The Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama made headlines last month when local media reported that a young priest, Fr. Alex Crow, had fled to Europe with an 18-year-old girl — recently graduated from a Catholic high school — ostensibly for the purpose of performing an illicit exorcism upon her.
The archdiocese announced July 28 that the priest had “abandoned his assignment in the archdiocese,” adding that his “behavior is totally unbecoming of a priest,” and that “he may no longer exercise ministry as a priest, nor tell people he is a priest, nor dress as a priest.”
The archdiocese also announced that it had informed the county prosecutor’s office of the situation, “due to the circumstances of [Crow’s] departure.”
It quickly emerged that Crow had a strong interest in spiritual warfare and exorcisms, and had appeared on several podcasts to discuss demonic possession — though sources have confirmed that Crow wasn’t actually appointed exorcist in the Mobile archdiocese, and was not trained for that kind of role.
Crow said that he had experienced demonic manifestations during his childhood and had undergone a minor exorcism. Seminarians who knew Crow during his time at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana told The Pillar that Crow had a well-known “deliverance ministry” during his time as a transitional deacon, before his 2021 ordination.
While Crow, 30, was not assigned to Mobile’s Catholic high school, he had spent some time there as a priest in 2021, hearing confessions and visiting classrooms, according to a statement from the school.
Sources in Mobile told The Pillar that Crow was popular among young people in the archdiocese — and that, at some point before he made the headlines, parents in Mobile had complained about his habit of talking frequently with young people about demonic possession and exorcisms.
Through their attorney, the parents of the girl who traveled to Europe with Crow told local media last week that the family is afraid for their daughter’s safety, and that they believe that Crow’s misconduct involves other girls.
The priest has not responded to The Pillar’s interview request.
Earlier this week, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office released to local media two letters signed by Crow.
In one, Crow told a friend that he was directed by the Lord to leave the diocese — but not the priesthood — and to take with him an unnamed person, apparently the 18-year-old girl with whom he traveled to Europe.
“We know how this looks, but we are doing what we are told. Do not worry about defending us. This is hard for her too, but she knows she will always be safe if she does Jesus’ will.”
The other letter was written, The Pillar has confirmed, in February 2023, when the girl was 17 years old, and before she graduated from high school.
In that letter — which significantly changed the narrative about his trip to Europe — Crow expressed both paternal and marital affection for the girl.
First, he told her that: “Before we fell in love, I promised to always care for you and protect you, like a father. I still look at you and see a child, but in the best way imaginable. You are mine – no one else’s, and I will always be a father to you until I die.”
Then he told her that “we are in love and we are married! I’ve never been in love before (and I’ve never been married, obviously!), and I’ve never felt any of the feelings I have for you for anyone ever in my entire life. I promise that I will love you the absolute best I can, every single day.”
The priest then apologized that he could not offer the girl a “normal” Valentine’s Day, and was even unable to buy her flowers, “for fear of scandal.” He suggested that he might have stolen some from a Mary statue — possibly at the girl’s school — and then mentioned that he was passing on to her some secondhand chocolates, which he had received as a gift.
“You are the prettiest girl who has ever lived, and I will always tell you that. You are perfect, and precious and, besides Jesus, the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen or held in my two hands,” the priest wrote.
“I will always love you,” he added, “Sincerely, Your Valentine and Husband!”
According to the Mobile archdiocese, which declined to be interviewed by The Pillar, there is an “ongoing criminal investigation” against Crow — presumably concerning the nature of his relationship with the young woman before she turned 18, and the possibility of inappropriate relationships with other students.
But whether a county prosecutor files charges against Crow, the moral character of his conduct seems obvious.
And while the archdiocese has not yet said how it will pursue a case against him canonically, it has given some signal of how it intends to proceed.
It was not likely by accident that the first archdiocesan announcement regarding Crow mentioned that the priest had “abandoned his assignment in the archdiocese.”
The language is drawn directly from the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which went into effect in Dec. 2021.
In the new norms, a priest who abandons his ministry for six continuous months “is to be punished according to the gravity of the offense … and in the more serious cases, may be dismissed from the clerical state.”
In other words, when the archdiocese issued its statement, it was setting a clock to begin counting six months, for the most straightforward path of Crow’s laicization.
It had publicly declared the abandonment of his ministry, presumably issuing to Crow a direct warning at the same time, so that — if any other canonical possibility fails — the bishop can after six months initiate a penal process aimed at effecting Crow’s ouster from the clerical state.
Such a path, of course, is direct — his bishop has declared Crow’s ministry abandoned, and Crow’s letters demonstrate his intention to place his personal discernment above the lawful directive of his bishop.
In short, unless Crow could prove that he was laboring under some compulsion — that he was forced to go to Europe with an 18-year-old, or that he was out of his mind — the process of invoking c. 1392 would be fairly straightforward, which is likely the reason that the archdiocese has already begun running a clock.
The easiest way to address a bad situation is not always the best way. Criminal justice is meant to restore justice, reform an offender, and repair scandal.
In the case of Alexander Crow, the true scandal to most Catholics is not that he abandoned his assignment as a parochial vicar, but that he groomed a teenager — a minor — as evidenced by the letter in which he called himself her husband, and called her “the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen or held in my two hands.”
Some observers have asked whether a canonical provision of the new Book VI, which specifically mentions “grooming,” might be relevant to the case.
The new Book VI establishes that it is a canonical crime to “groom” a minor “to expose himself or herself pornographically or to take part in pornographic exhibitions, whether real or simulated.”
But while the Vatican’s English text of the norm uses the term “grooming,” it is a limited statute, and “grooming” is used in a very limited sense. The norm is restricted to the situation in which a minor is recruited or induced specifically for the production of pornography, or, seemingly, for lewd and salacious performances.
In the material publicly released in this case, there is no evidence of any such “grooming,” in the restricted sense of the term.
However, Crow’s Valentine’s letter does point to another possible delict for which he might be laicized: “an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with a minor,” prohibited in canon. 1398 §1. 2°.
In his letter, Crow mentioned the proximate occasion of kissing the minor to whom he was writing: “I know you want to make out so I’ll bring this to a close,” he wrote, suggesting an imminent instance of abusive sexual contact.
If such contact could be proven in a canonical penal process — which would require more proofs than the suggestion in the letter — it would require the imposition of a canonical penalty, including the possibility of laicization.
Some observers have also asked whether it is canonically significant that Crow referred to himself as the husband of the young person, noting that, per canon 1394, “a cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly,” can be dismissed from the clerical state.
It is certainly significant morally, as evidence of a kind of manipulative grooming of a vulnerable teenager. But, canonically, it does not likely refer to the crime of attempted marriage.
The Pillar has confirmed that Crow did not attempt at any time in Alabama a civil or ecclesiastical marriage ceremony before his departure to Europe; there is no evidence he has done so in Europe either.
There is an interesting legal discussion to be had about whether a clandestine common law marriage could be established in any U.S. jurisdiction — Colorado is probably the only possibility. But that discussion is beyond the scope of this analysis, for a very simple reason: Alabama prohibited common law marriage in 2017, making it impossible for an Alabama cleric to attempt civil marriage without a ceremony.
Finally, there is the possibility that the archdiocese could level some canonical penalty against Crow for effectively assuming the functions of a diocesan exorcist, without an actual appointment as such — in accord with canon 1378 §2.
While Crow could not be laicized for that canonical crime, the archdiocese could initiate a process on the issue to repair the scandal of his behavior, even while it is pursuing other charges that might lead to laicization.
For its part, the Archdiocese of Mobile may well be in possession of evidence of canonical crimes that have not yet come to the fore — and more proofs might surface in the weeks to come.
In fact, Mobile County’s sheriff said this week that when Crow traveled on a school trip in June, another student — a minor — was seen coming out of his hotel room after 1:00 a.m., and that the priest could face criminal charges soon.
As it happens, the exact nature of the “school trip” mentioned by the sheriff raises questions about a July 28 statement issued by McGill-Toolen High School’s principal, which said that Crow “has not chaperoned any school trips or retreats.”
In the meantime, while the archdiocese has signaled its intention to pursue an “abandonment of ministry” prosecution, a canonical prosecution on other charges might become possible if proofs emerge — and if Crow is charged with a civil crime, the process and its evidence could well surface other canonical crimes.
It is unlikely the archdiocese will initiate any canonical prosecution until it knows what the county prosecutor plans — dioceses customarily in the U.S. wait until the conclusion of civil prosecutions before they begin canonical processes, to avoid a mingling of the two.
But the troubling case of Alex Crow is not going to fade from the headlines anytime soon — and eventually a canonical process seems an inevitability.