Sunday, August 10, 2014

New Catholic Outreaches - Due Diligence Required

Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a former member of Mother of God Community (MOG) in Gaithersburg, MD.  I was a member for most of my young adulthood, up till the mid 1990s.  It is part of a larger movement called the "Catholic charismatic renewal".

Some may recall the scrutiny by the Archdiocese of Washington that MOG underwent as evidence mounted that MOG was engaged in thought-reform.  In fact, many other similar groups throughout the country were undergoing similar scrutinies as they too were discovered to be engaging in thought-reform.  In 1997, the Washington Post magazine did a two-part series on MOG.  I normally do not endorse much by the Washington Post, but based on my own first-hand experience, I'd have to say the Post's treatment was fair, even kind to MOG.

Shortly thereafter, I ended my own affiliation with MOG.  Whether or not MOG, as a group, retains cultish characteristics, I've no way of knowing.  I remain friends with many current MOG members.

I began to read many works about thought-reform in general, to get an idea of the dynamics to which I had been subjected.  I read works by Robert Jay Lifton and Margaret Singer (not to be confused with Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger) and others found in the Cultic Studies Journal website.  The information found in those works - and my own experiences - cause me to be rather vigilant to what I recognize as "warning signs" when I come across various organizations.  The organizations may well not be cults, but I've learned to trust my instincts and do some "due diligence" - bringing me to the topic of this post.

Several weeks ago, at my church, a young person spoke at our Mass and asked to be sponsored as he/she joined with St. Paul's Outreach for missionary work.  The person passed out some literature afterwards; I now attach one piece for your review (note: the original is a two-sided, legal-sized piece, folded four ways; I had to shrink it to scan properly).  As I read it, my mental "cult alarms" were flashing red everywhere.  I visited the SPO site but saw nothing to allay my concerns.  I did get their email address so I wrote to them the following email:

Ladies and gentlemen, some time ago one of your members came to our church to ask us to sponsor them as they became one of your campus missionaries.  To avoid embarrassment to this young person, I’ll make no mention of their name, date of appearance or the name of my church.  He or she is not the focus of my questions anyway.  Rather, what piques my questions is a flyer from Saint Paul’s Outreach that they were distributing after Mass.  I attach it for your reference.  First, I’ll focus on the Formation in Christian Living Program.  As a prologue, I point out that since donations were solicited from me, I have not only the right but the responsibility to do some “due diligence” research to ensure that my donations would truly benefit the Church and these students.
·         Mention is made of “weekly teachings”. 
o   Who develops these teachings? 
o   What Church-recognized credentials do they have for developing and promulgating this teaching?
o   Is there an organized standard curriculum for these teachings?
o   Is that curriculum (if it exists) regularly reviewed by the local bishop or his diocesan representatives?
·         Please describe “pastoral mentoring”. 
o   Who does this mentoring? 
o   How are they selected to be mentors? 
o   Who selects the mentors? 
o   What Church-recognized credentials do they possess that qualify them to be “mentors”?
o   What areas of their lives are the students expected to open up to these “mentors”?
o   What (if any) safeguards and procedures are in place to prevent inappropriate intrusion by the “mentor” into the conscience and free will of their charges?
o   Should the student believe that his/her mentor is being overbearing and/or intrusive, is there an “appeals process” established that will take the student’s concerns seriously?  Is there recourse for said student outside the structure of SPO?
·         Please elaborate on the “accountability groups”.
o   Who decides what students are grouped together in one of these “accountability groups”?
o   Do these “accountability groups” and “households” have the same members?
o   What topics are discussed in these groups?
o   In these groups, how is a healthy sense of privacy maintained?
·         Please describe “the household way of life”.
o   How are students selected to live in these “households”?
o   Who selects them?
o   Do “pastoral mentors” (described above) live with any of the students in their charge?
o   How much free time are the students allowed for other pursuits: college studies, social life outside SPO, family, etc?
o   Do students move from the households after they graduate school, or are they encouraged/expected to remain?
·         Please describe the “School of the New Evangelization” in detail.  Unfortunately the flyer only gives brief mention.
o   Who develops the “dynamic orthodox teaching”, and under what Church authority?
·         At what point (if any) are these young people expected to strike out on their own to develop their own careers and start their own families?
·         Please tell us whom we should contact to obtain a copy of SPO’s latest Form 990.

Please be advised that I’m the blogmaster of restore-dc-catholicism.blogspot.com.  Within the next week I’ll be posting my questions online, along with any replies.  Thank you.


Janet Baker

A week or two later, I received the following reply:

Hi Janet,

Thank you for your email; we appreciate your due diligence in this matter.  To answer your questions in brief, Saint Paul's Outreach is a lay apostolate under the ecclesiastical supervision of the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is the honorary chair of our board of directors.  Bishop Cozzens, one of his auxiliaries, is our president.  Bishop Cozzens is also an alumnus of Saint Paul's Outreach, as he describes in this video:

Furthermore, in all the dioceses in which we operate, we do so under the blessing and endorsement of the local ordinary.  We operate in submission to our bishops, and in faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.  Our staff members responsible for our curriculums and trainings have various qualifications, including advanced degrees in Theology, and we also have many priests and religious involved in training our missionaries.

You can find more information about Saint Paul's Outreach and our programs at www.spoweb.org.  We are exempt from filing 990s, but our financial audit is posted on our website.

Again, thank you for contacting us.

In Christ,

katie burke

As you can see, most of my questions remain unanswered.  Most notably, the questions pertaining to authority over the students living "the household way of life", along with "mentoring" and "accountability groups" remain unanswered.  Having lived a version of that lifestyle for some time - and knowing what that can entail - I take a dim view of these questions being ignored.  She says that those preparing the trainings and curriculum have "various qualifications", but what does that mean?  Is there a minimum Church-recognized credential that these preparers must possess?  That is not at all clear.

At this time, St Paul's Outreach will receive no donations from me.  For all I know, they could well be a fine, upstanding Catholic organization, on the "up and up".  However, too many questions remain unanswered.  I'd suggest that no one feel they must suppress "interior alarms" when they sound.  Often those "alarms" happen for good reason.


6 comments:

  1. Janet, I wouldn't get too fired up about this....it sounds a lot like Focus. The local ordinaries are always involved, and the 'household' system is successfully used a lot today, including at JP the Great in Dumfries. I appreciate your past struggle, but this appears to be a very good organization, and as a third party, I found their response to be very good.

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    1. I'm not familiar with Focus so I can't comment on them. The SPO response is what it is: evasive. As for the local ordinaries, the old MOG found it quite easy to pull the wool over our bishops' eyes. They could well say they had the bishops' blessing but the supervision was superficial at best. I'm not saying that is necessarily the case with SPO, but the possibility exists there just as it did for the old MOG.

      What I hope folks take away from this is if something seems "off" or "strange" about any group, to not be afraid to question or challenge that group, even if that group's representative has permission to give a presentation from a pulpit.

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    3. The first three sentences could well describe my time in Mother of God Community, although thankfully I never arrived at the point of being suicidal. I did google SPO and Sword of the Spirit; indeed they are affiliated. That is most disconcerting and causes me to believe that they could well be a cult.

      Do tell your story. I think there are more of us than we may suspect.

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  2. The Sword of the Spirit is not a Catholic organization. It has it's own body of teaching. It is not under the Magesterium of the Catholic Church. It uses personal relationships and vague organizational status as a "lay association" to mask it's separate identity from the Catholic Church. In 1991 Bishop Albert Ottenweller of Steubenville, OH investigated the Sword of the Spirit. His conclusions are here: https://www.scribd.com/doc/19274926/Ottenweller-Shreds-Sword-of-the-Spirit-Covenant-w-Pict

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