The Fr. Phillips Case: What Will the Archdiocese do Now?

SATURDAY, JUNE 30, 2018

The Fr. Phillips Case: What Will the Archdiocese do Now?

Fr. Frank Phillips, Cardinal Raymond Burke and Deacon Kevin Mann, SJC in Rome, 2013


On March 17 of this year it was announced that Fr. Frank Phillips, pastor of St. John Cantius in Chicago and founder and superior of the associated order, the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, had been removed from public ministry (and thus from his positions as pastor and superior) by Cardinal Blase Cupich, allegedly based on “credible accusations of improper conduct involving adult males.” (The more precise nature of these charges as well as the identities of the accusers has never been officially stated or released.) On June 23, after an investigation by the Congregation of the Resurrection (“Resurrectionists”) – where Fr. Phillips was ordained and with whom he was also still a member – the archdiocese of Chicago declined to reinstate Fr. Phillips and confirmed that his faculties for ministry would remain withdrawn. Though neither the investigation report itself nor any other details were publicly released, it is known that part of the recent decision was made against the recommendation of Resurrectionist Provincial Fr. Gene Szarek, based on the report and the results of the investigation. The contents of the report were said to have “exonerated” Fr. Phillips.

Yesterday (June 29), Fr. Phillips released a statement professing his innocence in strong and unambiguous terms:

I assure you I have done nothing that would scandalize the faithful.

[T]he Review Board returned its finding of no criminal violation, civil violation, or canonical violation in my case.

The Review Board found me innocent of the accusations which I have vehemently denied.

Notably, his statement seemed to directly contradict one of the claims in a letter, signed by the provincial superior of the Resurrectionists Fr. Gene Szarek, released only a few hours before:

The reports that an Independent Review Board exonerated Fr. Phillips are without foundation.

Another contrast was also notable. In that same letter we read:

Father Phillips will receive support and care by the Congregation of the Resurrection.

previous letter, signed by Fr. Szarek but written by or under the authority of Cardinal Cupich read:

[Fr. Phillips] will be receiving support and will reside at a Resurrectionist facility away from your parish.

This almost made it sound like Fr. Phillips would be living out the rest of his life as a quasi-prisoner or “well-cared for” patient, unable to communicate with the Canons and perhaps having only limited interaction with the outside world, much as he had lived for much of the past three months during the process surrounding the investigation.
But this is not really the picture we get from Fr. Phillips. He begins by deferentially citing the Resurrectionists:

I am returning to serve God in any capacity under the direction of the Provincial of the Congregation of the Resurrection to build up the Kingdom of God.

But then he goes on:

I am currently in Rome engaged in consultations with the Congregation of the Resurrection and other church leaders. I have heard there is a misunderstanding concerning my status. Currently, by decree of Cardinal Cupich my faculties are suspended only in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I am free to continue in my calling to serve God in all other geographical locations on the planet. Therefore, I will continue to say mass for you daily and petition for reconciliation with the Cardinal.

Engaged with consultations with other church leaders.
 
All other geographical locations on the planet.
 
Continue to petition for reconciliation with the Cardinal.
I do not know precisely what those things mean beyond the obvious implications of the claims themselves. But they do not sound like the words of a man about to meekly enter into enforced seclusion.

I should add that while Fr. Phillips obviously appears to have some enemies, he also, as an enormously successful and outgoing pastor and superior who worked very hard to cultivate good relationships with many on all “ideological” sides over thirty years, has many friends in the Church, in Chicago and outside, including, I assume, Rome.
As far as I know, the press release from Fr. Phillips did not technically contradict any statements from the Chicago archdiocese, unless we count the claim that the allegations were ever “credible” in the first place. This is for the simple reason that though the archdiocese has taken clear actions in this case, it has said very little, or at least very little of substance. Instead it has preferred to speak in vague terms – the original and so far only charge made against Fr. Phillips was “improper conduct involving adult men” – drop hints or make insinuations – “There are standards for behavior,” “other information,” “other factors”, etc. – or use others – Fr. Szarek – to do its speaking for it.
One might be forgiven for suspecting that in an archdiocese long known for a scandalous level of homosexual behavior among priests and seminarians, someone might be banking on people assuming from the vagueness and ambiguity of things that Fr. Phillips was a homosexual (not in and of itself a violation of canon law, etc.). But they would surely also know that there is no credible evidence in the report or anywhere else, nor has there ever been in the previous thirty-years, to suggest that.
The most charitable explanation for the behavior of the archdiocese in all this is that it acted swiftly to avoid scandal amidst the scandal-of-the-month atmosphere within the current Church. Even so, it appears to have gone way too far in its almost frantic attempts to circumvent the usual standards of due process and transparency in order to ram through a pre-determined result. And it took something that arguably could have been resolved much more easily – a fair investigation leading to a dismissal of the not credible charges – and instead created something much bigger.
The faithful have been scandalized. But Fr. Phillips did not scandalize them.
The archdiocese did.
Leaving aside the motivations, personalities and politics of all concerned, the case was a botch.
Things are moving quite quickly now. Last night a secondary source told me that one of the accusers had already privately “recanted”. This is unconfirmed. But that one or more might recant – or at least clarify their actions or charges in a way that would be favorable towards Fr. Phillips – in the near future would not surprise anyone with knowledge of the case. (Though I should add that given the nature of the evidence and the testimony given about all of the players, recantations, while welcome, would hardly be necessary, at least for Fr. Phillips.)
The credibility of the archdiocese is already quite low in this matter – consider the embarrassing contrast between its recent public statements and the actual text of the votum from the Resurrectionists, for example – and further developments will almost certainly not make it look any better.
No one would want to see a cover-up or white-wash involving a guilty man (as we unfortunately have witnessed so often in the contemporary Church). But neither would any one want to see (or think they see) a Cardinal destroying the reputation of an innocent man and damaging or destroying one of the most thriving and beloved parishes in Chicago out of (it might seem) sheer stubbornness or pettiness.
Cardinal Cupich would establish or re-establish much credibility with everyone by changing course now. A favorable solution to this, avoiding any additional embarrassment for the archdiocese, is still possible.
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