In an announcement dated November 20, 2020, the Diocese of Gaylord publicly announced its Diocesan Review Board (listed previously as the Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Review Board) members. According to the announcement, the Review Board has the duty “to assist the bishop in determining the credibility of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and other parish personnel brought forward in the Diocese”. Gaylord Diocesan Watch has consistently requested transparency in Diocesan activities, most significantly in those activities related to the safety of parishioners. In the case of sexual misconduct allegations brought forth by Fr. Matthew Cowan (which resulted in his suspension for over a year) against disgraced Fr. Dennis Stilwell, the Review Board operated in secret. None of the Board members were listed by the Diocese, and their policies and procedures were kept secret. Conflicts of interest were made known after Gaylord Diocesan Watch was given the names of the Board members (see our December 15, 2019 post). This made the actions of the Review Board with regard to Fr. Cowan and Fr. Stilwell not worthy of credibility in the minds of numerous faithful.
We believe the recent listing of the Board members is an important first step, but there are a host of problems with the Review Board that need to be addressed. These include its members and their policies.
The current membership, we believe, continues to represent a clear conflict of interest with regard to the majority of the members. Of the 10 members of the Board, the following is of concern:
- Four of the Board members have an extensive employment history with the Diocese or with Catholic Human Services. We believe this constitutes a potential conflict of interest, for example, if a person they knew or worked within the Diocese had an accusation against them.
- Rev. Joseph Muszkiewicz is currently a priest in the Diocese. He was on the Review Board when allegations against his superior at the time, Fr. Dennis Stilwell, were brought forth by Fr. Matthew Cowan. This also constitutes a conflict of interest.
The second major issue with the Review Board is its policies and actions. In the announcement, Bishop Hurley stated the following: “The board is currently working on a revision and update of our current policies.” In order for the Review Board to be credible, the policies procedures of the Board should be available to Catholics in the Diocese. Included in this should be the methods used to investigate allegations, the outcomes of investigations, and the reasons for the final decisions of the Board. This can all be done while respecting the confidentiality of a potential victim or the victim’s family.
The Diocese of Gaylord has taken an important first step in regaining credibility in its handling of sexual misconduct in the Diocese. However, this credibility will not be restored until the Review Board is truly an independent group of faithful Catholics. Furthermore, they must be able to show that they function with transparent and thorough policies and procedures that are consistently implemented and followed.