The bishop of Steubenville, Ohio, is facing a new challenge to his handling of sexual abuse cases, several sources have confirmed — the second Vatican-ordered investigation into the bishop to be reported this month.
Church officials and other sources close to the case have told The Pillar that a Vos estis lux mundi investigation is getting underway regarding Bishop Jeffrey Monforton’s dealings with an alleged victim of sexual abuse within the Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R.
According to sources close to the case, the complaint pertains to a former member of the religious community, who alleges that she was sexually abused by a religious sister who was not a member of the Franciscans, but was involved in TOR formation activities. The alleged abuse reportedly began in the late 1980s or early 1990s, sources told The Pillar.
The Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R. of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother were founded in 1988 in the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, and are presently recognized canonically as an association of the faithful in the diocese.
The complaint reportedly alleges that the Steubenville diocese mishandled both the allegation and the needs of the victim. It was made through a third-party reporting system established by the U.S. bishops’ conference in 2020, and is in the early stages of investigation, sources told The Pillar.
While the abuse was allegedly reported initially to the Steubenville diocese in the 1990s, sources told The Pillar that the alleged victim made contact with the diocese again in recent years, requesting financial support for therapy and other needs. Monforton and other diocesan officials reportedly told the alleged victim repeatedly that support was impossible, because of the financial condition of the diocese, several sources confirmed.
Article 5 of Vos estis lux mundi requires that bishops make available to those alleging abuse “therapeutic and psychological assistance, as required by the specific case.”
Vos estis lux mundi investigations are undertaken by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, with local metropolitan archbishops usually commissioned to conduct them, ordinarily with the assistance of trained lay investigators.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, metropolitan see of the ecclesiastical province which includes Steubenville, told The Pillar Friday that: “Archbishop [Dennis] Schnurr cannot confirm the existence of any Vos estis lux mundi investigations, nor can he comment on any matters pertaining to any such investigations.”
The T.O.R. Franciscan sisters have not yet responded to a request for comment.
But in response to questions about the investigation, a spokesperson for the Steubenville diocese told The Pillar Monday that “the bishop would have the same response he gave you that the last time you asked him about a Vos estis investigation.”
The Pillar reported earlier this month that Monforton is facing a separate Vos estis investigation, into allegations that he did not properly handle charges of sexual misconduct on the part of at least one Steubenville priest.
In response to questions about that investigation, Monforton told The Pillar that Vos estis probes are “basically between the investigator and the Holy See.”
“If I’m being investigated, I would not be able to say anything.”
“But when it comes to the process itself, I am the senior suffragan. So whether I’m investigating Archbishop Schnurr or he’s investigating me, that’s not to be discussed or shared,” Monforton added.
Monforton is also facing criticism for his handling of the case for Henry Foxhoven, a former Steubenville cleric who was convicted in 2018 of sexual battery.
In July, the Steubenville diocese settled a lawsuit with a woman who in 2018, when she was 17, become pregnant after sexual intercourse with Foxhoven, then a Steubenville priest in his 40s.
The lawsuit alleged that the woman was groomed as a teenager by the priest, and that Monforton had received several reports about Foxhoven's inappropriate conduct, but failed to act.
Foxhoven was reportedly suspended for one week in 2017, after reports of inappropriate behavior with a teenage girl at a wedding reception - including transporting her to the wedding alone in his car. The priest was directed to get counseling and returned to ministry.
When Foxhoven was arrested in October 2018, local media reported that the diocese claimed the priest had begun counseling in 2017, when complaints were filed about his behavior at the wedding, and before he returned to ministry.
But sources close to the priest confirmed for The Pillar this week that the diocese did not actually arrange a counselor for Foxhoven until spring 2018, and that the priest did not actually see the counselor until September 2018, the month before he was arrested for impregnating a teenager.
Several Steubenville priests have told The Pillar that Foxhoven’s sexual assault might have been prevented if chancery officials, including Monforton, had listened to concerns about the priest’s behavior, or had better assessed the situation of his ministry.
News of the second Vos estis investigation comes just two weeks before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is due for a consultative vote on a plan that would see the Steubenville diocese merged with the neighboring Diocese of Columbus.
Monforton announced that plan to Steubenville priests and diocesan staff at an Oct. 10 meeting, at which the bishop told his priests that “the diocese is victim to the Ohio Valley’s aging cycle and steady demographic depopulation.”
The bishop told The Pillar this month that pastoral demands on his aging presbyterate had caused him to begin considering the prospect of an extinctive merger for the diocese.
The plan must be finally approved by Pope Francis, but Monforton has said the “writing is on the wall” for the merger.
While Monforton has insisted that the Steubenville diocese is not financially sustainable, a group of Steubenville priests has pushed back on that idea, writing letters to urge that Ohio’s bishops reexamine the numbers, and reconsider their support for the plan.
An October 22 prayer demonstration outside the Steubenville diocese chancery drew nearly 100 local Catholics, the Wheeling Intelligencer reported, including internationally known Catholic theologian Scott Hahn.
Hahn told fellow Steubenville Catholics that the “integrity of this diocese can be manifested by renewing the sense of mission we all have.”
While Steubenville Catholics address the prospect of the proposed merger, they are also grappling with scandal at local Franciscan University of Steubenville, where newly surfaced allegations claim that officials mishandled spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse reports from the victim of Fr. David Morrier, a former university chaplain who was convicted this year of sexual assault against a student.