A former campus minister at Franciscan University of Steubenville will go to trial on rape charges next month, unless the priest and prosecutors announce a plea bargain during a final pre-trial hearing on Monday.
The priest’s case raises questions about when Church and university officials knew about his alleged sexual crimes, and whether they responded appropriately.
Fr. David Morrier, TOR, was charged in April 2021 with rape and sexual battery, allegedly committed against a student of the university between 2010 and 2013, while Morrier served as a campus minister.
The priest’s alleged victim was an undergraduate and then graduate student at Franciscan University, who sought counseling from Morrier to address mental health issues.
Morrier “used his position as a counselor or therapist with her to make her believe that engaging in sexual activity with him would help with the mental health issues that she was having,” according to Jefferson County prosecutor Jane Hanlin.
The indictment against Morrier adds that he allegedly raped the student when her ability to consent was “substantially impaired.”
The priest, 60, pled not guilty last year. His trial will begin Feb. 1 in the Jefferson County Courthouse unless he and prosecutors announce a plea agreement at a pre-trial hearing on Monday.
If a plea agreement is reached, sentencing could take place during the Jan. 24 hearing, according to court records.
According to court records, Morrier has been living at the Loretto, Pennsylvania, motherhouse of the Sacred Heart Province of the Third Order Regular Franciscan friars, the religious order to which he belongs.
The priest was not incarcerated ahead of his trial because Ohio law permits defendants who appear voluntarily at their arraignments to be released without bail.
Morrier was ordained a priest in 1997 and assigned to Franciscan University of Steubenville in the early 2000s. He was reassigned to a Texas parish in 2014.
The Sacred Heart province said in an April 2021 statement that Morrier was removed by provincial leadership from ministry in 2015 because of allegations of “sexual misconduct.”
The province did not say it contacted law enforcement at that, or indicate whether the allegations it initially received would have required a police report.
The Steubenville diocese said last year it was notified of the allegation by the alleged victim in November 2018, and immediately contacted law enforcement. The diocese said it also conducted a preliminary canonical investigation, which it submitted to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on Dec. 11, 2018.
The priest is unlikely to face a canonical trial until his Ohio criminal charges are resolved.
A pair of 2021 statements from Franciscan University raise questions about what university leaders knew when Morrier was reassigned in 2014.
The university said in an April 8, 2021 statement that “Franciscan University removed [Morrier] permanently from campus ministry, and he was also prohibited from returning to campus.”
The university did not say when it prohibited Morrier from campus, or if it was aware of allegations against the priest at the time he was reassigned in 2014.
But if Morrier was reassigned to a Texas parish while university or provincial officials were aware of allegations he had sexually assaulted a student, and even after he was prohibited from the university campus, the assignment raises questions about whether officials sufficiently discharged their canonical oversight obligations.
The statement now on the university’s website — dated April 14, 2021 — does not mention the priest’s removal or prohibition from campus, but seems otherwise similar to the April 8 statement. It is not clear why mention of the priest’s ouster from campus was excised.
The university has said it will not comment further while the case is ongoing.
It is also not clear that Morrier had qualifications or certifications to function as a mental health counselor, the role which the case’s charging documents say he purported to play. According to a 2007 university directory, Morrier’s only graduate degree is a Masters of Divinity, from Washington Theological Union.
If convicted on all charges, Morrier could face as many as 20 years in prison. The priest’s attorney did not respond to The Pillar’s request for comment.
Editor’s note: As a matter of full disclosure, JD Flynn, who reported this story, earned an undergraduate degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2003 and a graduate degree in 2005. He does not otherwise have a relationship to the university.