After Morrier conviction, will Vatican investigate allegation's handling?
Former Franciscan University chaplain Fr. David Morrier was sentenced to five years probation and a lifetime of sex offender registration Friday, after pleading guilty in a Jefferson County, Ohio, courtroom to one count of sexual battery.
But while the priest’s conviction ends his time in the courtroom, the canonical case against Morrier is only beginning. And questions remain about what university administrators and the priest’s provincial leaders knew about allegations against him, and how they responded.
Morrier was charged in April 2021 with rape and sexual battery against a university student he is alleged to have groomed for years before engaging in serial sexual abuse. He recieved a plea bargain with the approval of his victim, the Steubenville Herald-Star reported, because she wanted to ensure he would be registered as a sex offender, in order to prevent him from committing new acts of abuse.
According to a chilling statement from the priest’s victim, Morrier used knowledge of the victim’s abusive past, coupled with the trappings of spiritual deliverance ministry, in order to impose himself on a young and vulnerable student seeking counsel and guidance from him. The priest, she said, promised healing, but delivered physical, spiritual, and psychological abuse.
His victim said Friday that Morrier committed:
“the crime of rape, because that was how God revealed to him that I would be healed. That was ‘the only way’ and…this ‘method’ was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit in prayer…He told me that there was healing power and grace in the sacraments, but he brought his own perverted desires into what should have been sacred encounters with God. Instead of receiving God’s forgiveness in confession, I was forced to relive the details of the very acts he committed against me, confessing them as if I was the one responsible for all of it.”
A judge said hers “was the most powerful victim impact statement I have ever heard.” Few who have read it could say otherwise. The statement is heart-wrenching. And it points to the pending canonical path for Morrier.
The Diocese of Steubenville has already begun a preliminary canonical investigation into Morrier’s conduct, and in 2018 sent the results of that review to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican ordinarily waits for the conclusion of a state criminal process before conducting a formal canonical trial, but with Morrier sentenced, such a trial could soon begin.
Unless the priest 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 priest is not the only one who could face a canonical investigation. Morrier’s ecclesiastical superiors could also soon be questioned, especially about what they knew, and when they knew it.
After he was sentenced, both Franciscan University of Steubenville and Morrier’s religious community - the Sacred Heart Province of the Third Order Regular Franciscans - released statements which said they were not aware until 2015 about abuse allegations against the priest.
In its statement, the Franciscan province said directly that it first received a sexual misconduct allegation against Morrier in 2015.
The university was less precise, stating that it “was not aware of any claims of sexual impropriety” at the time Morrier left the university, and that “the University’s Title IX Coordinator was first notified of the sexual abuse allegations in 2015.”
The implication, though not stated directly, is that the university first learned about any of Morrier’s misconduct in 2015, after he had left the university and was reassigned by his province to a Texas parish, from which he was removed in 2015.
But according to the Steubenville Herald-Star, Morrier was banned from the Franciscan campus in 2014.
And the priest’s victim said last week that beginning in 2013, she “reported [the abuse] to his superiors, some of the other friars, to Franciscan University administration and staff, and the cycle of those disclosures continued. I spent two years repeating the details of the abuse, pleading to be heard, and begging for someone to help me.”
So did Morrier’s superiors know something about his misconduct in 2013, when he left the university and his victim says she began reporting things? Did they know in 2014, when he was reportedly banned from the campus? Or did they not know until 2015, as they said last week?
The timeline discrepancy is not insignificant. It would be no small matter if the university or the province is found to have effectively delayed action on allegations of serious misconduct, and to have misrepresented the sequence of events.
It would be even more serious if officials told the priest’s victim that the relationship might have been consensual, that a report would see Morrier removed from ministry, that gossiping about him was a sin — all charges leveled in the victim’s statement read in court Friday.
And those questions may well be judged to merit an ecclesiastical investigation of their own.
Of course, not all norms of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 policy on abuse and cover-up promulgated by Pope Francis, technically apply to provincial superiors of religious institutes, or the administrators of a Catholic university.
But if Morrier’s victim has reported to the Church that her abuse allegations fell upon deaf ecclesiastical ears, a Vatican investigation seems likely — especially if the Diocese of Steubenville, which the victim says “never hesitated to do the right thing” has much to say about it.
The statement from Morrier’s victim is not the first charge that officials of Franciscan University have mishandled sexual abuse and misconduct allegations on their campus. As early as 2018, Catholic media reported that university officials, including Morrier, had failed more than once to address such allegations.
Both the province and the university say they have worked in recent years to improve policies and enhance resources “to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.” The college promised this week to continue updating policies, “to help ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.”
But that might not be enough.
While the priest’s conviction may help his victim to find healing from what she experienced, the university and the province are not likely positioned to move on from Morrier’s abuse.
Instead, both may soon find themselves facing questions: from frustrated alumni, students, or donors, from a local prosecutor who says there is “more work to do,” and from a Vatican investigator charged with ironing out the details, and holding ecclesiastical conduct to account.