In a brief aside in its stunning report on clergy sexual abuse of some thousand children, a Pennsylvania grand jury noted finding “numerous other cases” of Catholic priests’ misconduct, but with adults. That was outside the scope of its investigation, but it’s a problem some experts say may be more pervasive than the abuse of children.
For women like Rachel Mastrogiacomo, it can be just as devastating. At age 23 and filled with religious zeal, she studied Catholic spirituality in Rome, where she met a deacon studying for the priesthood in 2009. After he was ordained a priest in the Diocese of San Diego, she invited him to meet her family in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where, authorities said, the priest violated her when they were alone during two private masses.
“In plain terms, Father Jacob Bertrand sexually injured me in humiliating and degrading ways during the central liturgical ritual of the Catholic Church, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” she said at the priest’s May 7 sentencing for criminal sexual conduct.
Kathleen Clement was also devastated—not by physical contact but by what she said was a pastor’s sexual harassment. She felt compelled to leave her job as a religious education administrator at three northwestern Pennsylvania parishes after the Diocese of Erie failed to take action on her complaints. Her experience with church officials—she says a diocesan official told her to “politely resign” if the pastor kept grabbing his scrotum in her presence, and that a bishop urged her to sign a non-disclosure agreement and not speak to the news media—echoes what the grand jury said about past abuse of minors in the same diocese.
Clerics’ misuse of their power and prestige to harass and abuse women has been largely a forgotten subject in the current sex abuse controversy dividing the Catholic Church—a male-centric debate focused on whether to blame the crisis on homosexuality among priests. But academic research shows that clergy sexual exploitation and abuse of women is pervasive, across religious denominations.
The leading study found that 3.1 percent of women who attended services at least weekly had experienced a sexual advance as an adult from their clergy member or religious leader. That comes to one of every 33 churchgoing women. The late Diana Garland, a Baylor University social scientist who conducted the 2009 research, wrote that it appears clergy sexual abuse of women “is much more pervasive” than the abuse of children documented in a 2004 John Jay College study that found 4 percent of Catholic priests since 1950 had child-abuse allegations against them.
Garland suggested a similar raft of lawsuits would come one day over abuse of adult women.
“Will the church find ways—before being ordered to do so by the secular courts—to act justly and bring healing to victims and their families and faith communities shattered by the betrayal of wolves in shepherds’ clothing?” she asked.
A decade later, the answer is “no.”
The “he said, he said” nature of the current Catholic debate was underscored when a former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, charged in a letter released last month that a long list of prelates, up to and including Pope Francis, had covered up allegations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick made a practice of abusing seminarians.
“Homosexual networks” are “strangling the entire Catholic Church,” Vigano charged. He assailed the “pro-gay ideology” that points toward another culprit for clergy sexual abuse: clericalism, an exaltation of clerical authority that the pope says is closely tied to the abuse scandal.
Whether the victim is a child or an adult—and the perpetrator straight or gay, a supposedly celibate Catholic priest or a married minister in another denomination—the abuse of power is central, experts say. The key difference is that in 2002, the U.S. Catholic bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which, as Psychology Today recently said, has created a safe environment for children and a model for other organizations to follow.
But it didn’t apply to sexual abuse of adults, and the same underlying problems—including the secrecy and abuse of power— echo in those cases.
“Sexual misconduct is primarily a crime of power. It’s a crime of power that’s expressed sexually,” said Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a clinical psychologist and author of Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church.
“I think with the priest, that it’s an opportunity to dominate someone else. And I think a lot of priests feel dominated by the priesthood… They don’t get taken care of the way they thought they were going to.”
Priests often burn out from overwork, especially as they are now often expected to run what were once several parishes. They often live alone. And they are sworn to obey bishops who often have a keen sense of their own power.
“A lot of these guys feel used up by the church,” Frawley-O’Dea said, adding that this can set the stage for an unhappy priest to seek power and sexual satisfaction by grooming a vulnerable member of his congregation for sex.
David Pooler, an associate dean at Baylor who surveyed 280 female survivors in a followup to Garland’s landmark study, said predators use religious authority to manipulate minors or adults in ways that are “almost identical, but once someone reaches the age of 18, then society calls it an ‘affair.’ ”
He and other researchers say that given the power differential between a clergyman and adult congregant, particularly one who seeks counseling, a sexual relationship can’t be considered a consensual affair. In fact, 13 states and the District of Columbia have made it a crime when counseling is involved.
“We somehow assume that once someone reaches the age of 18, they can consent to this,” Pooler said, adding that for many women it was impossible to say no to a manipulative clergyman because it was “like saying `no’ to God.”
Pooler, who interviewed 23 women as part of the survey, said the victims were vulnerable and often seeking a clergyman’s help or spiritual advisement. He found that the period of grooming typically takes months and sometimes years as boundaries are crossed with flirting and talk about sexuality, leading to physical contact and eventually to sexual touching and activity.
“The perpetrators of this abuse tend to be extremely patient,” said Pooler, who found that the sexual abuse of the women he interviewed had lasted an average of four years.
“Unfortunately, most religious people and even broader society tend to view this as, ‘Oh, isn’t that unfortunate,’ and want the woman to move on and forgive, he said. “I think that absolutely misses this egregious misuse of power.”
When Rachel Mastrogiacomo spoke at the Rev. Jacob Bertrand’s sentencing at Dakota County District Court in Minnesota, she told Judge Karen Asphaug that the priest had used her piety as a weapon against her over the course of a 10-month grooming period.
“Taking advantage of the fact that I naively placed priests on pedestals, seeing them through rose-colored glasses, he successfully gained an unfathomable amount of control over my psyche,” she said.
Bertrand’s actions during the private liturgies in 2010 induced a trauma that was “an agonizing taste of hell on earth,” she said, adding that the priest swore her to secrecy time and again after that.
Mastrogiacomo said she finally told a Minnesota priest in 2012 about what happened two years earlier. But she told the priest, Andrew Cozzens, now an auxiliary bishop, during a confession, and he is barred by church law from disclosing anything he heard in the sacrament of reconciliation. Mastrogiacomo said she wished he had urged her then to go to the police but added he did encourage her to do so four years later. (Tom Halden, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St.Paul-Minneapolis, said Cozzens could not discuss anything said in confession but affirmed he did encourage Mastrogiacomo to cooperate with law enforcement in 2016.)
Mastrogiacomo then reported her charges in 2014 to the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., where she was living at the time. Her report, she said, was forwarded to Monsignor Steven Callahan, who was administering the Diocese of San Diego following the death of its bishop.
“Even after Father Jacob Bertrand admitted his behavior in the presence of Monsignor Callahan, the abuse was covered up” in the San Diego diocese, Mastrogiacomo said at Bertrand’s sentencing, adding that Bertrand’s parishioners were lied to when he wrote in the church bulletin in November, 2014 that he was taking time off because of emotional trauma resulting from a recent incident of arson in the sanctuary of the church.
In a follow-up note published in the church bulletin in mid-February, 2015, Callahan told parishioners, “As you know, in mid-November 2014, I granted the request of your pastor Father Jacob Bertrand for a temporary leave of absence from active priestly ministry in order to address issues of personal growth and development.” Bertrand was doing well and expected to return to priestly ministry after completing the program in May, he added.
Bertrand, 35, was criminally charged in October, 2016, after Minnesota authorities investigated the complaint Mastrogiacomo brought to them. He eventually pleaded guilty to violating a Minnesota law that makes it a felony for a member of the clergy to have sexual relations in the course of a “religious advice meeting.”
At Bertrand’s sentencing—he received 10 years of probation and a $1,000 fine—Mastrogiacomo assailed the San Diego diocese’s handling of the case.
“Monsignor Callahan not only enabled this abominable behavior but also transferred him to a new parish a few short months later, where he was exposed to a whole new array of young women and girls,” she said.
Marc Carlos, Bertrand’s attorney, stressed that Bertrand was a well respected priest. “This was a unique case and wasn’t a classic sexual assault case,” he said in a phone interview.
Kevin Eckerly, vice-chancellor and spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego, acknowledged that the diocese made serious mistakes in its response to Mastrogiacomo.
“The biggest mistake came in not contacting the victim directly” but instead working through her local diocese in North Carolina. It was also a serious mistake to misinform parishioners about Bertrand’s leave of absence, he said.
“No one doubted her story,” Eckerly said. However, he added, since no one at the San Diego diocese reached out directly to Mastrogiacomo, “some of the really important aspects of the story got lost.”
Eckerly said that beyond church law, which requires priests to be celibate, there is a “burgeoning realization” about whether sexual relations between a religious leader and adult congregant can be considered consensual. “That’s something that we as a church and a diocese need to be more aware” of, he said.
Bertrand has applied to the Vatican to be laicized, Eckerly said. Monsignor Callahan remains a high-ranking official in the diocese under Bishop Robert McElroy, who was installed in April, 2015. He serves as judicial vicar.
Sex-abuse victims had protested Callahan’s appointment as the temporary diocesan administrator, and later, under McElroy, serving as victims’ assistance coordinator, because of his role in diocesan personnel decisions and the hard-fought legal proceedings that led the Diocese of San Diego to a $200 million settlement with 144 sex-abuse survivors in 2007.
A laywoman has since been chosen to replace him as victims’ assistance coordinator. “Monsignor Callahan was and is a tremendous guy but he had too many responsibilities,” Eckerly said, adding that the move was “not a reflection on him.”
Mastrogiacomo decided to come forward to be identified publicly in August and has given several interviews. “My Facebook inbox has been filling up with stories,” she told The Daily Beast. “It seems like every other day another woman breaks silence and writes me a message containing her deepest, darkest secrets. Since coming forward, I’ve heard stories equally if not more horrifying than mine.”
Mastrogiacomo advocates a “zero tolerance” policy in which church officials would immediately refer allegations to police and suspend the priest from ministry until police completed an investigation. She adds: “The conspiracy of silence which exists in the Catholic Church must be torn down so that victims feel that it is safe enough to tell their stories.”
The Pennsylvania grand jury report released Aug. 14 found that bishops and other administrators in the Erie diocese had allowed priests to work in parishes despite child-sexual abuse allegations against them. The grand jury also criticized the diocese for requiring legal settlements for clergy sexual abuse to be confidential.
The treatment that Kathleen Clement, 61, received in diocesan offices was consistent with that pattern. Her problems began when a new pastor, the Rev. Daniel Kresinski, arrived in March, 2013 to lead two of the three DuBois, Pa., parishes where she served as facilitator of religious education. Clement said in a sworn statement to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that “When I would meet with Father Kresinski in his office alone, he would cup his hand under his scrotum and pull his scrotum up toward his waist. He did this every time I had to meet with him alone and would do it six or more times during each meeting.”
Clement says that she complained twice to the diocesan director of religious education and also to a deacon who headed the Erie diocese’s human resources office. The religious education director “did nothing to address Clement’s complaint and advised her to `politely resign,’” according to court documents.
Next, Clement complained to Monsignor Robert J. Smith, who as the Erie diocese’s director of priest personnel was also a central figure in the diocesan handling of abuse allegations concerning children. She invoked a diocesan harassment policy that, despite previous complaints to diocesan officials, she had only just discovered. According to the lawsuit, Smith told Clement he found her complaint credible.
A week later, the suit says, Kresinski admitted to Smith that he had touched himself in Clement’s presence. But the diocese refused to take action, which Clement said forced her to resign after 14 years of employment. After that, she met with Bishop Lawrence Persico, “who told her he did not want her to contact the press with her complaint and asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement.” She refused.
After the EEOC found Clement’s testimony to be credible, she filed suit against the diocese in federal court in May, 2016. The diocese tried unsuccessfully to persuade a judge to dismiss the case on grounds that since Clement worked for parishes, which are technically separate corporations, she was not a diocesan employee. The diocese also failed in an attempt to require Clement’s lawyer to withdraw from court files some documents with details of her case. Having failed at that, the diocese settled the case on undisclosed terms in September 2017.
In announcing the settlement, Persico said that Kresinski was to refrain from public ministry until further notice. Kresinski did not respond to an email sent to his address on the diocesan website, which lists him as living in a priests’ retirement residence in Erie.
While this was playing out, Bishop Persico was trying to fend off the Pennsylvania grand jury’s investigation into priests’ abuse of children. According to the panel’s report, he resisted the investigation to the point that authorities had to execute a search warrant to seize documents in November, 2016. Then he changed course. “He switched lawyers and resolved to take a different approach,” the grand jury said.
Persico told the panel of how angry he was at what his predecessors had done. In April, he came out with a new policy for sexual abuse of children that the grand jury called “wise and welcome.”
The policy set a new standard for openness in legal settlements, one that invokes confidentiality only to protect the victim: “If a civil settlement agreement is reached with the victim, such agreement shall not contain a confidentiality provision except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim/survivor and noted in the text of the agreement.”
The Daily Beast requested that the diocese waive the Clement settlement’s confidentiality requirement so that she could be interviewed about her experience. But Clement declined to comment after the diocese’s counsel informed her lawyer that it would only be waived if diocesan officials also could discuss the case publicly.
Ann-Marie Welsh, spokeswoman for the Erie diocese, said in an email that “Bishop Persico has also indicated that he has no comment on this case, which has been closed.”