An adult survivor’s search for justice and healing

Where Peter Is [Beltsville MD]

October 12, 2023


[TRIGGER WARNING: This story involves descriptions of sexual grooming and abusive behavior.]

Click here to read Part 1.

Editor’s note: Many Catholics view the Church’s sexual abuse crisis as primarily involving minors. But as experts and advocates — such as Awake Milwaukee — point out, a significant number of reports of priests engaging in abusive and grooming behavior involve adult victims. Such cases include those of Bishop Michael Bransfield in West Virginia and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who were credibly accused of the sexual harassment, grooming, and abuse of adult seminarians. Other cases, such as the abuse scandals at Franciscan University of Steubenville, involve priests exploiting their pastoral authority to groom and abuse young adult women. Some priest abusers, such as in the case of Jeremy Leatherby of Sacramento, prey on married women. In such cases, coming forward can be difficult for a survivor due to shame and the added fear of harming their marriage.

When a parish priest engages in grooming behavior and sexual abuse towards his own parishioners — regardless of age — he exploits a relationship of trust and spiritual authority. Adult survivors of sexual and spiritual abuse experience trauma, feelings of shame, and spiritual and emotional wounds that are difficult to heal. They also have different challenges in being heard and believed by Church authorities.

This is one such story.

In the first part of this two-part series, Joan*, a married, lifelong Catholic, recounts her story of being groomed and sexually manipulated by Fr. Patrick Klekas, a young priest who had been assigned to her parish in the Diocese of Reno. She says that this relationship between priest and parishioner involved an alleged sexual assault by the priest in March 2020. In the Fall of 2022, following Fr. Klekas’s reassignment to a new parish, she made the decision to come forward and report the priest to the diocese. As a result, Klekas was temporarily suspended from ministry.

Part 2 shares Joan’s account of her decision to speak out upon learning that her bishop intended to return Fr. Klekas to active parish ministry in Summer 2023, as well as details about her journey of healing from the trauma and wounds she experienced. We also share the response from the diocese to our request for comment.

On August 22, 2023, Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg announced his decision that Fr. Patrick Klekas would not be returned to priestly ministry for the Diocese of Reno.

This came as a bittersweet and exhausting victory for Joan.

Since Joan first reported Fr. Klekas to Bishop Mueggenborg, she has been repeatedly dismayed and hurt by what she sees as the bishop’s failure to acknowledge the abusive nature of Klekas’s actions and the manipulative and grooming behavior the priest engaged in with her. She has also been frustrated by the coldness and lack of transparency she feels the diocese has shown since she first reported Klekas.

Joan first made a formal complaint to Bishop Mueggenborg towards the end of September 2022. She met with the bishop in person on September 26, 2022. During this initial meeting, Joan says that in a state of trauma, she described her relationship with Fr. Klekas as consensual. This was the first in a series of meetings and phone calls with the bishop. Joan says that in a later meeting, on October 17, 2022, Bishop Mueggenborg admitted to her that Fr. Klekas was an “emotionally immature” man. During the course of her interactions with diocesan officials, Joan accepted an offer from the diocese to pay for mental health counseling for herself and her husband.

After Joan came forward that Fall, Fr. Klekas’s faculties were suspended by his bishop. The young priest was then sent to a residential treatment facility for “counselling and discernment.”

In the course of her counseling, Joan says it became clear to her that she had been manipulated into sympathizing with and protecting her abuser. She came to understand that her trauma stemmed from an unequal power balance in her relationship with the priest, as well as Klekas’s grooming and manipulation over the course of many months. Joan recognized that she had not wanted nor consented to the sexual acts that took place between them.

In follow-up meetings with the diocese, after she had undergone mental health counseling, Joan says she told officials multiple times that she wanted to retract her original description of the relationship as “consensual,” and told them that a more accurate picture of Klekas was as a sexual groomer. Joan, based on her experiences of Klekas’s behavior, as well as his admission of sexual involvement with at least two other married women since 2019, believed that Klekas had exhibited a pattern of behavior that, if he remained in the priesthood, risked potential harm to more victims in the future.

In a January 2023 email sent to Bishop Mueggenborg, Joan expressed that her coming forward was not the matter of a “woman scorned” or about personal revenge, writing, “I want to make it very clear this is about justice and accountability and saving future married victims, my healing and our marital healing.”

Eventually, Joan was diagnosed with PTSD. In March 2023, after meeting with experts with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Joan says she was finally able to articulate that the March 2020 incident was sexual assault.

Despite Joan’s repeated insistence that the relationship was non-consensual, the diocese’s May 12, 2023 statement about Klekas described it as “an inappropriate consensual relationship.”

Dismayed by the diocese’s handling of the case, and believing that her bishop failed to treat Fr. Klekas’s behavior and abuse of power as seriously as it deserved, Joan made a Vos Estis Lux Mundi complaint regarding Bishop Mueggenborg to the USCCB’s abuse reporting service in early April 2023.

That month, the communication between Joan and Bishop Mueggenborg broke down over the bishop’s insistence that she provide him with every text message she had exchanged with Klekas — over the entire three-year period she had known him. Instead, Joan provided diocesan officials with their exchanges over the six-week period in which the alleged assault took place. In an April 26 email to Joan and seen by WPI, a diocesan official relayed the bishop’s request that she send him every text between them “to help inform and properly guide future decisions.”

Joan says she felt that she was not being believed, and that the nature of Klekas’s behavior was not being treated as the power imbalance, grooming, and sexual manipulation that she believes she experienced. She responded with an email telling the bishop that the texts she provided encompassed “the 6 weeks of grooming that lead up to his seduction of me.” She wrote, “Every single action of mine followed from a place of extreme psychological trauma after he carried me past his home worship area to his bed.”

On April 28, 2023, Bishop Mueggenborg sent Joan a letter stating that in the interest of “full disclosure,” he needed to review the “approximately 9,000 text messages and other documentation, including audio files, relating to the allegations” she previously said she had in her possession. The bishop said he had nevertheless obtained the archive of text messages from Klekas’s phone. In consultation with his Adult Misconduct Review Board, Bishop Mueggenborg concluded that the text messages did not support Joan’s claims.

The bishop’s letter also stated that Fr. Klekas had spent four months in an “out-of-state residential treatment center,” and that the center’s final report on Klekas “concluded that he can be returned to ministry.” In his letter, the bishop also told her that the diocese would stop paying for counseling for Joan and her husband at the end of the month.

On May 12, 2023, Bishop Mueggenborg released a public statement saying that Fr. Klekas had concluded treatment in April and, on the recommendation of the Adult Misconduct Review Board, would be returned to ministry on July 1, 2023. The bishop said Fr. Klekas would be assigned to St. Gall’s Parish in Gardnerville, where he would be under the supervision of an experienced pastor.

Once again, the relationship was described in the letter as “consensual,” and Joan felt that the diocese was effectively calling her a liar. By this point, Joan had repeatedly told the diocese that she had been sexually assaulted by Fr. Klekas.

Joan has speculated that Bishop Mueggenborg and the Adult Misconduct Review Board seem to believe that the sexual encounter was consensual because she continued to engage with Klekas via text message even after the alleged assault. She said that her subsequent correspondence with Klekas did not prove that she consented to all aspects of the relationship — including the sexual activity.

She began to think that the diocese was trying to sweep her allegation away when it was announced that they intended to return Fr. Klekas to active ministry in the near future. At this point, Joan felt that she had no choice but to report Fr. Klekas and the Diocese of Reno to civil authorities and to make the evidence of his behavior public.

In May 2023, Joan made a complaint to the Nevada Attorney General regarding the Diocese of Reno, filed a police complaint against Fr. Klekas with local law enforcement, and created a public Facebook group called “No More Silence — Exposing Catholic Church Abuse in Northern, NV.

Joan then made a second complaint to the USCCB’s service after receiving no response to her first. She only received a vague statement in response and was told both of her complaints were being handled by the Diocese of Reno’s then-metropolitan archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

Determined to make her story public, Joan emailed all the priests at both Klekas’s new parish and his previous parish, letting them know that the relationship had not been consensual. She also sent the email to every parish in the diocese, to many of the local non-Catholic churches, and to Bishop Manogue Catholic High School, where Fr. Klekas had previously spent time with young adults and minors.

Around this time, the Diocese of Reno’s May 12 statement came to the attention of Dan Sealana, a journalist, podcaster, and former adult victim of clerical abuse. On reading the diocese’s statement and suspecting that there was more to the story, Sealana contacted Joan through her Facebook page. Over the next few weeks, Joan and Sealana worked together to make the evidence against Klekas and the diocese’s response public. Joan later agreed to sit down for a podcast with Sealana, which was posted on June 16. In it, she described in detail the abuse that had been inflicted upon her and the diocese’s response to her complaints.

On June 22, 2023, Bishop Mueggenborg sent out a new memo stating that Fr. Klekas’s return to ministry had been paused awaiting the results of the police investigation.

After Sealana began publicizing Joan’s story, he started receiving public attacks on social media by accounts that, according to him, appeared to be linked to Fr. Klekas and his relatives. These accounts were deleted by their owners after Sealana revealed their identities.

Sealana was also able to uncover some of Klekas’s own online activity on social media, including instances where he had “liked” scantily clad photos of Lynn* — the other married woman Klekas is alleged to have had an affair with — on her Instagram page.

On more than one occasion, both before and after his treatment for “counselling and discernment,” persons familiar with Fr. Klekas’s situation have reported that he has shown no remorse for his breaking his priestly promises. Klekas’s seeming disregard for the rule of celibacy in his own priestly ministry is ironic, given the impassioned 2019 article he wrote for Crisis Magazine entitled, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is Still The Rule In Seminary,” in which Klekas laments the “homosexual subculture” in seminaries.

In this article, Klekas opines, “Some bishops are willing to ordain unsuitable candidates because, to their mind, the clergy shortage is a greater danger than any potentially scandalous behavior on the part of a wayward priest.” Klekas himself seems to have been a beneficiary of such treatment. The former Bishop of Reno, Bishop Calvo, who retired in 2021, knew about Klekas’ sexual transgression in seminary but still went forward with Klekas’s ordination.

A few years after his ordination, when reports of Klekas having sexual relations with two married members of his parish surfaced, Bishop Mueggenborg — who had by then replaced Calvo — still decided to return Klekas to ministry, despite the power differential of a priest who has targeted his own parishioners.

What Joan finds most striking about her case is the lack of responsiveness from the diocese, despite all the evidence corroborating her allegations of sexual misconduct. They have had access to thousands of text messages, door cam footage, and home security footage. In addition, the evidence includes messages from Fr. Klekas to his friends, anecdotes from Fr. Klekas’s college friends stating that they’re “not surprised” he is in trouble, and anecdotes from Fr. Klekas’s former seminary classmates stating that he homophobically bullied them.

On July 31, 2023, WPI first contacted the Diocese of Reno with our intention to write articles on this case. Less than a month later, Bishop Mueggenborg finally released his statement announcing that Fr. Patrick Klekas would not be returning to priestly ministry.

In his statement, he writes:

“At my request, the Diocese of Reno’s Adult Misconduct Review Board met earlier this month to evaluate additional facts and information and to provide guidance to the continued ministry of Fr. Patrick Klekas. After consideration of the board’s recommendation, I have decided Fr. Klekas will not be returning to ministry in the Diocese of Reno. I suggested and Fr. Klekas agreed that he be placed on leave from all ministry, effective immediately.”

In the period between May 12, 2023 (when the Diocese of Reno announced that Fr. Klekas would be returning to ministry) and August 22, 2023 (when they announced he would not be), additional facts and information regarding the case came to light that seemed to play a role: the filing of the police report, the revelation that Fr. Klekas had been using his social media inappropriately, the increased publicity by journalist Dan Sealana, and the diocese learning that WPI would be covering this story.

Joan says she is relieved that Fr. Klekas will no longer be in a position of power in the Church. She also believes her case highlights the unfortunate treatment of many adult victims of clerical abuse. She says that the Diocese of Reno was cold, obtuse, and unresponsive to her cries for help, showing a lack of sensitivity and compassion to a parishioner who had been hurt by a priest.

It is good to remember that we should not assume that just because an adult reciprocates to some overtures, that they consent to all aspects of a relationship, including sexual contact. She said it is also wrong to assume that adults cannot be groomed for sexual exploitation. Joan believes that when he indicated that he planned to return Klekas to ministry, Bishop Mueggenborg demonstrated disregard for her pain and was protecting her abuser. This only intensified her suffering. She needed justice to be done so that she could begin to heal.

In response to a request for comment, the Diocese of Reno replied:

On behalf of Bishop Mueggenborg and the Diocese of Reno, we dispute a number of assertions included in this story that are inconsistent with our records, the recollections of those involved, and three separate investigations.

Of note, in particular, since July 2022, Bishop Mueggenborg has spoken with Joan* on the telephone on sixteen different occasions and met personally with her on four more occasions. As you can see, the Bishop took these allegations seriously and spent many hours listening attentively to Joan*.  Any inference otherwise is simply not accurate.

In a public statement released on September 13, 2023, Bishop Mueggenborg issued another statement summarizing his decision. Excerpt:

In August 2023, after considering additional facts and information and the further recommendations of the Adult Misconduct Review Board, I determined Fr. Klekas would not be returned to ministry. He has been placed On leave from all ministry.

With the authority vested in me as Bishop, I have taken the additional steps of removing all of his faculties (authority) to function as a priest and rescinded his previous re-assignment in the Diocese of Reno.

Fr. Patrick Klekas did not respond to a request for comment.

 * Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.