PETOSKEY — A Catholic priest serves a Petoskey congregation, while another priest who accused the man of inappropriately touching him continues a stint on administrative leave.
Catholic Diocese of Gaylord Bishop Steven Raica placed the Rev. Matthew Cowan — who served parishes in Lake City, Manton, Cadillac and Harrietta — on paid administrative leave Jan. 7 after Cowan shared with diocese members confidential information relating to five-month old sexual harassment allegations involving the Rev. Dennis Stilwell, according to a diocese press release.
Members of the Diocesan Review Board — an independent body comprised of laity from throughout the diocese — determined the allegations did not rise to the level of sexual misconduct, according to Candace Neff, director of communications for the diocese.
Gaylord Diocesan Watch, a recently-formed group of concerned Catholics, demand Raica conclude Cowan’s administrative leave, let a new investigator review the claims and relieve Stilwell of his duties if the claims hold true.
“I think anybody who has done this to an adult can possibly do the same thing to a child. It should not have happened to an adult in the first place,” said Richard Brenz, a Petoskey resident and spokesman for Gaylord Diocesan Watch.
“It this allegation is founded, then Stilwell needs to be removed from contact with minors.”
Cowan submitted his complaint Aug. 21, accusing Stilwell — a top vicar for the diocese and pastor at St. Francis Xavier in Petoskey — of unwanted contact on four different occasions in 2015. The contact included hugs, patting and rubbing his stomach and a “slap on the butt,” according to Gaylord Diocesan Watch documents.
Neff said officials reported the allegations to the Emmet County prosecutor and the state attorney general, but she did not immediately know when.
Cowan met with an investigator for the diocese in September, was told twice the investigator needed to do “one more interview” in November and December, and then grew frustrated and emailed information to diocese staffers Dec. 19.
Raica initiated the paid administrative leave weeks later. The decision involved “what should be private and confidential issues between a bishop and one of his priests,” according to documents.
Meanwhile, diocese officials allow Stilwell to continue serving in Petoskey.
Stilwell and Cowan could not be reached. Cowan's canon lawyer, according to Brenz, did not return calls for comment.
Brenz called for a new investigator to take a look. He argued the investigator appeared biased, citing documents leaked from Cowan that indicate the investigator suggested it is "okay for [a] gay man to be a priest and that perhaps the Church should change its teaching about this."
The Catholic church continues to be under scrutiny while leaders look to address continuing sexual abuse concerns involving clergy.
Gaylord diocese leaders released a list of 10 clergymen in November that served in the diocese and faced sexual abuse of children allegations. Stilwell’s name did not make the list that included former local priests Ronald Gronowski, James Holtz, Patrick Barrett, Lionel Harnish, and Benedict Marciulionis, according to newspaper archives, obituaries and church documents.
The listing also included Raymond Pilarski, Terrence Raymond, Robert Gordon Smith, Laurus Rhode and Leo Olschaysken.
Diocese officials encouraged any victims to call authorities or the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator at 989-705-9010. Neff was not immediately aware of any further allegations reported since the public listing of priests.
Presidents of the world's various conferences of Catholic bishops will head to Rome later this month to talk more about the sexual abuse crisis that’s impacted the Catholic church around the world.
“At this stage we’re all waiting to see what happens and what comes out of these meetings in Rome,” Neff said. “The hope of our bishop and others across the world would be that there would be some collective wisdom as to how we all move forward best."