Since May of 2019, the Lepanto Institute has been spotlighting the Diocese of Arlington’s handling of possible false allegations leveled against one of its priests. In November of 2018, Fr. Ronald Escalante, pastor of St. Francis De Sales Catholic Church in Purcellville, VA, was removed from his parish due to an alleged “boundary violation.” This past May, the Lepanto Institute published an article with interviews of parishioners who made multiple attempts to give important information to the diocese. Central to their concerns were alleged efforts to recruit parishioners into making false allegations against Fr. Escalante by the parish’s Director of Religious Education (DRE), James Blankenship.
In June of 2019, the Lepanto Institute revealed that a girl (Sophia 1) made multiple, unsuccessful attempts to tell the diocese that the girl accusing Fr. Escalante (Molly) admitted to a group of girls that she lied about the accusation. In a letter sent to the diocese on April 8, Sophia 1 made the following claims regarding Molly. Key points contained in the letter are as follows:
- In January, Sophia 1 and a group of others discovered Molly crying in the girl’s locker room.
- Molly swore the girls (four in total) to secrecy and said that her mother was forcing her to make a false allegation against her pastor.
- Molly said that the associate pastor, Fr. Mullaney, had convinced Molly’s mother that “for the better good of the parish,” Molly needed to accuse Fr. Escalante of improper conduct.
- Molly told the girls that she didn’t want to do that since nothing improper had occurred.
- Being forced by her mother to make this false allegation was causing her “immense stress.”
- Molly said that she feared her mother and was afraid of what would happen to her family if this information got out.
Despite claiming to have never received the letter from Sophia 1, or the calls from her parents, after publication of our article, the Arlington Diocese finally sought out and obtained an interview with Sophia 1 to discuss what she witnessed. Billy Atwell, Chief Communications Officer for the Diocese of Arlington confirmed that the interview took place but indicated that no comment beyond confirmation of the meeting could be offered “in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation and protect the reputations of all of the parties involved.”
Since the interview, a second witness (Sophia 2) has come forward to testify that Molly admitted to lying about her accusation against Fr. Escalante. Fearing repercussions if her identity was discovered, Sophia 2 gave her testimony to two parishioners as an affidavit. The authenticity of the testimony was sworn and notarized on August 10.
In Sophia 2’s affidavit, she confirms what Sophia 1 said in her testimony and indicates that the April 17 article about Sophia 1’s testimony from the Blue Ridge Leader “is an accurate depiction of what occurred.” Sophia 2’s testimony, however, adds further details not explicitly stated in previous reports.
Sophia 1’s testimony indicated that Fr. Mark Mullaney, associate pastor of St. Francis de Sales parish, had convinced Molly’s mother to encourage her child to accuse Fr. Escalante of improper behavior, “for the better good of the parish.” Concomitant with this charge, parishioners were complaining about recruiting efforts by the parish DRE, who was attempting to entice them into making additional claims against Fr. Escalante. And now, Sophia 2’s testimony indicates that the recruiting attempts were being orchestrated by Fr. Mullaney.
According to Sophia 2, Molly said that her mother was forcing her to make false allegations against Fr. Escalante due to horrible stories he told about women, teens, and children he claimed were being violated by Fr. Escalante. Sophia 2 indicated that these allegations referred to the very same parishioners who refused to be recruited by James Blankenship.
Sophia 2 also revealed that Molly explained that Fr. Mullaney coached her on what to tell Church officials and the police, telling her that she had to say, “Father Escalante touched her on her tits.” The affidavit further states that Fr. Mullaney mentioned several times that “he and James were working [to] get several families on board.”
All of this corresponds with the initial reports from parishioners regarding Blankenship’s recruiting efforts.
In addition to this affidavit, the Lepanto Institute has received text message correspondence between Fr. Mullaney and one of the parishioners supporting the claim that he was attempting to recruit other families. The messages were dated December 02, 2018 and December 08, 2018, only a couple of weeks after Fr. Escalante had been removed. In the texts, Fr. Mullaney asked the parishioner:
“Pardon the interruption. Has any one from St. Francis talked to you in the last 2 weeks or so? I understand that [redacted] was anointed a little while back. Did anything seem strange about that to you or her?”
The parishioner responded:
“Hi Father, I returned from [redacted] early. Upon talking to [redacted], I confirmed that she was not anointed a little while back, and we concluded that there has been nothing strange at all in our interactions with father Escalante. We remain prayerful and protective of our parish priests. Please let us know if there is anything else we can do for you.”
Fr. Mullaney’s only reply was, “Ok. Great, thanks for checking! Thank you for the prayers for all!”
The Lepanto Institute asked the diocese a series of questions pertaining to Sophia 2’s affidavit. Billy Atwell responded by saying, “The Diocese will do all that we can to obtain direct testimony from the second witness.” Declining to comment on specific questions, Atwell added, “I can say, however, that to date, neither the accusation of ‘coaching’ nor the specific allegation of ‘touch[ing]’ referenced in the affidavit have ever been made to the Diocese by any witness.”
We reached out to Sophia 1 to ask about her interview with the diocesan investigator. When asked about the investigator’s questions pertaining to the alleged incident itself, Sophia 1 said:
“The investigator asked me where Father touched [Molly]. I told him that [Molly] stated to me that her mother told her to lift her shirt. Father Escalante said, ‘no no no you do not need to lift your shirt.’ Father Escalante had a Bible in one Hand and oil in the other. [Molly] told me Father Escalante put a finger of oil on the lower part of her left rib with just a tiny piece of flesh showing. He never touched any other part of her body.
The investigator didn’t ask any follow-up questions but what I would’ve told him was that [Molly] mentioned it was Father Mullaney who told her to say she was touched on her left chest. [Molly] was very uncomfortable stating that but was told that she needed to say that for the better good of St. Francis.”
Pressed further, Sophia 1 indicated that the interview felt more like a formality than an inquiry:
“I found the interview with Mrs. Curry from the Blue Ridge Leader to have had significantly more depth to it. I mean she asked me a lot more questions than the Dioceses of Arlington. I got the impression that they were just trying to really check the box that they met with me. I did not get the impression that they really cared. I think they have already made up their minds because they did not record my statement. It took months for them to even return my parents’ call.”
In the response from the diocese, Atwell expressed concern that articles such as ours might dissuade alleged victims or witnesses from coming forward. He said, “It is also our hope that attempts to discredit alleged victims and witnesses will not cause other victims or witnesses to be apprehensive about bringing forward key information.”
But Sophia 1 mentioned that an air of intimidation already exists. She said that prior to submitting her anonymous affidavit, Sophia 2’s parents attempted to speak with Msgr. Cregan, another priest at St. Francis de Sales.
“He wanted no part of listening to their story,” said Sophia 1. She added that Msgr. Cregan was “getting flaming mad and telling him he doesn’t believe anything except what the family has said.” Sophia 1 indicated that this made Sophia 2 “feel very uncomfortable,” and could have prevented her from coming forward at all.
The testimony from Sophia 2 brings crucial evidence to Fr. Escalante’s defense. Not only does it verify the testimony of Sophia 1, lending further credence to the possibility that Molly was not being truthful in her charge against Fr. Escalante, but it ties in the recruiting efforts ascribed to James Blankenship with the coaching of Fr. Mullaney.
On the question of motive, Sophia 2 repeated two things Molly told her which may provide some answers. In the affidavit Sophia 2 said that “[Molly] stated that her mother was doing this for Fr. Mullaney to become pastor,” and “[Molly] stated she was also uncomfortable with her mother’s relationship with Fr. Mullaney. She said her mother spends a lot of time with Fr. Mullaney at the rectory.”
The Lepanto Institute will continue to monitor the situation and provide news as it becomes available.