Sister Resigns From Detroit Seminary After Sex-Abuse Allegations
Allegations surfaced that Sister Mary Finn had sexual contact with young-adult novices under her charge in the 1970s.
DETRIOT — Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit announced this week the resignation of Sister Mary Finn, 84, a longtime faculty member and assistant professor of theology, after allegations surfaced that she had sexual contact with young-adult novices under her charge in the 1970s.
“In recent days, information came to my attention regarding inappropriate conduct over 50 years ago by Sister Mary Finn,” Msgr. Todd Lajiness, the rector and president of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said in a statement published Wednesday.
“After a series of conversations with her, her superior, Archbishop [Allen] Vigneron and members of the archbishop’s team, I have accepted her resignation from the faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, effective today.”
In a story reported by DeadlineDetroit.com, Theresa Camden, a former novice with the Home Visitors of Mary, recalled “confusing” experiences with Sister Mary, then the novice director for the order, such as being made to lie very close to her on exclusive retreats.
Camden told Deadline Detroit that, in hindsight, she knew something felt wrong. After Camden and another novice, who has remained anonymous, were suddenly kicked out of the order in 1972, they sought therapy for their experiences with Sister Mary. The anonymous novice confirmed to Camden that she had had a sexual relationship with Sister Mary.
Michael Betzold with Deadline Detroit reported that Sister Mary’s resignation was announced by the seminary as his story on the allegations was being prepared.
In her resignation letter, posted to the seminary’s website, Sister Mary admits to having “misused my position of authority as a director of novices in the Home Visitors of Mary (HVM) Order, engaging in inappropriate conduct with two adult novices. I regret that behavior, have repented of my actions, and sincerely apologize for the harm I have caused.”
The Home Visitors of Mary hung up the phone when CNA attempted to contact the order about Finn. Subsequent attempts to contact the order went unanswered.
Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit, chairman of the board of trustees at Sacred Heart, was quoted in the seminary statement supporting Sister Mary’s resignation, citing “additional information and what we have come to learn about how best to respond to these situations.”
He said: “While serving as rector of Sacred Heart in the late 1990s, I was given partial details about Sister Mary’s inappropriate conduct that had occurred in the early 1970s. At the time, I thought the matter had been resolved. I regret this was not the case.”
In a Jan. 18 statement, Archbishop Vigneron went on to say: “It is only in recent days that I have come to know new and additional details and context regarding Sister Mary’s misconduct. Based on this information, the current rector, Msgr. Lajiness, accepted Sister Finn’s resignation, and I endorse this action.”
In 1969, three years before Camden and the other novice were expelled from Sister Mary’s order, Sister Mary began working at Sacred Heart Seminary, where she has served in various positions ever since.
Most recently, she was an assistant professor of theology and served on the “Priestly Formation Team” for the College of Liberal Arts, among other roles, according to a cached website of her seminary page, which had been removed from the school’s website by Friday, Jan. 18.
Edward Mischel, director of community psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit, was in the seminary at Sacred Heart about 10 years after Sister Mary started there, in the late 1970s.
Mischel, who completed four years of college at the seminary before discerning that he was not called to the priesthood, told CNA that he chose Sister Mary for his spiritual director and remembers her fondly. They still maintain contact to this day.
“She’s been this quiet, spiritual, loving, easygoing person,” Mischel told CNA. “The guys in the seminary, they adore her.”
News of the allegations of sexual misconduct in the early 1970s was “disheartening,” Mischel said, but he rejected any insinuations that Sister Mary “was dominant or in this old boys’ club; that’s like the antithesis of her. I’ve never seen that in the 30, 40 years I’ve known her, nothing like that at all.”
Mischel said he knows Sister Mary to be a staunch advocate for the people of Detroit and a very kind and forgiving person.
When asked if he had any concerns that she was placed in charge of young seminarians, after having been accused of sexual misconduct with young women, Mischel said he was not concerned because he had seen “nothing like that at all” by Sister Mary against the seminarians.
But not all former seminarians of Sacred Heart remember her as fondly, and the news of her resignation and the allegations against her as a novice master have also raised serious questions and concerns about her conduct at the seminary.
Two former seminarians at Sacred Heart Seminary have told CNA that Sister Mary had a reputation for being overly “handsy” with seminarians — extended hugs, smooches, squeezes and generally unwanted contact were to be expected from her.
“In legal terms, it was unwelcomed touching. But if a seminarian reported it, they became a problem,” one former seminarian, who asked for anonymity, told CNA.
Another former seminarian, who also asked for anonymity, told CNA that Sister Mary had become such a “fixture” of the seminary and was so well-liked and considered so holy that she became “untouchable” — any complaints against her were promptly dismissed.
This same seminarian told CNA that Sister Mary was always “touching people,” and while he doesn’t know of any explicitly sexual touching, he said her behavior was “grossly inappropriate.” He recalled on instance where Sister Mary almost pushed a seminarian over a balcony, only to pull him back at the last second, as a joke. When the seminarian turned to throw a punch, assuming it had been a fellow seminarian, he instead saw Sister Mary.
“She had no sense of boundaries,” the former seminarian said. Her meetings would often run late, and seminarians were expected to listen to her for hours, in what felt like “indoctrination lectures,” he said.
In another example of boundary violation, both former seminarians told CNA separately that Sister Mary was known for wandering the residence wing of the seminary late at night unannounced and would often walk past seminarians who were wearing towels or boxers, coming to and from the communal showers.
One time, Sister Mary wandered in on a priest in the shower, but that issue was “promptly addressed,” one of the former seminarians said.
At some point after the late 1970s, Sister Mary had been moved from her community to live at the seminary. While she would wander the wing belonging to the seminarians, her room was in the faculty wing.
Mischel told CNA that Sister was still living with her community during his time at Sacred Heart. He said he suspects she may have been moved to the seminary due to health problems; she eventually developed Parkinson’s disease, which may have made it difficult for her to drive.
Mischel said he had never had any experience of her intentionally walking past half-dressed seminarians and said he wondered whether it could have been a sign that she was entering stages of dementia.
One of the former seminarians who spoke to CNA also said Sister Mary seemed to be “detached from reality” at times and had difficulty remembering dates. Both of the anonymous former seminarians included in this article were at Sacred Heart in the early and mid-2000s.
When asked why Finn had been moved from her community to live at the seminary, Mary Henige, strategic communications director for Sacred Heart Major Seminary, told CNA: “We do not know when and why Sister Mary Finn moved to the seminary.”
Both former seminarians also told CNA that Sister Mary’s theology was “unsound.” Part of her theology classes, they said, included “feelings lists,” where seminarians were asked to recall an experience from their lives and describe their feelings. The lists, provided by Sister Mary, included “feeling words” such as “sexy,” “hot” or “horny,” they recalled.
One of the former seminarians told CNA that multiple men had attempted to register complaints against her conduct, but they were ignored because of the reputation she enjoyed. Many of the faculty at Sacred Heart had been formed by Finn during their time in seminary and believed her to be saintly. He said, at one point, he had heard a faculty member refer to Sister Mary as the “Holy Spirit Incarnate.”
He said, on the one hand, she did seem to have a genuine love and concern for people. She saw Christ in people in a way that was “beautiful,” he said.
But she acted like she “was everyone’s mom; but she wasn’t, and she’s not,” he said. “There were clear boundary issues. She was very emotionally manipulative of people, very passive-aggressive.”
“She had a cult following, so this is devastating to a lot of people,” he added.
When CNA asked the archdiocese about these claims about her conduct at Sacred Heart Seminary, the archdiocese referred all questions to Sacred Heart.
When asked whether the faculty at Sacred Heart were aware of her alleged reputation for unwanted touching, inappropriate contact or for allegedly wandering by seminarians in towels, Henige told CNA: “We’re not going to respond to character allegations, nor would that be our role. Sister Mary’s resignation letter outlines the reasons why she resigned.”