Keeping Quiet: the Downside to “voluntary Laicization”
By Christopher Altieri
December 11, 2020
– Catholic Herald, Rome – Pope Francis quietly laicized a priest accused of grave immorality and serious canonical crimes in 2017, rather than have him stay in the priesthood long enough to face trial.
The former cleric, Peter Mitchell, was a priest in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, when he was accused. Before joining the Green Bay diocese, he had been a priest of the Lincoln, Nebraska diocese.
The case of this former cleric is closed, but the way Church authorities dealt with this man bears significant resemblance to the way in which Churchmen attempted to manage priests accused of abusing minors in the days before the crisis of leadership and governance in the Church became a worldwide scandal.
Mr. Mitchell recounted his struggles with priestly life – including serial violations of chastity with adult women – in an essay that widely circulated in 2018.
Interviews with Green Bay officials and with women involved in various ways with Mr. Mitchell, as well as documentary evidence related to the case obtained by the Catholic Herald have revealed that the narrative Mr. Mitchell offered to the public omits significant details.
The Green Bay investigation
The Green Bay official who conducted the preliminary investigation, Fr. John Girotti, told the Catholic Herald the diocese found the allegations credible and drew up five discrete charges against Mitchell, some of which were crimes reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These included serious offenses against chastity, spiritual abuse, abuse of the Sacrament of Confession, and other misconduct.
The accusations against then-Fr. Mitchell detailed behavior including manipulative exploitation of traumatic biographical details from his victim’s life, about which he had learned either during confession or spiritual counseling. They also included graphic details of attempted sexual coercion, as well as extremely vulgar and aggressive language and other behavior. In the formal accusations and in separate interviews with the Catholic Herald, the victim-accuser spoke of the way in which Mr. Mitchell would attempt to spiritualize their relationship.
Church law, however, gives accused clerics the right to petition for release from their promises or vows, rather than face trial. In 2017, the man who was then styled Fr. Mitchell availed himself of that right.
“As per the standard praxis of the CDF in canonical penal matters,” Girotti told the Herald, “[Mr. Mitchell] was offered the option of petitioning for laicization, which he did.”
The petition for dispensation from the obligations arising from Holy Orders – “voluntary laicization” in common parlance – was “part of the canonical process,” Fr Girotti explained. CDF handled the paperwork, but Pope Francis granted the petition, which was a “grace” rather than a penalty – meaning his laicization was a favor Pope Francis accorded him, rather than a punishment for wrongdoing.
No time wasted
The Congregation turned the request around very quickly.
Green Bay sent the petition in May of 2017, and received an affirmative answer from the Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Louis Ladaria SJ, in July of that same year: “Very fast,” said Fr. Girotti. “These usually take 6-9 months,” he added.
Msgr. John Kennedy, who heads the disciplinary section in CDF that handles these and similar cases, declined the Catholic Herald’s invitation to answer questions. The number of similar petitions received each year, as well as figures regarding how many are granted and how many denied, are not published anywhere by the Vatican.
There was no trial, no administrative proceeding, no conviction in Mr. Mitchell’s case. The prohibitions in the letter granting the petition were “boilerplate” – i.e. Mitchell was not to teach religion / theology / sacred sciences in Catholic schools, colleges, universities; nor was he to receive appointment to pontifical faculties. He was also ordered not to have a showy public wedding, should he ever marry. A “wedding without pomp” is the verbiage used for that last.
Church officials handled the matter swiftly both in Rome and in Green Bay.
“[Then-Fr. Mitchell] asked for a leave in early December of 2016 for exhaustion,” Fr. Girotti told the Herald. “Then, right after Christmas of 2016, possible canonical penal matter came to light,” through an adult victim-accuser who approached the diocese with her allegations.
Fr. Girotti praised the woman’s courage.
“I never had any doubt about the credibility [of the victim-witness],” Fr. Girotti told us. “We believe her,” he said.
“We in Green Bay moved quickly,” Fr. Girotti recounted. “We restricted [Mitchell] when he came to us requesting leave of absence,” in early December, before the victim came forward.
Those initial restrictions “were consistent with a priest going for medical treatment for exhaustion,” Girotti explained: Mitchell was moved out of his parish, not allowed to say public Masses or hear confessions.
When the victim-accuser did come forward, Green Bay immediately put further restrictions in place: Mr. Mitchell was barred from wearing clerical dress and from presenting himself as a priest; he could not function in any way as a cleric or sacred minister.
“Bishop [David] Ricken [of Green Bay] immediately – that day – began a canonical preliminary investigation,” Fr. Girotti said.
The preliminary investigation took several months to complete.
The results of the investigation went to CDF in May of 2017.
“Rome received and read the entire preliminary investigation,” Fr. Girotti said. “It was a traumatic experience for everyone,” Girotti told the Herald. “We had a guy,” Mitchell, “who was a bad actor, and we wanted him out [of the clerical state].”
“CDF understood,” Fr. Girotti said, adding in an email follow-up, “they were very helpful to the diocese.”
“In my experience,” Fr. Girotti explained, “CDF has become more responsive under Pope Francis.” He went on to say, “None of us wanted any more women to get hurt – we wanted to ensure that Peter Mitchell could never harm anyone else, especially not as a priest.”
“We’re very grateful to CDF for their prompt response,” Fr. Girotti said, “and all their assistance in resolving this case.”
CDF helped Fr. Mitchell of the Diocese of Green Bay become Mr. Mitchell in relatively short order, but the Catholic Herald has seen evidence including correspondence to suggest Mr. Mitchell has fairly recently attempted in various ways to intrude on the lives of people with whom he was involved when he was a cleric in ministry.
(Not) asking hard questions
Mr. Mitchell officially became a priest of Green Bay in 2014. Before that, however, he was a priest of the Lincoln diocese in Nebraska.
Fr. Tom Long was Green Bay’s Vicar for Clergy in those years, and met then-Fr. Mitchell as part of the incardination – or vetting and “on-boarding” – processes. “We went through our normal process,” Fr. Long told the Herald. “There was nothing so alarming as to stop the incardination.”
In his 2018 essay for The American Conservative, however, Mr. Mitchell admitted to violating his priestly promises on “more than one occasion” and to causing unspecified harm. “In 2017,” he wrote, “I accepted laicization from the priesthood as a consequence of having violated my vow of celibacy [sic] as a priest on more than one occasion.” He went on to write, “I lived an unhealthy life as a priest, and I hurt people.
“I deeply regret having hurt people who looked up to me as a spiritual leader,” Mr. Mitchell wrote, “and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
Mr. Mitchell nevertheless blamed his poor formation in Lincoln for some of his inability to outface his struggles.
“I am painfully aware,” Mr. Mitchell wrote, “that the people to whom my seminary formation was entrusted modeled addictive behavior to me and an entire generation of young men who are now priests.”
Questions unasked and unanswered
What questions did Green Bay not ask, or not ask persistently enough, when the diocese was vetting Mitchell ahead of his incardination?
In response to a follow-up query via email, Fr. Long reiterated: “Nothing that we knew at the time of considering incardination was disqualifying,” but he did not say what Green Bay knew. The Catholic Herald has heard claims suggesting Mr. Mitchell’s behavior was already problematic – at least – when he was in Lincoln, but has been unable, so far, to corroborate any of them.
Repeated inquiries to Lincoln yielded only the following statement, from Fr. Nicholas Kipper:
Peter Mitchell was a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln. He was ordained in 1999. He went to Rome for graduate studies from 2002-2005. Mr. Mitchell is a Wisconsin native and was incardinated into the Diocese of Green Bay in 2014.
When Green Bay received the criminal allegations from the victim-accuser, Fr. Long said he was “surprised” and felt “deceived, distressed, upset.” He said, “The main thing was just feeling awful about the victim.”
Fr. Girotti likewise experienced a sense of betrayal. “Peter Mitchell deceived us,” he said, “and left us hurting and broken-hearted – none more gravely than his victim – but deeply nonetheless.”
The victim was diagnosed with major depression, anxiety, and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. “All of these diagnoses,” one of her caregivers told the Herald with the patient’s express permission, “are directly related to her past trauma at the hands of [her] former priest,” identified by the initials P.M.
That same mental health professional, who diagnosed and treated Mitchell’s victim-accuser, described the patient’s condition: “As a seasoned mental healthcare provider of twenty-five years, this is the most severe case of trauma and grooming I have encountered.”
“The pain of what Peter Mitchell has done to me is truly unspeakable,” the victim-accuser told the Herald. “He has done much more than simply abuse me. Using God Himself, Peter Mitchell has stolen a part of my soul that he can never give back.”
The victim also acknowledged the assistance she has received from Green Bay.
“While the dioceses of both Lincoln and Green Bay may have failed to protect those entrusted to their pastoral care in regards to the continuous abuse perpetrated by Peter Mitchell,” she said, “the diocese of Green Bay immediately offered and has spared no expense to provide me as a victim-survivor with the very best counseling and post-trauma therapy as well as providing continuous spiritual support, for which I am grateful.”
Hard choices unmade
The decision to deal with abuse cases quickly, by encouraging men under investigation to petition the pope for voluntary laicization, can help avoid complex and protracted canonical trials, the outcome of which is not assured.
It also allows men to leave the priesthood – or more properly, the clerical state – in relative quiet: there is no public notice of conviction, where there is no conviction. The recently published CDF vademecum states:
From the time of the notitia de delicto [i.e. the first notification of a possible crime, occasionally called notitia criminis, a notitia de delicto “consists of any information about a possible delict that in any way comes to the attention of the Ordinary or Hierarch,” according to the CDF handbook. “It need not be a formal complaint,” the handbook’s glossary further explains], the accused has the right to present a petition to be dispensed from all the obligations connected with the clerical state, including celibacy, and, concurrently, from any religious vows. The Ordinary or Hierarch must clearly inform him of this right. Should the cleric decide to make use of this possibility, he must write a suitable petition, addressed to the Holy Father, introducing himself and briefly indicating the reasons for which he is seeking the dispensation. The petition must be clearly dated and signed by the petitioner. It is to be transmitted to the CDF, together with the votum of the Ordinary or Hierarch. In turn, the CDF will forward it and – if the Holy Father accepts the petition – will transmit the rescript of dispensation to the Ordinary or Hierarch, asking him to provide for legitimate notification to the petitioner.
That’s apparently what happened in Mr. Mitchell’s case, which involved a vulnerable adult accuser. Bishop Ricken told the Catholic Herald: “I was well aware of the facts of the case and what Peter Mitchell was accused of when I wrote his votum and the case was sent to Rome.”
“The votum,” he said, “was written and submitted in support of Peter Mitchell’s request for voluntary laicization.” Bishop Ricken added, “For all those who have been involved in this matter, I pray for the healing love of Jesus to prevail for all.”
Green Bay diocese informed the faithful of the parish where Peter Mitchell had been serving as pastor, that he had taken a leave of absence for exhaustion. After the victim came forward, the diocese told the parish that Mitchell was under investigation for an improper relationship with an adult woman. When Pope Francis granted Mitchell’s petition for laicization, the diocese informed the faithful of that development.
Home to roost
In Peter Mitchell’s case, the decision to deal with him with quiet expedition may have come home in ways Pope Francis could have only dimly foreseen, perhaps and at best, in 2017.
Several sources have told the Catholic Herald that Peter Mitchell works as a translator under a pseudonym, Giuseppe Pellegrino, credited with translating works of several prominent voices not universally well-disposed to Pope Francis.
The Catholic Herald sent queries to Mr. Mitchell, including a direct question regarding his use of the pseudonym:
Several sources have told the Catholic Herald you have done translation work for several public figures, including Antonio Socci and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, under a pseudonym – Giuseppe Pellegrino – and maintained pseudonymous social media profiles for a time: Is this accurate?
Mr. Mitchell was initially receptive to our queries, telling us, “I am willing to talk to you,” and offering to write “a few comments” in short order. A little more than an hour later, Mitchell wrote again, this time to say: “I have already shared my story in writing in an essay published at The American Conservative on August 1, 2018. I have no further comment.”
Archbishop Vigano did not respond to the Herald’s repeated email invitations to answer questions regarding the nature and extent of his awareness of Mr. Mitchell’s circumstances, as well as whether Pellegrino received compensation for his work.
Lessons learned and unlearned
Before the failure of leadership and dereliction of duty exploded in worldwide scandal two decades ago, Churchmen dealt with abuse cases quietly.
They developed a vocabulary and a shorthand for discussing problem cases.
They worked to a very specific modus operandi, moving men from parish to parish, and from diocese to diocese. They rarely asked hard questions. Even more rarely did they take hard decisions. They protected the men who were ruining lives and souls, in the name of protecting the institution.
As Church leaders of this generation begin to develop awareness of how vulnerable many adult members of the faithful are to clerical abuse of different kinds, the pattern of behavior emerging through the courageous witness of victim-survivors is disturbing in its similarity to the practices that were the order of the day at the height of the child sex abuse crisis. If the Church is now finally taking the protection of children seriously, the same cannot yet be said for adults.
The Catholic Herald has uncovered three new cases of clerical abuse involving adult victims in the second half of 2020 alone.
In one, the priest’s petition for laicization had not left the archdiocese of his incardination when we reported the story. In another, the priest had just announced his intention to petition the Holy Father, after languishing more than four years under secret canonical process, during which he constructed a narrative to sustain his sizeable cult-like following.
In this, the third case the Herald has discovered in the second half of this year, the priest’s petition is a fait accompli.
“Whoever is sentenced for sexual abuse of children can turn to the Pope for pardon [grazia, or “grace” in Italian],” Pope Francis was widely quoted as saying to his Commission for the protection of Minors in September of 2017 – mere months after granting Peter Mitchell’s petition for laicization. Letting Mitchell leave of his own accord avoided him trial, conviction, and canonical penalty for his abuse of a vulnerable adult.
Pope Francis, in fact, went on to say he has “never signed one of these [grazie, i.e. acts of pardon] and never will.” For all we know, that is technically accurate: pardoning a man who has been found guilty and sentenced is one thing; letting a man walk without trial is another.
The insistence of the CDF handbook on the right of a priest to petition the pope for laicization strongly suggests a preference for handling such cases with “economy of process” – as the sanitized language of canon lawyers knows the practice – quickly and quietly.
The apparently regular recourse of accused priests to the right of petition suggests a pattern, and perhaps a policy.
Meanwhile, the Church is woefully underserved by competent criminal legal experts and investigators, while the system of ecclesiastical justice remains shrouded in secrecy.
Neither the guilty nor the innocent, neither victims nor the body of the faithful can have confidence in the ability of the Church to deliver that justice, without which there cannot be any hope of healing.