By Brian Fraga - OSV Newsweekly, 7/10/2011
Father John Corapi says only he knows “the real story” behind his controversial decision to leave the priesthood.
Father Corapi announced June 17 that he was leaving the priesthood and the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) because he could not get a “fair hearing” on the sexual misconduct allegations lodged against him in March by a former female employee of his Montana-based Santa Cruz Media Company.
The popular preacher and public speaker also said “certain persons in authority in the Church” wanted him gone, said that his due process rights were violated, and accused Bishop Wm. Michael Mulvey of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, where SOLT’s headquarters is located, of ordering his SOLT superiors to suspend him “against their will and better judgment” or else he would publicly release the letter his accuser had sent to several bishops detailing the allegations against him.
Marty Wind, spokesman for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, declined to respond to Father Corapi’s statement. Wind told Our Sunday Visitor that the bishop was following canon law when he advised the SOLT that an investigation had to be conducted in accordance with the order’s constitutions.
The Diocese of Corpus Christi also released a statement that said “it would be inappropriate for the diocese to make any comment on those proceedings other than that they were in progress and were being guided by the SOLT Constitution and in accord with the Code of Canon Law.”
Father Gerard Sheehan, the SOLT regional priest servant, issued a prepared statement explaining that it was “normal procedure” that Father Corapi be suspended from active ministry and placed on administrative leave, due to the nature of the allegations.
Father Sheehan said the investigation was still ongoing when Father Corapi told the order on June 3 that he could no longer function as a priest or a member of SOLT because of “the physical, emotional and spiritual distress he has endured over the past few years.” That effectively halted the investigation, which had not reached a conclusion on the credibility of the case.
“If the allegations had been found to be credible, the proper canonical due process would have been offered to Father Corapi, including his right to defense, to know his accuser and the complaint lodged and a fair canonical trial with the right of recourse to the Holy See,” said Father Sheehan, who added that the SOLT was “deeply saddened” by Father Corapi’s response to the allegations.
“The SOLT will do all within its power to assist Father Corapi if he desires to seek a dispensation from his rights and obligations as a priest and as a professed member of the SOLT,” Father Sheehan said.
Father Corapi may have also complicated SOLT’s investigation against him. The National Catholic Register reported he sued his accuser for breaching a non-disclosure agreement. Other Santa Cruz Media Company employees reportedly signed similar agreements, which prevented SOLT investigators from interviewing the principal witnesses in the case.
Messages left for Father Sheehan at SOLT’s international headquarters in Robeson, Texas, were not returned.
No one answered multiple telephone calls to Santa Cruz Media Company. Bobbi Ruffatto, the former vice president of operations for Santa Cruz Media, released a statement in late March defending Father Corapi. Contacted last month by OSV, Ruffatto said she resigned from the company on May 31.
“I am deeply saddened by the situation but cannot comment further,” Ruffatto told OSV.
David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told OSV that Father Corapi’s accuser — whom neither the priest nor Church investigators have named — reached out to the victim’s group recently and he judged her complaint credible.
“She, even now, refuses to publicly lash out at Corapi,” Clohessy added.
Father Corapi said on his “Black SheepDog” blog that he had filed a civil defamation lawsuit against his accuser on the advice of the founder of SOLT, Father James Flanagan, and retired Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi.
“Why would they do this? Because they felt it was the only way I could receive a fair and just hearing,” wrote Father Corapi. He could not be reached for comment by OSV. Father Flanagan also could not be reached. Bishop Gracida did not reply to an email message seeking comment.
On his blog, Bishop Gracida defended Father Corapi and has posted several links to articles suggesting that accused priests have little protection in the way of due process.
“I believe that [Father Corapi] is justified in not seeking to clear his name through a canonical process; at the present time such processes are very flawed in most dioceses,” Bishop Gracida said.
Father Gordon J. MacRae, a priest who maintains his innocence but is still serving a life sentence for a 1994 conviction of sexually assaulting a teenage boy in New Hampshire, wrote June 22 on his “These Stone Walls” blog that Father Corapi was the victim of a classic “Catch-22.”
Father MacRae wrote: “If [Father Corapi] is to defend himself at all, he must be able to do so publicly with statements that clearly and decisively refute what is claimed of him. That is not only his right under both the U.S. Constitution and Canon Law, it is also what Catholics expect of him.
“But if Father Corapi is barred from presenting himself publicly as a priest, then he is effectively barred from presenting himself publicly at all,” he wrote. “Does anyone really expect him to treat the accusations against him as unconnected to the fact that he is a priest?”
Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman, executive director of Relevant Radio, said in a March 24 statement that Canon Law, under Canon 1722, provides a bishop or superior recourse to a “leave of absence” in order to prevent scandal, protect the freedom of witnesses and safeguard the course of justice. A canon commentary says the measure is preventive and prudential, not penal.
“This distinction, not penal but preventive and prudential, is very important for the current discussion about this issue,” Father Hoffman said. “Many consider this administrative leave to be a declaration of guilt without investigation and to be penal in nature.
“While the principle ‘innocent until proven guilty’ still holds in canon law, it would be a mistake to hold that any cleric ever has a right to exercise the public ministry without his bishop/superior’s express permission, which can be withdrawn for prudential reasons,” Father Hoffman wrote.
“I think there is due process, though it may not be the same as what we Americans would like it to be,” said J. Michael Ritty, a canon lawyer and chief partner at Canon Law Professionals in Feura Bush, N.Y.
Ritty told OSV that priests accused of sexual impropriety with adults have the right to a canon lawyer, can make a preliminary statement when the allegations are first made against them, and have the opportunity to present their case to a review board, which recommends a course of action for the bishop or superior. The accused priest also has the right to an appeal.
Father Corapi continues to maintain his innocence and to attack the “bishop’s star witness” against him as “a severely troubled person.”
On a June 23 blog, the soon-to-be Mr. Corapi promised that he had not left the Church, even as he said that its leadership doesn’t want him around anymore. He also added that he has trademarked “Black SheepDog,” and that a biography of the same title has been in the works for a year and a half.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
Every time someone gets angry with me or decides they want a payday I have to go through hell with no help from the leadership of the Church. I admit I have grown weary of that."
— Father John Corapi, who now uses the moniker “The Black SheepDog.” For more information, visit his blog at www.theblacksheepdog.us
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