Sunday, August 27, 2023

Details emerge on Father Alex Crow; questions raised in Mobile

Father Alex Crow was warned by officials in the Archdiocese of Mobile about his conduct toward a teenager, The Pillar has confirmed, and was permitted to attend a trip for teens organized by an archdiocesan official — before he absconded to Europe last month with an 18-year-old who recently graduated from a Mobile high school.

The news raises questions about how much archdiocesan officials knew about Crow’s misconduct, and about whether his departure to Europe could have been prevented.

The Mobile archdiocese made national headlines July 28, when the archdiocese reported that Fr. Alex Crow, 31, had “abandoned his assignment in the archdiocese,” adding that his “behavior is totally unbecoming of a priest,” and that “he may no longer exercise ministry as a priest, nor tell people he is a priest, nor dress as a priest.”

It emerged quickly in media reports that Crow and an 18-year-old girl, a recent graduate of Mobile’s McGill-Toolen High School had fled to Europe. At first, news reports said that Crow and the girl had gone to Spain in order to perform an exorcism upon the girl — eventually it emerged that they had traveled to Italy.

Letters released last week revealed that Crow had a long entanglement with the girl — that in February 2023, when she was only 17, he wrote to her that they were in love, that he was her “husband” — and that “I promise that I will love you the absolute best I can, every single day.”

Crow also referenced “mak[ing] out” with the girl, suggesting the possibility of abusive sexual contact with her.

The local sheriff’s department is investigating Crow — and the possibility he groomed more girls — and has suggested the priest could eventually face criminal charges.

On Monday, Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile spoke out on the case

The archbishop said in a video message Aug. 21 that his archdiocese is working with law enforcement, to help in an investigation of the case.

“I join with you who are concerned, sad, angry about the behavior of Alex Crow, and how his behavior is affecting the young woman with whom he is traveling, their families, and the entire family of the Archdiocese of Mobile,” Archbishop Rodi said in a video posted to the archdiocesan Facebook page.

“All of us want to know the truth — all of us want to know the facts of this case,” Rodi said. 

Promising that the archdiocese was cooperating with law enforcement — despite law enforcement claims to the contrary — Rodi said that he is hoping to help get to answers, in a case which has captured national attention among Catholics. 

The archbishop also confirmed that Crow will not return to ministry, and the archdiocese has released statement indicating that it will pursue Crow’s laicization.

But while Rodi said he wants to “know the truth” about Crow, facts are emerging which raise questions about Crow’s history — and supervision — within the Alabama archdiocese.

As the case continues to draw attention, some Mobile Catholics are asking how much Rodi knew about Crow’s issues before he disappeared last month — and whether the archbishop, or others in the archdiocese, could have intervened more directly before the priest fled to Europe. 

Several friends — clerical and lay — who know Alex Crow say that they first started noticing problems with the priest about five or six months after his ordination. 

Some recall that Crow had been interested in deliverance ministry as a seminarian, and that — reportedly to his archbishop’s frustration — he grew interested in liturgical traditionalism during his diaconal year. 

But after he was ordained a priest, Crow began to intensify his focus on demonology and spiritual warfare — attributing common struggles in the lives of his friends to the presence of demons.

At the same time, Crow reportedly alienated parishioners and brother priests by a growing fixation, priests said, on both liturgical and spiritual matters, making it difficult to engage the priest on other subjects.

“The frequency of it was what was so weird,” one friend said, “because it was a big change for him.”

At the parish where Crow was parochial vicar, the priest struggled with congregation members frustrated by his abrupt liturgical changes, according to some sources. 

One source said that two religious institutes which attended Sunday Mass at the parish began worshiping elsewhere, because they found Crow difficult to deal with — even when they did not disagree with his liturgical direction.

But while Crow found some challenges at his parish, the priest also became popular with a youth group at his parish, and among students at McGill-Toolen. Crow organized a pumpkin carving contest, lectures, and field trips, even an October 2021 paintball trip — an activity not permitted by diocesan policy. 

Crow also invited teens to events at which he burned “satanic rosaries” and other “cursed” objects, The Pillar has confirmed, and reportedly told students graphic stories about his experiences with “exorcisms” — although the priest was not a commissioned or trained exorcist in the archdiocese.

As he became a spiritual mentor in Mobile, he began taking on spiritual directees — especially girls, sources told The Pillar, and especially the girl with whom he eventually fled to Europe.

During the same time, his friends and other sources say, Crow changed.

Several friends said over the past two years, Crow increasingly isolated himself from social engagement, “and his demeanor changed,” one source said. 

Indeed, Crow told some friends in Mobile that he was happy in the first five months of his priesthood, but after that, “things went downhill.” 

The priest reportedly told some friends that some five or six months into his priesthood, he began encountering people who were demonically possessed, “and it all went downhill from there.”

“He just didn’t seem like he was happy,” said one person who worked with Crow in ministry. 

While Crow attributed his disposition to his spiritual experiences, others saw a different issue emerge a few months after Crow was ordained.

“That exact time frame was also the same time he met [the girl],” one source said.

According to several sources close to Crow, the priest and the girl with whom he eventually traveled to Europe began a close and inappropriate relationship in late 2021, with Crow initially serving as the girl’s spiritual director, and then a close relationship between them becoming conspicuous, with the girl even spending time in Crow’s parish rectory.

Some sources said it became clear that Crow believed he was “in love” with the girl. 

“It was not healthy at all. Of course, now I know a lot I didn’t know then. But then — when we didn’t know the whole thing — we knew something wasn’t right,” one source close to Crow told The Pillar.

“A lot of people were complaining about their relationship,” one source in Mobile told The Pillar, “about them just being together all the time.”

In fact, sources say that during Crow’s two years of priestly ministry, parents and parishioners did a lot of complaining about the priest. 

Sources say that parents and parishioners complained about Crow on several grounds — that some complained about his preaching and his pastoral demeanor, others about his approach to the youth group he facilitated, and others about his relationship with the girl, which — according to several Catholics in Mobile — had become increasingly conspicuous. 

After a 2022 rafting excursion in Tennessee, students apparently noticed that Crow spent an inordinate amount of time with a female student, his spiritual directee. Parents complained immediately after that trip, several sources recalled.

Some complaints were directed toward Crow’s pastor, sources say. Others toward school leaders. Others toward archdiocesan officials.

The Pillar has confirmed that Crow was warned by an archdiocesan official to stay away from a particular girl in Mobile, who was not the girl with whom he is now in Europe.

A source with direct knowledge told The Pillar he understood that Crow’s behavior toward that girl was not sexual or romantic. Nevertheless, the priest’s behavior was significant enough that the Mobile archdiocese saw fit to intervene directly, and with a clear warning to Crow. 

The archdiocese has declined comment on the case, and it is not clear what was reported directly to Rodi about Crow.

But without clarity on the nature of the complaints made against Crow — and the reason for the warning — it is difficult to assess the archbishop’s actions on the matter.

Without specifics, it is unclear whether Rodi might have been justified in initiating a canonical proceeding against the priest, or in some other way issuing an official and public restriction on the priest’s ministry.

Speaking on background, sources with knowledge of the case say that while Rodi knew Crow had problems, the archbishop did not have enough information to remove Crow from ministry.

But Rodi was reportedly considering what to do about Crow — and what future the priest would have in the archdiocese — at the time Crow departed in July for Europe.

Some Catholics in Mobile say that at least one decision already demands further investigation, and more accountability. 

On July 28, as reports about Crow emerged, McGill-Toolen High School principal Michelle Haas issued a statement claiming that the priest had a limited presence at the school, and had not “chaperoned any school trips or retreats.” 

Sources in Mobile told The Pillar that while that statement was technically true, it did not present the full story.

Crow did attend in June a trip to Rome for McGill-Toolen students, which was advertised through the school, and set up by a company with close connections to both the school and the archdiocese.

The June 2023 trip Crow attended was organized by Chi Ro Euro, a Mobile pilgrimage company. 

According to multiple sources, the June trip was promoted at McGill-Toolen High School, McGill-Toolen employees have been chaperones on Chi Rho trips, and the June trip was advertised by Chi Rho Euro as the “McGill Group” excursion. 

In short, even while the trip was not officially organized by the school, it was organized through and for the school community, sources said.

Chi Rho Euro is owned by Pat Arensberg, the Mobile archdiocese’s director of evangelization and family life.

Arensberg is the former theology chair at McGill-Toolen — a position now occupied by his brother, Joseph Arensberg. He is also related to Fr. Pat Arensberg, pastor at the parish where Crow was assigned.

Catholics in Mobile have asked repeatedly how it was possible that Arensberg, close to school officials and to archdiocesan officials — including Rodi — and himself an active member of Mobile’s Catholic community, was not aware that complaints had been made about Crow, or that the priest had been warned about staying away from a particular young person, especially given his well-known role organizing trips for McGill-Toolen students. 

Some have suggested that Arensberg might have recruited Crow for the June trip despite his reputation in the archdiocese, overlooking complaints because he had a long-standing relationship with the priest. 

Others have asked if Rodi or McGill-Toolen officials failed to caution Arensberg about the improprieties of which Crow had been accused. 

That question, they say, raises more questions about whether chancery officials properly cautioned priests and other ecclesiastical leaders about the warnings conveyed to Crow, and their implications for the priest’s ministry.

For his part, Arensnerg has not returned calls and messages from The Pillar

Last week, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office reported that a girl was seen leaving Crow’s hotel room late at night during that June trip. The girl was reported by law enforcement to be a different one than the one who is now in Europe with Crow. 

But sources with direct knowledge of the situation told The Pillar that the girl who is now in Europe with Crow was seen leaving his hotel room during the June Rome trip — and that she had told other students that she was visiting Crow’s room for the sacrament of confession. 

That report did not emerge until after Crow and the girl went to Europe — and was apparently not known to adults on the trip.

In light of the allegations about Crow’s behavior on the June trip, some Catholics in Mobile have asked whether school officials were obfuscating in the July 28 statement, to avoid difficult questions about the priest’s presence on the Chi Rho trip — and whether that might become subject to an archdiocesan investigation.

When they discuss the case, local Catholics — clerical and lay — emphasize that Mobile is a small Catholic community. 

Indeed, while Mobile is a growing port city on the Gulf of Mexico, with a fascinating Catholic history, Catholics in the region point out that Catholic Mobile is really a small town, where everybody knows everybody, most of them are related, and people hear about each other’s business, fast.

That might be something of an exaggeration. But probably not by much. 

The Mobile archdiocese is some 87,000 Catholics — less than 5% of the region’s population are Catholic — and Mobile has the second-smallest Catholic population of any metropolitan archdiocese in the U.S; it’s bigger only than the archdiocese covering much of Alaska.

To some Catholics, Mobile’s tight-knit community is an important part of understanding the case of Fr. Alex Crow. Some say it means that Mobile’s ecclesial leaders can make no reasonable claim to have been uninformed about Crow. 

Others say that the long-standing connections within the community might explain a disposition to overlook warning signs, or a willingness to give an undue benefit of the doubt in the face of problematic behavior. 

Still others point out that in a small town, separating gossip from fact is not easy, and it’s too soon to reach many conclusions about the Crow case.

But even while Catholics in Mobile say that untangling accountability will take a while, they also say it’s important — that they’re looking for justice and transparency in their small Catholic community, and that they hope it will be forthcoming.