Andrew L. Seidel: How ‘So help me God’ got in presidential oath

President Joe Biden swears at the Inauguration ceremony next to first lady, Jill Biden. U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. , Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo by Shutterstock)
FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel

By Andrew L. Seidel

The Constitution is often deliberately vague, but in the case of the presidential oath it is explicit. The president-elect “shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”

Period. That’s it. The popular addition “so help me God” is not there. It never was.

In other contexts, adding words to the Constitution is considered an amendment. And this is done with help from the chief justice of the Supreme Court. So why, after promising to preserve the Constitution, do presidents immediately add words to the precise oath, as President Biden did on Jan. 20? Where did this presidential tradition come from? In my recent book The Founding Myth, I set out to answer these questions.

Omitting God from the oath was no accident. The Founders deliberated this language at the Constitutional Convention, a deliberation that is mirrored in the first bill Congress passed under the Constitution and the first bill President Washington signed into law. As originally proposed, that law proposed congressional oaths with clauses reading “in the presence of Almighty God” and “So help me GOD.” Both were edited out.

The spoken words have been as deliberate as the written words. We know that Washington didn’t add the words to the oath. Nobody knows Washington’s words better than Edward Lengel, former editor-in-chief of the George Washington papers. Lengel concluded, “any attempt to prove that Washington added the words ‘so help me God’ requires mental gymnastics of the sort that would do credit to the finest artist of the flying trapeze.”

Like so much American mythology, including Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, we owe this Washingtonian myth to Washington Irving.

Irving recalled as a 6-year-old watching the inauguration “from the corner of New Street and Wall Street.” You can stand on the corner of New and Wall streets today, as I did while writing The Founding Myth. The experiment is not perfect, since the current Federal Hall, with its iconic steps, was built in 1842. Washington took his oath on a balcony with no access from the street. But stand on that corner and peer through the streams of pedestrians to the tourists taking photos on the steps of Federal Hall. Try to hear what they are saying. Now imagine you’re a 6-year-old swamped, waist high, in an “innumerable throng” straining to hear a notoriously soft-spoken man whisper those few words, and accurately recalling those words 50 years later. The claim is not much more believable than The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Washington did not say “so help me God” when he took the oath. Nor did any other of the first 26 presidents.

The first reliable, contemporaneous account of any president saying these words along with the oath comes nearly a century after the country’s founding, at Chester A. Arthur’s public inauguration in 1881. Arthur was actually already president. He had taken the oath immediately after learning that President James Garfield had finally succumbed to the assassin’s bullet, after a lingering 10-week-long infection. For the second, public oath, Chief Justice Morrison Waite read the oath and Arthur didn’t repeat it verbatim, instead replying simply, “I will, so help me God.” We wouldn’t hear those words in a presidential oath for another 28 years.

The first time “so help me God” was added to the oath that made a man president was 1909, 130 years after our founding. Chief Justice Melville Fuller added the phrase and William Howard Taft repeated it.

But it’s not until 1917, with the United States on the brink of entering World War I, that the tradition really takes hold. Like Arthur, Woodrow Wilson took two oaths, adding “so help me God” to the second, superfluous oath. He had taken the presidential oath the day before in a somewhat private ceremony and did not add the phrase, though he did add it in the public ceremony the next day. Up through Wilson’s private 1917 oath, the phrase was used twice in 40 oaths. Beginning with Wilson’s public 1917 oath, it has been used in 29 of 30 oaths.

Every subsequent oath has been highly public. Even those sworn privately or without the pomp of a full inauguration ceremony were recorded. Not coincidentally, every oath since, save Herbert Hoover’s in 1929, included the request for divine assistance. The public nature of the supplement suggests a desire to appear pious rather than actual piety.

Wilson was an academic before he was a politician. He authored a poorly regarded biography of Washington in 1896. In that romanticized biography, Wilson wrote that Washington “said ‘So help me God!’ in tones no man could mistake.”

The modern tradition of adding “God” to the godless oath the Constitution mandates traces directly to the 6-year-old Washington Irving standing on the corner of New and Wall streets, through Woodrow Wilson, the president largely responsible for that modern trend.

The explicit language of our Constitution’s presidential oath was good enough for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — the oath that made every one of the first 26 presidents.

Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response and the author of the The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American.

Inaugural’s religious rhetoric was divisive

During the much-anticipated Inaugural on Jan. 20, kicking off a hopeful new administration, it’s unfortunate that President Biden, while trumpeting a message of unity, remains tone deaf about the divisiveness of religious rhetoric.

U.S. politicians’ often gratuitous use of religion at official events makes us nonbelievers feel like outsiders and second-class citizens. While a diverse and thoughtfully planned series of events marked Biden’s hard-fought inauguration, there was still a whole lot of religion going on.

The inauguration kicked off on Jan. 19 with a moving ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, which was lined with 400 lights representing the more than 400,000 Americans who’ve died from Covid-19. The president-elect and his wife, with the vice president-elect and her husband, stood in front of the pool. Many communities and buildings, such as the Empire State Building and the Space Needle, also lit up in solidarity and unity around the nation.

But for the nonreligious as well as non-Christian Americans, the unity of that moment was spoiled when it morphed into a religious service. After nominally religious remarks by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, we were treated to an invocation by the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and a rendition of the Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

There were many brief repeated references to religion in the inauguration. Although the Freedom From Religion Foundation had duly requested that Joe Biden follow constitutional dictates and take an entirely secular oath of office as written in the Constitution, as expected he placed his hand on a huge family bible and added the piety, “So help me God.” FFRF had also requested he jettison the invocation and benediction. But the invocation was led by Father Leo J. O’Donovan, a Jesuit priest, and the benediction by Rev. Silvester Beaman, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., both personal friends, and both, of course, Christian.

Biden gave a powerful, gracious and conciliatory speech about being the president of all, as a “once-in-a-century virus silently stalks the country,” as “millions of jobs have been lost . . . businesses closed” and as “a cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making, moves us.” There was much to applaud there.

But he also referred to “one nation, under God,” said “History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity” and mentioned being “sustained by faith.” He quoted St. Augustine and the bible, albeit both passages secular, mentioned a prayerful verse from a song, “American Anthem,” and, no surprise, ended with the inevitable “May God bless America and may God protect our troops.”

But the bit that rankles most came when Biden actually himself said and led a prayer: “In my first act as president, I would like to ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those we lost this past year to the pandemic. . . . Let us say a silent prayer for those who lost their lives, for those they left behind, and for our country. Amen.”

He compounded it all by the irony of making an oath “before God” to defend our Constitution — a Constitution that is godless, whose only references to religion are exclusionary, which bars a religious test for public office and which separates religion from government.

As the inauguration ended, FFRF immediately began hearing from some of our more than 33,000 members, who were disappointed by the religious tone deafness, who expected our 46th president to make references to believers and nonbelievers, as President Obama did in his inaugural speech.

We “Nones” have work to do, not only to untangle the union of church and state from the last administration, but to make public officials who serve our Constitution understand that they may have whatever religious beliefs they like, but should stop assuming the rest of us need to hear about those views. Pieties do not make them better leaders. And religion in government is innately divisive and exclusionary.

Letterbox (March 2021)

Jim Satterfield has this FFRF billboard he created on his tailgate.

Tailgate ‘billboard’ shows support for FFRF

I decided to dress up the tailgate on my old Ford Ranger truck a bit to show off my views and support for FFRF.

I created this from the “billboard” I made on FFRF’s website. At 87 years old, I’m not driving as much as I used to, but when I do, I hope it calls attention to FFRF and this old atheist, in particular.

I’ve had a lot of controversial bumper stickers on my truck over the years, and seldom are any comments made to me. We’ll see about this.

Jim Satterfield

Editor’s note: Make your own digital message at

Vacation conversation revealed similarities

I was invited on a fly-fishing trip on the Cinder River, which is on the north side of the Alaskan peninsula. There were seven of us on the trip, but the only person I knew beforehand was the trip’s host, a longtime friend of mine who was an outdoor leadership professor in college.

During the trip, we had three straight days and nights of around 30 mph winds, so anytime we weren’t fishing we were cooped up in a large tent. We had plenty of hours to talk about all manner of subjects. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were all on the same page on many topics. It turns out that nobody in the group was a believer. One of us brought up FFRF and it turned out that three of the seven of us in the tent are members of FFRF, including one Lifetime member.

Media often show people in the “outdoors” industry (hunters, fishermen, etc.) as conservative Christians, but the reality is far from it. There are many freethinkers in the outdoors industry, but they don’t get a lot of attention. I’m hoping that there will be more outspoken atheist outdoors people featured in the media.

Aaron Glaser

Let’s take ‘In God We Trust’ off our currency

This morning I had the radio on and heard White House spokesperson Jen Psaki state that putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is under consideration again because it is very important that our money reflect our diversity. That’s a great idea! I say let’s go all in on this concept and look beyond racial diversity to religious diversity.

A very significant segment of our population, around 20 percent, does not worship any gods at all. These people go by various terms: freethinker, atheist, agnostic, humanist, none of the above, nontheist, etc. As one of these people, I feel that we are among the last remaining group for which it is both legally permissible and socially fashionable to discriminate against. While redesigning our money, let’s get the offensive statement, “In God We Trust,” off of it. The statement is factually incorrect, and it makes those of us without religious faith feel intentionally excluded from the “we.”

The statement is also completely unnecessary, as other countries are able to function perfectly well without having it on their currency. And let’s not forget that we operated without it well over a hundred years until that great pre-Trump political unifier Sen. Joseph McCarthy wrote the law to put it on our currency. President Biden said he wants to be president of all Americans. Well, talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words.

I ask that while redesigning our currency to reflect our racial and ethnic diversity, you show a little good faith and also remove “God” from our money. It’s the morally correct action.

Mark Klock

Thanks to complainant, FFRF for Kansas action

I want to thank you for the action you took to inform staff at Liberty Middle School in Pratt, Kan., of the unconstitutionality of their promotion of Christianity. Our child is not yet old enough to attend school, but this is a concern my wife and I have had living in this small, rural community.

I know that you cannot provide the name of the complainant and we are not requesting it, but we hope FFRF can reach out to that person and let them know that we support them. It is terrible that they had to make the complaint in the first place, and we hope they have not been alienated in any way. We very much appreciate their actions in hopes that our child will not have to endure such proselytization when attending public school in the future.

Thank you again and keep up the fantastic work. Also, I loved The Founding Myth by Andrew L. Seidel.

Jordan Hofmeier

Capitol insurrection was heavy on religion

History has shown us that there is nothing more dangerous than a religiously inspired mob. That mob will burn, loot, vandalize and kill with glee. On Jan. 6, we saw red-cap-wearing MAGA supporters carry Jesus flags and Trump/Jesus flags and place a cardboard “Jesus Saves” sign on our nation’s Capitol steps. The building was desecrated. Bible-thumpers were running loose. Yet, the evangelical preachers promoting President Trump have been silent. They lost their tongues. Quite doubtful they would have been so silent if the protesters were carrying signs about Allah. There would have been a call for war, in that case.

Let us hope the storming of our nation’s Capitol is something where Americans learn the need to keep church and state separate.

Jeff Baysinger

Glad to see number of religious voters drop

I was pleased to read in the December issue that the percentage of religious registered voters has dropped from 79 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2020. That’s 15 points in 12 years!

If that trend continues, it will be down below 50 percent, something I never expected to see in my lifetime . . . the majority of voters being sane. I give FFRF a great deal of credit for this increase in rational thinking and the acceptance of science over the supernatural, reality over myth. With a majority of registered voters being nonaffiliated with religion, just imagine what gains we could make!

I am disappointed, though, each Sunday when I watch “Freethought Matters” and hear that FFRF has only about 33,000 members, considering the number of legal cases that are being won, FFRF’s activism, the great work of Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker and the staff, Ron Reagan’s TV ad, etc. My only hope is that those 33,000 members will continue to push FFRF’s message and we can convince more than 0.001 percent of the population of the fallacies and insanity of organized religion.

Don Stockard

Religion has long outlived its usefulness

There was a time in the history of humanity when religion served an important and generally useful function, but no longer.

Throughout the ages, up until about several hundred years ago, life for most people was brutal and short. The belief in an afterlife and in ultimate redemption was the only salvation. But con men knew a good thing when they saw it: Religious believers, trying to maintain their hopes, could be easily manipulated and exploited.

And religious believers were taught that humans are the “crown of creation,” made in God’s image and that humanity was given dominion over the Earth. For centuries, then, this kind of human arrogance ran rampant, backed up by the belief that the deity of choice would bail out humanity if the species ever started to screw up.

Well, has humanity ever started to screw up! This “dominion” has given rise to unending warfare, polluted air and oceans, melting polar ice, vanishing coral reefs, slaughter and extinction of large numbers of animal species, rising sea levels, toxic dumping, global warming and much more. The stewardship of humans has been a disaster, and there’s no cavalry riding to the rescue. Religion nowadays does more harm than good.

Tom Guccione
New York

‘Heathens Greetings’ pamphlets are great

I will be ordering more of FFRF’s “Heathen’s Greetings” pamphlets. It is so well written and so free of any ill will.

I live in a 203-home homeowner’s association community for individuals over the age of 55. We have rural mailboxes in front of our homes and many of the residents walk past them daily. For Christmas this past year, I put my last 22 “Heathen’s Greetings” pamphlets in a plastic baggie with a decorated sign that read, “Free. Take one” and hung it on my mailbox. Eleven of them were taken. I am pleased because my car is parked in my carport and my one-word “Atheist” bumper sticker is quite visible.

Of course, no one has ever asked any questions about this (they never do), but they have to appreciate my low-key approach.

Pat Hall

Tune in to these two YouTube programs

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis has been hosting a YouTube channel featuring humanist discussion and critique of religious myth.

Called “Din of Conversation,” the channel is archive to two programs. “Bibles and Beer: Humanist Bible Study” presents updated twists on bible studies that you may have grown up with. “Bibles and Beer” is presented live most Wednesday evenings.

On “Coffee and Wisdom,” First Unitarian Senior Minister David Breeden shares a few ideas about humanism — past, present and future. The “Coffee and Wisdom” live presentation occurs most weekday mornings, followed by a chat with others via Zoom.

Bruce Nelson

Why are Catholic clergy getting vaccine already?

I wanted you to be aware of something that has infuriated me ever since I heard it. In December, Cardinal Cupich of Chicago was given the Covid-19 vaccine along with other members of the clergy, indicating they are regarded as “essential.” How nice for them. This special privilege was granted to them, which, as a result, took vaccines away from senior citizens, front-line hospital workers, police and firefighters and others more deserving, given what risks they endure on a daily basis. How on Earth are the Catholic clergy considered “essential”? Isn’t the Catholic Church all about putting others ahead of themselves? Hypocrites all! I think this is of great value in noting just one more hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.

Glenn Joselane

Hasidim extremists in   New York cause problems   

Back in November, Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, the Grand Rebbe of the large Satmer Hasidim community of Brooklyn, stated to his brethren that they should not consider themselves as Americans but rather as Jews in exile.

Despite not considering themselves Americans, they hold American passports and bloc vote. They were strong supporters of Donald Trump. They refuse to report for jury duty and get away with it, and never serve in the military. With their large families and expertise at gaming the system, they receive more taxpayer benefits than any other religious or ethnic group in the country. Yet the Satmars and other Hasidic groups are slumlords, nursing home operators and developers of luxury condominiums in New York City, controlling hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in real estate assets.

Also, back in November, Teitelbaum officiated at an indoor wedding ceremony attended by 7,000 celebrants who were singing, clapping and dancing, in open defiance of city Covid-19 restrictions. None of them was wearing a mask. The result? Since November, Teitelbaum and hundreds of the wedding guests have contracted Covid-19! Who knows how many other people they have infected?

Dennis Middlebrooks
New York

Reading the paper in jacuzzi a challenge

I’m always excited to receive the latest issue of the paper, which I always read in the jacuzzi, which creates a challenge to keep it dry enough to read Black Collar Crime by the time I get that far. (I don’t wanna miss seeing which man of prayer preyed the most.)

I am especially glad to see so many young people involved and writing excellent essays.

I never did get a stimulus check, but I’m gonna pretend I did and send the whole mythical thing to you for real. Spend this $1,200 where you need it the most and keep the paper coming!

Larry Hallock

Jan/Feb issue was full of interesting reading

I was sorry to hear about the death of Ben Bova. One of the first full-length books I ever read was one of his.

The article about Julian Scheer (“The man who kept God off the moon”) was incredible. He’d be a great subject for a movie (or at least a TV documentary).

When I first began receiving Freethought Today in the early 1990s, one of my favorite features was the “In Others’ Words” cryptogram. I’ve never been much for crossword puzzles, but I was surprised and happy to see the crossword in the latest issue, and I hope there’ll be more.

Well, I suppose it had to happen. After a few months of (relatively) civilized Crankmails, the fangs and claws came back out in the Jan/Feb issue.

As usual, thanks for all you do, and here’s to (somewhat) better days ahead.

Andrew C. Jones

Inauguration events were too religious

My husband and I are proud FFRF members. On Jan. 20, we sat in rapt attention and anticipation for Joe Biden’s inauguration, only to feel excluded and disappointed by all of the Christian inclusions via a pastor, a bishop and a poet. Faith was the dish served up by each and every speaker and left us cold. We hoped for so much and got a lot — more by far than the previous administration — but at one point it appeared we were meant to jump out of our seats and shout “hallelujah!” I felt unseen, unheard and ignored all over again.

Thank you for your recent message and for being there for the millions of “Nones” who are still looked at as nothings.

KaZ Akers

Black Collar section helps expose wrongdoing

Although they make for unpleasant reading, the items in Black Collar Crime have too often been swept under the rug by churches and hidden from public scrutiny. Publicizing the names and allegations against the accused brings their crimes out into the open and might help their victims feel a little more acknowledged.

I also enjoy the Crankmail section. I feel both amused and depressed by the letters, but they give us members a little insight into the sort of vitriol that FFRF staff have to deal with every day. Thank you for everything you do!

Megan Amselle

Pilots put faith in aviation, not rosaries

I enjoyed reading Justin Pripusich’s letter in the last issue, relating his “come to atheism” experience as a passenger in a maximum turbulence flight out of Denver.

Justin’s plane landed safely because when the going gets rough, pilots are trained first to aviate, then to navigate and lastly to communicate. Justin and all the other people on board could have been toast if the crew had pulled out their rosaries and reversed that order.

But then, one has to wonder, what good praying would have done when the deity that created the storm knew full well that airplanes could be sure candidates for a spectacular disaster.

David Werdegar

Let’s add this phrase to nonbeliever vocabulary

I once heard a nonbeliever challenge another for referring to the death of their loved one as having “passed.” Their objection was that it inferred the existence of another place to which a person would go after death. Although it seemed neutral to me at the time, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that our vocabulary is lacking in an expression or description of death among nonbelievers.

This may be a time to suggest another description that is not only neutral but elegant and more profound. When we die, we only live on in the memories of others as part of their continuing lives. So, essentially, we have been committed to memory from that day forward — in the memory of those who loved us — or in some cases by those who won’t forget us for other reasons.

If I could create a meme, I would say that those in our memories, those who influenced us one way or another are “committed to memory,” from the day they die until the day that we ourselves become “committed to memory.”

Betty Hammerle Inman
North Carolina

FFRF’s critical work needed more than ever!

It is obvious to me that, given the composition of the Supreme Court, we need to protect our freedom from religion and the critical work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation more than ever.

Robert M. Zellers
North Carolina

‘Freethought Matters’ an excellent TV program

I’ve been a member of FFRF for well over 10 years and I just want to thank you for the excellent TV program you have, “Freethought Matters,” airing every Sunday morning in New York City. I’m in southern Connecticut, so I’m able to see it every week.

I appreciate the wide variety of guests who are on the show — from writers to authors to artists, including John Davidson, of all people. It’s really entertaining and very well done.

Also, I almost dropped my cup of coffee in my lap earlier this week when I saw the Ron Reagan ad during the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert”! That is very much appreciated. I hope you’re getting a lot of people to join FFRF.

I appreciate everything you’re doing. Stay safe.

Jim Lonczak

Crossword puzzle is a welcome addition

When I received my January/February issue, I was so happy to see that you included a crossword puzzle. Thanks so much!

I’m a 71-year-old retiree and The New York Times crossword is too difficult and the AARP crossword is too easy. Like the proverbial three bears bowl of porridge, your crossword is just right!

Harold Nicol

Black Collar Crime (March 2021)


Compiled by Bill Dunn

Arrested / Charged

Rogelio Vega, 50, Queens, NY: Attempted use of a child in a sexual performance, attempted criminal sexual act, attempted disseminating indecent material to a minor and attempted endangering the welfare of a child. Vega, a deacon at St. Sebastian Catholic Church since 2011, allegedly began using the app Grindr in July 2020 to meet a 14-year-old boy for sex who was actually a detective.

The married father of 4 allegedly asked for nude images, shared several photos of his genitals and set up a meeting. When Vega arrived, he flashed his headlights to identify himself and the officer climbed into the car and arrested him. Source: NY Post, 1-22-21

Toddrick Gordon, 50, Muncie, IN: Dealing in a narcotic drug, maintaining a common nuisance and 2 counts each of possession of meth and possession of a narcotic drug. During an interview, Gordon allegedly told a deputy he started selling meth and heroin after his longtime affiliation with a local church ended in 2018. He was community outreach pastor at Urban Light Community Church.

An affidavit said he sold drugs at his home on 4 dates in December. He was arrested in possession of a small amount of drugs and 10 syringes. Source: Star Press, 1-15-21

Jazmonique Strickland, 28, Kalamazoo, MI: 3 counts each of 3rd-degree criminal sexual conduct and human trafficking of a minor and 2 counts of child sexual abusive activity. Her husband, Stricjavvar Strickland, 37, pastor of Second Baptist Church, was arraigned in September on 11 similar counts.

It’s alleged the pastor paid teen boys to have sex with his wife and to send him nude photos between 2015–18. She was pregnant with their 6th child when he was arraigned. Source: WOOD, 1-14-21

Victor Philip, 66, Norfolk, VA: 6 counts of indecent liberties against a minor (dates unspecified) when Philip was pastor at Norfolk Calvary Church of the Nazarene and chaplain at Lake Taylor Transitional Care.

Phil Fuller, superintendent of the Virginia District Church of the Nazarene, said he was shocked to learn of the arrest: “Victor Philip has not been an employee of the Norfolk Calvary Church of the Nazarene (or any Church of the Nazarene) since June 1, 2020, when he officially retired. The Norfolk Calvary Church became inactive in June 2020 due to lack of attendance, finances and involvement.” Source: WTKR, 1-12-21

Jakirul Islam Jakir, 50, Gohelapur Boria, Bangladesh: Rape. Jakir, imam of a local mosque, and 2 others are accused in a complaint filed by a 40-year-old widow who alleges she refused Jakir’s marriage proposal about 2 years ago.

Jakir is accused of raping her Nov. 10 and beating her 4 days later. The woman alleges she told 2 local officials, but they urged her to not press charges and to take the case to financial arbitration. Source: Dhaka Tribune, 1-12-21

John R. Griffin II, 73, Daytona Beach, FL: 30 counts of possession of photos of sexual performance by a child. Griffin, pastor at Riverbend Community Church in Ormond Beach and an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, allegedly had 251 pornographic images when arrested after a tip was received from the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.

Griffin asked his wife to forgive him as police led him away in handcuffs, the arrest report stated. Images on his iPad showed girls ages 3 to 7 and 9 to 14 engaged in sexual acts with men.

He had recently asked a state agency to license him and his wife as foster parents for children and infants, the arrest report said. Source: News-Journal, 1-8-21

Kisha L. Clayton, 36, Paragould, AR: 5 counts of rape of a minor. Detective Robert Sexton said text messages between Clayton and the minor showed evidence of a “long sexual history” between them but that it wasn’t clear if she met the alleged victim through her employment at Children’s Home Inc., a “Christ-centered” youth organization. Source: KATV, 1-7-21

David A. Walker, 46, and Anna Walker, 39, N. Ridgeville, OH: David Walker faces 7 counts of felony sexual battery and 1 misdemeanor count of sexual imposition. Anna Walker is charged with 2 counts of felony sexual battery.

The assaults allegedly occurred from May 2005 to December 2007 when David Walker was a youth pastor at Church Alive International in Cleveland and later at the Dwelling Place Family Worship Center in N. Olmsted. He was also a teacher and coach at the now-closed Cleveland Christian Academy.

The indictment alleges forced intercourse. Police said the female victim, now 30, was a member of the youth groups at both churches and a parishioner. Source: WJW, 1-6-21

Satya Narayan, 45, an Indian Hindu priest in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and 2 aides are accused of the fatal gang rape Jan. 3 of a married 50-year-old woman. Her son told reporters that the men dropped her off at home: “They said she fell into the dry well on the ashram premises. She was bleeding profusely and soon she died. Before we could ask anything, the three left.”

Narayan was found in a hut in a forest near his village after police received reports he was hiding there. An autopsy revealed the woman “had been brutalized,” said social activist Shafi Ahmed. Source: The Hindu, 1-6-21

Nikolai Romanov (aka Fr. Sergiy), was arrested for encouraging young people to commit suicide. The arrest may be related to a YouTube video in which he called on followers to die for Russia. An Orthodox priest, he was arrested at a convent he took over in June in the Urals.

The church excommunicated him in September for ignoring a ban on religious services during the coronavirus pandemic, which he calls a hoax. Source: Reuters, 12-29-20

Marcelo Crivella, 63, Rio de Janeiro: Corruption, defrauding public tenders, misappropriation of funds and money laundering. Crivella is a bishop in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an evangelical church founded by his uncle in 1977. He’s also the outgoing mayor of Rio, a recording artist and author of Christian books.

Five associates were also charged in the alleged kickback scheme “that acted within City Hall since 2017,” said a statement from Rio’s public prosecutors’ office.

His book “Evangelizando a África” details the 10 years he spent as a missionary. He is widely considered as a preacher of the prosperity gospel. Source: AP, 12-22-20

William D. Milam, 62, Milton, FL: 2 counts of promoting sexual performance of a child and 25 counts of possession of child pornography. Milam, pastor at Olivet Baptist Church and a former Navy chaplain, possessed multiple devices containing child pornography that depicted children as young as 3 engaged in sex acts, the complaint said.

Milam was vocal during a 2016 campaign by municipalities to allow Sunday liquor sales. “There are a significant amount of people who appreciate that the streets of our city could be just a little safer with no Sunday sale of liquor,” he said then. Source: Pensacola News Journal, 12-14-20

Mark R. Hession, 62, Barnstable, MA: Indecent assault and battery on a child less than 14, intimidation of a witness and 2 counts of rape. It’s alleged Hession committed the crimes between 2005–08 when he was pastor at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Parish in Centerville.

In 2019 he allegedly used church money for personal expenses and sent inappropriate communications to several adult parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk, where he was serving. He was then removed from active ministry.

In 2009 he delivered the homily at Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s funeral. He has served at 12 different parishes since his 1984 ordination. Source: Cape Cod Times, 12-14-20

Clifford Brower, 57, Linden, NJ: Sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. Brower, a minister at Blessed Assurance Church, is accused of “various acts of sexual assault” on a 14-year-old girl in August 2019. Source: Daily Voice, 12-9-20

Zachary Crowley, 33, Taylorville, IL: 2 counts of felony grooming. Crowley is a student pastor at Taylorville Christian Church, athletic director at VisionWay Christian School and assistant football coach at Taylorville High School.

Police Chief Dwayne Wheeler said grooming is “basically trying to lure kids in for sexual acts with their phones and things like that. We had enough evidence to charge him with that. … Usually when this happens, you’ll have more victims that come forward.” Source: State Journal-Register, 12-8-20

Christopher C. Trimpe, 59, Crystal Lake, IL: Theft of over $10,000. Trimpe, who belongs to a religious order known as the Congregation of the Resurrection, was business manager until late 2019 for Resurrection Catholic Church in Woodstock, where he’s accused of misappropriating $34,977. Source: Northwest Herald, 12-5-20

William McCandless, 56, Wilmington, DE: Possessing child pornography for importation into the U.S., transporting child pornography in interstate and foreign commerce and attempting to access with intent to view child pornography. McCandless was pastor at St. Charles Catholic Parish and an adviser to Princess Charlene in the principality of Monaco from 2010–17 and principal from 2005–09 at Salesianum School in Wilmington, a high school operated by his religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

He’s accused of amassing thousands of images of child pornography while working in Monaco and trying to access others after returning to the U.S. in 2017. The Oblates settled 39 suits against the order and Salesianum in 2011 for $24.8 million for abuse of minors from 1955–91. Source: Catholic News Service, 12-3-20

Pleaded / Convicted

William Metzger, 76, Baraboo, WI: Pleaded guilty to 1st-degree child sexual assault. Metzger, pastor at Open Door Baptist Church until March 2020, is accused of assaulting a girl multiple times between August 2016 and December 2018, starting when she was 6.

Metzger told police he only touched the girl twice and that she had tried “fondling herself” so he showed her how.

“I started feeling bad about this,” Metzger allegedly told police, after explaining that the girl’s parents had attended a bible study session where children were advised about adulthood and identifying sexual misconduct. Source: News Republic, 1-25-21

Rotem Cooper, 54, Poway, CA: Pleaded guilty to defrauding the government and his employer by claiming thousands of dollars in false donations. He’s the 8th person to plead guilty in connection with Yisroel Goldstein, a rabbi and director of Chabad of Poway.

In the scheme, Cooper donated $27,330 to a Chabad-affiliated charity, which his employer, the tech company Qualcomm, matched. Goldstein then secretly funneled 90% of the donation back to Cooper and split the Qualcomm funds with a person identified only as “Y.H.,” who had introduced them. Cooper then illegally claimed the entire donation as a tax deduction of $7,960.

In April 2019, a 19-year-old man fatally shot a woman and injured 3 others in an anti-Semitic attack in the synagogue’s foyer. Source: The Forward, 12-30-20

Joseph Quigley, 56, Stone, Staffordshire, UK: Guilty by jury of cruelty, 4 counts of sexual activity with a child and 2 counts each of sexual assault and false imprisonment. Quigley, the former national education adviser for Catholic schools, was accused of physical and sexual abuse of a boy while he was a parish priest in Warwickshire from 2002–08, when he was forced to resign.

He was sent for treatment to the U.S. before returning after 6 months and put on restricted duties.

Describing Quigley as a “sexual sadist and voyeur,” Judge Peter Cooke remanded him in custody while a report is prepared to assess the danger he poses in the future. “A lengthy prison sentence is inevitable,” Cooke said. Source: Coventry Telegraph, 12-5-20


Josue Rodriguez, 62, Jersey City, NJ: 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated sexual assault. Rodriguez was a pastor and religion teacher at Temple Refugio. Both victims were students in his classes. The church is part of the Congregation of Yahweh, which combines elements of Judaism and Christianity.

Prosecutors said a girl was molested between the ages of 6 and 9. She told detectives that Rodriguez would touch her over and under her clothing and forced her to kiss him. The other victim was between 8 and 15. Source: AP, 1-25-21

Angelo Caloia, 81, longtime president of the Vatican bank (officially named the Institute for the Works of Religion), and his former lawyer Gabriele Liuzzo, 97, were found guilty by a Vatican court of embezzling millions of euros through shady real estate deals between 2002–07. They were sentenced to 8 years and 11 months in prison and ordered to pay the bank damages of over €20 million ($24 million).

Fabrizio Lemme, Liuzzo’s attorney, said it was unlikely that either would see the inside of a prison cell because of their ages. They were also fined €12,500 each. Source: NY Times, 1-21-21

Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, 67, Houston: 6 years in prison, $125,000 fine and $3.5 million restitution after pleading guilty to wire fraud for a scheme hatched in 2013 when he was pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church. Caldwell and financial planner Gregory Smith lured investors into buying Chinese bonds that had no value and weren’t recognized by the current government.

The indictment said Caldwell “used religious references to give investors hope they would soon be repaid.” Caldwell rose to prominence as leader of the megachurch and confidant of former President George W. Bush. Source: NY Times, 1-14-21 

Adnan Oktar, 64, a Muslim televangelist and cult leader known in Turkey for holding theological discussions surrounded by glamorous women, was sentenced to 1,075 years in prison on 10 charges, including leading a criminal gang, engaging in political and military espionage, sexual abuse of minors, rape, blackmail and causing torment.

He was also charged with aiding a network led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused of masterminding a failed 2016 coup attempt. Under the pen name Harun Yahya, he published a series of books promoting creationism over the theory of evolution. Source: AP, 1-11-21

Thomas Kottoor, 69, and Sister Sephy, 55, respectively a Catholic priest and nun, received life sentences after an Indian court found them guilty of murder, conspiracy and destruction of evidence in the 1992 death of Sister Abhaya, 21. Her body was found in the well at St. Pius Convent in Kottayam district, Kerala.

Prosecutors alleged Abhaya discovered Kottoor and another nun in a compromising position and that he strangled her while Sephy beat her with an axe. Source: Indian Express, 12-23-20

Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, 62, Richmond, TX: 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to 2 counts of indecency with a child for molesting a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy while he was a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe from the late 1990s to early 2000s.

He’ll have to serve at least 5 years. Prosecutors said victims reported the abuse to church officials at the time but the allegations were never relayed to law enforcement.

One victim, now a mother, told LaRosa-Lopez at sentencing, “I stand here proudly for all the children who will never have to meet you.” Source: KHOU, 12-16-20

Jonathan Chang, 64, Cupertino, CA: 4 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of several counts of wire fraud and money laundering. Chang, an elder responsible for managing finances at Home of Christ Christian Church in Saratoga, was also ordered to pay $11.7 million in restitution.

Between 2004 and 2016, Chang defrauded a wealthy donor and set up entities with names similar to the church, directing more than $6.7 million to his own organizations, according to federal authorities. His average annual salary was reported as $65,000 but he purchased millions of dollars in real property, owned a Mercedes and lived a luxurious life, prosecutors said. Source: San Jose Inside, 12-14-20

Sherman Smith, 74, Monterey, CA: 87 months in prison and $2.19 million restitution after pleading guilty to wire fraud. Smith, executive pastor of Sonrise Church in Clovis, “is a con man and a thief,” said U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd.

He defrauded investors by collecting cash, checks and rolled-over retirement accounts to fund church projects but used the money for personal expenses, to operate a publishing business and to invest in foreign ventures, prosecutors said.

Smith previously served 37 months in prison for securities fraud that caused a loss of over $5 million to 38 victims. Source:, 12-11-20

Craig McCulloch, 34, Manchester, UK: 3 years in prison after pleading guilty to 4 counts of fraud by abuse of position for stealing over $624,000 from a church, a charity and a college.

McCulloch stole from St. James Church in north London, the Anglican parish where he served as volunteer treasurer from 2013–18, from the children’s charity XLP and the Oasis College of Higher Education in Kennington. Detective Constable Mark Baker called him “one of the most devious individuals I have ever dealt with.” Source: BBC, 12-11-20

Nathan L. Rogers, 36, W. Seneca, NY: 6 months in jail and 5 years’ probation after pleading guilty to 2nd-degree unlawful surveillance. Rogers, part-time youth pastor at Life Church Buffalo, was arrested in August 2019 after an investigation determined he used 2 cellphones to video a girl changing clothes in his camper during Kingdom Bound, a 4-day Christian music festival. Source: Batavia Daily News, 12-10-20

Willie Wilkerson, 62, Dorchester, MA: 4 to 5 years in prison and 3 years’ probation after pleading guilty to trafficking and intent to distribute Class B and Class C drugs. Wilkerson, pastor at Mission Church, hid the drugs in his home, the church and a food trailer he owns, prosecutors said.

Investigators found 53 grams of cocaine, 45 oxycodone pills, 9 grams of fentanyl, 73 grams of Buprenorphine, 32 Clonozapam tablets, 45 methadone pills, 259 gabapentin tablets and 62 sildenafil pills. He was also charged with unlawful possession of ammunition. Source: WBTS, 12-10-20

Randolph Brown, 65, Cleveland: 18 months in jail after pleading guilty to 2 counts of compelling prostitution. Brown, pastor at Inner-City Missionary Baptist Church, was charged with paying or agreeing to pay 2 female minors, aged 16 and 13 at the time of the incidents, to engage in sexual activity in 2018.

Brown said he would appeal and claimed he engaged in inappropriate behavior because he was grieving: “I may not have grieved my father’s death properly. Losing both my parents months apart from each other was traumatic.” Source: ABC Cleveland, 12-10-20

Civil Lawsuits Filed

The Catholic Parish of St. Padre Pio, Vineland, NJ, has been sued by a woman alleging sexual assault by Robert L. Sinatra, the church’s pastor. The plaintiff, 38, is a “parishioner and participant in church activities” who asserts Sinatra, 46, exploited his position of authority to engage in sexual contact with her.

Sinatra, in a January letter to parishioners, denied assault allegations but admitted having a “two-month affair with an unmarried woman” in 2018. “Although ending the relationship was difficult for me, it was obviously very difficult for her as well,” Sinatra wrote.

He said he has paid for her counseling since ending the affair, has blocked her phone number and her access to his social media accounts, while assuring Diocese of Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan that he won’t violate his vow of celibacy again.

Spokesman Michael Walsh said the diocese is reviewing the lawsuit “but at this time has no plans to remove Father Sinatra as pastor, as he refutes the accusation and there has never been any indication or report in his past of any abusive relationships in any element of his personal or public life.” Source: Vineland Daily Journal, 1-3-21

The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, shouldn’t be eligible for insurance coverage to pay settlements with sexual abuse survivors, says a suit filed by Arrowood Indemnity Co., its insurer, because of “allegations of the Diocese’s long-standing specific knowledge of individual instances of abuse and its decades-long culture of coverup.”

Arrowood’s complaint names the diocese, over 30 parishes and schools and former priest Romano J. Ferraro, who is accused in over a dozen pending suits and is serving a life sentence in Massachusetts. Former priests Thomas O’Rourke, Vincent Sforza and James Sickler are the subjects of at least 14 suits.

Arrowood alleges the diocese has failed to provide copies of internal documents that would shed light on what it knew about allegations and what steps it took in response: “The information the Diocese has provided … is inappropriately redacted, contains large chronological gaps, and is missing numerous pages without explanation.” Source: Democrat & Chronicle, 12-29-20

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is alleged in 7 lawsuits filed by former Boy Scouts of covering up decades of sexual abuse in Arizona. The church “must be held accountable in order to bring healing and closure to Mormon victims of childhood sexual abuse,” said a statement from the plaintiffs’ law firm Hurley McKenna & Mertz.

It’s alleged that members of church-sponsored Boy Scout troops would reveal their abuse to bishops, who would then tell them to keep quiet so the church could conduct its own investigations. In the meantime, accused troop leaders and volunteers would be allowed to continue in their roles or be assigned to another troop.

The church sponsored at least 7 troops in metro Phoenix and Tucson. Source: AP, 12-8-20

Memorial High School in W. New York, NJ, St. Joseph’s of the Palisade Parish and the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark are being sued by “A.G.,” who was a 14-year-old freshman at Memorial in 1985 when he alleges he was first molested by Albert Sosa, a school counselor and church deacon.

It’s alleged Sosa showed him pornography, which escalated to kissing, oral sex and sodomy, which took place about 3 times a week for over 4 years, including at the church. Source: Jersey Journal, 12-8-20

Miroslaw Krol, a Catholic priest from Orchard Lake, MI, was sued for sexual harassment by 2 men alleging he pressured them for sex. Krol is chancellor of Orchard Lake Schools, which includes St. Mary’s prep school, a seminary and a Polish cultural center.

The men, one a priest and the other a lay staffer, are Polish natives who claim Krol recruited them in 2018 and then preyed on them. During a previous stint at Orchard Lake from 2006–11, it’s alleged Krol recruited seminarians from Poland and had sex with them in the rectory at Sweetest Heart of Mary Parish in Detroit.

Krol graduated from Immaculate Conception Seminary in New Jersey, where he studied under defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Source: Detroit Free Press, 12-14-20

“Jane Doe” filed a suit against Portsmouth Abbey School, Portsmouth, RI, and her former high school humanities teacher, Michael Bowen Smith, alleging he sexually abused her from 2012–14. “Grounded in the Catholic faith and 1,500-year old Benedictine intellectual tradition, the School fosters reverence for God and the human person,” its website says.

Smith started to flirt with her when she was a sophomore and he was in his mid-40s, then introduced sexual banter into their conversations and coerced her into sexual acts, it’s alleged, with abbey staff brushing aside her mother’s concerns before allowing Smith to “quietly resign.”

He went on to teach at Siena College, a Franciscan school in upstate New York, and started “a relentless pattern of harassment and cyber-stalking behavior against [her]” from 2015–17, the suit asserts. Source: Newport Daily News, 12-4-20

Civil Lawsuits Settled

The Catholic Diocese of Yakima, WA, settled a suit filed by “John Doe” in 2019 by agreeing to pay $5,000 for counseling in addition to $10,000 it had already paid. The settlement frees the diocese from any further claims regarding 3 allegedly abusive priests.

The plaintiff from Ellensburg, WA, alleged abuse occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was between the ages of 10 and 18. The suit asserted Richard Scully, Peter Hagel and an unidentified priest repeatedly molested him at St. Andrew’s Church and and in a YMCA building the diocese previously used for services. Scully has been defrocked. Seamus Kerr, 91, an earlier defendant, was exonerated after the plaintiff recanted allegations against him. Source: Yakima Herald-News, 12-19-20

The Catholic Diocese of Speyer, Germany, paid a clergy abuse survivor, now age 63, €15,000 ($18,100) for assaults at a children’s home by Rudolf Motzenbäcker, a priest who died in 1998. During the 10 years that he lived there, nuns allegedly took him to the priest’s apartment once or twice a month.

The man estimated he’d been assaulted about 1,000 times. Other priests and politicians sometimes joined in, and nuns brought more boys and girls in to be victimized, he alleged.

“The nuns earned money from it. The men who were present would have donated generously,” he testified at a hearing on the abuse. Source:, 12-11-20

The Catholic Diocese of Oakland, CA, settled a suit for $3.5 million in which former seminarian “John Doe” accused Livermore priest Michael Van Dinh of raping him in 2017. The plaintiff, a 27-year-old Mexican immigrant, alleged Van Dinh lured him to the St. Michael’s Parish under the pretense of helping him land a job for a friend as a receptionist.

A search of Van Dinh’s living quarters turned up a meth pipe, sex toys and condoms, according to the police report. He hasn’t been criminally charged. In a statement, the diocese said Van Dinh remains on leave and continues to receive compensation.

Attorney Sandra Ribera-Speed said her client settled under pressure because the diocese “was essentially threatening to depose his parents and … he didn’t want to tell his parents about the sexual abuse he experienced.” Source: NBC Bay Area, 12-8-20

The Archdiocese of Chicago agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a suit filed by a man alleging abuse by Daniel McCormack, a defrocked priest imprisoned for sexual assaults on several boys. The plaintiff attended a Catholic elementary school in Chicago in the early 2000s.

The archdiocese has paid $11 million to settle suits alleging abuse by McCormack. A judge in 2018 found him to be “sexually violent” and ordered the state to hold him in custody indefinitely. Source: AP, 12-3-20


The Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud had its Chapter 11 reorganization plan approved by the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court. The plan provides for a $22.5 million trust to compensate survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

The funds include $14 million in insurance settlements, $5.25 million in property sales and $3.25 million in contributions from parishes and a line of credit. The plan also includes non-monetary protocols for the protection of children. Source: St. Cloud Times, 12-4-20

The Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia sold the St. John Vianney Center, a behavioral health facility founded in 1946 in Downingtown, PA, where priests accused of sexual abuse are sometimes sent for treatment.

In exchange for its independence as a 50-bed nonprofit psychiatric hospital, the center paid the archdiocese $12 million. A 2018 state grand jury report sharply criticized the center and similar ones in Maryland and New Mexico for doing a shoddy job of protecting children: “Put plainly, these institutions laundered accused priests, provided plausible deniability to the bishops, and permitted hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry.”

The archdiocese as of Nov. 18 had settled 319 claims for $60.9 million through its victim compensation program. Source: Philly Inquirer, 12-3-20

Legal Developments

Jack Schaap, 63, Hammond, IN, a Baptist pastor serving a 12-year federal sentence since 2013 for taking a 16-year-old girl he was counseling across state lines to have sex in Michigan and Illinois, has asked a judge for early release to care for his parents, whose health is failing.

After being charged, he blamed the girl’s “aggressiveness” for inhibiting his “impulse control” and leading him into sex. His scheduled release date to a halfway house is Feb. 2, 2023. Source: nwitimes, 1-29-21

Errol Victor Sr., 54, an evangelical pastor who fled to Georgia from Louisiana after a jury voted 10–2 in 2014 to convict him, is running as a Republican for Congress as he awaits retrial on a murder charge. He would replace a Louisiana congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 complications before he could take office.

Victor was charged with murder in 2008 after the death of his 8-year-old stepson. His wife Tonya Victor was also charged but both fled before their arrest in Georgia in 2012 after being profiled on “America’s Most Wanted.” They told people there they were trying to plant a church.

Tonya Victor was found guilty of manslaughter in 2014 by a unanimous jury. Errol Victor was found guilty of 2nd-degree murder but on a split 10–2 vote. After he spent nearly 6 years in prison, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled non-unanimous juries were unconstitutional, vacated the pastor’s conviction and sent the case back to state court, where it’s pending.

The Victors’ blended family includes 13 boys, 2 of which they had together after marrying. Source: WWL, 1-21-21

Stalking and intimidation civil suits brought by 4 women accusing TV actor Danny Masterson of rape must go through mediation within the Church of Scientology, a Los Angeles judge ruled.

The suits were filed by former Scientologists who signed a contract letting the church resolve “any dispute, claim or controversy” through internal arbitration. Another woman, who was not a Scientologist, will have her civil case heard in court. Criminal charges against Masterson on 3 counts of rape between 2001–03 aren’t affected by the ruling.

Journalist Tony Ortega summarized the ruling: Scientology has once again derailed a major lawsuit through its contracts, which former top officials have testified were designed to deny members justice. Source: Reuters, 12-31-20

William Wasmus, 64, a Grove City, OH, evangelical pastor who conducted services on public access TV and was sentenced to 220 years in prison for child rape in 1994, had his petition for parole denied by a state board. He has served the required minimum of 15 years.

Former church member Dave Wexler opposed his release. He and his ex-wife, who later married Wasmus, discovered pornographic images and videos of children Wasmus had been molesting and turned them over to police. He can request early release once every 5 years. Source: WCMH, 12-7-20


Widespread abuses at 14 Irish Catholic and 4 county-run homes for unwed mothers and their children between 1922–98 resulted in over 9,000 deaths, said a government report detailing a 6-year investigation. The institutions, where women and girls were sent to give birth and pressured to give their children up for adoption, were also responsible for unethical vaccine trials and traumatic emotional abuse, the 3,000-page report said.

The commission was set up after the remains of nearly 800 children were found interred in an unmarked mass grave at a home run by nuns in County Galway. The report said about 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children were housed in the homes nationwide until the last one closed in 1998. Source: NY Times, 1-12-21

Faith-based institutions in New Zealand and those run by the state were responsible for the abuse of about 250,000 children between 1950–2019, said a report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry. That’s about 40% of the 655,000 people in care during that period.

Abuse included physical and sexual assaults — with staff in some psychiatric institutions forcing male patients to rape female patients — improper and needlessly invasive medical procedures, racial slurs and verbal abuse.

The report said the likelihood of children abused in faith-based or religious homes ranged from 21% to 42% and that indigenous Māori children probably suffered the most. The Catholic Church of New Zealand said in a statement that it would study the report to learn how to better deal with complaints and prevent abuse.

Some faith-based institutions sought to “cleanse” cultural identity from Māori people through sexual and physical abuse, the report said. Source: Reuters, 12-16-20

Sexual abuse by Colorado Catholic clergy involved 9 diocesan priests with “substantiated” allegations involving 70 more underage victims in addition to 43 abusers identified in a 2019 report.

The most prominent priest named in the new report is Charles Woodrich, known as “Father Woody,” who died in 1991. The Denver Catholic Register, which he had served as editor, called him “Denver’s patron saint of the hungry and homeless.” Source: Catholic News Agency, 12-2-20

Removed / Resigned

John Zuhlsdorf, a Catholic priest from the Italian Diocese of Velletri-Segni, will leave the Diocese of Madison, WI, where he has served since 2014 as president of the Tridentine Mass Society of Madison, an association to preserve the Latin Mass.

Zuhlsdorf has been a strong critic of Pope Francis and publicly sympathetic to much of former President Trump’s agenda. He wrote on a recent blog, “There is a Catholic antifa now. They are feeling their ascendancy and they are applying it. We will see more persecution leveled at anyone who strays from their demands.”

During YouTube livestreams before the Jan. 6 certification of President Biden’s Electoral College win, Zuhlsdorf held exorcisms to drive away what he said were demonic influences to steal the election.

A statement sent to Diocese of Madison priests said he will relocate to “pursue other opportunities” and noted it was a mutual decision between Zuhlsdorf and Bishop Donald Hying. Source: WKOW, 1-19-21

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A meeting of two freethinking giants

Frederick Douglass
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Peoria, Ill., was refurbished by sculptor Zenos Frudakis with the underwriting of FFRF.

In 1870, two forces for freedom met for the first time in Peoria, Ill.

Robert Ingersoll speaks in New Rochelle, N.Y. in 1894.

This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Peoria Magazine ( and is reprinted with permission.

By Steve Tarter

Two of the greatest personalities of the 19th century met for the first time on a cold February morning in Peoria. The year was 1870 when Frederick Douglass, the great reformer, writer and orator, dropped by the home of Robert Ingersoll, freethought evangelist and the city’s most illustrious citizen, who was then serving as Illinois attorney general.

Visit from a stranger

Crossing the country on a speaking tour, Douglass had addressed a crowd in nearby Elmwood the previous evening. He was told that if he needed accommodations in Peoria — a city where he had been unable to secure a hotel reservation on a previous visit — he should call on Ingersoll. “It would not do to disturb a family at such a time as I shall arrive there on a night as cold as this,” Douglass protested in his autobiography. But he was assured Ingersoll would receive him warmly, regardless of circumstance.

By then a recognized celebrity, Douglass reported finding quarters that night “at the best hotel in the city.” His curiosity aroused, however, he decided “to know more of this now famous and noted ‘infidel’” — the man who reportedly would have taken him in. Before leaving to catch his train, Douglass paid a morning visit to the Ingersoll home. His published account reads:

“Mr. Ingersoll was at home, and if I have ever met a man with real living human sunshine in his face, and honest, manly kindness in his voice, I met one who possessed these qualities that morning. I received a welcome from Mr. Ingersoll and his family which would have been a cordial to the bruised heart of any proscribed and storm-beaten stranger, and one which I can never forget or fail to appreciate.”

The experience also moved Douglass to speculate openly about matters of faith in an Ingersollian vein. “Genuine goodness is the same, whether found inside or outside the church, and that to be an ‘infidel’ no more proves a man to be selfish, mean and wicked than to be evangelical proves him to be honest, just and human,” Douglass wrote. “Perhaps there were Christian ministers and Christian families in Peoria at that time by whom I might have been received in the same gracious manner . . . but in my former visits to this place I had failed to meet them.”

Kindred spirits

Ingersoll and Douglass were kindred spirits in many respects. Not only were they among the most gifted — and busiest — speakers of their day, both were heavily involved in politics, urging equal rights for African-Americans and women when those causes were anything but popular. In 1883, 13 years after their first meeting in Peoria, Douglass and Ingersoll both raised their voices to oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling that invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had been enacted in response to civil rights violations against African-Americans.

“The difference between colored and white here is that the one, by reason of color, needs legal protection, and the other, by reason of color, does not need protection,” Douglass said. “It is nevertheless true that manhood is insulted, in both cases. No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man, without at last finding the other end of it fastened about his own neck.”

“The decision takes from seven million people the shield of the Constitution,” Ingersoll said about the decision, which allowed states to set their own restrictions for minority citizens. Ingersoll’s speech on the occasion spanned 50 pages.

Both Ingersoll and Douglass became national figures for supporting causes that were considered controversial. Douglass, a former slave, focused on abolishing slavery while advancing the rights of women and African-Americans. Ingersoll took on organized religion while still promoting so-called Christian ideals, notes Susan Jacoby, author of The Great Agnostic, a 2013 biography. He also campaigned passionately for women’s rights, against racism and in opposition to the death penalty.

Promoters of freedom

At a time when attending speeches and lectures was a popular form of entertainment, Ingersoll is said to have delivered more than 1,300 in his career. “More people probably heard his voice than any other American prior to mass media,” notes Tom Krupa, who became interested in Ingersoll while volunteering at the Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House. The house, built in 1837, displays a portrait of Ingersoll and a desk he used while living in Peoria from 1857 to 1877. A successful attorney, Ingersoll later moved to Washington, D.C. and then New York City.

Douglass was also a traveling man, visiting Peoria on at least three occasions. His message — before, during and after the Civil War — called for equality for all Americans. One of his most famous speeches took place in 1852 at a Fourth of July celebration in Rochester, N.Y., where he told the predominantly white audience: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July? This is the birthday of your national independence. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Douglass never stopped promoting freedom. It should be remembered that on the last day of his life, in 1895, he attended a meeting of the National Women’s Council in Washington, DC.

Ingersoll likewise supported women’s rights while covering a wide variety of subjects, most notably criticizing organized religion. “With soap, baptism is a good thing,” he once famously quipped. “That Ingersoll made a good living out of questioning religion particularly enraged his opponents,” wrote Jacoby. What set him apart from the crowd was his erudition and good humor. “He called Shakespeare his bible and Burns his hymnal,” Krupa notes.

Among Ingersoll’s many admirers was no less than Mark Twain, who also became successful on the lecture circuit. “It was just the supremest combination of English words that was put together since the world began,” Twain wrote to his wife after witnessing an Ingersoll speech. “Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master.”

The Douglass visit with Ingersoll that took place 150 years ago represents a special moment in American history when two giants of the freethinking world came together.

During the Civil War, Douglass made a speech that pointed to the power of photography, a technology that by then had spread across the country. Even small towns had photo studios, he said. “The universality of pictures must exert a powerful though silent influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations,” Douglass stated.

If only there were a picture of these two giants when they met in 1870 in Peoria.

Steve Tarter is a freelance writer/blogger and podcaster from Peoria, Ill.