Despite numerous accusations and a track record of allowing known sexual offenders unfettered access to the sanctuary, Bishop Raica has exonerated Father Dennis Stilwell from accusations of sexual abuse. This was posted on March 29, 2019 and may be accessed on the diocesan website (www.dioceseofgaylord.org). This is despite an investigation into the allegations that was flawed from the start and prompted a group of concerned Catholics to establish the apostolate of Gaylord Diocesan Watch. The Bishop’s announcement raises a number of significant concerns as well as raising more questions than it answers.

In his letter, the Bishop came to an unbelievable conclusion that “the matter is closed”. We completely disagree, especially with the continued suspension of Father Matthew Cowan. Bishop Raica states that “an independent and methodical investigation” was completed. We believe this to be false. Not only was Father Stilwell not placed on administrative leave, the investigator stated unequivocally that he did not agree with major Church teaching on human sexuality. Father Cowan was not informed of the Review Board’s decision until after he went public with his allegations. What is very disconcerting is that Father Cowan was then suspended from his priestly duties, presumably due to a process crime. He is unable to say mass or administer sacraments in any Church. Meanwhile, Father Dennis Stilwell remains a priest whose duties have not been restricted in any form whatsoever. This is despite a host of inappropriate actions that would have had him fired or possibly found guilty in a court of law were he to have a job in the private sector. The Diocesan Review Board remains a mystery; some question whether there is even such a thing, as the members, actions, conclusions, etc, are shrouded in secrecy. Bishop Raica has refused to meet with members of Gaylord Diocesan Watch. Unfortunately, this only furthers the concerns of a cover-up that many faithful Catholics have voiced in this diocese.

It is also disturbing that repeated physical encounters, no matter how minimal, of a priest (especially a supervisor) to another priest, are not considered “credible” when multiple witnesses reported this. Then what is considered “credible”? How many reports are needed before an allegation is “substantiated”? These unwanted activities prompted Father Cowan to pursue his complaint. Of note is that the diocesan statement neglects to mention one of the most egregious violations of conduct perpetrated by Father Stilwell: the hiring, for years, of a known diocesan sex offender James Holtz as an assistant in managing altar servers, many of whom were boys at the time! This occurred even as Father Stilwell assumed second in command of the Diocese as vicar general.

One of the Gaylord diocesan priests complained from the pulpit this week about the strain of not having Father Cowan available to say mass and how this has had a ripple effect across the Diocese with regard to priest staffing. What has been done to actively pursue Father Cowan’s reinstatement if, according to the Diocese, “the matter is closed”? We believe his faculties should be reinstated and that the Diocese significantly restrict the ministry of Father Dennis Stilwell due to a clear track record of inappropriate behavior.

Bishop Raica’s statement that he is “open to constructive criticism about how we handle the complaints and grievances that are reported so that we can learn from them” is inconsistent with his actions. He refused to meet with Gaylord Diocesan Watch and failed to respond to numerous sincere requests from concerned faithful regarding these matters. Bishop Raica alluded to Gaylord Diocesan Watch when he said that organizations such as ours “do not reflect the reality of the situations we are dealing with or accurately reflect our policies or practices”. If this is the case, we invite the Bishop to sit down with us and clarify his concerns. We stand by our reporting and description of events as presented.

The one positive development in all this is that the Diocese is communicating at all. We firmly believe that if it were not for the establishment of Gaylord Diocesan Watch, none of this would have been made known to the public. Diocesan watchdog groups such as Gaylord Diocesan Watch have emerged as necessary participants in the active life of the Church. We will not cease in our commitment to assist the Diocese in bringing souls to Heaven with our efforts. Our apostolate is dedicated to honesty and transparency. As faithful Catholics, we have a right to raise our concerns and if not appropriately addressed or managed, to bring them to the public. Many good Catholics in the Diocese of Gaylord have voiced their willingness to suffer the closure of their parishes (due to lack of priests) rather than endure the presence of unfaithful, corrupt, or dangerous sexually abusive priests. Please keep us in your prayers and we truly appreciate the support of numerous individuals across our Diocese and beyond. Look to Gaylord Diocesan Watch for future developments regarding these and other issues in the Diocese of Gaylord.