an online effort to raise money for Fr. Cowan's legal expenses.
Brenz said Fr. Cowan may present an appeal to the Vatican's Rota (Supreme Court) this month to appeal the measures against him imposed by Bp. Raica. He is awaiting a formal response within a week to a legal process initiated by Cowan's canon lawyer.
"In our first press release," Brenz said, "we stated that we are respectfully trying to follow Bishop Raica's advice to the laity, which is on his website."
In his letter to the faithful last August, he said the laity should "[c]all us out when our behaviors or words do not correspond with the heart of Christ; and if you see suspicious activities by priests, religious, lay leaders or volunteers."
But Bp. Raica refuses to talk to Brenz or his group.
Last week, Brenz and his wife drove the long trek to Gaylord to personally request a meeting with the bishop, which was declined yesterday formally after a full week's wait.
Candance Neff, the bishop's director of communications, told Brenz due to the ongoing attorney general investigation, the bishop didn't think an appointment with him would be necessary.
"She stressed that any new information would be welcomed and I could 'send it along,'" he said.
Although he will not talk to Brenz or his group directly, Bp. Raica talked about the group in a softball "Special Report" interview with a reporter from the ABC affiliate TV 7&4 based in Traverse City. The five-minute segment is titled "A Conversation With Bishop Steven Raica."
Below are excerpts from the three-minute portion of the interview that included the concerns of GDW:
Question: In the past few weeks a watchdog group called Gaylord Diocesan Watch made allegations that a priest was put on leave because he made a complaint that another priest made unwanted sexual advances. We understand that the investigation into those allegations has been reopened. Where does that stand now?
Raica: First of all, he was not removed for that particular reason. He was removed for other reasons, but the process is underway. It is nearing completion; we hope to have a response soon. I am waiting to hear from the review board as to what their findings are, so I might be able to move that forward in a timely way.
Question: The same group has also alleged that the same priest who was accused had a former priest working at his parish who was removed 17 years ago. Have you done anything about this?
Raica: Yes, that was a matter that was addressed. I received a letter from the associate, the priest who was the associate there, [editor's note: the year was 2016] who said he had spoken to that priest and to the pastor and the matter had been taken care of, so I presumed the matter had been taken care of and then I found out later it had not been taken care of. So when that came in again, I began to address that matter more forthrightly myself.
Should have done something earlier? Probably. And do I regret not doing something? Yeah, I do. Today, he is not involved in any ministry.
"In his interview on Channel 7&4, the bishop said he had his associate pastor handle the situation at S. Francis. Then, the bishop says that he thought the associate 'took care of it,' but learned later Holtz was still here," De Lyon said, adding:
Why would Bp. Raica tell the associate pastor to try to resolve it, when he speaks regularly with the pastor who is the vicar general and who has the authority to remove him? After all, he is the pastor of St. Francis and is the person who brought him here [in] the first place.
If anyone was serious about taking care of the abuse problem, why would he wait two years to address the Holtz situation? I personally sent a letter about Holtz and know others did too and they were all ignored. I cannot imagine he is serious about this crisis when he lets it simmer for two years.
Dr. Brenz said he is pleased with the reactions among local Catholics to GDW's public activism and is reaching out to others to coordinate efforts when possible. He has been in with Jason Negri, executive director of The Daniel Coalition, a similar lay watchdog organization formed in September in the diocese of Lansing.
"I have also been contacted by people in another Michigan diocese, a diocese in Minnesota and one in South Carolina who want to form groups like Gaylord Diocesan Watch," Brenz said. "They found out about our work and learned more on our website."