Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Letter from Cardinal Cupich and Statement by Fr. Phillips' Attorney

Yesterday, the website of St. John Cantius Parish put up the letter from Cardinal Cupich that was read out at all Saturday and Sunday Masses:

Also, yesterday, Catholic News Agency quoted a statement by Steve Komie, the current attorney for Fr. Frank Phillips:
Phillips’ attorney, Steve Komie of Komie and Associates, told CNA that he has been informed that the Resurrectionist provincial has directed a review board to review the priest’s situation. 
“Father Philips has asked me to say that he’s looking forward to the convocation of the board under the decree of the provincial and he’s looking forward to appearing in front of the board, and he’s looking forward to have the board work its way through the claims being currently made,” Komie said. 
“He looks forward to the report and in the meantime he’s praying for the peace and reconciliation of all involved.” 
“That’s the extent of his statement, because at this time under the rules he is not allowed to comment further,” said the attorney.
CNA also quoted an Archdiocese spokeswoman:
Susan Thomas, communications director for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told CNA that the priest is not accused of a canonical crime, known as a “delict,” and to the archdiocese’s knowledge he is not being investigated for a civil crime... 
Thomas told CNA that removal is “a typical response for misconduct of this nature.” 
“Other cases have been handled in the same way,” she said.
What are we to make of these?

The Archdiocese still hasn't provided much detail on the nature or circumstances of the charges. And as can be seen from the above, it is signaling that it may not say anything more, referring all questions to the Congregation of the Resurrection. 

As I reported yesterday, a bit more detail - that there were three complainants, for instance - was explicitly given or hinted at in the informal "Q & A" discussions held in the St. John Cantius vestibule after each Mass. Since then, a parishioner told me a bit more about one of those sessions. According to the parishioner, the representative from the Archdiocese said that the accusations involved "unwanted touching," and he actually spent some time pantomiming what he meant with his hands.

Now, obviously, "unwanted touching," assuming the reality of the underlying physical event, could mean anything from quasi-molestation to a homosexual pass to a completely non-sexual comradely or fatherly pat. Presumably the complainants allege one of the first two interpretations. But the parishioner told me that the way it was demonstrated ended up seeming almost comic and (whatever the actual truth of the matter) even more potentially innocuous than the verbal description.

What is the significance of this other than the possible awkwardness of the Archdiocese representative? Well, among other things, unwanted touching can constitute legally actionable sexual harassment under Illinois law. Yet Susan Thomas, the Archdiocese Communications Director, claimed that Fr. Phillips is not being investigated for a civil crime. 

Of course, as a priest, Fr. Phillips is also subject to a number of Canon law prohibitions involving sexual behavior - from attempting marriage (Can. 1394) to living in concubinage to persisting in scandal in another external sin against the sixth commandment (Can. 1395). Arguably, engaging in a serious or long-term pattern of "unwanted touching" could be interpreted as a violation of Can. 1395. Yet Ms. Thomas stated that Fr. Phillips is not being accused of a canonical crime.      

According to Ms. Thomas, removing Fr. Phillips was “a typical response for misconduct of this nature . . . Other cases have been handled in the same way.” The CNA article, above, went on to mention two recent examples (perhaps the only two) where cardinal Cupich had removed Chicago clergy for sexual infractions. In two separate 2015 cases, Rev. Marco Mercado and Rev. Brendan Curran were accused of, and quickly admitted to, having consensual sexual affairs - Mercado with a man, and Curran with an unmarried woman. 

But it should be clear that these cases are quite different from that of Fr. Phillips. In the first place, they involved clear violations of Canon law. But in the second, each of them was removed from his position only after the truth of each accusation had already been established, through an admission of guilt, if nothing else.

It is notable that Ms. Thomas did not include an "accusations of" or an "alleged" before the "misconduct of this nature," even as the Archdiocese began officially referring all questions to the Resurrectionists, who had not yet began an investigation. Also notable is the way the Cardinal's letter described what lay ahead:
I have referred the matter to Reverend Gene Szarek, C.R., the Provincial Superior [of the Congregation], who will deal with these allegations and decide on any further action. 
But this construction is odd. If one possible result of an investigation is an exoneration of the accused, presumably triggering the removal or reversal of any provisional actions or restrictions, "further action" does not seem quite appropriate.

A cynical or skeptical interpretation might be that the Archdiocese wants the best of both worlds. There has clearly already been some kind of fairly rigorous internal investigation, or so they want you to believe - that's part of why (it is implied) tough and swift action against Fr. Phillips was justified. But generally, after such an investigation, more pertinent details are released - out of fairness to all parties and to establish the credibility of the process. Yet the Archdiocese now seems to be punting all questions to the Resurrectionists, whose investigation will almost certainly last many months.

Before I conclude, I must mention the statement from Steve Komie, the attorney for Fr. Phillips. I think it also leaves one with questions, the most obvious one being why the statement did not include any kind of denial. Mr. Komie does say that "under the rules [Fr. Phillips] is not allowed to comment further." I'm not sure what "rules" he is referring to. But I'm not aware of anything in standard Church law or practice that would prohibit an innocent man from publicly stating his innocence, at least in the appropriate context. I could be wrong, and obviously there are other reasonable explanations for such an omission.

On the other hand, "looking forward" to the investigation is perhaps not something a guilty man would say, especially if (for a guilty man) the process promised months of embarrassment and humiliation. One assumes that one option for Fr. Phillips (if the charges were true and there was good evidence for them) would have been to have made a swift public admission of guilt - just as Mercado and Curren did - so as to minimize the harm caused to St. John Cantius, the Canons and himself. That he hasn't done so, arguably supports his innocence.   


  1. "I'm not sure what "rules" he is referring to." My guess is that he has be ordered to not discuss the matter with anyone.

  2. I'm also a parishioner so I have been pondering this. I was also struck by it not being clear whether Fr. Philips denied the charges and by the fact that the archdiocese's letter seemed to imply that even if fully exonerated, he wouldn't be returning. I tend to agree with your assessment.

    One possibility is that Fr. Philips admits that the action alleged did in fact occur, but that it was intended to be innocuous. This is supported by what your heard, and also by the Canons' Regular initial statement that Fr. Philips was being "transparent." That struck me initially because if you contend that nothing happened, there is nothing to be transparent about, is there? Typically denying something isn't described as "transparent." But then it didn't say he admitted to it either. If I had to guess he innocuously hugged someone who had been looking for an excuse to attack him, likely some kind of homosexualist activist.

    Anyway, this isn't really a good look for the archdiocese. Removing a well-liked pastor who through 30 years of service brought a church on the brink of closure to become one of the most vibrant in the country shouldn't be done lightly, and yet the incident was apparently not serious enough to constitute a criminal, civil or canon law violation.

    So one is led to conclude that the reason it's being kept undisclosed is because of a potential backlash against Cupich due to its triviality. And yet it's going to be disclosed eventually. My guess is that the CR investigation will conclude something along the lines of Fr. Philips unintentionally made someone feel uncomfortable with a hug or something. Cupich will use that as an excuse to not reinstate him, even though nothing really happened.

  3. Reading Fr. Phillips' statement via his attorney, it comes across like he is not denying the material facts of the allegations, but is confident he can clear it up, that his actions were innocent. He is obviously saying he is innocent, but as much as he can "under the rules." Church Militant's headline even implies that, stating Fr. was defending himself.

    PS. I'm sure a bureaucrat at the chancery is reading these comments. I would say to them, even if you wrongly smear and oust this good priest, in the end your side is the loser, because everyone, including both the Catholic and secular press in your city alone can and will see how transparent Cupich's motives are. And I'd wager a month's salary in the end Father will be exonerated in the public eye, and Cupich more clearly exposed for what he represents. I look forward to reading that in the blogosphere.

  4. I was a party to the birth of similar charges against my Priest, by erstwhile friends at our Parish some years ago. I saw firsthand how these charges, birthed through gossip behind our Priest's back, can grow exponentially and take on a life of their own, destroying lives like wildfire.

    Having witnessed this, I took it upon myself to dump cold water on the heads of those who presumed such inflammatory things. I immediately brought their presumptions into the light of day and killed the gossip by starving it of the oxygen of anonymity.

    "You think such things to be true? I say you are a liar. Make the charge to his face of shut the you know what up." That's essentially how it went. Yes, it was ugly and no fun. But we killed the thing in birth. It was ultimately all pure fantasy.

  5. The whole thing is just so sad. Life in the Church has become a roller coaster ride. These days I pray for the truth to be revealed and the lies to be exposed. There are certainly many liars in the clergy as letter-gate recently showed. Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.