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CFRs: Allegations raised by friar are 'unfounded'

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal said Friday that external investigators have concluded a series of unspecified misconduct allegations made against the community are unfounded. The allegations were made last year by a friar in the community.

Two Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Courtesy photo.

In a statement released Friday, the religious institute said that in late 2020, a religious brother in the community “went on record to make numerous...allegations against the Institute and its members, ranging from inappropriate sexual behavior to complaints about the atmosphere and operations of the Community.”

“Upon receiving notice of the allegations, Community leadership opened an internal investigation in accordance with Canon Law.”

“In tandem, the leadership of the Community then ordered two additional external investigations in order to combat any perceived conflicts of interest or oversight by the religious investigators. These objective external investigations, in addition to the internal investigation conducted, investigated all accused parties and found all counts of misconduct to be unfounded and without merit,” the statement said.

The order did not specify what allegations the brother made, or release the reports of investigators. It said only that the allegations were “of great concern to the leadership of our Community, and were treated in accordance to both Canon and Civil Law, as required by the State of New York, the City of New York, and the United States Department of Justice.”

A spokesperson for the friars —  known often by their post-nominal, CFR — told The Pillar that the brother who made allegations against the community “has two weeks to appeal the findings of the investigations, should he choose to do that.”

The friars said they were announcing the results of the investigation because “we are committed as an Institute to working towards long-term transparency and communication with members of both the Church and the general public.”

The group added that they have begun working with Praesidium, a well-known abuse prevention and audit firm, to “identify and investigate situations.” Praesidium is known to work extensively with dioceses and Catholic religious institutes to develop abuse prevention and auditing policies.

In the same press release, the order said that two members have been placed “under restrictions” — removed from active ministry —  because they are alleged to have committed acts of non-criminal sexual misconduct.

One member placed under restrictions is the brother who made the broader allegations against the community, the friars said. He raised those accusations during the course of a 2020 investigation into his alleged “sexual misconduct with an adult female.”

The order told The Pillar that the brother is not accused of a canonical crime, but said he had allegedly acted “in a manner unworthy of the religious vows he was committed to.” The order also said it had reported the allegations to the Archdiocese of New York.

Also removed from ministry is Fr. Louis Leonelli, who entered the community in 2001 and was ordained in 2009. The priest is accused of consensual sexual activity with an adult woman, which is now being investigated, the order said. Leonelli, who was a professional musician before entering religious life, has been a well-known figure in some Catholic circles.

The community said it was announcing the measures as a matter of transparency in leadership.

“It is our intention to face the challenges before us with the utmost diligence, and to foster a spirit of transparency as we serve the flock which has been entrusted to us,” the press release said.

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal were founded in 1987 as a movement of renewal in Capuchin Franciscan religious life; after a series of steps in the Church approval process that takes decades, they were formally recognized in 2016 as a religious institute of pontifical right. The community’s identity is marked by austerity of life and religious poverty, life among the poor, Eucharistic devotion, pro-life advocacy, and fervent evangelical preaching.

Early members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal greet Pope John Paul II. Courtesy photo.

The order, founded by eight Capuchin friars, has grown to roughly 120 members, more than 60 of whom are priests. Their apostolate is to serve the poor, which they do in friaries in the U.S., Europe, and Central America. Members of the community have also become prominent speakers and Catholic media figures.

The order has in the past faced allegations related to sexual abuse or misconduct.

In 2007, a member of the community, Br. Dominic Bokulich, known in religion as Br. Leopold, pled guilty to sexual abuse charges, stemming from the sexual abuse of four minor boys at a retreat center operated by the community. He was dismissed from the order, and was sentenced to a seven-year period of incarceration. He has since been released from prison.

In 2012, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, one of the community’s founders and a well-known psychologist and author, came under fire after he said in an interview with the National Catholic Register that a first time child abuser should not necessarily go to jail, and that there were instances when a victim of clerical sexual abuse might “come after” a priest.

In “a lot of the cases, the youngster, 14, 15, 16 - is the seducer," Groeschel said.

The remarks were rebuked by the Archdiocese of New York, where the Franciscan friars are headquartered, and the newspaper apologized for not challenging his comment, which it said was not true.

The friars issued an apology shortly after the interview was released, and said that Groeschel’s cognitive decline might have been a factor; the priest had suffered head trauma in a 2004 car accident, and a series of strokes thereafter.

"Father Benedict made comments that were inappropriate and untrue," the order said. "These comments were completely out of character. He never intended to excuse abuse or implicate the victims."

"In recent months [Groeschel]’s health, memory and cognitive ability have been failing. He has been in and out of the hospital. Due to his declining health and inability to care for himself, Father Benedict had moved to a location where he could rest and be relieved of his responsibilities. Although these factors do not excuse his comments, they help us understand how such a compassionate man could have said something so wrong, so insensitive and so out of character."

Groeschel also issued an apology.

“I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim,” he said.

"A priest — or anyone else — who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be."

Groeschel died in 2014 at 81.

In its press release Friday, the order offered apologies for the alleged actions of its recently suspended members, and promised prayer.

“We are deeply grieved by this situation and are especially committed to praying for our sisters in Christ and offer our sincerest and most humble apologies to them and to all those affected by the actions of these members of our Community.”