Sunday, May 12, 2024

CFRs: Friar laicized after ‘inappropriate sexual relationship’

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal announced Friday that one of its members, Louis Leonelli, has been laicized after admitting to “an inappropriate sexual relationship with an adult woman.”

Leonelli had faced a lawsuit alleging that he serially assaulted a woman a decade ago.

“Louis Leonelli admitted to an inappropriate sexual relationship with an adult woman as a priest and member of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal,” said a statement from the CFRs on Friday.

“Civil litigation relative to that issue has been resolved,” the statement said. 

The statement said the community conducted a thorough canonical trial at the direction of the Vatican, and “decided that Leonelli should be laicized, which took effect immediately.”

While the statement did not indicate the canonical crime Leonelli was found to have committed, allegations raised against him in a 2022 lawsuit charged that he initiated sexual contact with a woman in the context of the confessional, a canonical crime that must be handled under the oversight of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

While Leonelli was laicized, he remains formally a member of the community. But he has requested a formal dispensation from his religious vows and permanent separation from the community, the statement said.

“He will be on exclaustration (living outside of the Community) pending finalization of the documents for his dispensation by the Holy See, which is expected somewhat shortly. In sum, Leonelli can no longer function as a priest and will soon be separated from the community and, thus, no longer be a friar.”

The community expressed regret over the situation and offered prayers for “all those hurt or scandalized by his misconduct.”

In May 2022, a woman identified as Jane Doe in federal court proceedings filed suit in against Leonelli, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, several of the community’s apostolates, friaries, and churches in the Bronx, and the Archdiocese of New York.

The lawsuit alleged that the Jane Doe and her husband were from 2012 until 2015 lay associates of the New York-based religious institute, and that Leonelli “groomed” the woman for sexual abuse in the context of spiritual direction and during ministry to the poor. 

The suit charged that on numerous occasions Leonelli committed forcible sexual acts against the woman, and that he told her she would cause people to leave the Church, while threatening “repercussions to your family and your own reputation,” if she reported the assaults.

Leonelli maintained that he had a consenting relationship with the woman. However, her attorney has insisted that no sexual relationship between a spiritual director and his directee could be consensual.

Federal court records indicate that the lawsuit was likely settled out of court in late 2022, with a motion for voluntary dismissal filed in January 2023.

According to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Leonelli was removed from ministry in June 2021, after Jane Doe reported sexual misconduct allegations against him.

The order initially claimed that Leonelli had been accused of consensual sexual misconduct, but later walked back that statement, suggesting they realized only once the lawsuit had been filed that the woman was alleging sexual abuse and assault.

In their statement Friday, the CFRs acknowledged “an inappropriate sexual relationship with an adult woman,” but the statement did not denote that claims made against Leonelli alleged non-consensual sexual activity, or indicate the extent to which that claim was adjudicated in the canonical trial. 

Leonelli entered the community in 2001 and was ordained in 2009. The now-laicized priest, who was a professional musician before entering religious life, has been a well-known figure in some Catholic circles.

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, known by the post-nominal “CFR,” was founded in 1987 as a movement of renewal in Capuchin Franciscan religious life; after a series of steps in the Church approval process that takes decades, they were formally recognized in 2016 as a religious institute of pontifical right. The community’s identity is marked by austerity of life and religious poverty, life among the poor, Eucharistic devotion, pro-life advocacy, and fervent evangelical preaching. 

The order, founded by eight Capuchin friars, has grown to roughly 120 members, more than 60 of whom are priests. Their apostolate is to serve the poor, which they do in friaries in the U.S., Europe, and Central America. Members of the community have also become prominent speakers and Catholic media figures.