Franciscan University and Its Friars Face a Reckoning

Franciscan University
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Like most fairy tales, the story of Rumpelstiltskin has an undercurrent of horror. If it’s been awhile, here’s a refresher: an arrogant father, seeking esteem in the eyes of the king, boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold. With this lie, the unnamed daughter is discarded from one pair of arms to another, neither of which value her as anything more than an object from which to gain.

Bereft of familial love and facing death on the other side of her cell, it’s no surprise that she sees Rumpelstiltskin’s sudden appearance as miraculous. Here is a strange little man who can achieve the impossible and save her life. His price, at first, is manageable: the chain around her neck, a last remnant of home. His second demand, awful and strange: her non-existent child. But she is trapped. This potential child is not here; right now, she can barely see one step ahead. So she gives it away—she gives herself away, or rather, he ravishes this away from her, because she has no other recourse for help, and he is all that is in front of her. 

I happened to read Rumpelstiltskin to my three-year-old the day after news broke that a former campus minister at Franciscan University of Steubenville had been indicted for the rape and sexual battery of a woman who went to him for spiritual direction during his time on campus. I was struck by the resonance. According to the indictment, he told the woman that sexual contact “was necessary for mental health treatment purposes.” She is further described in the indictment as “substantially impaired because of a mental or physical condition.”

Fr. Dave Morrier, TOR, was the director of household life during the time I served as my household’s coordinator (households are Franciscan’s version of fraternities and sororities, with members committing to live together and share regularly in prayer and service). He led leadership retreats and ensured households were staying true to their core values; he was a familiar presence among my own small household. 

But he was most known for his counseling, spiritual direction, and ministry of “healing prayer.” Looking back, those he counselled were almost always women. At the time, we all thought he was odd, especially his penchant for handing out his own writings on different spiritual topics if you went to him for confession. He was the “pamphlet priest,” we joked—a little socially awkward, but still deeply integrated in the vibrant campus ministry. 

He offered healing from past trauma. He prayed over you to be delivered from wounds inflicted by the world, inflicted by family. He intimately drew you to himself, seeking to trace the lineage of certain sins or trauma. He offered freedom. He promised life. And so women went to him, 18 and 19-year-olds far from home or often abandoned by home, and vulnerable—the perfect victims. 

Over the past few days, I have racked my mind, trying to remember all the women who I knew went to him on a regular basis. They had all come to him broken, seeking refuge from dysfunctional families. God, I’d think, as another name came to me, someone I’d lost touch with. I hope she was okay. 

As my alumni networks have been processing the indictment, something else has emerged: back then, we all said he was weird, but now women are admitting that they also found him creepy. You too? I never said anything. But I stayed away. I got a vibe. I never went back to confession with him. Why didn’t we say anything, we wonder? What if voicing discomfort back then meant a victim would have felt safe confiding in her sisters? 

It is unfathomable to me, after listening to these private conversations and stories that are not mine to tell, that there was only one woman in that long line of vulnerable women who sought him out. I’m in awe of the courage of this woman who spoke up. If the allegations are true, he stole her years at Franciscan, he laid claim to her very self—but she revealed him. She named him. He cannot hide anymore.

And now, connecting the dots and seeing how many women recognized there was something off, we’re left with the question worth a towerful of straw-spun gold. What about his TOR brothers? If sophomore catechetics majors knew enough to avoid a friar for confession, what about the men who lived with him, prayed with him, took vows with him? As things stand, it doesn’t look good for Fr. Morrier’s religious order, the Third Order Regular Province of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which founded and still operates Franciscan University today.

The local Steubenville newspaper reports that the university banned Fr. Morrier from campus in 2014, which, as of this writing, the university has not contradicted. Soon after, according to another report, the province sent him to one of its parishes in Texas, complete with an elementary school. If the Steubenville newspaper report is true, it’s inconceivable that somewhere in that transition, someone forgot to mention the small detail that he had so gravely abused his spiritual authority that he was forbidden from contact with students. 

As an alumnus of Franciscan University, this is what stings: looking back on those friars in black, the ones who led me to Christ at each daily Mass preaching freedom, conversion, and abundant life in the Holy Spirit—and wondering who was complicit. Who kept turning his eyes. Who was permissive. Who grasped for power. Who else is out there. I think there is a reckoning coming, and I pray for it. I am still waiting for any word from the university to its alumni, the very students who could have been victimized. 

These past couple days, when I’m not reading fairy tales of predators and the women who defeat them, I’ve been thinking of my semester abroad with Franciscan’s Austria program. Each group takes a 10-day pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi, and I still recall the quiet blanket of peace I felt over St. Francis’s hometown. We would walk the medieval cobblestone streets, stopping, we joked, at every house, church or rock where Francis might have once spent the night, then step in from the chill November mist to worship at one of those churches. 

In Assisi, we would pray with such zeal, such earnestness, to be enflamed with Francis’s same spirit of radical conversion. To be stripped of material trappings, just as Francis stood naked before his whole world. To be filled with the wild freedom of the Holy Spirit, the freedom that is foolishness to man’s machinations but everything to the one who gives his life to it. I remember one of those friars, Fr. Dave Pivonka—now president of Franciscan University—laying his hands on my 19-year-old bowed head as I prayed this with all my heart, and now I pray it for them, even as I wonder if his hands are clean.

If there are friars among the Third Order Regular Province of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a fraction of St. Francis’ courage and conviction, this is your time, and I believe your founder’s life is replete with examples of how to spend it. It is the time for abject humility and penance, for relinquishing the grasp on accolades and esteem, for standing utterly bare and transparent before the world in order to declare your one allegiance: to Christ and His Truth. 

And if instead the friars (and, it follows, Franciscan University) turn inwards—if they seek self-preservation, as we see over and over and over again in this long slog of Church history—then, as we sang so many times in those reverberating Assisi churches and campus itself, Come, Holy Spirit. Let the fire fall. And let it burn.

[Photo Credit: Crisis Magazine]

Elizabeth Hansen

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Elizabeth Hansen graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2008 with majors in English and Theology. She and her husband Luke (‘08) met in the university’s Honors Great Books program; they raise their four children in Michigan. Elizabeth’s writing has appeared in Magnificat, Columbia Magazine, Plough, CruxNow.com, and FemCatholic.com.

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