When Arizona charter-school operator Rose Management Group offered John F. Meyers a contract position this year, the company either failed to discover or disregarded one important aspect about his past:
His prior job — a 35-year stint as a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — ended abruptly after he was accused of sexually abusing a minor.
It took a group of internet sleuths, one a victim of clergy sex abuse herself, to uncover that record last week. The charter operator then ended its relationship with Meyers.
“This is a prime example of survivors working together to take the law into our own hands,” said Carolyn Fortney, the Harrisburg woman who uncovered Meyers’ new life in Tucson. “We’ll do what we have to do to protect children.”
The community that prompted Fortney’s investigation, the Philadelphia-based online group Catholics4Change, is one of a plethora of internet vigilantes and regional watchdog websites that have sprung up across the United States as the clergy sex abuse crisis continues to roil the church.
As recently as the early 2000s — the start of the scandal for the American church — ousted priests often were able to slip into relative anonymity. But now, groups like Catholics4Change and the Baltimore-based “The Keepers Official Facebook Group” — the inspiration for the eponymous 2017 Netflix documentary series — have harnessed the power of social media and extensive internet archives to organize, conduct research, create repositories of information on abusers, and hold church leaders to account.
Kathy Kane, co-administrator of the Catholics4Change group, said the circumstances behind Meyers’ January removal from ministry stood out.
Archdiocesan officials said little at the time about the accusation that led to Meyers’ ouster except that it stemmed from an abuse allegation dating to the 1980s.
He was temporarily removed late last year from his post as rector at St. Joseph’s-in-the-Hills Retreat House — a 125-acre woodland refuge in Malvern that often hosts functions for children and school groups — while a civilian review board investigated his accuser’s claims.
Once the panel substantiated the allegation, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput permanently removed Meyers from his post, declaring him “unsuitable for ministry” and forwarding his case to the Vatican for potential laicization.
Kane, of West Chester, began to raise questions on the Catholics4Change page after discovering a video that appeared to show Meyers continuing his ministry at an October 2018 event at the Malvern retreat house, months after his accuser had come forward.
“He was supposedly restricted from being near kids,” she said. “But if you watch the video of the event, there are children everywhere.”
Her posts on the subject quickly drew a response from users of the site. One was a particularly barbed April 17 retort from an Arizona priest that eventually led to the discovery of Meyers’ new job.
“What’s your point?” wrote the Rev. Robert Rankin, pastor of St. Melany Byzantine Catholic Church in Tucson. “Enough with the estrogen lynch mob mentality," apparently an insult directed at Kane and female members of her group.
Fortney, 38, was astounded by the reply’s hostility — from a priest, no less.
This was not her first run-in with antagonistic church officials. She and four of her sisters — all of whom were abused by the same Harrisburg-area priest in the 1980s — have emerged as prominent victim advocates and backers of statute-of-limitations reform after participating in the landmark grand-jury investigation last year that detailed decades of abuse and cover-up involving hundreds of priests across Pennsylvania.
Fortney began scouring Rankin’s Facebook page to figure out who he was. One name on his list of Facebook friends gave her pause — John Oldman, who listed his profession as a “curriculum consultant” for Mountain Rose Academy, a charter high school run by Rose Management.
“I thought it was an odd last name,” she said. “So I zoomed in on his picture” and recognized a familiar face.
Fortney thought the clean-shaven, bespectacled man in the profile photo of Oldman’s Facebook page bore a striking resemblance to the images of a bearded Meyers that Kane had been posting online.
“If you shave this guy’s face,” she said, “it’s exactly the same guy.”
She quickly alerted officials at the Tucson charter school about Meyers’ past in Philadelphia. And within a day, Oldman’s Facebook page was updated to say his employment with Rose Management had ended.
Contacted by The Inquirer last week, Rose Management confirmed that it had hired Meyers for a short-term contract assignment and that the 64-year-old had worked for them under his legal name. “Oldman” appears to be a pseudonym that he used online.
It remains unclear what Rose Management knew about Meyers before offering him a job. In responses to emailed questions, company officials did not answer one that asked whether Meyers had disclosed the allegation against him.
The company’s founders, Gene and Catherine Klinghorn, are parishioners of Rankin’s church parish and donated the land on which it built an 853-square-foot chapel in 2017, according to public records. A foundation the Klinghorns run has given Rankin’s parish more than $73,000 over the last six years.
Archdiocesan officials in Philadelphia said that when Meyers informed them in November that he was moving to Arizona, they alerted both the bishop of Tucson and the local district attorney, as per their policy. Under church protocols, a cleric deemed “unsuitable for ministry” retains his status as a priest pending Vatican review, but is barred from engaging with the public as a priest and is subject to monitoring by the archdiocese.
But Meyers failed to notify Philadelphia church officials that he had accepted a position with the Arizona charter school system — something he was required to do — and Rose Management never reached out to the archdiocese to verify or discuss his background, spokesperson Ken Gavin said.
“At no time did we receive any requests for employment verification or any other human resources questions relative to Father Meyers,” Gavin said. “Had such a request been made, full disclosure of the facts would have been shared.”
Rankin did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Cathleen C. Capen, a spokesperson for the charter operator, said that like all other employees, Meyers was subjected to legally mandated background checks before he was offered the job. His record came up clean, she said.
Though church officials in Philadelphia had reported Meyers to law enforcement at the time of his removal from ministry, a police investigation never materialized because the abuse claims against him fell outside of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for sex crimes involving minors.
Rose Management oversees five “alternative setting” Tucson-area high schools with a total enrollment of roughly 1,200. More than half the students are classified as economically disadvantaged. Capen said that Meyers’ position as a curriculum consultant never brought him to any of its campuses or into contact with students.
His job “required work mostly at home, and some time at Rose Management Group’s office to collaborate with personnel,” she said.
It’s not clear why Meyers was hired or if the job was created for him. His tenure in Philadelphia did not appear to include any assignments in the archdiocesan school system.
Asked whether the company had ended its affiliation with him because of the accusation against him in Philadelphia, Capen maintained that Meyers completed the contracted work on April 16, “concluding his consulting agreement.”
She did not address whether Fortney’s message to the school — which came two days after that date — had any bearing on Rose Management’s decision.