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TOR priest allegation shows challenge to resolve 'boundary' cases

Fr. Benedict Jurchak. Credit: Franciscan University of Steubenville.

A Franciscan priest was removed from his nursing home assignment Tuesday, after a woman took to social media and YouTube to raise public allegations of sexual assault.

The incident is the latest in a series of controversies to plague the TOR Franciscan friars, who administer the well-known Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

The woman says the priest should be removed from ministry, while his religious province has emphasized that allegations against the priest are “unsubstantiated.”

A former Vatican official says the case raises critical questions about justice and the Church’s response to unsubstantiated accusations.

Dakota Bateman, 27, began posting and speaking online in late April 2022 about allegations that Fr. Benedict Jurchak, TOR, sexually assaulted her in February 2018.

Bateman had previously reported the incidents both to the priest’s province and to the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, where the province is headquartered, but her allegations were not known publicly until recently.

Her social media posts in recent weeks quickly gained attention online among some Catholics, especially Franciscan University alumni, who saw in March another priest associated with the university convicted of sexually battering a university student.

Bateman alleges that when Jurchak visited her Syracuse, New York home in 2018, his behavior toward her began to escalate sexually, until eventually he assaulted her, kissing and groping her without her consent.

The priest denies that allegation.

Bateman told The Pillar that over several days, Jurchak repeatedly kissed her, and eventually groped her breasts and her genitals over her clothing, despite her objections and efforts to stop the situation. Bateman said that eventually “I gave up. I didn’t feel like I could stop what was happening and I was so confused and I didn’t want him to hate me.”

Jurchak would apologize after each act of kissing or non-consensual touch, she said.

Bateman met Jurchak while she was an undergraduate student at Franciscan University. Jurchak was then on campus as the order’s director of vocations, and he provided Bateman with spiritual direction.

She has described Jurchak, who is 20 years her senior, as one of her “best friends” and a spiritual mentor. After her graduation, Jurchak and Bateman remained close, and Bateman disclosed to Jurchak that she had been sexually assaulted.

Bateman shared in videos that Jurchak was aware she had various emotional difficulties stemming from her experience with assault, among other things, and that she had trouble with boundaries and trusting people. Bateman alleges the priest took advantage of that knowledge to manipulate her trust.

After the alleged sexual assault in February 2018, Bateman said she realized she “had been groomed and assaulted” by her spiritual director, and decided to report his behavior to the provincial of the order. She made the initial report in June 2018, which was followed up by the provincial in September 2018.

Jurchak denied the allegation in late 2018, and again in March 2019, eventually telling his provincial superior that Bateman “came onto him.” The province initially declined in 2018 and 2019 to pursue Bateman’s allegation.

In June 2019, Bateman contacted Syracuse police, who did not refer the allegations for prosecution. Bateman has said the police investigation was incomplete and missing key details.

The priest was temporarily removed from ministry in 2019, his province said. In August 2019, the province contracted a civil attorney to evaluate the allegations against Jurchak.

That investigator found that Bateman’s assault allegations were “not substantiated by the evidence and are deemed not credible,” according to a canon lawyer who was later contracted by the Franciscan province to evaluate the situation.

Despite the priest’s admission of some unspecified misconduct, a formal canonical investigation was apparently not conducted by the province before Jurchak was assigned as a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Victory Parish in State College, Pennsylvania, in August 2020.

But after Bateman contacted the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania the next month, the priest was removed from parish ministry in that diocese, according to emails reviewed by The Pillar.

Bateman says that that after pressure from the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, a canon lawyer was contracted by Jurchak’s religious superiors to conduct a canonical process called a preliminary investigation.

In a December 2020 report obtained by The Pillar, the canonist wrote that the priest “does not seem to dispute that he spent time alone with Ms. Bateman in her home over the course of several days.”

Jurchak “acknowledges that a boundary violation of some sort occurred and texted Ms. Bateman to apologize for being ‘gross,’” she added.

But while the canon lawyer’s report did not question Bateman’s account, it found that “the allegation of forced sexual contact is unsubstantiated,” because “there is only one complainant regarding incidents that occurred when she and Father Jurchak were alone, there is no way to corroborate her allegations.”

“For my part, I would note that ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘not credible’ are two markedly different things,” the canonist added.

The canon lawyer observed that Jurchak acknowledged a “boundary violation… despite the fact—and one could reasonably argue, perhaps because of the fact—that he was well aware of Ms. Bateman’s vulnerabilities around healthy boundaries and her fears of being rejected/abandoned.”

The report also recommended the province impose a “penal precept,” akin to a formal warning, “that, if such conduct is ever repeated, a formal penalty (such as suspension) may be imposed.”

The canon lawyer also expressed serious concern with “Father Jurchak’s apparent obliviousness to the fact that he is in a situation of his own making, as well as his initial denials of any misconduct.”

“Obviously, had he maintained an appropriate, exclusively-ministerial relationship with Ms. Bateman, we would not be at this juncture. Moreover, had he been forthcoming from the start, it is unlikely Ms. Bateman would be seeking redress more than two years after her initial report. Consequently, if anyone’s credibility is to be doubted, it would be Father Jurchak’s,” the canonist wrote.

In light of “well-document harm done to Ms. Bateman by her interaction with Father Jurchak,” the canonist urged the Franciscan province “to assist [Bateman] with the costs of both past and future mental health treatment.”

The province told Bateman in March 2021 it would pay her insurance co-pays “over the past couple of years,” and would cover future treatments for “several months” before reevaluating the arrangement.

For her part, Bateman told The Pillar she does not believe the TOR province handled her allegation appropriately.

“I know there are definitely men still in the TORs that are priests that are in it for the right reasons,” she said. “And the TOR’s ability to handle these allegations is shocking, to say the least.”

“I went to Franciscan University,” she continued. “I didn’t really have any negative thoughts toward them prior to the assault and going forward. The first person I went to to report the assault was the TOR provincial because I assumed they would just take care of it.”

Bateman said she believes that Jurchak should be removed from ministry, because the man she says hurt her should not be put in a position to cause harm to anyone else.

Fr. John Paul Kimes is a former official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School.

Kimes told The Pillar that he thinks the situation raises the question of what should be done when a person making an allegation does not believe the outcome of a Church process is correct, or just.

“If multiple investigations by external parties come up with nothing, and all the information is shared, and ministry is restricted, is it enough that the alleged victim is dissatisfied to change the outcome?”

He said that the question of how to handle admissions of “boundary violations” —and addressing the expectations of alleged victims — will be a major issue for the Church to resolve.

Kimes also told The Pillar that the term “boundary violation” does not have a clear definition or universal meaning.

“The brave new frontier in public ministry now is this question of a boundary violation,” he said. “There is no legal definition, in civil or canon law, of what a boundary violation could be.”

Because “boundary violation,” is an ambiguous term, Kimes said, it could be used for something quite serious, or it could be meant to signify something akin to excessive swearing at someone — “that could be a boundary violation,” Kimes said.

“It’s not necessarily clear that all boundary violations are inherently physical, or that they are inherently sexual, either.”

Boundary violations, explained Kimes, are “not a category of crime” and therefore an admission or allegation of a boundary violation would set differing and sometimes unclear expectations about what will come after a report, he said.

In August 2021, Jurchak began ministry as a chaplain in a veterans’ retirement home in the Archdiocese of Washington, with his priestly ministry restricted to that setting.

But after recent attention to his case, the Archdiocese of Washington withdrew its permission for the priest to engage in that ministry.

“On April 29, 2022, Father Benedict Jurchak, TOR, was removed from ministry by the Archdiocese of Washington, where he had been ministering as a chaplain in a veterans’ retirement home,” the Sacred Heart province said in a May 3 statement.

The statement said that Jurchak had been investigated and temporarily removed from ministry “when a single allegation of sexual misconduct involving an adult woman was reported to the Franciscans. In the following years, both the police and an independent lay investigator reviewed the claim and found that it could not be substantiated. A female lay canonist also conducted an investigation in accord with canon law and made the same finding, which was accepted by the Franciscans after consultation with a lay review board.”

“While the Franciscans disclosed all this to the Archdiocese of Washington prior to Father Benedict’s assignment there, the recent public attention given once again to this single unsubstantiated allegation has made it impossible, from the perspective of the archdiocese, for him to minister there.”

The statement has come under criticism from some victims’ advocates, who say it discounts Bateman’s claims.

Jurchak’s removal from nursing home ministry comes less than two months after another TOR, Fr. David Morrier, pled guilty to sexual assaulting a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

In 2018, a plaque honoring former Franciscan University of Steubenville chaplain Fr. Sam Tiesi, TOR, was removed from campus after it came to light that Tiesi had serially abused female students. Tiesi died in 2001.

Bateman told The Pillar that her faith has suffered since she made a report to the provincial of the TORs. While she had once been discerning religious life, Bateman explained that her spiritual life was now limited to Mass attendance and confession.

“There was a lot more to my faith and my spirituality prior to the assault than there is now,” she said, saying it was “upsetting” to be at the place where she is now.

“I do exactly what I need to, to be counted as a practicing Catholic, but I don't have much of a prayer life right now,” she said.

Her spirituality had also changed to help her deal with the fallout of the assault, Bateman said. In order to prevent the flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder she had experienced during Mass, she began attending Masses in Latin.

“Fr. Benedict never said a [Tridentine] Mass in Latin, so I don't get triggered as much during those,” she said.

In addition to PTSD, Bateman has also been hospitalized with anorexia, and sees a therapist twice weekly, she said.

She told The Pillar that since speaking about her experiences, she has mostly heard support. And at least two other women have told her they had similar experiences with Jurchak, but they had not been ready to report their claims.

Bateman told The Pillar that she remains trusting in the Church, but that her experience had come as a shock, because she had expected the priest would be removed from ministry.

“I didn’t have any reason not to trust that they wouldn’t do it prior to actually going through it, you know?”

Jurchak declined requests for comment.

Editor’s note: This report has been updated with additional context and an error was corrected after publication- Bateman attends an Extraordinary Form Mass, the report initially said she attends a ‘Novus Ordo’ Mass in Latin.

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