Monday, September 11, 2023

Laicization looms for priest who fled to Italy with recent high school graduate

UPDATE: Archbishop releases video addressing situation with former priest Alex  Crow

A priest who fled the country with a recent Catholic high school graduate will be laicized, Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Alabama, has announced on the archdiocese’s website, as family concerns mount over their inability to reach the young woman who is traveling with him.

Father Alex Crow, who was ordained in June 2021 and had served as a parochial vicar at Corpus Christi Parish in Mobile, abruptly left his assignment July 24.

The 30-year-old priest flew to Italy with an unnamed 18-year-old woman who is a recent graduate of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in Mobile, which Father Crow also attended. Although he provided pastoral ministry to students, school officials have denied Father Crow was formally employed there.

In a July letter to the Archdiocese of Mobile, Father Crow said he had no intention of returning to the U.S. He and the young woman were located in Italy by a family member of the woman, and they are believed to still be in that country.

However, Christine Hernandez, a Mobile-based attorney for the young woman’s family, told OSV News that “it’s been … maybe two weeks or more” since the family had contact with her.

“Conveniently, her phone is no longer with her or him,” said Hernandez. “At some point, her cell phone was basically lost or left (behind). … The only way to contact her is to go through Alex’s phone, and so he controls whether he answers it or not.”

Investigation continues

OSV News has confirmed with two Airbnb hosts that Father Crow and the young lady stayed at their properties, located an hour from Florence. 

The hosts’ comments indicated Father Crow and the young woman are presenting themselves as a couple.

The archdiocese said that “due to the circumstances of (Father Crow’s) departure,” it had reported the matter to the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office, which opened an investigation.

The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office also is conducting a separate investigation, while the young woman’s family has retained attorney Hernandez to pursue civil action.

Archbishop Rodi, who had removed Father Crow’s priestly faculties in late July, intends to initiate the canonical procedure of dismissing Father Crow from the clerical state.

A panel of three priests who are “impartial and objective experts in canon law” will be assembled to consider the case, said the archdiocese.

The lengthy process “ensures that the rights of all parties are respected … gives time for all the facts to be established … (and) gives everyone who needs to speak a chance to be heard,” the archdiocese said.

Letters reveal romance

Father Crow has already revealed something of his motivations in two letters that have emerged as part of the investigations, pointing to the priest having cultivated a romantic relationship with the young woman while she was still a minor.

In a handwritten Valentine’s Day letter to the young woman — the year of which has not been ascertained but which is prior to her 18th birthday, according to Hernandez — Father Crow declared the pair were “married.”

“I love you, and I thank Jesus for you every day. You have made my life both astronomically more complicated and incredibly better at the same time. You are his gift to me,” wrote Father Crow in the letter. “Now, we are in love and we are married!”

Father Crow wrote of plans for the couple to be in Italy together “with our family” and have “many wonderful and normal Valentine’s Days.”

The sheriff’s office also released a separate letter from Father Crow to his brother Joshua, in which Father Crow claimed he was following “Jesus’ will” by permanently leaving the U.S. with the young woman, who “has been told to come with me.” He said he was not leaving the priesthood.

“We know how this looks, but we are doing what we are told,” Father Crow wrote to his brother. “Do not worry about defending us. This is hard for her too, but she knows she will always be safe if she does Jesus’ Will.”

Airbnb hosts weigh in

Initial speculations about Father Crow’s actions centered on his long-expressed interest in demonology and his intention to perform an exorcism on the young woman.

However, the Valentine Day’s letter, along with comments from the two Airbnb hosts to OSV News, indicate the pair’s relationship is romantic, rather than religious, in nature.

The hosts, who each offer rental properties in the medieval town of San Gimignano, described Father Crow and the young woman as a couple in both online reviews and in direct messages to OSV News.

In response to OSV News’ inquiry, Massimo, one of the hosts, messaged via the Airbnb platform that “the guys are fine, they are in love.”

He named the young woman and said she “is willing, that is, (she) agrees with Alex to stay in Italy.”

In an email to OSV News, another host named Carla said the couple were “both in perfect health when they left.” However, Carla said, “I don’t know,” when asked if she could confirm whether the pair were still at her property.

Hernandez and the young woman’s family say that sexual grooming, not romance, is the basis for Crow’s interest and actions.

Clerical sexual misconduct?

Any inappropriate contact Father Crow may have had with the young woman prior to her reaching age 18 would have violated the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” 

If undertaken after she turned 18, such contact would fall within the scope of “Vos estis lux mundi,” Pope Francis’ motu proprio — binding on the universal church — that specifically defines clerical sexual abuse and the term “vulnerable person,” while enhancing reporting requirements and processes.

Referencing the Valentine’s Day letter, Hernandez told OSV News “we know in his own handwriting … what he is declaring, while she was still a student. He also acknowledges he’s a priest and can’t have the relationship he’s having with her.”

“He’s admitted to violating his own priestly requirements,” said Hernandez. “His letter is clear: He’s disregarded the teaching of the church and his position.”

In addition, “he’s significantly older than her,” said Hernandez. “And he has a position of power.”

Regarding Father Crow’s claims of marriage, Hernandez said she did not “have anything concrete” to prove the pair had actually married, although she noted “some angles” that investigators are pursuing.

Marriage and consent

Stephen de Weger, a researcher on clerical sexual misconduct, told OSV News that he was “fairly certain” Father Crow — whom he has not directly evaluated — “would just simply believe that God has married” the couple.

“I would not at all be surprised if he believes that somehow he has told (the young woman) as far as he’s concerned, ‘God has married us’ or ‘Mary has married us,'” said de Weger, who is on the faculty of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

Alabama’s age of consent is 16, but Hernandez noted that state has in recent years enhanced its laws to “really preclude any inappropriate relationship with students by employees, volunteers or anyone who works at or teaches at schools.”

OSV News’ request for comment by Father Crow, sent via messaging platform to a phone number provided by Hernandez, has not received a response as of Sept. 1.