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Old critiques surface in wake of school murder

NCR Staff

Confidential letters and other documents exchanged between the Vatican and Holy Cross Academy in Miami, Fla., a Byzantine Catholic school and site of a recent murder, show that an Eastern Catholic bishop considered Holy Cross a rogue operation and questioned the credentials of the two priests running it. The exchanges have transpired over the past few years.

Eastern or Byzantine Catholics are believers who follow Orthodox liturgies and doctrines but profess loyalty to the pope in Rome. Services are conducted in the old Slavic language and priests are allowed to marry.

According to the documents, Bishop Andrew Pataki of Passaic, N.J., the academy’s supervising authority, also expressed concern as early as March 1999 about several Ukrainian boys living at the school and training as monks. Holy Cross is affiliated with a monastery in southwestern Ukraine and recruited there.

One of those young men, Mykhaylo Kofel, 18, confessed to stabbing Michelle Lewis, 39, a woman who handled administrative and financial affairs at the school and taught calculus. She called herself a nun. Her body, covered with over 80 stab wounds, was discovered March 25 in the school’s convent. Kofel was charged with first-degree murder.

In his confession, Kofel said he was drunk at the time and stabbed her because she had been verbally abusive to him. During the investigation, Kofel accused the school’s two highest-ranking officials of sexually molesting him while he was a student. Kofel told homicide detectives he was afraid to report it because he thought they would send him back to Ukraine. None of the other Ukrainian novices has alleged sexual abuse.

The priests, Fr. Abbot Gregory Wendt and Fr. Damian Gibault, have denied accusations of sex abuse through their attorneys.

The Vatican documents, made available to a reporter in Rome on April 30 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 had been brought to the United States without proper guardianship paperwork. The Vatican materials contain no reference to accusations of sexual misconduct.

The series of faxes, letters and e-mail messages -- 20 missives in all -- strip away the veil of secrecy for the first time on a long-running and complex dispute between Holy Cross and the Passaic eparchy, the Eastern Catholic churches’ equivalent of a diocese or province. Holy Cross was officially under the jurisdiction of the Passaic eparchy.

While critics like Pataki raised questions about the legitimacy of the school and its leaders’ credentials, supporters of Wendt and Gibault 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 did not know enough about the dispute to comment.

Earlier, 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 on the academy would be favorable. 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.

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 Pataki on Sept. 22, 1998. The other was carried out by Fr. John Faris of Brooklyn, N.Y., on behalf of the Vatican in August 2000.

Pataki’s case against Holy Cross and its affiliated Monastery of the Exaltation of the 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.

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

The report concluded that Holy Cross had deliberately tried to sidestep 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 Ukrainian boys on campus. The record of the meeting was signed by the Very Rev. Robert J. Hospodar, secretary of Pataki’s college of consultors. Later documents, however, make clear that not all of Pataki’s advisers supported the conclusions.

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

As for the boys, Gibault claimed that guardianship papers are not required by the U.S. government for those with certain student visas. He added that he had some form of guardianship over the under-18 students that allowed them to receive medical care. “I am personally the one who is responsible” as the students’ guardian, Gibault said in the e-mail.

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 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 Fr. Robert Taft, vice rector of Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute. “I did because I felt they were getting a raw deal.”

The Miami Herald reported that police were also investigating Gregory Wendt and two monasteries he had operated in the Miami area that had abruptly been closed by church officials.

The Miami Herald contributed information for this story.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001