Preface by Rebecca Bratten Weiss
In October 2018 the National Catholic Reporter published a story by Jenn Morson, detailing the ongoing grooming and assault of female students by Samuel Tiesi, TOR, chaplain at Franciscan University of Steubenville during the 1980s and 1990s. Morson also reported on the university’s systemic cover-up of Tiesi’s activities, and finally their removal of a plaque dedicated to him, once some of the truth about his behavior emerged.
Morson’s article focused particularly on the painful and traumatizing experiences of one student, Karen, who was repeatedly assaulted by Tiesi, then later blamed and silenced by his fellow friars from whom she sought help – including beloved Franciscan University president Michael Scanlan.
Morson and NCR acted justly and courageously on behalf of the victims and the truth of their stories; however, many still turn away from these accounts that make them uncomfortable, challenge their preconceptions.
But survivors like Karen deserve to be heard and taken seriously; it is the least we can do for them, after what has been done to them. For this reason, I agreed to publish Karen’s open letter to Franciscan University and the institutional leaders who failed her.
This story is difficult to read, and could potentially be triggering for other victims of assault and cover-up, so be advised.
This story will also, I am certain, be upsetting for many who admired or even loved the men she names. I am one who liked and admired Sam Tiesi, and who revered and loved Michael Scanlan. But my shock and perturbation, in facing the reality of what these men did, are nothing compared with the suffering of the survivors who were viciously betrayed and silenced, and who carry scars of sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse for life.
If you truly care about reform in the church, justice for the wronged, and healing for the innocent, you will not let your desire to hold onto past memories and present affections deafen you to the witness of those who were silenced too long. If you and I feel pain in reading Karen’s account, think of the much greater pain she has carried with her for years, and ask yourself, please, what we the church can do to right these wrongs.
If we fail to do this, because we cherish the memory of a hero or the reputation of an institution, we become part of the problem that has been ravaging the lives of innocents for decades. And, if we do this while claiming to be Christians, we have driven one more nail into the body of Christ.
An Open Letter to FUS:
I am a victim of Fr. Sam Tiesi, TOR. I have been failed by the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Failed by its friars and the TORs.
The first person to fail me, obviously, was Fr. Sam. He was the campus minister, but I considered him a father figure, my confidante, my friend. Fr. Sam spoke often about God the Father, showed me the beauty of the Holy Eucharist, taught me how to pray the rosary, and my faith life became irrevocably intertwined with him. He was a holy man whom I could trust. Everyone said so. But they were wrong.
Fr. Sam taught me to trust, then he abused that trust for his own sinfulness. He used God and my innocent faith to keep his secret safe. He said he loved me like a daughter. But he was not a father. He was a monster.
Fr Mike Scanlan was the next person to fail me. He was the President of FUS, an internationally known speaker, and leader of the charismatic movement . Fr. Mike was another father figure, another holy man whom everyone said I could trust. He said he was there to help. Everyone said that was great. They were wrong.
Fr Mike used his power and position to manipulate me. We spoke and emailed regularly while I went through the worst of the pain. I was vulnerable and confused. He used that to his advantage to keep his best friend’s secret safe. He lied to me and said it had not happened before, but it had. Many times. And he knew it. Fr. Mike told me it was my fault, that “Sam loved me too much” and that the abuse was just an expression of his “love” that went too far. He told me I was at fault for telling this secret, and that I should recant my story and everything would be okay. But asking me to lie, and convincing me that these lies were truth was not help at all. It was not “love”. It was wrong. Fr. Mike was a monster too.
Fr Jim Angert failed me. He was in charge of the friars on campus. It was his job to care for, support, and if need be admonish the friars. When I told him that Fr. Sam had been sexually abusive, he didn’t understand. Maybe he didn’t want to understand. I don’t know. But I was scared and in pain, and asked for help, and he didn’t believe me – or didn’t want to believe me. He did not understand the devastation and pain in my heart and in my faith. He dealt with sexual abuse and assault by telling Fr. Sam to pray more. He said that extra prayer would be “enough”. It was not enough. Fr. Jim, you were supposed to help me. I needed you to believe me and help protect me. But you just prayed more. Fr. Jim, you failed me.
Fr Ron Mohnicky, you also failed me. I remember so clearly sitting on the bench on the hill by the friary. I loved that bench with the view over the campus. And there, I told you. Told you that Sam had done bad things to me. But you told me I misunderstood, that it could not have happened. I will never forget those words and how deeply it hurt when you said “I misunderstood his Italian affection”. Fr Ron, his tongue in my mouth, his hand on my breast, and all the other “unwanted sexual contact” was more than “Italian affection”. It was sexual assault. It was abuse of power. It was abuse of faith. It happened and it was wrong. I was scared, and asked you for help,and you blamed me. You are a friar, why didn’t you help me? You failed me.
Fr Dan Sinisi failed me. Fr. Dan, you were at FUS sporadically as professor of theology. I met you after graduation and we became friends over the years. I trusted you. You called me your spiritual daughter, and I called you Papa Daniel.. When you told me to “drop this thing with Sam”, I just couldn’t do it. It was truth, and it was hurting me deeply. I needed to talk about but you told me a second time to “drop it or you would not continue to talk with me”. I couldn’t drop it, so you never spoke to me again. I needed you to be the “spiritual father” you claimed to be, and to protect me. I will never trust another priest to be a spiritual father again. You broke any ability to trust that I had left. You failed me.
Msgr. Kurt Kemo and Msgr. (now Bishop) Roger Foys, you were the men at the Diocese of Steubenville who handled my case. Coming to you was excruciatingly hard to do. I wanted the friars to do what was right, to protect the students. and believe and help me. When they deliberately chose not to, I came to you for help. So you revoked Fr. Sam’s faculties, and at first I thought you were the good guys. I thought you were trying to protect the students,and wanted to help. But what I did not realize then was: you already knew. You knew that Sam was a predator. before I even arrived on campus. You knew, and you left him there to devour my spirit and soul and faith. You failed me.Fr. Jordan Hite, you also failed me. You were Minister Provincial of the Sacred Heart Province. When the diocese revoked Fr. Sam’s faculties, you moved him to the FUS campus in Gaming, Austria. There, in another country, he had more vulnerable students, and less accountability. I came forward to protect the future students and victims, yet you set them up for the slaughter. I did my best to fight this move, but no one listened or cared. You failed me and all the women after me.
Diocese of Steubenville,you showed such poor judgment that it is beyond comprehension: you allowed me to recant. And when I did so, I did not deny that the actions DID occur, that Fr. Sam did these things to me. But, as per Fr. Mike’s instructions, I told you that it was done in “love” and that I misunderstood these actions. There was no way you didn’t see what was going on.. You had to see it. You were educated, intelligent men, with the future and lives and very souls of young women in your hands. But you chose to appease the university and Fr. Mike, rather than protect those young souls in your charge. When you allowed Fr. Sam back onto FUS campus, you failed all those students. And you failed me. Again.
Fr. Edmund Carroll, you allowed Fr. Sam to go back to FUS campus. I don’t know your reasons. I don’t know if you were coerced or just didn’t care. You knew he had a long history of abuse. There were so many other victims, but then one victim recants, and you send him back? What about the other women? FUS admits to 5 women he abused at the Steubenville campus, but we know the number is so much higher. How many sexually assaulted women does it take, for you finally to protect your students? You failed us all.
Fr. Christian Oravec, your failure disappointed me the most. Considering the extensive list above, this claim carries a lot of weight. You worked through the settlement with me. It was a long and painful process. Yet, months after completing this settlement, you and Fr. Mike Scanlan allowed a very public memorial and dedication of the Portiuncula to Fr. Sam, complete with a poster size glossy photo of him placed in the Portiuncula. I don’t know whose idea it was, and all the people involved, but you knew the truth and allowed it. A failure that pierced my heart.
Fr. Christian Oravec, you and your lawyer insisted on a confidentiality clause, and I refused. You and your lawyer insisted on so many things, and I refused them because they defied the charter from the USCCB on handling these matters. You said that, as a religious order, you were not bound by those rules. I still wonder how many women there are who are not free to speak up, because you bound them in your web of silence? The USCCB called for integrity and honesty. You claimed exemption. You failed all of the women that are bound in these clauses. If you truly want Integrity and Truth, unbind these women tell their stories and be free of the burden of silence you have placed on them.
Fr. Christian Oravec, you failed every victim after me. I fought to include a clause in my settlement where you would create a system of advocacy and care for victims. You signed a legal document agreeing to set this system up to help victims avoid the hell I went through in the process. You legally agreed to protect future victims and provide an advocate to help them through the process. Then you never set this up. It has been over 13 years, and victims are still being misled, manipulated, lied to, and treated as the enemy. You promised to help these women, but you failed them, and you failed me. You failed deeply.
Fr Christian Oravec, Fr. Nicholas Polichnowski, and Fr. Richard Davis: you were the minister provincials after my settlement. I don’t know exactly where the disconnect happened, but NONE of you made sure the legal requirement signed off on by Fr. Christian was followed through on. Actually, the settlement seems to have disappeared from Fr. Sam’s file. Maybe it was never placed in there – or maybe it was removed? I don’t know by who or when. But, the cover-up goes to the top.
FUS outed Fr. Sam as an abusive priest last fall, but a month prior to that, Fr. Richard Davis shocked us by the news that Fr. Sam’s file with the province was empty except for family contacts. Where are the documents from my case? Where is my settlement? What about his loss of faculties imposed by the diocese of Steubenville? Where is the information about his stay at the treatment center? And all the other women who came forward – where are they? Minister Provincials of the Sacred Heart Province, you have failed me with your complicity in this cover up. You have failed all the victims after me by not following through on the advocate system you agreed to.
Franciscan University of Steubenville, you promised my parents 32 years ago that you would take care of me. You have failed in this promise. You destroyed my faith, nearly cost my life, and shattered the parts of my innocent trusting heart that will never heal, this side of heaven. They paid you over $50,000 to keep me at FUS for 4 years. Is that the price for a soul? The current exchange rate for 30 pieces of silver? You failed me. You failed my parents. You failed us all.
Franciscan Friars TOR of the Most Sacred Heart Province, your leaders, minister provincials, and friars failed me. Sam was abusing women repeatedly. You knew he was a predator. And that there were accusations years before I arrived, going back a decade, and even longer off campus. Yet you kept his secret. His reports, accusations, settlements, loss of faculties and even his time at the “treatment center” for this issue were hidden. You lied. You hid the truth. Your actions are so horrific, they can only forgiven by God. You knowingly sacrificed my life, my heart, my soul to a predator. You failed me. You failed every victim before me. And every victim after me.
Most of all, you failed the God that will always know the truth, that is on my side, and the God who weeps for His children destroyed at your hands. You failed me. You have failed the mission of the university. You have failed the charism of St Francis. You have failed to lead with Integrity and Truth.
But worst of all, you failed the One who IS integrity and truth.
None of the men who failed me are being held accountable. Most are still alive and in ministry.
image of Portiuncula chapel at Franciscan University campus: www.flickr.com/photos/pernett/1638303151