Readers should be advised that this story contains potentially disturbing details of sexual abuse allegations.
The Catholic Herald has learned that the Sacramento priest excommunicated for schism earlier this month is accused of grave crimes, including sexual abuse of at least one adult woman, spiritual and psychological abuse, abuse of the Sacrament of Confession and other Sacraments, and multiple violations of the Seal of Confession.
Church officials in both Sacramento and Rome declined to comment on the investigation or canonical process, but the nature of the allegations the Catholic Herald has heard from one of his victims is such, that under Church law, the crimes of which Fr Jeremy Leatherby of Sacramento is accused would be tried in the tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Catholic Herald has obtained several documents supporting her construction of events and showing that Church officials including the Bishop of Sacramento, Jaime Soto, believe she did suffer serious abuse and are deeply consternated by the delay of justice in her case.
The accuser – who has requested anonymity as a victim of sexual abuse and because she and her family have faced threats and intimidation from supporters of Fr. Leatherby – alleges that Fr. Leatherby initially invited her into a “spiritual friendship” with him, modeled on the friendship of Sts. Francis and Claire of Assisi, and then used that relationship to manipulate her, threaten her marriage, and upend her life. She alleges Leatherby frequently used her as an instrument of his own gratification in sexual and other ways over a period of roughly six years, from 2008 to 2014.
The allegations in brief
The accuser alleges that Fr. Leatherby at one point extracted a vow of obedience to him, which he received in an ersatz ritualistic ceremony. The victim alleges Leatherby sheared her hair in another pseudo-ritual, during which Leatherby required her to remove her shirt.
The most bizarre pseudo-ritual the accuser described was what she called the “Mary Magdalen Routine”, in which Fr Leatherby asked the victim to kiss and caress first his feet, and in subsequent iterations of the ritual also his body. At least once, Leatherby brought oils for the routine – supposedly blessed – with which the victim alleges she would anoint his feet.
She alleges that sometimes he would be wearing only underpants, and would be visibly aroused.
“On ‘special occasions’,” she told the Herald, “he would take off everything except his boxers, and the Mary Magdalen Routine turned into something even more disturbing.” Asked to describe Leatherby’s reaction to the performance of the routine on those special occasions, his victim said: “He would get an erection,” and explained that he would ask her “to come all the way up to his groin,” which she did, though she says she never deliberately touched his genitals and he never pleasured himself while in the room with her.
“His birthday was a special occasion,” she said. “Christmas was a special occasion. When he cut my hair off was a special occasion.” That last – the shearing – was one she says he described as “a sacrifice to his priesthood.”
Fr Leatherby’s victim-accuser also alleges that the priest would give her the Sacrament of the Sick, sometimes asking her to remove her outer clothing and foundation garment and unbutton and lower her slacks. He would massage her with copious amounts of sacred oil – at least once on her breasts and very near her groin – saying things like, “These are not my hands, these are Jesus’ hands touching you, healing you.”
A text of the vow of obedience Fr Leatherby’s accuser says he received from her reads: “I surrender myself with my whole heart to your priest, Fr Leatherby,” and, “I place my soul in Father’s hands.”
The victim-accuser says Fr Leatherby told her that, during some performances of the Magdalene Routine, he “could tell she was growing in purity” and “was going to become a great saint and mystic”.
The victim-accuser told the Catholic Herald she was almost unassailably convinced of her abuser’s special holiness. “He kept us isolated from one another,” i.e. the many women – within and beyond the parish – to whom he “ministered” and offered his particular spiritual direction. “I was unable to process, especially because he told me I could never tell anyone about our ‘special relationship’, because no one would understand it. He told me it was my job to protect his priesthood.”
Fr Leatherby responds
Fr. Leatherby has admitted to “boundary violations” with his accuser and another woman. He says he is “profoundly sorry” for the pain he has caused, but denies the more serious charges.
“[W]hile acknowledging that I had done wrong and erred in ways,” Leatherby wrote in a letter to priests published last week to the website of an organisation calling itself the Saint Joseph’s Battalion, “I also categorically deny and want to refute a number of the allegations brought against me.” He said, “Some are of such a nature that I cannot bring myself to believe that she even claimed them.”
Addressing himself in the letter directly to his victim-accuser, Fr Leatherby said: “I hope you will forgive me for the hurt that I have caused you, and I pray that from this moment forward we can both let this rest.”
“I categorically deny any sexual acts between myself and my accuser,” Fr Leatherby specified in his response to the Catholic Herald. “The reference in my letter [another letter he wrote “To Bishop Soto, the Priests and Faithful of the Diocese of Sacramento and Beyond” before Bishop Soto made the excommunication public – ed.] to lines crossed does not pertain to sexual acts.” Leatherby told the Herald: “I respectfully decline to go into detail or address the sensitive allegations in the press as this is not fair to any of the parties involved and the matter is still open with the Diocese.”
“Believe me,” Fr Leatherby wrote in the letter, “there is another side. I could expose much, but have refrained all this time. I don’t want to ruin other people’s lives, marriages or families.”
In response to email queries from the Catholic Herald, Fr Leatherby further stated: “I also, as a Catholic priest refuse to publicly disparage another person.”
Now, Fr Leatherby says he is preparing a petition for release from the obligations of Holy Orders – “voluntary laicisation” as it is sometimes called.
Earlier this month, Bishop Soto informed Fr Leatherby that he had incurred a latae sententiae excommunication when he denied the legitimacy of Pope Francis and declared his belief that Benedict XVI is the true pope. Leatherby also admitted to celebrating the sacraments in violation of the restrictions Bishop Soto had placed on him.
Leatherby told the Catholic Herald he has “ceased holding services since being excommunicated.” He also explained that he “began those services around Easter Sunday to provide the sacraments, especially the celebration of the Mass.” Fr Leatherby said: “There was such a hunger and thirst by devoted Catholics to receive Holy Communion and the Sacrament of Confession, as they consider these more essential than anything else in this world.”
“These Catholics,” he told the Catholic Herald, “did not feel that the Bishop was truly fighting for their faith and Constitutional rights to worship. If scores of people could go to the Dollar Store, Home Depot or the grocery store, hold press conferences or protest in crowds, it was not right (with common sense precautions) that the faithful should be denied that which sustains them spiritually.”
What effect the petition for laicisation will have on the canonical process is unclear, but the Catholic News Agency has reported that the Diocese of Sacramento told the service they would support Fr Leatherby’s petition.
Fr Leatherby has been under canonical process for more than four years. “The last several years I have waited and waited and waited for an opportunity to defend myself against the charges brought against me. I have been told that I would finally be heard ‘next week,’ ‘the week after,’ ‘next month,’ ‘next….’ for nearly four years. All to no avail.”
“All I’ve wanted was a fair, complete and speedy hearing,” Leatherby told the Herald. “I have yet to meet with a Vatican representative to present my case,” he also said in response to the Herald’s questions. “I do not know why the process has taken so long.”
The victim-accuser gave detailed evidence to diocesan investigators in her original report more than four years ago, but told the Catholic Herald the judge in her case asked her very specific questions related to things she had told Fr Leatherby in confidence, sometimes under the Seal of Confession. Correspondence between the victim and the judge, which the Catholic Herald has obtained, is consistent with that report of their transactions.
The interview with the judge in the case was a long time coming.
The victim-accuser only met with him in January of this year. “When I spoke with [the judge],” she said, “I asked him: ‘Why did this take so long? Why are we just here now?’ and he said, ‘That’s a question that I’ve been asking. I’ve wanted this off my plate for forever.’”
The interview with the judge also only happened after a man supportive of Fr Leatherby called on the victim-accuser’s family early of a Saturday morning, saying he “just wanted to talk,” as she recalled, because, he said, the Blessed Virgin had told him to drive six hours across state lines and confront them. This man had ascertained the victim-accuser’s identity, new address, and other highly sensitive personal information. He had threatened both Bishop Soto and Fr Leatherby’s victim-accuser with “exposure” in the press.
It was shortly after the victim-accuser’s report of the incident to local police and the Diocese of Sacramento, that she finally received a call inviting her to give evidence to the CDF-appointed judge. The victim accuser said she believes “that’s what got the ball rolling again” on the Church proceedings.
Whatever the reason(s) for the protracted process, the accused and the victim-accuser with whom the Catholic Herald spoke agree that its duration is intolerable. The Bishop of Sacramento acknowledged the significant strain the situation put on all parties. In a letter dated July 22nd, 2019, Bishop Soto wrote: “I am embarrassed and frustrated that I have not been able to reach a more rapid resolution in the canonical proceeding pertaining to Fr Leatherby.”
Bishop Soto wrote his letter in response to a correspondent with intimate knowledge of the matter, who had asked for public disclosure of pertinent facts including the nature of the allegations against Fr Leatherby. The Catholic Herald has also obtained the letter to which Soto responded. The original letter read, in pertinent part:
You most likely know, as do both [the victim-accuser] and I, that there are other victims of his out there. They too need and deserve pastoral and therapeutic care, but they remain silent, alone and uncared for. Why? Because each of them either thinks they are the only ones, because they do not even know they are victims, or because even if they know they are victims they fear retaliations from the Leatherby family.
There was in fact only one reason [the victim-accuser] had the courage to face the slander and shunning that she expected to receive – and in fact did receive – by coming forward about her abuse, and that was the revelation from another victim that she too was being used and deceived in the same ways. These two women marveled in shared disgust at how he had used all of the same lines, all of the same “saint stories”, all of the same manipulations to make them feel special and loved like no other woman. It was this revelation and this revelation alone that compelled her to put a stop to this man and keep him from hurting others.
And so I beseech you, for the sake of the other victims out there, past and perhaps even current or future, to make known to the public what you know about him. Silence from the Diocese is not only a source of ongoing pain for [the victim-accuser], but it also effectively encourages [Fr Leatherby’s] other victims to remain in silence and it enables him to continue his same manipulations in silence.
Bishop Soto’s correspondent had said that Sacramento diocesan officials had led him to believe there were concerns over how release of information related to the case might affect the Sacramento diocese’s compliance with the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and that those concerns were keeping the diocese from disclosing details.
In his response letter, Bishop Soto cites “other considerations” including “privacy considerations that relate to [the victim-accuser], Fr Leatherby, and others.” Bishop Soto wrote, “I have resigned myself to this powerless position, with the hope of protecting the good name of others.”
“I have asked my judicial vicar to keep me informed of any communications with the Holy See on the canonical proceeding,” Bishop Soto went on to write. He undertook to have his chancellor be in more regular communication with the victim-accuser as well. “I beg for God’s grace to sustain her through the waiting, and heal her from the abuse afflicted upon her.”
On that point – healing – the victim-accuser says the Diocese of Sacramento has been very supportive: offering consistent and complete financial support for the cost of therapy, from the moment in which the diocese received her allegation and deemed it credible – a matter of weeks after she first brought them her report.
“I have come to rely on the Lord’s promise,” in Mt. 10:26, Bishop Soto explained: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” Bishop Soto went on to say: “I am grateful of [the victim-accuser]’s courage in cooperating with our investigation and urge her to tell her story for the good of the Church.”
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