Father Corapi’s Bombshell

The popular speaker announces plans to leave the priesthood amid an investigation into allegations of misconduct, and his religious superior breaks his silence on the investigation. A Register news analysis.

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 — called “Black Sheep Dog” — focused on a “broader” message and a global audience.

Three months have passed since Father Corapi, a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), was removed from public ministry by his order while it investigated allegations of misconduct leveled by one of his former employees.

Posted on YouTube and on the website of Santa Cruz Media, the company led by Father Corapi that distributes his bestselling catechetical materials, the announcement shocked his many supporters, some of whom 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.

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

However, Father Gerard Sheehan, regional priest-servant of SOLT and Father Corapi’s religious superior in the U.S., confirmed June 19 that the order’s investigation 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.”

The investigation was halted after Father Corapi “sent us a letter resigning from active ministry and religious life. I have written him a letter asking him to confirm that decision. If so, we will help him with this process of leaving religious life,” said Father Sheehan.

He expressed disappointment that Father Corapi chose not to remain in SOLT and to refuse the order’s invitation for him to live in community, leaving his Montana home. Father Sheehan said he had tried to arrange a meeting with Father Corapi before any final decision was announced, but had not heard back from him. Father Sheehan said that SOLT would issue a statement shortly.

“We wanted him to come back to the community, and that would have meant leaving everything he has. It would have been a drastic change for him,” Father Sheehan said. “We will continue to move pastorally and charitably, taking steps to protect his good name.”

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 and a text version of his statement began with an acknowledgement that the upcoming Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011, marked his “20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. For 20 years I was called ‘father.’”

Expressing 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, 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 his new 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 stated.

He confirmed plans to produce radio programs and publish books, including an autobiography Black Sheep Dog. His mention of the book’s imminent release suggested that his bombshell announcement had been planned for some time.

The announcement will likely prompt scrutiny of Father Corapi’s ties to the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), the apostolic religious order he joined twenty years 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 Flanagan believed that every mission should take care of its own needs,” noted Father Sheehan at that time. “Now, according to our constitution, a different way of life has been established for members. All the money we make is turned over to the society, which gives us an allowance.”

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, 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 that “Father Corapi has a personal residence in Kalispell, Mont. He does not hold priestly faculties in the Diocese of Helena.”

Father Corapi’s YouTube statement 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.”

His remarks raised questions about the role of the bishop of Corpus Christi in the decision to place him on administrative leave. The motherhouse of SOLT is based in that diocese. In the wake of his suspension, Marty Wind, a diocesan spokesman said that his case was outside the jurisdiction of the diocese and that SOLT authorities had initiated the action to temporarily remove him from active ministry.

In his YouTube post, Father Corapi characterized the process that led to his suspension as “inherently and fatally flawed.” He added that “The case may be on hold indefinitely, but my life cannot be,” he said, 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, Black Sheep Dog.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.