When the names of 10 priests who have been removed from active ministry due to sex abuse in the diocese of Gaylord became public last November, parishioners at St. Francis Church in Petoskey were shocked to see the name of a familiar face in the parish on the list: James Holtz, who had been keeping his past secret.
Holtz, 71, had been working in the parish for many years as a sacristan teaching altar servers, as a eucharistic minister and a teacher of religious education. He worked under pastor and vicar general of the diocese of Gaylord, Fr. Dennis Stilwell, who is also 71 years old and has the distinction of being the first priest ordained for the diocese, which was formed in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
Unbeknownst to virtually all parishioners before November, Holtz is a former priest who was removed from active ministry in August 2002 by Gaylord Bishop Patrick Cooney for sexual abuse of a minor in the 1980s. He was at that time pastor of the parishes of St. Mary of the Woods in Kalkaska and St. Aloysius in Fife Lake.
Father Stilwell today is under investigation by the diocese on charges of sexual harassment filed by his former associate pastor, 33-year-old Fr. Matthew Cowan, who has been removed from all ministry since early January, and media publicity of his situation has been intense in daily newspapers and TV in the northeast Michigan region since his story became public knowledge on Feb. 6.
The discovery of the former priest Holtz working among children in the parish has caught the attention of a new group of activist local Catholics, most of whom know Fr Stilwell or Fr. Cowan well, Gaylord Diocese Watch (GDW). The group issued a press release Wednesday calling for Bishop Raica to do some explaining about the oddities at St. Francis Church that seem to revolve about behaviors relating to homosexuality.
"Until that list became public in November, virtually nobody at St Francis was aware Fr. Dennis Stilwell allowed a known child molester to work at the altar, with altar servers and in religious education for many years," said Dr. Richard Brenz, spokesman for GDW said in the release.
"Holtz never could have passed the Gaylord diocese basic background check that every employee in a parish and school is required to undergo," Brenz said. "It is bad enough that Holtz was selected by Fr. Stilwell to work with and be around children on parish grounds, but the secrecy surrounding his involvement is even more outrageous."
"As faithful Catholics who have once again been betrayed by our local bishops who shrouds everything they do in secrecy yet preaches about transparency, we once again call on the media to investigate this scandal," Brenz added.
He cited the strong words of Raica in response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, in which Raica seemed to indicate he is actually opposed to the same kind of secrecy and double-dealing that is the pattern in the diocese.
Raica wrote: "[W]e must not let down our guard. We must remain vigilant."
He also offered this advice to the laity: "For the faithful — I beg you: Sustain us with your prayers. Call us out when our behaviors or words do not correspond with the heart of Christ."
Bill De Lyon, a co-founder with Brenz of GDW, wrote a letter Oct. 2, 2018 to Bishop Raica inquiring about Holtz's role at St. Francis and has gotten no response so far.
Below are excerpts of De Lyon's letter to Raica:
In your August 15 letter regarding the Pennsylvania grand jury report, you asked what more you could do in the diocese to ensure that the clergy were more faithful witnesses and you said there is no place in ministry for priests who would harm youth. You cited mandatory safe environment training and background checks for clergy and religious while emphasizing the need to create and maintain a safe parish environment. …
How could Fr. Denny Stilwell, the first priest ordained in the diocese of Gaylord, who knows Fr. Jim Holtz, allow him to be involved with the altar servers, teach the faithful and participate in the Eucharistic ministry, along with other duties, as recently as last year? How could he have passed a background check or a safe environment training? How could someone in Fr. Denny's position as Vicar General make such a grievous decision?
According to the group's press release, Holtz's Facebook page, which is easily accessed by the public, shows he has given favorable ratings to books in the last two and three years with explicitly homoerotic themes.
In the section of his Facebook profile titled "Reviews," several of the books have covers with an image of handsome young men in provocative poses. One book, Leap of Faith, which Holtz gave a five-star rating (on a scale of one to five) shows two men kissing.
The description on Amazon to purchase Leap of Faith indicates: "This is a full length romance novella which has multiple gay sex scenes. Mature readers only. Set in the onset to WWII."
Another book which received a five-star rating from Holtz is My Dream Boy. Clicking the image of book takes the reader to a Goodreads, which carries this summary of the book:
Jake and a couple of his college friends learn about a cruising spot near campus and decide to try it out. They soon find that they can get a blowjob there and in no time they’re doing it to each other … and more.
Then the school year ends and Jake moves home. He misses his pals and the hot sex they had and is looking forward to a boring summer. But things look up when new people move in next door. Their son is a gorgeous young guy and Jake makes it his mission to get to know him. What he doesn't know is that Evan also likes guys.
Another book that received a five-star rating from Holtz is Wizards Moon which is summarized on Goodreads thusly: "I wish to buy a boy. A warrior from the Northlands purchases a young man for purposes both secret and perhaps sinister."
Before the pages were deleted from Facebook, Church Militant was able to obtain screenshots.
"The presence of Holtz under the direction of Fr. Stilwell at St. Francis is part of a deeply troubling pattern we see at the parish and in the diocese," Brenz said.
GDW's web site includes several press releases issued by the group since Feb. 6, all of them focusing on Fr. Dennis Stilwell, as well as coverage in local media about the scandals.
Both Fr. Stilwell and the diocese of Gaylord have not responded to requests for information from Church Militant.