Gaylord Diocese Sexual Abuse #5: Diocese Listening Session

The Michigan Attorney General has released a report on sexual abuse in the Diocese of Gaylord titled, ” Diocese of Gaylord  A Complete Accounting”.  Gaylord Diocesan Watch has reviewed the report.  Our findings are given as a series of articles.  These articles contain sensitive material that may not be suitable for non-adult audiences. Gaylord Diocesan Watch is committed to spreading truth for the good of the Gaylord Diocese. It is our desire to describe the following information with as much respect and charity as possible.  In addition to the links in articles, interested individuals may find the Attorney General’s Report in our Document Library.

Gaylord Diocesan Watch representatives attended (Sunday, February 4, 2024, Immaculate Conception Church, Traverse City) today’s “Listening Session” of the Diocese of Gaylord regarding the Attorney General’s January 2024 report on sexual abuse in the Diocese.  In attendance were Bishop Jeffrey Walsh and three other diocesan personnel, including Larry LaCrosse and Julie Erhardt.

After prayer and introduction, the session was set up ostensibly to allow for the Bishop and his personnel to listen to the audience.  Over 100 people attended.  The one hour and 45 minute meeting was mostly filled with audience members voicing their concerns and opinions.  Notable discussion included the following:

Prior to opening up the meeting for audience discussion, Bishop Walsh gave a brief overview of the Report’s development and the Diocesan response to the report.  He stated that drafts of the report were sent to the Diocese in November 2023 and December 2023, but the Diocese did not react to the report until after it was released.  He spent a few minutes discussing the stress this placed on the Diocese, including the need to assemble a legal team and develop videos and responses to the Report.  At one point, the Bishop stated that “I’ve been eating this report for breakfast, lunch, and dinner since November.”  This of course leads to the question:  Why?  Why now?  Why were these issues not addressed when the Bishop became the leader of the Diocese in 2022?  The Bishop claims he did not have the personnel files.

A fair amount of audience discussion centered on the fact that Bishop Walsh recently announced the fate of three priests in the Attorney General’s report that have been in ministry: Fathers Gardiner, Geyman, and Cotter  Numerous audience members voiced concern over the continued presence of Fr. Geyman in ministry as he undergoes an “assessment” by the Diocese.  Diocesan policy has been that priests who are undergoing evaluation or investigation for sexual wrongdoing would be removed from ministry while the investigation is ongoing.  Like the disgraced Fr. Stilwell, this policy seems to be ignored depending on the priest.

The situation regarding Fr. James Gardiner was highlighted as gross incompetence, at best.  This has been reported by us previously.  Fr. Gardiner admitted to sexual wrongdoing but was later placed in ministry to replace Fr. Bryan Medlin, himself outed for sending pornographic text messages to Catholic high school students.  Fr. Gardiner was then placed as sacramental minister before being taken out of ministry, sort of.  The Bishop’s recent announcement of Fr. Gardiner still allows him to administer the sacrament of Reconciliation, even though he admitted to performing a sex act on a troubled teen in 1996.   When confronted by these facts and how can the Bishop not take responsibility for these findings, in one of the very few responses to anything said at this meeting, the Bishop responded with the following:  “We didn’t have the files”.  The Bishop claimed that due to the Attorney General’s subpoena, the Diocese did not have personnel files of priests when he became Bishop.  Responses from various audience members ranged from skepticism to outright disbelief.  If the Diocese really did release the files of priests with no copies made prior to release to the state of Michigan, this would represent gross incompetence of the Diocese and those responsible for this should be fired.  But even if this were the case, various individuals in the Diocese should have known about Fr. Gardiner’s past, including the vicar of the Diocese (here before Bishop Walsh) as well as others who have served in the Diocese (such as the disgraced former Administrator of the Diocese, Bishop Hurley) who assigned Fr. Gardiner to Cross in the Woods parish.  What is also very concerning is that at the beginning of the meeting, Bishop Walsh noted that a rough draft of the Attorney General’s report was given to the Diocese in November 2023, and a revised draft in December 2023.  But Fr. Gardiner was not taken out of sacramental minister status in Cheboygan until January 2024, ie, months after Bishop Walsh was presumably made fully aware of Fr. Gardiner’s past.

Therefore, it was not until the Attorney General released the report that anything was done regarding the three priests in question.  This is a glaring example of why the Diocese can not be trusted to manage it’s affairs and why apostolates such as Gaylord Diocesan Watch are necessary to assist the Diocese in these matters.  It is sad and ironic that, as one audience member attested, it took the Attorney General of the state of Michigan to cause the Diocese to produce any kind of action (limited and incomplete at best) on this issue regarding the continued malfeasance of its clergy.

At the end of the meeting, Bishop Walsh offered a few remarks, with virtually no substantive answers to questions raised by audience members.  He stated that he “struggled greatly” with the decisions he has made in response to the Attorney General’s report.  He stated that there were Canon Law limitations that prevented him from doing certain things.  He stated that there was a need for mercy and justice.  With regard to the issue of accountability of bishops, he stated, “I can’t speak for previous bishops.”  He stated that he would “come under the same scrutiny” of previous bishops over his decisions and “that’s part of the reality” of being a bishop.  Not once did the Bishop apologize for the lack of leadership, the incompetence, or the damage of his decisions or the decisions of previous bishops in the vetting, ordination, or assignment of problem priests to parishes or schools.  He then left before the end of the meeting to serve Mass.

In response to the question of clergy in the Diocese who knew about problem priests but didn’t speak up, Julie Erhardtt, the lay Chancellor of the Diocese stated that due to Pope Francis’ declaration in 2020, a priest must now report allegations to the Diocese bureaucracy and that prior to this declaration, priests were not required to do so.  More than one audience member shook their heads in disbelief.

In summarizing the meeting, one attendee proffered the notion that this was simply an attempt by the Diocese to show it is doing something in response to the Attorney General’s report.  Although these meetings do offer the faithful of the Diocese the opportunity to voice their concerns to the Diocese (which is clearly beneficial), it will be seen whether or not the significant deficits in Diocesan functioning that were highlighted in this meeting will be appropriately addressed by the Diocese.  As one attendee stated, massive problems with Diocese will remain and continue to plague the Diocese of Gaylord until competent responses, based on holiness, transparency, and accountability, are formulated and enacted.  Gaylord Diocesan Watch will continue to monitor this situation and assist the Diocese.  Please continue to pray for Bishop Walsh, priests, and members of the Diocese of Gaylord.