After 18 months of virtual house arrest, Father Matthew Cowan is returning to active ministry. The announcement came in the May 31, 2020 bulletin of St. Joseph Church, Hays, Kansas, where he will be Parochial Vicar. (https://54187ef2-16de-40e0-a32f-82d94f434d94.filesusr.com/ugd/de84aa_a2beeacf6b7d4acdaf16ae84e83bc507.pdf).
This is the end of an unfortunate series of events in which a whistleblower was taken out while the accused remained unaffected, even with credible accusations against him. In August of 2018, Father Matthew Cowan accused the then Vicar (second in command) of the Diocese of Gaylord, Father Dennis Stilwell, of sexual abuse after multiple unwanted advances. Further findings revealed a pattern of inappropriate behavior by Fr. Stilwell to illustrate a pattern of misconduct which would bolster the allegations of Fr. Cowan. The most egregious of these was Fr. Stilwell’s employment, for over six years, of known sexual abuser James Holtz. Fr. Stilwell allowed Holtz to work with altar boys for years after Holtz was removed from ministry for admitting to abusing a minor as a priest. Holtz was placed on the Diocesan list of credibly accused abusers. This was made known to all priests of the Diocese in 2002 (including Fr. Stilwell). It was not until 2019, after this information was made known to the public by Gaylord Diocesan Watch, that Holtz was taken out of ministry.
After being promised a speedy and thorough investigation, the Diocese failed to act on the allegations which were corroborated by another individual where both Fr. Stilwell and Father Cowan were assigned at the time. In December 2018, Father Cowan went public with his allegations due to the failure of the Diocese to act on these allegations. In response to his action, Bishop Steven Raica suspended Fr. Cowan and placed him on virtual house arrest. Fr. Cowan was barred from entering any Catholic Church in the Diocese of Gaylord unless no Church services of any type were taking place. He was barred from participating in baptisms, confirmations, first communions, weddings, or funerals in the Diocese. He was removed from his residence and forced to live in his parent’s basement and say Mass in private. Meanwhile, Fr. Stilwell retired and was given a farewell party attended to by Bishop Raica. Fr. Stilwell remains in ministry with full retirement benefits as sacramental minister for the Catholic parishes in Boyne City and Boyne Falls. A mysterious and secret Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Review Board cleared Fr. Stilwell of wrongdoing in 2019. Gaylord Diocesan Watch later learned that members of the Review Board included Diocesan personnel that were under the control and management of Fr. Stilwell. Also, the policies and procedures used by the Review Board were not made public.
Father Cowan appealed his suspension to the Vatican. At this time, the specifics of his appeal are not known to us. However, it is clear that the Vatican does not sanction the continued removal of this priest from active duty. Unfortunately, the Diocese of Gaylord will be losing a good priest. The good news is that he will return to living out his sacred vocation. Since he is listed as being “on loan” from the Diocese of Gaylord, it is possible that could return in the future. For that we can be filled with joy and offer thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit.
Gaylord Diocesan Watch was formed to address the inappropriate treatment of Fr. Cowan. Since then, we have expanded our apostolate to include other issues of interest in the Diocese as we pursue our mission to help the Bishop and clergy bring souls to Heaven. Even then, our support of Father Cowan never waivered. We have kept our focus on defending him and supporting those who stand up for the truth.
We would like to offer our thanks to our Blessed Mother, all of the intercessory saints, and all of those who have prayed and supported Father Cowan during this earthly purgatory he has had to sustain. Let us pray that he will be a good priest and shepherd for his flock. Let us pray that we will receive a good bishop to replace Bishop Raica (who will become the Bishop of Birmingham, Alabama, this month). Let us pray for healing of his family and those who have been negatively affected by this terrible miscarriage of justice. We will continue to monitor this situation closely and we will continue to pursue the truth for our Diocese.