Due to what appears to be a possible unfolding scandal regarding a whistle-blower, a new activist group of Catholics in the Diocese of Gaylord is calling on Bishop Steven Raica to immediately reinstate a young priest.  Bishop Raica suspended Fr. Matthew Cowan last month after Father Cowan filed a complaint of sexual harassment against a top diocesan official.

Bishop Raica admitted during a meeting attended by 400 parishioners at Fr. Cowan’s parish in Lake City, on January 15th, 2019, that he did not even talk to Fr. Cowan before suspending him, and he is unwilling to admit that he and his subordinates have terribly mishandled the investigation into the allegations and violated the rules of the diocese they are supposed to follow.

The group is respectfully following the advice of Bishop Raica himself, who advised in a letter to faithful on Aug. 15, 2018: “Call us out when our behaviors or words do not correspond with the heart of Christ;…if you see suspicious activities by priests, religious, lay leaders or volunteers …”

We are posting documents on our web site, Gaylordfaithfulnews.org, about the events that led to Bishop Raica’s suspension of Fr. Cowan, as well as updates on this situation.

We are asking the media to pursue this and other scandals we bring forth because Bishop Raica, for at least two years, has refused to acknowledge most letters to him, and he refuses to rectify obvious scandals.

Here, briefly, is what happened regarding Fr. Cowan, according to our sources, which rely heavily on an email by Fr. Cowan sent to several diocesan officials on Dec. 19.  Major parts of the email are accessible on this website.

Summer 2015

When the then 30-year-old priest came to St. Francis in the summer of 2015 for his new assignment, to be tutored by the elderly Fr. Dennis Stillwell, who is vicar general for the diocese (the second-most-powerful official in the chancery),  Fr. Stilwell insisted on giving the new priest a tour of the rectory.

Over the next two weeks Fr. Cowan documented four instances of unwanted physical contact initiated by Fr. Stillwell in the presence of at least one other person.  These included hugs, patting and rubbing his stomach and a slap on the butt.

Aug. 5, 2015

Fr. Cowan confronted Fr. Stillwell and told him “there will be problems if this happens again.”

Summer 2018

Fr. Cowan explained in his email: “After the news of the homosexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in June of this year, followed by the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report in August of 2018, I realized that what happened to me by Fr. Stilwell was no longer an isolated incident or outlier in the Catholic Church. I then decided at the end of August to file a sexual misconduct allegation with the Diocese, asking them simply to deem the following to be credible or not.”

Late August 2018

Fr. Cowan filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment with the Diocese of Gaylord and included hand-written notes in a letter to the diocesan attorney with more explicit details than in the original complaint.  In his January 2019 meeting, Bishop Raica admitted that the diocese had referred the complaint to the local prosecutor.  This would reflect the contention that the complaint was credible.  Father Stilwell was NOT put on administrative leave as is customary practice in these types of investigations.  If a credible allegation was brought to a prosecutor regarding sexual abuse, shouldn’t the person be placed on administrative leave until the situation has fully been investigated?

Sept. 12, 2018

Following phone calls to various diocesan officials in August, Fr. Cowan met with an “investigator for the diocese” who: “… told me his opinion that it is okay for a gay man to be a priest and that perhaps the Church should change its teaching about this. Jim said he decided to share this in order to know ‘where he stood on this’. I assume in order to establish rapport.”

The investigator also asked Fr. Cowan if he was “homophobic.”

Nov. 18, 2018

In response to an emailed complaint two days earlier to a chancery official in which Fr. Cowan complained that nothing was being done about his complaint, the investigator wanted to conduct “one more interview with someone and then will submit a final report to the review board” and that he did not “anticipate a long wait one the final investigation report is complete; however that is just my impression.”

Nov. 29, 2018

Fr. Cowan examined the formal policies of how complaints of sex-related issues are supposed to be handled and concluded the diocese was violating its own standards, perhaps running the clock out until the aged accused priest would retire sometime soon in the following year.

Dec. 10, 2018

Fr. Cowan was again informed by a chancery official the investigation was not complaint, as “one more interview” needed to be conducted.

Dec. 19, 2018

Exasperated that the investigation into the complaint had dragged on into a fourth month, and the accused priest had not been temporarily removed from ministry while the investigation was being conducted, Fr. Cowan sent copies of his emails regarding the situation to several chancery staffers.

January 7, 2019

Fr. Cowan is suspended by Bishop Raica and moves in with his parents, who live nearby.

Jan 15, 2019

Bishop Raica holds a meeting to discuss the suspension of Fr. Cowan at St. Stephen Church, where Fr. Matthew was previously stationed.  About 400 people attended.  During the one-hour, 36-minute meeting Bishop Raica explained that Fr. Matthew was suspended because he had revealed confidential information about his complaint as well as correspondence from the chancery he had no right to reveal:

“..I do not stop people from sending emails but must know if emails are not respectful or one is going against unity of the presbyterate or diocese, there may be consequences.”  (emphasis added.)

We believe Bishop Raica is quite wrong in his handling not only of the Fr. Cowan situation, and we invite the media to investigate this matter.

As it stands today, Fr. Cowan is represented by a canon lawyer and has indicated that Fr. Cowan at this time has no comments to make publicly about his situation.

This unhappy situation begs the following questions:

  • Why was Father Stilwell not put on administrative leave when an accusation of sexual harassment was filed against him?
  • It appears the Diocese of Gaylord did not follow its own guidelines for investigating a serious charge of sexual abuse. Why not?
  • Why was Father Matthew Cowan stripped of his ability to say mass, hear confessions, and even enter a parish church in the Cadillac area when his dedication and leadership has been impeccable? Is he being made an example so that others who report sexual abuse will be intimidated into silence?
  • Why was Bishop Raica unable to list the specific canon laws that Father Matthew supposedly broke?
  • Why does Bishop Raica not respond to Emails, letters, and other correspondences from concerned Catholics in his diocese?

For Immediate Release: Feb. 6, 2019