LANDER, Wyo. — Two months after beginning as chaplain for Wyoming Catholic College, Father Stuart MacDonald has been dismissed, following allegations of improper behavior — drinking and using inappropriate language — with students surfaced.
Father MacDonald, a priest of the Diocese of St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada, was fired from his position on Nov. 19.
“His dismissal is subsequent to an internal investigation by the college, which revealed Rev. MacDonald’s improper conduct and language with the college’s students and a pattern of behavior unacceptable as a Catholic college chaplain,” said the college’s press statement about the dismissal.
Father Robert Cook, president of the college, said he first met Father MacDonald in the spring.
“I interviewed him in March,” said Father Cook. “We flew him here. He was here for three or four days. He said he had his bishop’s permission to interview.”
According to Father Cook, he was first alerted to Father MacDonald’s alleged misbehavior by a graduate of the college on Nov. 10.
“I insisted that he go to the Lander police,” explained Father Cook.
Father Cook explained the nature of the allegations as “excessive drinking with students, foul language and bad jokes” — behavior Father Cook described as “incredible acts of poor judgment and imprudence.”
Subsequently, Father Cook made inquiries of students who knew Father MacDonald. When others confirmed what Father Cook described as a “pattern of behavior,” Father Cook met with Father MacDonald.
“Our students are very committed to living their faith,” said Father Cook. “Father MacDonald’s behavior was unacceptable by a priest who is to give the very best moral example conceivable.”
Father MacDonald ceased his chaplaincy work at the college as of Nov. 19. Efforts to reach him through his diocese were unsuccessful.
Recent graduate Caitlin Milligan happened to be visiting on campus when the announcement was made to students.
“The announcement was made at dinner on Nov. 19,” said Milligan, a high-school theology teacher in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “The initial reaction by students was one of indignation and the colloquial response, ‘They [the administration] had better know what they are doing.’”
Clarification was made, and further details were offered for students, the following day by a faculty member during lunch.
“Students were told of inappropriate behavior that he had admitted to,” said Milligan. “After the clarification was made, the noon bells rang, and a student led the Angelus. The student response was one of prayer.”
“The students are organizing an all-night vigil,” said Milligan. “They’re praying for strength and praying for a new chaplain.”
“He was a very, very good chaplain,” said Erin Milligan, a sophomore, and one of Caitlin’s two younger sisters at the college. “He was my spiritual advisor and helped all of us in our spiritual struggles.”
“Some of my friends said that his jokes seemed inappropriate for a priest to be telling,” admitted Erin. “I didn’t care for his sense of humor.”
Caitlin described the attitude on campus now as one of “resigned anticipation.”
“I agree that the school made the right decision. This was a wake-up call,” said Erin. “As we’re searching for a new president, it’s a reminder that we have to be extremely careful in looking at people who are coming to the school.”
No Criminal Conduct
Some news stories, quoting from an anonymous email received by Lander news outlets, alleged sexual misconduct on the part of Father MacDonald.
“That is clearly untrue,” said Father Cook.
Christina George, editor of the Lander Journal, said that the Lander Police Department had investigated allegations of sexual misconduct and alcohol use.
“There was an investigation. It has been closed. No charges will be filed,” said Det. Randy Lutterman, the Lander officer in charge of the investigation.
While not certain, Father Cook believes that Father MacDonald returned to Canada on Nov. 20. In the press statement, the college stated that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had been notified that Father MacDonald’s employment visa should be terminated.
Father MacDonald was ordained a priest in the Diocese of St. Catharines on May 17, 1997. A former priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Niagara Falls, Father MacDonald holds a licentiate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He had the permission of Bishop Gerard Bergie to take up the position of chaplain at Wyoming Catholic College. He had maintained the Musings of a Canonist blog since March 2012.
Father MacDonald could not be reached for comment.
According to Father Cook, Father MacDonald did not have experience in campus ministry, but he was familiar with celebrating the extraordinary form of the Mass, an important requirement for the chaplain position at the college, as the school celebrates that form. In preparation for assuming his position at Wyoming Catholic, the college sent Father MacDonald to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter at St. John Cantius in Chicago last June to learn the celebration of the high Mass. He began as chaplain on Aug. 18.
“We’re incredibly shocked,” said Matthew Brasmer, spokesman for the college. “He was incredibly well-liked by students.”
“We immediately informed parents of what was going on,” said Father Cook. “I’ve received well over 35 messages from parents thanking us for acting so quickly and clearly. They felt our actions were appropriate and said they didn’t want their children attending a college having such a chaplain.”
Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.