The Church Calls Father Ryan Scott a Fake Priest
By E.A. Torriero
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 6, 2005

His followers know him as Father Ryan St. Anne Scott, bishop of the independent Holy Rosary Abbey, currently housed in a converted home for the mentally ill in this western Illinois city.

For more than 15 years, the gregarious Scott--divorced and a convicted felon--has moved his troubled abbey around the Midwest, drawing small bands of disenchanted, mostly elderly, Catholics who long for the Latin mass of their youth.

But time after time, Scott and his followers have parted acrimoniously after battling over property, money and theology. Roman Catholic officials in at least four states have publicly warned that Scott is not a legitimate priest and that the baptisms, weddings, funerals and other ceremonies he conducts are not sanctioned by the church.

Those warnings are now being echoed by the Peoria diocese, which has advised Roman Catholics in western and central Illinois not to attend mass or receive sacraments or counseling from Scott.

Raised a Methodist, Scott says he converted to Catholicism and was ordained in 1993 by a breakaway Catholic movement and later officially became a Roman Catholic priest.  Church officials say Scott is posing as a priest; and Scott, who says the church has dark reasons for disavowing him, could not produce documents to back up his claim.

"We are not sure what he is, but we are sure what he is not: a priest," said Rev. Ben Nguyen, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., which had legal conflicts with Scott in the late 1990s. "He appears out of nowhere, sets up and then disappears."

In any case, Scott, 51, no longer aligns himself with the church. He says his calling now is to be a thorn in the side of the modern-day church by living out the embodiment of "the true Roman Catholic Church" of ancient days.

There are some 500 "traditional chapels" in the United States, run by an assortment of clergy and others who believe the modern church has strayed from centuries-old teachings with the Vatican II changes in the late 1960s. The church hierarchy considers most of these movements breakaway and does not recognize them.

Even in such circles, however, Scott is considered a maverick.

"A network and fraternity exists among us, and he is not part of it," said Dennis Michael McCormack, who runs such a chapel in Lindenhurst, N.Y.

"To sit in theological discourse with him is impossible," said McCormack, who says he began to have doubts after conducting two retreats at Scott-run abbeys. "He doesn't even have the proper pronunciations of Latin."

Gregorian chants

These days, Scott rises before dawn for contemplative prayers. He leads a group of four "brothers and sisters" and two elderly followers in a daily Latin mass. He utters Gregorian chants as he works through the day.

The group spends most of its time behind locked doors in the abbey's monastery in a quiet Galesburg neighborhood. The building resembles a single-story nursing home, and save for a religious statue in front, there is little to suggest it is a religious place. A sign in the lobby tells visitors that most of the building is restricted to those who have taken the monastery's vow of silence.

Scott says he supports himself and his abbey mostly through small contributions mailed from supporters around the country.

Roseanne Gevelinger, 77, who became enamored of Scott while attending his retreats and services through the years, moved from North Dakota to live in Scott's abbey. Gevelinger says she adores Scott because he does not deviate from the ancient teachings of the church.

"He's a wonderful priest," Gevelinger said, sitting beneath a smiling portrait of Scott in his office. "I feel cared for here. I love the silence and the solitude."

Legal troubles

But wherever Scott has settled, there has been anything but calm.

Scott was chased in court by creditors in Iowa in 2003 and sued officials of the La Crosse diocese in 1999 for allegedly defaming him after they filed a police report that landed Scott in jail on a probation violation. Before moving his abbey to Galesburg last summer, Scott left his post as administrator of a shrine in North Dakota after suing the shrine's board in a bitter dispute over control and finances.

Scott said he was ordained in 1993 in the American Catholic Church, part of the traditional movement and not under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The facility, in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., no longer exists and no one associated with it could be found for comment.

Three years later, Scott said, a retired Roman Catholic archbishop in Dubuque, Iowa, validated his ordination, making him officially a Roman Catholic priest.

But church officials in Dubuque say the archbishop was in a retirement home at the time, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and has since died.

Scott's account of his religious training also cannot be confirmed. He said he attended St. Ambrose seminary in Davenport, Iowa, from 1974-76, nearly 20 years before his eventual ordination. Officials at St. Ambrose University, which now administers the seminary, say they have no record of Scott's attendance.

Court records show that during the time he says he was in the seminary, Scott was married under the name of Randall Dean Stocks, one of four names he acknowledges using in his life. He was divorced in 1976. The seminary would not accept a married man into priestly training, a spokeswoman said.

Scott said the records that could prove his priesthood are in the hands of a Wisconsin lawyer whose license was revoked last summer for professional misconduct. The ex-lawyer, Jeffrey Knickmeier, said the documents "are not readily retrievable."

"Father Ryan works within the context of an independent order," Knickmeier wrote in response to written questions. "What a bishop or bishops say about his ordination is irrelevant ... His work is authentic and speaks for itself."

Answers to `Eternal Rome'

These days, Scott says he wants no part of the Roman Catholic Church and that he answers to no one except "Eternal Rome."

"It sounds like he's a church unto himself," said Ladislas Orsy, a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University who has taught Catholic Church law in Europe and the United States.

Scott says that as a boy growing up in northern Illinois, he wanted to be a man of the Catholic cloth despite his family's Methodist faith. His dream was almost derailed, he says, in his 20s, when he conceived a child out of wedlock.

To cover up his sin, Scott says he married, divorced and put the child up for adoption--all at the direction of a Catholic priest who told him to do so before converting to Catholicism so that he would still qualify for the priesthood.

But Scott didn't return to religious life until the 1980s, when he joined a Franciscan order in Iowa and then another in London, Ontario, according to the director general of the Franciscan Friars of Mary Immaculate. In 1990, in Darlington, Wis., he attempted to launch a traditional ministry within an existing parish but was ordered by church leaders to stop.

So he went to work in the finance department of the small town of Edgerton, Wis. In 1994, months after

leaving that job, he pleaded guilty to felony misconduct in office for cashing a city check of $30.97 for $300.97. He was sentenced to 3 years' probation.

Scott then opened an abbey in Rising Sun, Wis., prompting the La Crosse diocese to warn area Catholics that Scott was not a priest. Scott filed a defamation suit, but it was dismissed. Diocese officials also told police that he had verbally threatened the bishop--a violation of his probation--and that he falsely claimed to be employed by the diocese. Those charges landed him in jail for 23 days.

Scott says the diocese made up the charges against him.

Saying he was tired of the harassment, Scott moved his abbey in 2000 to a former nursing home in Pocahontas, Iowa, where he struggled financially, according to former followers and court records.

"It wasn't much of an abbey," said Karl Rinkleff, a traditional Catholic from nearby Winterset, Iowa, who helped set up the abbey. "There was not a lot of praying going on."

Rinkleff, who once traveled with Scott to a retreat in Arizona, said they parted ways after a land dispute over property in rural Iowa. Scott promised to build a chapel on property that Rinkleff gave him but sold it for profit instead, Rinkleff said. Both parties hired lawyers, and the dispute was settled out of court, according to Scott and Rinkleff.

"It's just not a way a priest should be acting," Rinkleff said.

Marion Schwenk, 74, spent several weeks in the Iowa abbey in 2003. At first, Schwenk was so convinced of Scott's credentials that she allowed herself to be made an oblate--a lay person who spreads the traditional ideals--in a ceremony performed by Scott. She also allowed her infant granddaughter to be baptized by Scott.

But Schwenk soon came to have doubts about Scott's authenticity. Her granddaughter was later baptized by another priest, Schwenk says, "just to be safe."

"It just doesn't seem he is who he claims," she said.

Scott says his Iowa ministry was plagued by lingering accusations from Wisconsin church officials. He left Pocahontas in 2003 to run a shrine in Powers Lake, N.D., a town of 300.

The Shrine of Our Lady of the Prairies, formed in the 1950s as a retreat center for traditional Catholics, needed a priest and a financial manager. Gevelinger, the shrine's treasurer, had met and admired Scott from attending traditional Catholic outings throughout the country. She recommended him for the job.

Board members say they didn't delve into Scott's past because they were desperate for a priest. Scott says he took over a shrine that was a financial mess. He also says he was promised a deed to some of the shrine's property as part of his compensation package.

By Easter 2004, a rift had developed between Scott and the board. Board members said Scott could not properly conduct the rituals of Holy Week and was maneuvering to gain financial control of the shrine and its assets.

Scott sued the shrine's board, accusing its members of financial misconduct. The suit, still pending, asks for back pay and unspecified damages.

Moves to Galesburg

Last summer, Scott and Gevelinger moved to Galesburg, where Scott says the mainstream church continues to try to discredit him because church officials remain angry that he went public three years ago with "my dark secret."

In 2002, while still running his abbey in Iowa, an emotional Scott appeared in full clerical garb at news conferences in Washington and Dallas, where Catholic bishops were meeting to grapple with the priest sex-abuse scandal.

He provided a graphic account of being gang-raped, along with several other young men, in the 1970s by a group of priests in the rectory of St. John's Cathedral in Milwaukee.

Church officials, police in Wisconsin and victim support groups all rushed to investigate his claims, but none could substantiate his story.

A diocese spokeswoman says Scott never provided specifics, including dates and names of priests or other possible victims. Scott says he attempted to get church officials and detectives in Wisconsin to investigate his claim before going public.

In 1998, he said, he related details that could prove his story to Alfred Kunz, a mainstream Wisconsin priest with whom Scott says he shared traditional Catholic philosophies. Kunz was about to go public, Scott said, when he was murdered in Dane, Wis. The case remains unsolved.

Scott says Wisconsin detectives substantiated his abuse allegations but did not file charges. A Dane County sheriff's investigator said the murder investigation remains open, but that Scott's assertions are preposterous.

Scott now refers to himself as an abbot, or bishop. He has big plans for his ministry in Galesburg. His new facility has room for some 30 followers to stay in silent retreats, he said. He is remodeling the building to resemble a scaled-down version of an ancient monastery and has converted one room into a chapel, with all the trappings, for a Latin mass.

He recently opened his Sunday services to the public and has issued a call for traditional Catholic worshipers from throughout the Midwest.

His goal, he says, is "to die in a state of grace."

In the meantime, Scott says, he will not bow to pressures from the Roman Catholic Church to stop his work. To do so, Scott says, would be a sin.

"I'm not willing to compromise," he said. "I'm not going to deny God and sell myself to hell."