Former Cleveland sems allege sexual coercion, inadequate response
News: Diocese of Cleveland
Three former seminarians say Cleveland diocesan and seminary officials failed to respond appropriately, after a priest allegedly pressured them to take naked swims with him at a lake house and other locations, couching the invitations in both spiritual language and excessive alcohol consumption.
One seminarian also said the priest took nude photos and videos of him without consent.
While the Cleveland diocese told The Pillar Thursday that the matter “does not involve any conduct that could be reasonably considered to be coercive [or] harassing,” one former seminarian called that response stunning.
The former seminarians say they were harassed and manipulated in 2019 by Cleveland priest Fr. James Cosgrove. They also allege that after they reported the misconduct and it was investigated, the priest still had access to seminarians, and a key to the seminary.
While the priest resigned from ministry this month, the former seminarians say that seminary and diocesan officials left other seminarians at risk of abuse from the priest, and have not listened seriously to their concerns.
Former Cleveland seminarian Nick Grismer told The Pillar that in June and July 2019, Cosgrove pressured him into skinny-dipping at the seminary’s swimming pool, and at a lake house owned by a diocesan priest. Cosgrove also took nude photographs without his consent, Grismer alleged.
He said the priest exploited their close relationship and his trust, encouraging him to drink heavily, even when he knew that Grismer struggled with alcohol abuse - on one occasion, the seminarian got so drunk with the priest that he says he cannot recall what happened.
Grismer also alleges that the priest abused his religious influence to coerce and manipulate him.
When urging him to skinny-dip, Cosgrove would tell Grismer to “be free before God,” or “be naked before God,” the former seminarian claimed.
Cosgrove was not assigned to the seminary, but he was there often that summer, Grismer said, overseeing a program for high schoolers. A few years earlier, Cosgrove had been in his final year of major seminary when Grismer was in his first year of college seminary; they had become friends. And because Cosgrove was a priest, Grismer said that initially, he trusted him.
“When you’re put in that position — it’s weird, because he was in the seminary with me, so he’s like a brother to me. But at the same time, he’s a priest. So if he’s saying this, it’s probably ok. It’s probably good. But, at the same time, I’m like, this is not — this is f*cked up.”
Grismer alleged that Cosgrove took photographs and videos of him while he was unclothed, even after he told the priest explicitly to stop. He said the priest claimed that he was joking, but took photos or videos on at least two occasions.
“He took the picture and the video without my consent; I had outright said not to do that,” Grismer said.
Grismer added that after skinny-dipping and a non-consensual video recording at the priest-owned lake house, Cosgrove also tried to convince him to sleep for the night next to him in the house’s living room, before they had put their clothes back on.
Grismer declined, he told The Pillar.
Cosgrove has not responded to The Pillar’s attempts to contact him.
Two additional former seminarians, both of whom requested anonymity, told The Pillar they were also pressured to swim naked with Cosgrove in the summer of 2019.
One former seminarian said that while the priest’s pressure was relentless, he rebuffed the advances. The other said that because of pressure from Cosgrove, and the priest’s spiritual manipulation, he eventually agreed to skinny-dipping with the priest.
That former seminarian told The Pillar that the priest took him to the same lake house where Grismer had gone, and that there were “a good amount of drinks,” before they swam naked together in Lake Erie.
There were, he said, “no pictures, that I know of,” but he alleged that Cosgrove told him to keep the skinny-dipping a secret.
“He made it clear like, ‘don’t tell anyone about this.’ And I’m like ‘yeah, no worries there. I’m not gonna say a word’,” the former seminarian said.
Like Grismer, both the other former seminarians alleged that Cosgrove spiritually manipulated them.
“We had this one theme in the seminary called masculine vulnerability,” one former seminarian recalled, “and he was using it spiritually to manipulate people. He was using the ideas of masculine vulnerability, and detachment from the world, and freedom, to lure people into going skinny-dipping. He had people’s trust, and they saw him as a big brother so much that they didn’t think anything of it at first. And then he kept pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. I’m like, this is weird.”
The other former seminarian also alleged that Cosgrove “brought God into it. Like it was something God wanted us to do...he would connect it to the Lord, which was really kind of weird in hindsight.”
“As weird as it is to admit this, I kind of bought it...I thought maybe I was just being a stick in the mud, and maybe he’s right, because he’s speaking from some sort of authority.”
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In December 2019, two of the former seminarians reported the incidents to the Cleveland diocesan vocations director. They said a private investigator — a permanent deacon and retired police officer — was contracted by the diocese to look into the matter. The third former seminarian said that while he did not initially report what had happened to him, he was contacted by the investigator in October 2020, and disclosed his experience.
Grismer told The Pillar that during the course of the diocesan investigation, the private investigator said that Cosgrove had admitted to the allegations he had made. The diocese did not comment on that allegation.
To their surprise, the former seminarians told The Pillar, the diocese did not formally respond to their allegations, or seem to censure the priest.
Instead, nearly a year after their initial report, at a Mass offered Nov. 29, 2020, Cosgrove announced to his parish that he would take a medical leave of absence. He told the parish that he had been “struggling with issues surrounding depression and anxiety.”
“When I took my vow, my promise to be a priest for your Church...you became my spouse. And as every spouse should do, we need to be in our best shape to provide for you.”
“In the steps leading up to this decision, I had to confront the stigma of what depression and anxiety meant. And to learn there is no shame in addressing it, because we’re hoping to nip this in the bud sooner rather than later, so that I can come back asap and be a priest for you,” he said.
“The bonus, in a practical sense, is that I’m still on payroll while I’m away,” the priest joked. “It seems I’m like the Kevin Love of St. Clare now,” he told the congregation.
The priest did not mention the allegations against him, nor did the Cleveland diocese.
For the next three months, the parish offered Wednesdays as “Cosgrove Wednesdays,” during which they offered holy hours to pray for the priest. On Feb. 26, 2021, the parish announced that Cosgrove had returned.
Neither priests, seminarians, nor lay Catholics in the diocese were informed of the allegations of coercion. And Grismer alleges that when the priest returned from his leave, he was permitted to resume his practice of using the gym at Cleveland’s seminary campus.
Grismer said Cosgrove reportedly retained a key to the seminary, which concerned him. He had first gotten to know Cosgrove in the seminary gym, he said, and thought current seminarians might similarly befriend the priest, and be targeted without intervention from the seminary.
“This whole situation was just messing me up. He was still in ministry for effectively two years after all this had taken place, and it just seemed like nothing was taking place.”
One of the other former seminarians agreed.
“If they knew all of this information, and they sent him away for two months getting help, and then just kind of put him right back in ministry….in my opinion I think that was kind of poor. I was angry about that. I’m assuming they knew all the details, you know, and yet they just kind of threw him back in ministry. And that struck me as almost like a cover-up. Like, ‘Hey, we’re just going to keep this under wraps, nobody needs to know the truth, we’ll just send you back out there.’”
“And I don’t know if that’s what it was...but I think that it could have been handled a lot better,” he said.
The Cleveland diocese has not answered questions from The Pillar about Cosgrove’s presence on the seminary campus after his leave of absence.
As it continued to bother his conscience and his faith, Grismer told his mother last month what happened in 2019, and his concern about Cosgrove’s continued ministry in the diocese.
In addition to the sexual harassment, coercion, and nonconsensual photography, Grismer also told his mother that Cosgrove might have violated the seal of confession in 2019, disclosing the former seminarian’s sins to a member of the seminary faculty.
Grismer and his mother shared their concern with a diocesan priest they trusted, they told The Pillar.
They said the priest spoke with diocesan officials, who seemed initially unconcerned.
“The attitude was that they’d handled it,” Casey Grismer, Nick’s mother, told The Pillar.
But the Grismers say they continued to express their concerns, as did their priest friend. They also spoke with other Catholics in the diocese about what seemed to them like institutional indifference to serious misconduct.
That, they suspect, prompted the diocese to reach out. Grismer and one former seminarian told The Pillar they were called last month by Fr. Daniel Schlegel, the diocesan vicar for clergy, who apologized for what they had experienced.
But they said that while Schlegel offered money for counseling, and vague apologies, he did not respond to requests that the diocese publicly acknowledge that Cosgrove had been accused of sexual misconduct.
“He said, 'I'm sorry, my heart breaks for you. If there’s anything I can do for you…’” the former seminarian recalled.
“I said, ‘Yeah, sure. There’s something you could do for me….How about you tell people what happened? How about you do something about this?’ But he just kept placating me.”
“There was no explanation, absolutely nothing. Every time he said ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘That means absolutely nothing, because I’m begging you to do something about this. Show us that you care about us.’”
Early this month, priests of the diocese were notified that Cosgrove had resigned from ministry. He has since been removed from the diocesan online directory. The former seminarians say they have been offered no explanation, though the Cleveland diocese told The Pillar Thursday that the priest has “made a decision to voluntarily resign from the priesthood.”
The Cleveland diocese also told The Pillar that while it “believes in sharing, when reasonable and just, appropriate details in certain matters in order to protect vulnerable people from future harm and to restore trust in the Church,” in this case “it would not be appropriate to share further detail.”
The diocese added that “the matter at hand does not involve any conduct with a minor, any physical contact with any person (sexual or otherwise), or any criminal activity whatsoever.”
The Cleveland diocese also told The Pillar it had not received a complaint about “a breach of the seal of confession.”
Grismer and a fellow former seminarian told The Pillar on Thursday they are incredulous that the diocese did not consider their allegations coercion or harassment.
They said that when they spoke with the diocesan investigator in 2019, they were explicit about how they had experienced the priest’s overtures. And Grismer said he was explicit about how Cosgrove’s alleged photography and videography made him feel.
“I don’t think there’s any way to look at the situations that happened, like each individual case, and not clearly see that this was totally wrong,” Grismer said.
“It is totally inaccurate to say there was no manipulation or sexual harassment,” the other former seminarian said. He mentioned that the investigator had referred him to diocesan victims’ assistance coordinator. “He wouldn’t have done that if wasn’t sexual harassment.”
“I saw [Cosgrove] as an older brother, and I trusted him completely to the point where I thought he would take a bullet for me...I feel like the diocesan statement...is essentially saying that what we’re reporting to them is false. But I have no reason to lie about this, or to make up that there was sexual harassment.”
“Their comment altogether is a farce,” Grismer added. “They didn’t take us seriously, they were not transparent with us. I feel dehumanized by their lack of response throughout this process.”
Grismer said the situation was consistent with other problems he experienced in the seminary. He charged the seminary’s rector, Fr. Mark Latcovich, was negligent in allowing Cosgrove access to the seminary, even after serious complaints had been made about his conduct.
“That’s putting my friends, good young Catholic men, in harm’s way. And the families of the seminarians are hurt by this too.”
Grismer said he had experienced a culture too tolerant of dysfunction in Cleveland’s seminaries, which contributed, he said, to what he experienced in 2019, and to a response he characterized as insulting.
Cleveland’s seminaries, Borromeo and St. Mary’s, which share both a campus and a rector — Latcovich — have faced criticism in recent years, after the 2019 arrest of Cleveland priest Fr. Robert McWilliams, who will be sentenced next month for federal child trafficking and abuse crimes, to which he has already pled guilty.
Critics have asked why McWilliams, who was arrested two years after he was ordained a priest, was not screened out from the diocese during his seminary formation. Latcovich told the National Catholic Register this month that when McWilliams was a seminarian, there were no signs he might someday be arrested for abusing children.
Grismer said both the culture and screening processes of the seminary need to be reexamined. He added that the allegations against Cosgrove, and the outcome of the investigation, should be released and acknowledged, as a matter of justice.
“If this would have happened, and they were like, ‘Ok, we want to protect the young men of the Church, we want to protect the seminarians,’ I don’t think I would be carrying any weight,” he said.
“But this is still not in the light, and that’s what messed me up...I’m still carrying the silence. And that makes it so that this can just continue to happen.”