Bishop Critical of Holy Cross Complex Dispute Reached Vatican

Author: John L. Allen, Jr. and Amy Driscoll
Date Published: 05/01/2001

Confidential letters and other documents exchanged between Holy Cross Academy and the Vatican over the last few years show that an Eastern Catholic bishop considered Holy Cross a rogue operation and questioned the credentials of the priests running it.

Bishop Andrew Pataki, of Passaic, N.J. – the academy’s supervising authority at the time – also expressed concern as early as March 1999 about several Ukrainian boys living on the school’s campus and training as monks, according to the documents.

One of those young men, Mykhaylo Kofel, is now charged with the March 25 murder of Michelle Lewis, a woman who lived on campus and called herself a nun. In his confession, Kofel accused Holy Cross’ two priests of sexually molesting him.

The priests, Father Abbot Gregory Wendt and Father Damian Gibault, have adamantly denied the sexual abuse charges.

The Vatican documents, made available to a reporter in Rome on Monday by a Vatican source close to the Eastern Congregation of Churches, show that as far back as two years ago, officials were worried that the Ukrainians may have been brought to the United States without proper guardianship paperwork. The documents do not contain any reference to accusations of sexual misconduct.

”The presence of foreign students, some under the age of majority, living at the facilities in Miami, are not in a condition of guardianship recognized by the statutes of the State of Florida, thereby exposing the Eparchy of Passaic to grave liabilities,” the records read.

The series of faxes, letters and e-mails – 20 missives in all – strip away the veil of secrecy for the first time on the long-running and complex dispute between Holy Cross and its supervising entity, the Passaic eparchy, which is similar to a diocese and is presided over by Pataki.

While sharp critics like Pataki raised questions about the legitimacy of the school and the credentials of its leaders – Wendt and Gibault – supporters portrayed the two priests as faithful practitioners of Eastern Catholic spiritual traditions who had fallen victim to a vengeful bishop.

Holy Cross spokeswoman Joanna Wragg said she was not knowledgable enough on the dispute to comment.

Earlier, though, the school released a statement that acknowledged the five-year dispute, noting that the investigator ”told the priests of Holy Cross unambiguously that his report would be favorable. We are at present awaiting a statement from Rome which will permanently end this dispute.”

One priest from the eparchy wrote in a May 10, 1999, letter to the Vatican that Pataki was bent on destroying the academy.

The priest volunteered to travel to Rome to testify on the school’s behalf.

The dispute spawned two separate investigations of Holy Cross Academy by church officials during the last three years, the records reveal.

One was conducted by a five-person team named by Pataki on Sept. 22, 1998. The other was carried out by Father John Faris of Brooklyn, N.Y., on behalf of the Vatican in August 2000. Faris did not return repeated phone calls.

Pataki’s case against Holy Cross and its affiliated Monastery of the Exaltation of the Most Holy Cross is laid out in the minutes of a March 29, 1999, meeting between the bishop and his College of Consultors, part of the Passaic eparchy.

In the Eastern Catholic churches, an ”eparchy” is a geographical province. Eastern Catholics are believers who follow Orthodox liturgies and doctrines but profess loyalty to the pope in Rome.

During the meeting, Pataki and eight clerical advisors discussed the Holy Cross investigation, which had raised questions about the validity of the monastic vows taken by Wendt and Gibault and also whether Wendt had the right to call himself an abbot.

The report concluded that Holy Cross had deliberately tried to side-step the bishop’s authority, incorporating itself on Dec. 23, 1996, as ”an independent, self-governing preparatory school – not under the jurisdiction or control of the hierarchy of any church.”

Additionally, the consultors advised Pataki to take action about the Ukrainians on campus. The record of the meeting, signed by the Very Rev. Robert J. Hospodar, secretary of Pataki’s college of consultors, indicates that not all of Pataki’s advisors supported the conclusions.

Gibault responded to the charges by e-mail, on July 26, 2000. The school, he said, had been approved by Pataki’s predecessor, Bishop Michael Dudick, in the form of a decree in February 1992.

And he maintained that the wording on the terms of incorporation was designed to limit the monastery’s liability, also with the approval of Dudick.

As for the Ukrainians, Gibault claimed guardianship papers are not required by the U.S. government for those with certain student visas.

Gibault added that he had some form of guardianship over the under-18 students that would allow them to receive medical care.

He said the academy’s health insurance carrier lists the Ukrainian students on a family policy under his name.

”I am personally the one who is responsible” as the students’ guardian, Gibault said in the e-mail.

He also offered to change the young men’s living arrangements, suggesting that ”perhaps the students could live with families until age 18, as is the case with other foreign students at the school.”

The correspondence, which runs from 1998 to 2001, also addresses a complaint from Wendt in October 1999 that Pataki had stricken Holy Cross’ name from the list of approved Catholic institutions, and the Archdiocese of Miami had followed suit.

In the letter, Wendt said the school was in danger of losing its tax-exempt status.

He asked to be released from Pataki’s authority and transferred to Ukrainian Bishop Robert Moskal of Parma, Ohio.

The source close to the congregation for Eastern churches said that in the end, the academy and monastery were removed from Pataki’s control and transferred to Bishop Judson Procyk of Pittsburgh. Procyk died April 25.

One Vatican official says that, as far as relations with Pataki are concerned, the priests of Holy Cross may well have been mistreated.

”These people appealed to me . . . to mediate this dispute in a way that would do justice to all sides,” said Father Robert Taft, vice rector of Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute. ”I did, because I felt they were getting a raw deal.”