New Allegations Charge Franciscan University Abuse Cover Up

Fr. David Morrier

New allegations charge Franciscan University abuse cover up

New details raise questions about how officials handled abuse allegations at Franciscan University.Both Franciscan University of Steubenville and its sponsoring religious order said Friday they would not comment on newly surfaced allegations, which claim that officials mishandled spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse reports from the victim of Fr. David Morrier, a former university chaplain who was convicted this year of sexual assault. The newly emerged allegations raise questions about statements in which the university and the Sacred Heart Province of the Third Order Regular Franciscans claimed they were not aware of sexual abuse allegations against Morrier until 2015. 

Morrier was sentenced in March to five years probation and a lifetime of sex offender registration, after he took a plea bargain on charges of rape and sexual battery. To avoid trial, the priest pled guilty to one count of sexual battery against a university student he is alleged to have groomed for years before committing serial sexual abuse, including multiple acts of rape. The detailed allegations are part of an unfiled lawsuit, drafted by the attorney for Morrier’s victim. The suit was provided July 20 to attorneys and a mediator as part of settlement negotiations between the victim, the university, and the Franciscan province. The negotiations ended earlier this year with an undisclosed settlement. But the draft lawsuit was sent this week to The Pillar and several other journalists, and was subsequently posted online. It has been reposted several times on social media, prompting sharp criticism of the university. 

The unfiled suit alleges that Morrier served as a spiritual director for a female student who was “suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to years of sexual and psychological abuse,” along with a history of alcohol and drug abuse. It charges that the priest began subjecting her in 2008 to “deliverance” sessions, claiming that she was being attacked by demons and suffering generational curses, and that he gradually began to exercise control over her life and her self-identity, even prohibiting her from the sacramental ministry of other priests. The suit alleges that Morrier involved several other people in deliverance sessions, all of whom allegedly affirmed that the plaintiff was possessed by demons. Among them were university employees. 

In 2010, the suit charges, Morrier began incorporating abusive “exorcism” rites involving numerous people into their relationship, and in the same year, the priest allegedly told the plaintiff that he was sexually attracted to her, a fact the priest described graphically, and for which he blamed his victim, according to the draft lawsuit. The suit charges that in the context of “deliverance ministry,” Morrier began sexually assaulting his victim in autumn 2010, and continued to do so until 2013. The suit says that when the student became pregnant because of Morrier’s assaults in 2011, he urged her to undergo an abortion. The priest subsequently blamed the pregnancy and abortion on a demon, the suit alleged, and manipulated the plaintiff to say the same. Much of the abuse detailed in the lawsuit was also chronicled, albeit in less detail, in an impact statement filed ahead of Morrier’s criminal sentencing. But the suit also alleged specific details about the plaintiff’s efforts to report her abuse to university officials. 

The draft lawsuit charged that: “In early Spring of 2013, after a failed suicide attempt, Plaintiff met with Father Shawn Roberson, University Chaplain and tried to engage him in the nature of the deliverance sessions, including the sexual abuse, at which time Roberson put his hand up and said, ‘I’m going to stop you right there, I’m sure if I go home tonight, and ask Fr. Morrier about this, which I intend to do, he will have a different story, so instead of sitting here gossiping, which is a sin, why don’t we focus on why we are here and that is you and your problems.’” “Within two days of Plaintiff speaking to Roberson, Morrier made arrangements to see her; advised that Roberson had reported her disclosures to him,” the suit alleged. Roberson, who is still university chaplain at Franciscan University, did not respond to a request for comment. By email, The Pillar asked Franciscan University whether the allegation against Roberson had been investigated, or whether he had been accused on other occasions of mishandling abuse allegations. In response to that and other questions, the university told The Pillar that “The Settlement Agreement is confidential, by agreement of the parties, and we have no further comment beyond the statement in the Historic Review Report,” a document which does not mention Roberson. The university did not respond to follow-up questions. 

The Pillar asked the Sacred Heart Province of the TOR Franciscans whether it had investigated the allegation that Roberson rebuffed the plaintiff’s efforts to report sexual abuse. In response to that and other questions, the province told The Pillar that “This matter was resolved by way of a mutually agreeable settlement, which is confidential by agreement of all parties involved. We have no further comment.” The plaintiff’s allegation - that she attempted to report sexual abuse to Roberson in 2013 and was rebuffed - calls into question the university’s March statement, which said that “Franciscan University was not aware of any claims of sexual impropriety at the time of [Morrier’s 2013] transfer” from the university. The suit alleged that Morrier continued to abuse the plaintiff sexually until he was “involuntarily removed from campus” in May 2013, presumably because of the allegations the plaintiff raised to Roberson. But the TOR province said in a statement this year that Morrier was transferred for “personal reasons, and that “neither the Province nor Franciscan University were aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct” at the time of the priest’s move. The provincial statement - issued after Morrier’s March sentencing - said that the priest was “immediately removed from ministry” after his victim reported the sexual abuse in 2015 to the university’s Title IX coordinator. But the lawsuit claims that the province’s leader received allegations of serious psychological and spiritual abuse in 2013, which were not mentioned in the provincial statement. According to the suit, in November 2013 both a university employee and the plaintiff told Fr. Richard Davis, then-TOR provincial superior, that Morrier’s “deliverance ministries” were a “cult,” and that the priest was spiritually abusing the plaintiff. The plaintiff did not raise Morrier’s alleged sexual assaults, the suit said, but otherwise explained to Davis the abusive nature of her relationship with Morrier. 

According to the suit: “Davis told Plaintiff he was ‘sorry,’ and told her that Morrier would be getting psychiatric treatment and would never be put in another position where he could harm anyone in the future.” But six months after that conversation, Morrier was assigned a parochial vicar at a Texas parish staffed by the Franciscan province, where he remained until his victim reported the sexual assaults in 2015 to the university Title IX coordinator. By email, The Pillar asked the province whether it received in 2013 allegations of psychological manipulation, which were characterized as spiritual abuse, before Morrier was assigned to a parish. In response to that and other questions, the province told The Pillar that “This matter was resolved by way of a mutually agreeable settlement, which is confidential by agreement of all parties involved. We have no further comment.” The suit also claimed that in 2011, the victim told current Franciscan University President Fr. David Pivonka about the “the nature and extent of the deliverance sessions and exorcisms” Morrier and others were performing, “including that they were physically restraining Plaintiff, screaming in her face, requiring her to tell ‘obscenities’ (although she did not bring up Morrier’s sexual batteries at the time).” The suit alleged that Pivonka promised prayers, but did not otherwise intervene. Pivonka was at the time assigned to work in TOR post-novitiate formation in Washington, DC. By email, The Pillar asked the university whether Pivonka had been in touch with Morrier’s victim, and whether her account was accurate. 

 In response to that and other questions, the university told The Pillar that “The Settlement Agreement is confidential, by agreement of the parties, and we have no further comment beyond the statement in the Historic Review Report.” The suit also alleged that former university president Father Michael Scanlan led or participated in at least three exorcisms of Morrier’s victim, which involved “men restraining the plaintiff,” placing a cross under the plaintiff’s t-shirt, and rubbing holy oil “on her body, including her breasts.” The plaintiff alleged that in November 2010, she told Scanlan in confession that she had been sexually assaulted by Morrier, and that the priest had told her she should practice “emotional chastity.” Scanlan, who has also been accused of covering up abuse by former university chaplain Fr. Sam Tiesi, died in 2017. The suit also accuses former university employee Joseph Loizzo of participating in the manipulation of Morrier’s victim, abusing a therapeutic relationship by encouraging her to remain in an abusive relationship with Morrier, and discouraging her from reporting the abuse. It accuses Davis, the university and several others of fraud, coverup, and manipulation in their handling of his victim’s claims against Morrier. 

It is not clear whether officials of the Franciscan province have been investigated by Vatican officials for their handling of the allegations against Morrier. In March, The Pillar noted that unless Morrier seeks laicization voluntarily, he will likely face canonical charges for several serious delicts, or canonical crimes: 
  • violating the seal of confession, 
  • solicitation of sexual contact in the confessional, 
  • absolving an “accomplice” in a sexual sin (this phrase is a technical term in canon law, and does not imply complicity on the part of his victim), 
  • and abusing both his office and a spiritual relationship, to coerce and manipulate his victim into sexual contact “committed by force or threats.” 
Given the circumstances, and the number of charges against him, Morrier will almost certainly be dismissed from the clerical state at the conclusion of a Vatican process. But The Pillar also noted that the allegations raised the prospect that provincial officials declined to take action on allegations of serious misconduct, or misrepresented the sequence of events in their statements. If a Vatican review of the case is not already underway, the new details contained in the lawsuit could prompt one, under the aegis of investigation protocols promulgated by Pope Francis, especially given that the university and province have faced several other charges of mishandling abuse allegations. Morrier’s victim could not be reached for comment. The priest himself also could not be reached. According to probation records, the priest is living in a Missouri residence owned by the Marist religious order, at which several other priests and religious registered as sex offenders also reside. Source