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Father John Corapi's Surprise Decision

BY Joan Frawley Desmond

Register Senior Editor

July 3-16, 2011 Issue | Posted 6/24/11 at 6:32 PM

 

KALISPELL, Mont. — Father John Corapi, the popular Catholic evangelist, announced on June 17 that he would leave the priesthood and begin a new endeavor outside Church control, focused on a “broader” message and a global audience.

Three months have passed since the religious community Father Corapi belonged to, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), removed him from public ministry while it investigated allegations of misconduct leveled by one of his former employees.

Following Father Corapi’s announcement of his plans to leave the priesthood and begin a ministry called “The Black Sheep Dog,” Father Gerard Sheehan, the regional priest-servant of SOLT and the best-selling preacher’s religious superior, issued a public statement reporting that the order had received a letter from the priest earlier in the month, “indicating that, because of the physical, emotional and spiritual distress he has endured over the past few years, he could no longer continue to function as a priest or a member of the SOLT.”

Father Sheehan’s statement stressed that the order’s investigation into the alleged misconduct “had not arrived at any conclusion as to the credibility of the allegations under investigation.” He stated: “We reiterate that Father Corapi had not been determined guilty of any canonical or civil crimes.”

Father Corapi marked his decision to leave the priesthood by posting a video announcement on YouTube and on the website of Santa Cruz Media, the company he heads and which distributes his catechetical materials. The announcement shocked his many supporters. Some of those supporters had vented their anger at the priest’s religious superiors and at EWTN and other media outlets, which suspended his programs after the allegations against him became public. The Register is a service of EWTN.

In response to Father Corapi’s decision, EWTN released the following statement: “EWTN was deeply saddened by the news that Father John Corapi has announced his decision to resign from active priestly ministry and religious life. Unfortunately, his decision makes it impossible for the network to return his programming to the airwaves. We urge our EWTN family to continue to pray for him, for all priests and for the unity of the Church.”

Raising more questions than it answered, Father Corapi’s message did not state the precise reason why he chose to resign from the priesthood rather than waiting for the outcome of SOLT’s investigation of the alleged misconduct.

In an exclusive interview with the Register on June 19, Father Sheehan offered some insight into the unfolding events that led to the bombshell announcement.

Father Sheehan confirmed that the society’s investigation had faced complications created by a civil suit filed by Father Corapi against the former employee who had accused him of sexual misconduct.

“When she left the company, she signed a contract that she would not reveal anything that happened to her while she was at Santa Cruz Media. Father Corapi paid her for this. Father was suing her for a breach of contract,” said Father Sheehan, though he did not specify why Father Corapi had initiated the non-disclosure agreement.

The civil suit against the former employee created a problem for SOLT investigators.

“In canon law, there can’t be any pressure on witnesses; they have to be completely free to speak. The investigation was compromised because of the pressure on the witnesses. There were other witnesses that also had signed non-disclosure agreements,” said Father Sheehan.

“The canon lawyers were in a difficult situation, and Father does have his civil rights and he decided to follow his legal counsel, which he had a right to do,” he said. “We tried to continue the investigation without speaking to the principal witnesses.”


‘Deeply Saddened’

In his subsequent public statement, issued on June 20, Father Sheehan underscored that the society sought to adhere to proper canonical procedures for conducting the investigation into the alleged misconduct.

“At the onset, the bishop of Corpus Christi advised the SOLT to not only proceed with the policies outlined in their own constitutions, but also with the proper canonical procedures to determine the credibility of the allegations against Father Corapi,” said the statement. “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.”

In his public statement and in his interview with the Register, Father Sheehan expressed disappointment that Father Corapi chose not to remain in SOLT.

“The SOLT is deeply saddened that Father Corapi is suffering distress. The SOLT is further saddened by Father Corapi’s response to these 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,” said the public statement.

Father Sheehan requested prayers and “the intercession of the Blessed Mother for the healing of Father Corapi and for any who have been negatively affected by Father Corapi’s decision to end his ministry as a priest and a member of the SOLT.”


Conflicted Message

Father Corapi’s YouTube message did not address his relationship with SOLT religious authorities. Though his statement reads, “I love the Catholic Church and accept what has transpired,” it offered a conflicted message on the respect due the Catholic hierarchy.

On the one hand, Father Corapi affirmed the right of the bishops to implement new guidelines for addressing clerical misconduct. Yet, he persistently attacked the logic and integrity of those guidelines, and sharply criticized Bishop William Mulvey of Corpus Christi, Texas, for taking action to forcibly remove him from active ministry.

The YouTube announcement marked the 20th anniversary of Father Corapi’s ordination and expressed his gratitude for ongoing expressions of support. The priest then stated: “All things change, only God stays the same, so I have to tell you about a major change in my life. I am not going to be involved in public ministry as a priest any longer. There are certain persons in authority in the Church that want me gone, and I shall be gone.”

Echoing themes repeated in recent Santa Cruz Media posts that asserted his innocence, he questioned the motives of his accuser and criticized recent Church policies that suspended priests from active ministry following allegations of misconduct. He presented himself as one of many priests victimized by disciplinary practices established after the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis.

“For 20 years I did my best to guard and feed the sheep. Now, based on a totally unsubstantiated, undocumented allegation from a demonstrably troubled person I was thrown out like yesterday’s garbage,” he stated.

He provided few substantive details regarding The Black Sheep Dog initiative, but sketched out an ambitious mission: “I shall continue, black sheep that I am, to speak; and sheep dog that I am, to guard the sheep — this time around not just in the Church, but also in the entire world.”

He confirmed plans to produce radio programs and publish books, including an autobiography, The Black Sheep Dog. His mention of the book’s imminent release suggested that his bombshell announcement had been planned for some time. Indeed, Catholic bloggers covering the story soon documented that Santa Cruz Media, Inc. filed on April 8, 2010, for a U.S. federal trademark registration for THE BLACK-SHEEP DOG.


Restructuring SOLT

The announcement will likely prompt scrutiny of Father Corapi’s ties to the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), the society of apostolic life he joined some two decades ago, and raise questions about whether SOLT superiors should have allowed him to live and work apart from his religious community.

In a previous interview with the Register, published after Father Corapi’s suspension, Father Sheehan implicitly acknowledged that the accused priest was not living in conformity with SOLT’s constitution, approved in 1994.

“The founder’s arrangement with Father Corapi was established before that time, when Father [James] Flanagan [SOLT’s founder] believed that every mission should take care of its own needs,” noted Father Sheehan at that time.

During that interview, Father Sheehan confirmed that SOLT had “begun to address the issues of members who joined the society before the new constitution. The society is moving to a more organized structural phase of its existence, with all the Church discipline that entails.” The implication of his remarks was that Father Corapi had not accommodated the discipline imposed by the new constitution.

Father Corapi’s status in the Diocese of Helena, Mont., the location of his home, also raised questions about his legal ability to exercise his ministerial priesthood. In the wake of his suspension, the chancellor of the Diocese of Helena, Father John Robertson, stated: “Father Corapi has a personal residence in Kalispell, Mont. He does not hold priestly faculties in the Diocese of Helena.”

Father Corapi’s YouTube message did not address questions raised by these recent public disclosures. In the message, his ire was reserved for the bishop of Corpus Christi.

“I did not start this process, the bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, ordered my superiors, against their will and better judgment, to do it. He in fact threatened to release a reprehensible and libelous letter to all of the bishops if they did not suspend me. He has a perfect right to do so, and I defend that right. Bishops aren’t bound by civil laws and procedures in internal Church matters.”


‘Once Called Father’

In his YouTube post, Father Corapi characterized the process that led to his suspension as “inherently and fatally flawed.” He added: “The case may be on hold indefinitely, but my life cannot be,” implying that his decision to leave the priesthood and establish “Black Sheep Dog” was essentially forced on him.

The painful decision was guided by legal counsel, he said: “My canon lawyer and my civil lawyers have concluded that I cannot receive a fair and just hearing under the Church’s present process. The Church will conclude that I am not cooperating with the process because I refuse to give up all of my civil and human rights in order to hold harmless anyone who chooses to say defamatory and actionable things against me with no downside to them.”

Attempts to reach Father Corapi for comment were unsuccessful.

He used his statement of resignation as a forum for airing a range of objections regarding the U.S. bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy — though not all the concerns he outlined seemed directly applicable to his particular case.

Curiously, his statement did not explain why his case could not be resolved with the outcome of an investigation initiated by his religious superiors, and that suggested there may be other issues complicating a timely conclusion.

As with most of the recent posts regarding the allegations and suspension on his site and by Santa Cruz Media, this statement included a marketing pitch for his fans, who were encouraged to visit the Black Sheep Dog website: “I hope you stay with us and follow us into our new domain and name of ‘The Black Sheep Dog.’ Through writing and broadcasting we hope to continue to dispense truth and hope to a world so much in need of it.”

In his closing statement — where he signed off as “John Corapi (once called ‘Father,’ now ‘The Black Sheep Dog’),” he acknowledged that some supporters might turn their backs on him. But given the strong encouragement he received after his initial suspension, it is difficult to predict whether he will hold on to his many supporters — and even make new ones in his forthcoming “global” initiative outside Church supervision.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland. 


‘Prayers for Healing’

Statement issued by Father Gerard Sheehan, SOLT regional priest servant, on June 20.

As the regional priest servant of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), I issue the following statement on behalf of the society.

On 16 March 2011, the bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, and the SOLT received a complaint against Father John Corapi, SOLT. As is normal procedure and due to the gravity of the accusation alleging conduct not in concert with the priestly state or his promises as a member of a society of apostolic life of diocesan right, Father Corapi was suspended from active ministry (put on administrative leave) until such a time that the complaint could be fully investigated and due process given to Father Corapi. In the midst of the investigation, the SOLT received a letter from Father Corapi, dated June 3, 2011, indicating that, because of the physical, emotional and spiritual distress he has endured over the past few years, he could no longer continue to function as a priest or a member of the SOLT. Although the investigation was in progress, the SOLT had not arrived at any conclusion as to the credibility of the allegations under investigation.

At the onset, the bishop of Corpus Christi advised the SOLT to not only proceed with the policies outlined in their own constitutions, but also with the proper canonical procedures to determine the credibility of the allegations against Father Corapi. We reiterate that Father Corapi had not been determined guilty of any canonical or civil crimes. 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. On June 17, 2011, Father John Corapi issued a public statement indicating that he has chosen to cease functioning as a priest and a member of the SOLT.

The SOLT is deeply saddened that Father Corapi is suffering distress. The SOLT is further saddened by Father Corapi’s response to these 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. We request your prayers and the intercession of the Blessed Mother for the healing of Father Corapi and for any who have been negatively affected by Father Corapi’s decision to end his ministry as a priest and a member of the SOLT.

Father Gerard Sheehan, SOLT Regional Priest Servant