(A version of the column below originally appeared at OnePeterFive on June 24. This version contains updates through June 29.)
In March of this year, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago removed Father C. Frank Phillips, pastor of St. John Cantius Church and superior of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, due to “credible allegations of improper conduct involving adult men,” according to a letter signed by the cardinal and read to parishioners at the weekend Masses.
Because Father Phillips is a member of the Congregation of the Resurrection, the cardinal referred the matter to that order for further investigation. The Congregation of the Resurrection subsequently formed its own review board, which conducted the investigation.
On June 20, a group known as Protect our Priests, comprised of individuals who support Father Phillips (the group is not formally affiliated with the Congregation of the Resurrection, the archdiocese or the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius) released a statement that included the following proclamation:
The Review Board has concluded that Fr. Phillips has not violated any secular criminal, civil or canon law.
Fr. Phillips, having been exonerated thusly, and this in turn confirmed by the votum of The Rt. Rev. Gene Szarek, C.R., Ph.D. Provincial Superior of the Congregation of the Resurrection upon receipt of the Review Board Report. We now prayerfully await the response of His Eminence, Blase Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, for the return of our pastor.
(Protect our Priest’s statement was not posted at the parish’s website.)
However, in a letter dated June 24, inserted in the parish bulletins and posted at the parish’s website, Father Szarek wrote: “We accept the Archdiocese’s decision that Fr. Phillips’ faculties for public ministry will remain withdrawn and that he will not return as pastor of St. John Cantius and as Superior of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius.”
Fast forward to June 29, when another letter signed by Father Szarek was posted at the parish’s website. The letter was also made available to parishioners at the weekend Masses. It states: “The reports that the Independent Review Board exonerated Fr. Phillips are without foundation. I have reached out to those accusing Fr. Phillips of misconduct to offer them my support and assure them of appropriate pastoral care.”
(I did contact one of the accusers, but he declined to discuss the matter at this time.)
This latest letter is a bit puzzling, as it somewhat contradicts Father Szarek’s votum (opinion), which was not posted at the parish’s website but was apparently “leaked” to certain parties supportive of Father Phillips. Click here to read the text of the votum.
The specific allegations against Father Phillips, and the specific findings of the review board constituted by the Congregation of the Resurrection – or those of the archdiocese — have not been made public. It’s unclear if the archdiocese conducted its own investigation between November 2017, when the allegations reportedly first came to light, and Feb. 26, 2018, when the allegations were first made known by the archdiocese to Father Phillips.
Presumably there was an investigation by the archdiocese during that period of time, which would have been prior to the constituting of the review board by the Congregation of the Resurrection. How else would the cardinal have concluded in his initial letter announcing the removal of Father Phillips that the allegations were/are “credible”?
In fact, a letter sent to Cardinal Cupich on April 29, 2018 by canon lawyer Alan R. Kershaw, who was retained by Father Phillips “to defend him in the canonical forum,” appears to confirm an archdiocesan investigation. Mr. Kershaw wrote: “The Saturday following Easter you met with the members of the Canons Regular, and during the course of the meeting, with reference to Fr. Phillips, you reportedly expressed to those present that the investigation of the diocese indicates that he is guilty.” Click here to read the letter by Mr. Kershaw in its entirety.
On the same day (June 29) the follow-up letter signed by Father Gene Szarek was posted at the parish’s website, Father Phillips issued a statement through his attorney, Stephen Komie, which is as follows (this statement is not posted at the parish’s website, nor was it distributed to parishioners by the Canons Regular, almost certainly out of obedience to Cardinal Cupich):
I wish to express my thanks to Father Gene Szarek, Provincial Superior of the Congregation of the Resurrection, for providing an independent Review Board to examine the accusations against me. Thank you to the members of the Review Board who spent hours listening to the accusers as well as individuals who gave testimony of the facts and on behalf of my character. I assure you I have done nothing that would scandalize the faithful.
My prayers were answered when the Review Board returned its finding of no criminal violation, civil violation, or canonical violation in my case. The Review Board found me innocent of the accusations which I have vehemently denied. I am returning to serve God in any capacity under the direction of the Provincial of the Congregation of the Resurrection to build up the Kingdom of God.
I want to express my appreciation and gratitude to all those who called me, sent me letters, made phone calls, and spoke publicly in my defense. To all those who supported me, please rest assured that I remember you daily in my prayers and my heart has swelled with knowing that you stood by me in the difficult times I have just experienced. I will always stand by you.
I am currently in Rome engaged in consultations with the Congregation of the Resurrection and other church leaders. I have heard there is a misunderstanding concerning my status. Currently, by decree of Cardinal Cupich my faculties are suspended only in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I am free to continue in my calling to serve God in all other geographical locations on the planet. Therefore, I will continue to say mass for you daily and petition for reconciliation with the Cardinal.
Lastly, I want to express my appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving for my lawyer Stephen Komie who guided me through the process. As we walked together he provided counsel and advice which allowed me to stay the course, keep my head up, and seek my prayers for justice.
Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He’s been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected].