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Cleveland diocese to reopen seminarian coercion investigation

The Diocese of Cleveland will reopen its investigation into a priest accused of sexually harassing and coercing three former seminarians, inducing two of them to skinny-dip with him, and, in one case, allegedly taking nude photographs and video without consent.

St. John the Evangelist Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Tim Evanson/flickr CC BY SA 2.0


A statement from the diocese Tuesday claimed there are differences between the way former seminarians described their allegations to The Pillar last week, and the way they were described during a 2020 diocesan investigation. The diocese has declined to make available the results of that investigation.

“In light of several disparities between the account offered in The Pillar’s original article and the evidence provided to the diocese during its investigation, the diocese will be asking its investigator to conduct further inquiry so that those disparities can be clarified,” the statement said.

The former seminarians insist they were explicit during the 2020 diocesan investigation about how they experienced the advances and actions of Fr. James Cosgrove, a priest of the diocese, who, they allege, pressured them to skinny-dip with him at a lake house owned by diocesan priests, using spiritual language and encouraging excessive alcohol consumption.

But a diocesan spokesman told The Pillar that “at no time prior to The Pillar article was the diocese made aware of any facts to suggest that any of the three former seminarians, who were adults at the time, felt they had no choice but to engage in the activity with Fr. Cosgrove or that they engaged in any activity with Fr. Cosgrove against their will and/or to which they did not agree.”

The diocesan statement did not address a particular allegation from former seminarian Nick Grismer.

Grismer alleges that the priest took indecent photographs and video of him without his consent, and even after Grismer had told him to stop.

And while former seminarians say they explained to a diocesan investigator that the priest had encouraged them to be “naked before God,” and that skinny-dipping would be the kind of “masculine vulnerability” encouraged in the seminary, the diocese told The Pillar it had not been given that information during its investigation. 

Likewise, former seminarians say the priest encouraged them to drink as he pressed them to go skinny-dipping, while the diocese said it was not “made aware that anyone involved in the incidents was intoxicated to the point being incapable of understanding and or controlling their own behavior.” 

The diocese also told the The Pillar that the former seminarians had “explicitly represented to the diocese’s investigator that Fr. Cosgrove…never engaged in any conduct which they would characterize as sexual.”

But the former seminarians told The Pillar they believe they were candid and direct with a diocesan investigator about what they experienced and why it was inappropriate.

“That was the point of reporting it,” one former seminarian told The Pillar Tuesday. “If this was all just consensual stuff that we wanted to do, why would we go and report it to the diocese? We were doing this because we wanted him to stop.”

“The language that I used was harassment,” the former seminarian told The Pillar.

“And why would the investigator tell me about the victims’ assistance coordinator? He wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t sexual harassment.”

The former seminarian said he also recalls that the third-party investigator expressed empathy, acknowledging that what had happened was inappropriate, during interviews. And former seminarians told The Pillar last week that in September they were offered money for counseling, which suggested to them that diocesan officials believed they had been treated inappropriately by Cosgrove.

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Grismer told The Pillar the diocesan response to his allegations has been “a farce.”

“They didn’t take us seriously, they were not transparent with us,” Grismer added.

The diocese also challenged the former seminarians’ recollection of when they initially made their report; while Grismer and another former seminarian told The Pillar they reported the incidents in December 2019, the diocese said they were not reported until July 2020. Both former seminarians said that timeline was possible, with one mentioning that he had discussed it with his spiritual director in the internal forum before reporting it. 

But the former seminarians said that whatever month they formally reported it, they were clear with the diocese about their experiences.

Given the discrepancies between the seminarians’ recollections and the diocesan position, The Pillar requested to review a copy of the third-party report. The Diocese of Cleveland declined to make available the report, and declined to provide the identity of the investigator. 

The diocesan spokesman said the report is “confidential,” and the investigator is “a veteran investigator with extensive law enforcement investigative experience.”

In response to questions, the diocese confirmed that after it received complaints about Cosgrove and investigated them, it sent the priest for a mental health evaluation, but did not communicate concerns to seminary administrators. 

“Fr. Cosgrove had no formal association with the seminary and engaged in the conduct with adults who were his friends and who no longer were seminarians at the time it was reported to the diocese [in July 2020],” a diocesan spokesman said in response to questions about that. 

According to Grismer and the other former seminarians, two of them were seminarians when they went with Cosgrove to the seminary pool and to a lake house for skinny-dipping, where, in Grismer’s case, the priest allegedly took photos and videos without consent. The third rebuffed the priest’s alleged advances, which were made after he had withdrawn from seminary formation.

Grismer said that since he and the others met and befriended Cosgrove at the seminary, the diocese should have warned the seminary about the prospect that the priest might approach other seminarians. Grismer also noted that Cosgrove pressured him to swim naked in the seminary’s swimming pool, and took a photo after they got out of the water. 

But the diocesan spokesman told The Pillar that “although one of the incidents occurred on the property of the seminary after hours, the matter was not disclosed to the faculty, staff, or students of the seminary since Fr. Cosgrove had no formal association with the seminary and the incidents involved conduct engaged in with three adult individuals with whom he had personal friendships.”

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The former seminarians are not the only ones to say that allegations of misbehavior in the seminary have not been well-handled.

Joshua Echt, a former seminarian at Cleveland’s Borromeo Seminary, told The Pillar that in the spring of 2013, he reported to seminary administrators that a fellow seminarian had been harassing him and had inappropriately groped him, while drunk, during a seminary trip. Echt said he had seen no serious response to his complaints. 

“I reported it to [seminary rector] Fr. Lactovich and they didn’t really do anything….the seminarian was harassing me and touching me and they didn’t seem to really deal with it all.” 

“I don’t want to dog on the seminary,” Echt told The Pillar. “I will say the seminary did provide me great formation. I learned to love the Eucharist. I really did grow as a person and learned to deal with people. 

“It’s just that they need to tweak some things with their processes,” he said, adding that he had forgiven the seminarian who had harassed him, who eventually left the seminary. But the handling of his report “left a bad taste in my mouth.”

In the case of Grismer and the other former seminarians who say they felt coerced and harassed by Cosgrove, the diocese said its “objective [is] to understand the truth regarding this matter and to respond to what is known when making decisions.”

While the diocesan statement maintained that Cosgrove’s behavior had not been coercive or manipulative, it said it had learned last month — amid complaints from the former seminarians —  “of the impact that Fr.Cosgrove’s past behavior had,” and “gave renewed consideration to whether Fr. Cosgrove could be an effective priest.” 

“Consequently, Fr. Cosgrove was asked to consider voluntarily resigning from the priesthood. After consideration, Fr. Cosgrove agreed to voluntarily resign from ministry and to seek laicization.”

The diocese added that administrators want to know the full story, while the former seminarians insist they’ve already told it.

“Given the discrepancy between what has been reported and what we understand, we will ask our investigator to attempt to clarify. We just want to get to the truth,” the Cleveland diocese said.

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