A lawsuit against the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal alleges that a woman was serially sexually assaulted by a priest of the order.
While the priest - Fr. Louis Leonelli - says he had a consenting relationship with the woman, her attorney insists that no sexual relationship between a spiritual director and his directee can be consensual, and alleges that Leonelli committed several “violent sexual assaults.”
For his part, the order’s superior general has apologized, after the order told The Pillar last year that accusations against Leonelli pertained to consensual sexual activity.
The case is the latest in recent months to raise questions about the Church’s handling of assault allegations in the context of relationships between priests and adults under their pastoral care — an issue which some experts say has not been sufficiently addressed by canon law and Vatican policies.
“These are violent sexual assaults, and if they had been reported within the period of the statute of limitations for crimes, I have no doubt that the special victims’ unit of the New York Police Department would have arrested Leonelli and he would have gone to jail,” attorney Daniel Arshack told The Pillar Wednesday.
Arshack’s client, a woman identified as Jane Doe in federal court proceedings, filed suit in May against Leonelli, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, several of the community’s apostolates, friaries, and churches in the Bronx, and the Archdiocese of New York.
The lawsuit alleges that the Jane Doe and her husband were from 2012 until 2015 lay associates of the New York-based religious institute, and that Leonelli “groomed” the woman for sexual abuse in the context of spiritual direction and during ministry to the poor.
The suit charges that on numerous occasions Leonelli committed forcible sexual acts against the woman, and that he told her she would cause people to leave the Church, while threatening “repercussions to your family and your own reputation,” if she reported the assaults.
The woman did not immediately report sexual assault to police or Church authorities, Arshak said, “for the same reason that people go decades without fully understanding and accepting that they’ve been victimized, or to develop the courage to complain about and identify the perpetrator of a violent sexual act.”
The criminal statute of limitations for sexual assault in New York state is five years.
“It takes people years and years, and sometimes decades, to generate the wherewithal to say ‘Wait a minute, this was wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m a victim here. I was assaulted by this person. And I’m gonna stand up and announce it,’” Arshak said.
“And that’s what my client has done,” the lawyer added.
According to the lawsuit, Leonelli also initiated sexual contact with the woman in the context of the confessional, a canonical crime that must be handled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.
While the priest’s religious order told The Pillar this week that “an exhaustive investigation was conducted by a civil attorney and many witnesses were interviewed,” it did not disclose the results of that investigation, and has not yet responded to questions about whether the priest will face canonical charges.
The order did tell The Pillar that Leonelli “has adamantly denied any allegation of nonconsensual activity and has maintained that their relationship was entirely consensual and mutual.”
Arshak, the alleged victim’s attorney, told The Pillar that he believes the spiritual relationship between Leonelli and the alleged victim renders a consensual sexual relationship impossible.
“These are unequal power relationships, and the priest has a fiduciary duty to parishioners to be honest and truthful, and to protect a parishioner from damage.”
“If Leonelli were a physician and he behaved this way with a patient, he would be committing rape. He would be arrested and he would go to prison. If this were a lawyer behaving this way with their client, the lawyer would lose their license and be sued.”
According to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Leonelli was removed from ministry in June 2021, after Jane Doe reported sexual misconduct allegations against him.
In a November statement, the order said that Leonelli “had been accused of conducting himself in a manner unworthy of his religious vows by participating in sexual activity with a married adult female.”
Also in November 2021, the order told The Pillar directly that Leonelli had been accused of consensual sexual misconduct.
But the community’s major superior, Fr. John Paul Ouellette, walked back that statement this week, in response to The Pillar’s questions about inconsistencies between his November account and the allegations in the lawsuit.
“I apologize because I now realize that it was an error for me to attempt to characterize the woman’s accusation at that time,” Ouellette told The Pillar.
Ouellette added that “when [the woman] brought the accusation forth, she detailed a long-standing, secret affair between herself and Fr. Leonelli.”
But Ouellette declined to provide the complaint made against Leonelli, which the lawsuit described as an accusation of sexual abuse.
In comments emailed to The Pillar this week, Ouellette suggested that he did not realize Jane Doe was accusing Leonelli of assault until she filed a lawsuit two months ago.
“It is clear now based on the language of the Complaint that was filed in May 2022 that she is explicitly accusing Fr. Leonelli of nonconsensual behavior,” the priest wrote.
But according to the lawsuit, the priest wrote to the alleged victim shortly after she made her complaint, telling her that, “this is dreadful and I am sickened by his behavior! It is terrible what happened to you.”
Ouellette declined The Pillar’s request for an interview.
While the Church has continued to address aspects of clerical sexual misconduct in recent years, experts have called recently for Church authorities to take a more serious look at addressing the implications of priests who have sexual contact with adults, when the canonical process for resolving allegations can be less clear.
Moral theologian Fr. Thomas Berg wrote in The Pillar last month that “the Church still has a very serious problem with priests who are sexually active with adults. Many of these relationships are precipitated in part by the power differential that exists between clergy and laity. To that extent, these relationships cannot be understood as simply consensual; many of them actually constitute instances of abuse.”
Victims’ advocate Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, wrote in The Pillar last month that “greater clarity is needed about situations in which an adult can be vulnerable to sexual abuse and how these reports should be handled in the Church.”
“As it stands today, I hear over and over from survivors of adult abuse that their reports were ignored, dismissed, or covered up by their diocese, even if a priest abused them while serving as their spiritual director, confessor, counselor, or supervisor.”
At least 13 U.S. states and the District of Columbia make it a crime for pastoral ministers to engage in sexual conduct with their spiritual directees or others who receive from them pastoral counseling.
New York, where Leonelli is accused of sexual assault, is not one of them. But in March 2021, state Senator Brad Hoylman introduced a bill into the state legislature that would make it a crime for pastoral ministers to have sexual contact with spiritual directees and others to whom they provide “pastoral counseling.”
That bill was introduced after a woman named Dakota Bateman, who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a priest in 2018, contacted Holyman urging action.
But more than a year after it was formally introduced, the bill has made no movement in the legislature. It was assigned to a senate committee in March 2021, but has not been scheduled for a hearing.
Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, told The Pillar last month that the conference, which lobbies on behalf of New York’s Catholic bishops, would likely “support the bill were it to move in committee.”
“When a member of the clergy engages in a sexual or sexually charged affair with someone who is directly in his spiritual care, there is an undeniable power imbalance and it is a grave abuse of power and trust, similar to a therapist or physician,” Poust told The Pillar.
Arshack told The Pillar this week that he expects defendants in the suit to soon be served with court summonses, after which they’ll likely respond formally to the claims in his clients’ suit.
While a judge ruled last month that Jane Doe and her husband can not proceed in the case using pseudonyms, Arshack told The Pillar they intend to move forward using their real names, and that he will soon submit an amended complaint in federal court.
Leonelli entered the community in 2001 and was ordained in 2009. The priest, who was a professional musician before entering religious life, has been a well-known figure in some Catholic circles.
The lawsuit alleges that “Leonelli admitted to Mrs. Doe that he had violated his oath in a previous affair with at least one other married woman, and that had resulted in the divorce of that woman from her husband.”
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, known by the post-nominal “CFR,” was 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.
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 late 2020, a member of 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,” the order said in a November 2021 statement.
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.”
In response to those allegations, the community’s superiors ordered a canonical investigation and “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.
For his part, Ouellette insisted this week that the Franciscan Friars are not responsible for Leonelli’s alleged misconduct.
“While the Community is both heart-broken and disappointed by Fr. Leonelli's conduct, the Community denies any wrongdoing on its part as the accusations were completely unknown and unforeseen,” the priest told The Pillar.
“The Community remains committed to transparency and working toward healing and peace,” he added.
“We are earnestly praying for this situation and sincerely apologize for any harm this situation may have caused.”