Woman says Lansing Diocese “isn’t equipped to deliver the protections, zero tolerance it promised”

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A woman who reported a sexual harassment complaint against a priest at a church in Fenton says the Diocese of Lansing failed to take her seriously and has refused to be transparent about why he was recently removed from the parish.

She also said the Diocese has refused to explain why the priest has been declared “unfit” to fulfill his duties. The Diocese eventually ordered him to return to his home in India.

The woman is a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Fenton, which is about an hour east of Lansing. She says she’s been an active member of the church for several years. 6 News is not naming her because she is a victim of sexual harassment.

She hopes the Michigan Attorney General’s investigation and planned external audit on the Lansing Diocese will explain why her report fell on deaf ears.

The woman filed her complaint in August. She sent a total of three letters to Bishop Earl Boyea.

6 News obtained those letters which detail claims that Father Mathew Joseph sexually harassed her and was spiritually and verbally abusive during an appointment for spiritual counsel in July.

During the appointment, she says Father Mathew asked her for intimate details of her background. She’s a survivor of sexual assault.

According to the first letter, sent on August 1st, the woman accuses Father Mathew of the following:

  • Subjecting her to a prolonged interrogation of her circumstances and taking actions that suggested he believed she was lying about her abuse history.
  • Implying that she was to blame for the abuse she’s suffered.
  • Suggesting he believed abuse cannot occur inside of a romantic relationship.
  • Asking repeatedly if her abuse included a particular sexual act
  • Implying that she is to blame for her own sadness or distress over her abuse because she did not practice forgiveness.

In a second letter to Bishop Boyea, the woman said Father Mathew also asked if her rapist grabbed her hair or held her head. She also said he tried to harass her into describing her rape in detail.

“He asked me if my husband knew about my history. I replied yes. He replied, ‘And he still agreed to marry you?’ I felt very demeaned by this comment,” the letter said. “He repeatedly continued this harassment even when it was clear that I was very distressed.”

Less than two days after sending the letter to Bishop Boyea, the woman said an investigation was launched by Father Karl Pung, the investigative priest for the Diocese of Lansing.

One week later, on August 10th, the woman said Father Pung called her to tell her that Father Mathew would return to his priestly duties without the ability to give spiritual counsel in appointments or the confessional.

“He neglected to properly oversee what happened with my case,” she said in the letter to Bishop Boyea. “That much neglect about such a serious thing is unconscionable.”

Three days later, on August 13th, the woman says she learned from another priest that there had been more complaints filed against Father Mathew and that he had been called back to Lansing to meet with Bishop Boyea.

She said Father Mathew was then removed from the parish a few days later but still to this day, she does not know why.

The woman said she is frustrated that the Diocese of Lansing will not be transparent about circumstances surrounding Father Mathew’s departure.

“Our parish was told that we ‘lost’ him,” she said. But she continues to push for answers.

When he was removed in August, Diocese spokesman Michael Diebold says the Diocese sent a letter to Father Mathew’s religious order in India explaining the reason he was being sent home.

The reason, according to Diebold, was the result of complaints with Father Mathew’s personal interactions with parishioners citing his communication skills and his “lack of enculturation.”

Emails obtained by 6 News shows Father Pung himself admitted he could have handled her complaint differently.

“The Lansing Diocese butchered my allegation and he was temporarily allowed to regain access to people at my parish,” the woman said.

In mid-September, documents show the woman confronted Father Pung via email to ask why her complaint wasn’t being taken seriously:

In an email from the woman to Father Pung in September, she asked: “Was my complaint found to be not credible?  Yes or no.  That’s it.”

Father Pung responded saying: “I found you to be credible. I did not think of your complaint as sexual harassment. If I misinterpreted I am sorry.”

The woman replied: “Sorry just isn’t adequate. Not for me, not for the people affected by him after August 10th, and not for people trying to report to this diocese in the future.”

She continued by detailing the definition of sexual harassment, something she said she was subjected to.

“The Diocese of Lansing can’t seem to understand what sexual harassment is, or that he was allowed to have access to people after any of the behavior he displayed,” she said. “Details or not, trying to force someone to give sexual assault specifics or history is sexual harassment. You should have known that, and the bishop should have known that the minute I said he made inappropriate requests for information about a sex act. I’ve been unable to get the bishops attention, so thank you for giving clarity to what the actual problem is.”

Father Pung responded with this:

“I will admit that I had some tunnel vision when I was thinking about Fr. Matthew. My focus was on communication and general relating issues, because those were the types of concerns that were coming forward.  

Even in the short time since we removed Fr. Matthew from ministry I am getting better at this position. I removed another priest from ministry last week for sexual harassment and my experience and skills are getting wider. Thanks to your candor, I am also going to be more explicit in asking people who are coming forward, what it is they believe they are reporting.”

Father Pung goes on to say that he would use the situation as a learning experience as more people come forward in the future.

“I want to become better at keeping people safe and rooting our predators,” he said. “I am sorry that I did not serve you as well as I should. Today I believe I would have handled Fr. Matthew differently.”

The woman said she’s requested a meeting with Bishop Boyea several times to discuss the way her case was handled.

He has to make it right, and be transparent about it,” the woman said. “At this point, I’m morally obligated to do what I can to encourage that. As painful as that may be, it’s what the people in this diocese deserve.”

The woman said she wants answers and closure and hopes she gets both of those as several investigations into the Catholic Church continue.

It was the most isolating experience I have ever had in my faith,” she said. “The silence that has accompanied it in the days following has been deafening.”

Diebold says Father Mathew approached the Diocese of Lansing for assignment as a priest this year.

The Diocese of Saginaw provided the Diocese of Lansing with a required letter of suitability, stating that he was a priest in “good standing.”

A letter of suitability is required when a priest visits another diocese for ministerial purposes or seeks employment there.

According to Diebold, that letter also assured the Diocese of Lansing that Father Mathew had no allegations of inappropriate behavior.

In mid-August, Father Mathew’s faculties were removed by the Diocese of Lansing.

According to the Catholic Church, “faculties” are a set of permissions that are given by a bishop to a priest that allow him to publicly minster. These faculties are only valid in the Diocese in which they are granted.

The woman said to this day, it’s difficult to explain the level of pain she feels for the way the church has treated her.

The Diocese isn’t equipped to deliver the protections and zero tolerance it promised. I’m waiting for transparency, and a sense of urgency to address that,” she said. “The standard of justice for survivors is not being met, and that’s not something we should accept.”

Last month, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced that his office will examine allegations of sexual abuse and assault of children by Catholic priests at all seven dioceses in Michigan dating as far back as 1950.

Schuette said that investigation started back in August. 

Catholic Church Dioceses across Michigan said they’re fully cooperating with the Attorney General’s investigation. 

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