Friday, February 22, 2019

Belmont Abbey, Where I Met Waterloo as a Theologian, Back in News: Two Abbey Priests Who Served at the College Appear in List of Accused Priests

Readers of this blog who have followed it for any length of time will know the story of how my career as a Catholic theologian and that of my now-husband Steve were destroyed by a Benedictine college in North Carolina, Belmont Abbey, with the active assistance of the diocese of Charlotte. The "About Me" section of Bilgrimage's home page contains a brief biographical statement with links to a number of postings providing details of that story. Please click them if you want further information about this story. A compendium is here.

Steve and I were hired by Belmont Abbey College in 1991 to teach in its theology department. I was appointed department chair. In the spring semester 1993, I was presented with a one-year terminal contract. I had just received a glowing evaluation of my teaching, scholarship, and service to the college community and community at large. When I asked for an explanation for the termination, the college president refused to provide one.

I asked — repeatedly — to meet with both the abbot of the Belmont Abbey monastery that owns Belmont Abbey College and the bishop of Charlotte, who was then William Curlin. Both gentlemen refused to meet with me. I told them as I requested these interviews that how the college was treating me was producing crisis for me. My faith was being seriously challenged. The effect of the stonewalling I was encountering was to make me think I had no choice except to resign, rather than spend one more year working for an institution that could betray basic Catholic values about honesty and human decency and workers' rights in such an appalling way. I wanted to discuss all of this with  Abbot Oscar and Bishop Curlin before I took that step.

Both gentlemen refused to meet with me, and I did resign. Not long before I did so, Abbot Oscar convened a meeting of the entire college community in which he said that diseased limbs must be lopped from the tree of the college community to make it wholesome. After I resigned, he gave an interview to the local media speaking of the need to shore up the college's Catholicity because it had been threatened.

A step I took before resigning was to ask for a hearing of the college's grievance committee. Prior to that hearing, a lay member of the committee said to me, "I'm not sure there's any point to this hearing. What if you sexually assaulted a student? The college would have grounds to fire you."

I replied that I had not done any such thing, and that if I was being terminated on grounds of moral turpitude, the college would have no reason to refuse to provide a cause for the termination. Around the same time, I heard that the son of the college's faculty senate president was going around telling people that his father had said the college could not have a homosexual on the faculty, since he might make passes at students. A student reported to me as well that he had seen the college president on campus, had told him that he was very unhappy at what was being done to me, and the president replied that my "lifestyle" was problematic.

Steve and I had never made any public statements at all about our lives, about our sexual orientation. Even though there were heterosexual couples on the same campus who were very open about the fact that they were in relationships that contravene the same Catholic moral code which prohibits homosexual behavior….

Not only were our careers as Catholic theologians shattered at this point by Belmont Abbey College and Belmont Abbey monastery, along with the diocese of Charlotte — within a few years following my resignation, the college presented Steve and a group of other faculty and staff rumored to be gay or lesbian with terminal contracts — but we were left with no income, no healthcare coverage, no prospects for new employment in academic institutions with big unexplained black marks on our records and no reason provided for them. At the same time, we were caring for my mother, who was declining from dementia. We had brought her to North Carolina to live with us when we took the jobs at Belmont Abbey. 

When all of this happened, I found myself unable to remain in the Abbey church and sit through eucharistic worship as I saw the monks who had done this to us — well-fed, securely housed, with secure jobs and salaries and intact reputations — standing at the altar, speaking about love and justice and mercy and offering us the Bread of Life when they had taken our daily bread from our mouths without explanation. The disparity between what they preached to us and what they were doing to us was too great: I could no longer stomach Catholic liturgies. I became physically sick in the pit of my stomach when I tried to sit through liturgies after what the monks of Belmont Abbey and the bishop of Charlotte had chosen to do to us.

All this as background to the news to which I want to point you today: in the past several days, both the Charlotte Observer and the Gaston Gazette have published articles noting that when the Catholic diocese of Richmond, Virginia, released its list of priests accused of abuse on 13 February, the names of two Belmont Abbey monks who had previously worked at Belmont Abbey, Frederick George and Donald Scales, appeared on this list. 

The two articles just linked state that the two Benedictines were accused of abusing minors in the 1970s as they were doing parish ministry. (Note: the diocese of Richmond list states that the names on its list are names of priests credibly accused of abuse of minors with substantiated allegations against them.) According to the Gaston Gazette, the allegation against Frederick George was reported in 1987. 

He then returned from parish work to Belmont Abbey monastery in 1991 — the year in which we were hired to teach theology at Belmont Abbey College — and in 1994, was made college chaplain. The year after which Belmont Abbey shattered my career as a theologian, refusing to provide any reason for my terminal contract — though the Belmont Abbey abbot spoke to the college community immediately after I was given the terminal contract about the need to lop "diseased limbs" from the tree that was the college community. And though rumors and allegations were made about me as a potential or actual sexual molester by members of the campus community who supported this action against me. And though the college president spoke of my unacceptable "lifestyle"….

The Gaston Gazette reports that Abbot Placid Solari, who played a key role in my firing, stated to its reporters that the Belmont Abbey community takes sinners back and does not send them away, since if it did that, who would be left? This in defense of the decision to bring Father George — after credible allegations of abuse of minors had been made against him in 1987 — back to the monastery and to appoint him college chaplain in 1994….

In 1994, the year after my career was shattered with no cause for my termination stated, and after I lost a salary, healthcare coverage, my reputation, and was, in fact, decisively sent packing by the Belmont Abbey monks — as they were taking one of their own back and placing him in contact with college students, knowing of the credible allegations of abuse of minors made against him….

Go figure. It appears that the mark on their souls that elevates priests to a different ontological status when they are ordained gives them rights and privileges of which ordinary non-elevated lay people can only begin to dream….

So that's an update for you today, an update about Belmont Abbey College. As you read this, keep in mind that the diocese of Charlotte, which was described in January by local attorney Seth Langson as one of the least transparent dioceses in the nation, still refuses to release its list of names of credibly accused priests. Though dioceses across the nation have done so, including Charlotte's sister diocese in Raleigh and dioceses in the neighboring state of Virginia….

Keep in mind, too, our recent discussion of how lists of priests accused in one diocese are also showing us the need to monitor connections to other dioceses (see here, here, and here). Again and again, lists being released now are showing cross-diocesan and cross-institutional connections that need to be monitored by abuse survivors and those in solidarity with abuse survivors. There is a longstanding pattern of moving abusive priests from place to place as accusations are made against them, almost always with no warning about their past being given to the hapless members of the new communities to which they are sent. 

By the way, Abbot Placid Solari told the media on Monday that he notified Child Protective Services in Gaston County when he had word in 2006 (! of allegations made in the late 1970s?) of the accusations made against Donald Scales. The Charlotte Observer article linked above reports,

On Wednesday morning, Gastonia Police spokeswoman Donna Lahser said in an email to the Observer: "Current and past Gastonia Police Department record systems have been checked, and no report was found. So apparently no police report was filed with us."

The Observer further reports that, when asked why the Charlotte diocese did not alert St. Michael's parish, where Scales served, in 2006 that it had received credible allegations of his history of abuse of minors, Charlotte diocesan spokesman David Hains replied, "I don't really know why."

Once again: can someone please explain why the bishop of Charlotte, Peter Jugis, continues to refuse to disclose a list of names of priests in his diocese credibly accused of abuse. Inquiring minds surely want to know.

Keep in mind, too, as you read, that this is not the first time Belmont Abbey has ended up caught in this way as information about abusive priests disclosed in another diocese implicates Belmont Abbey.  In 2002, when the files kept by the Boston archdiocese were opened for inspection, news came out that a priest Belmont Abbey had hired for its theology department, George Berthold — he was my replacement, in fact: the monks wanted a cleric to head the theology department in my place; I was the first lay chair of the department — came to Belmont Abbey with a known history of having been accused of making sexual advances to a seminarian.

When this news broke, both Abbot Placid Solari and Bishop William Curlin (who had communicated to me through his secretary that he refused to see me when I requested a meeting because he had nothing to do with hiring or firing faculty at Belmont Abbey College) initially told the media that they had not known of Berthold's past when they approved his hire. Cardinal Law himself then released documents showing that he had both telephoned and written the two gentlemen about Berthold before they approved his hire. For further information about that story, please see here and here.

Keep in mind as you read, too — and you can find abundant documentation of these statements in online archives, in addition to the links below — that

1. Belmont Abbey College was the first college in the nation to file suit against the Obama administration due to the contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act — though, Belmont Abbey's own insurance coverage plan had been covering contraceptives, before the current president of the college stated that he was surprised to discover such coverage in his plan shortly before the ACA suit was filed and cancelled the coverage. As the Belmont Abbey student newspaper also noted at the time, the monks receive large income by renting land to a nearby shopping center where a large super-store is one of the chief purveyors of contraceptives in the area.

2. Belmont Abbey applied for a "right to discriminate" dispensation from the federal government, permitting it to continue receiving federal funds while violating federal non-discrimination guidelines. The letter of the Belmont Abbey president asking for this dispensation specifically states that the college sought permission to discriminate against transgender members of the college community.

3. Not long aftere this request for a "right to discriminate" dispensation was made public, the diocese of Charlotte announced a plan to open a minor seminary on the Belmont Abbey campus.

4. Belmont Abbey routinely rates high on the right-wing Cardinal Newman Society's select list of "authentic" Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S.

(Please see this footnote to the posting above.)

The graphic is a photo by Wikimedia user Cajackson2009, who has uploaded it to Wikipedia as a public domain image.

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