Evidence obtained by the Lepanto Institute sheds new light on an ongoing investigation led by the Diocese of Arlington into one of its priests. A statement and cover letter sent to the diocese in early April indicate that the diocese may have ignored vital evidence regarding an alleged victim accusing the priest of improper conduct.
In November of 2018, Fr. Ronald Escalante, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Purcellville, Virginia, was removed from his parish without explanation. A couple of weeks later, the Diocese of Arlington published a press release indicating that the priest had been removed due to “alleged boundary violations involving a minor and adults.” While he has not been charged with a crime or accused of sexual improprieties, he remains away from his parish.
Last month, the Lepanto Institute published an article and video of interviews conducted with parishioners who made multiple attempts to give important information to the diocese concerning the Director of Religious Education, James Blankenship. Parishioners allege that Blankenship attempted to gather a collection of scurrilous accusations against Fr. Escalante after he was confronted by the pastor over unauthorized and improper use of parish resources for a personal project. Despite multiple attempts by the parishioners to provide this information to diocesan investigators, parishioners say their attempts have either been ignored or rebuffed.
The new information provided to the Lepanto Institute comes from a friend of the alleged victim. This friend claims that in January, she and a group of others discovered the alleged victim crying in the girl’s locker room. After swearing them all to secrecy (meaning there is more than one witness to this incident), the alleged victim gave details pertaining to the case that could only be known by those who were present at the situation at the center of the allegation. She told her friends that after meeting with the associate pastor, her mother told her that “for the better good of the parish,” she needed to accuse the pastor of improper conduct, but that she didn’t want to do that since nothing improper had occurred. According to the statement, having been forced by her mother to make this false allegation was causing her an “immense stress” because she feared her mother and she was afraid of what would happen to her family if this information got out.
The cover letter that accompanied the statement, written by the parents of the alleged victim’s friend, and the statement itself were mailed to the diocese on April 8. The cover letter indicates that they attempted to contact the diocese for an entire week before sending the letter. The cover letter indicates they spoke with Angela Pellerano, the diocesan communications director, on April 2, asking for a meeting with the bishop. Pellerano told them that they needed to contact Fr. Scalia, whom they called and left messages for on April 3rd and 4th. On April 5th, they spoke with Fr. Ferguson’s secretary, who suggested they send Bp. Burbidge a letter directly.
While neither the cover letter nor the statement indicate who authored them, the cover letter states that Ms. Valerie Cury of the Blue Ridge Leader would be acting as their point of contact. The Lepanto Institute has been told that subsequent attempts by this family were made to obtain a meeting with Bp. Burbidge, and all attempts were roundly ignored.
On April 17, nine days after the statement and cover letter were sent to the diocese, Ms. Cury published a story in the Blue Ridge Leader providing information from anonymous sources that casts serious doubt on the accusation against Fr. Escalante. The article also cited the friend of the alleged victim with similar details to those provided in the statement. Despite reaching out to the diocese for comment, and being told that a comment would be forthcoming, the Blue Ridge Leader did not receive any comment at press time.
However, On April 23, six days after the article was published, the Blue Ridge Leader received a response from the Diocese attacking the integrity of the publication for its use of anonymous sources. And while the tip from the alleged victim’s friend was mailed over two weeks prior to the diocese’s response to the BRL article, asking that a meeting with Bp. Burbidge be arranged through Valerie Cury, no attempt to arrange such a meeting was made.
On May 4, Bp. Burbidge published a letter he wrote to the parishioners of St. Francis de Sales parish. In the letter, Bp. Burbidge reiterated the attack on the Blue Ridge Leader and claimed that there has been no report to the diocese from individuals with first-hand knowledge that the alleged victim has filed a false claim. He wrote:
“The peace and unity within your parish has further been disrupted by an article in the Blue Ridge Leader, which cited only anonymous sources and questioned the integrity of a family that came forward with allegations. It was grossly unjust to that family and we conveyed our serious concerns to the author. Claims that this family falsified their allegations have never been reported to the Diocese by anyone with firsthand knowledge.”
As can be seen above, the family of the girl with first-hand information regarding the false accusation of the alleged victim had attempted to contact the diocese no fewer than five times over a month prior to Bp. Burbidge’s letter. His letter also indicates that there have been other allegations. Bp. Burbidge said in his letter that “The revelation of other allegations of misconduct by Father Escalante has extended the process, and I continue my obligation to respect due process and confidentiality.” The Lepanto Institute was told by Reggie Escalante, Fr. Escalante’s brother, that the bishop’s letter was the first time either he or his legal team had heard that there were any other allegations.
“Bishop Burbidge’s public letter indicating other accusations came as a complete shock,” said Reggie Escalante. “My brother, Father Ronald Escalante, was blindsided by these new allegations, as neither he nor his lawyer had received any information on them prior to the letter’s publication. It wasn’t until several weeks later that Father Escalante and his lawyer finally obtained details of these new accusations.”
The Lepanto Institute contacted the diocese with questions about the key witness’s statement, Bp. Burbidge’s claim to having never received such information, and whether or not Fr. Escalante was informed of the new allegations prior Bp. Burbidge’s May 4 letter.
Diocesan Chief Communications Officer, Billy Atwell, provided the Lepanto Institute with the following statement (our emphasis added):
“Some parishioners from St. Francis de Sales Parish have reached out to Diocesan officials since Father Escalante was placed on administrative leave, either to provide information or to express opinions. We have endeavored to speak to anyone with direct knowledge of relevant information. However, some who have contacted the Diocese have merely repeated various allegations and rumors, and have offered no new information of value. When able, the Diocese has corrected errors, but the Diocese is limited in its ability to share information with individuals who are not representing Father Escalante in a formal capacity and are not bound by confidentiality, which obviously is needed in such an investigation. In fairness to all involved, confidential details may not be revealed to anyone other than to Father’s canonical advocate.
“The fact that other adults had reported allegations of misconduct by Father Escalante was communicated to Father Escalante’s canonical advocate prior to it being made public. It became necessary to publish this information in light of the ongoing misinformation that there was only one, supposedly manufactured, allegation.
“The Diocese is still conducting its investigation. Prior to your communication to us on Friday, May 31, it does not appear that we had received a copy of the April 8 letter. The Diocese was aware of rumors that the young woman who originally reported inappropriate conduct by Father Escalante was not being truthful, but had not been contacted by anyone with first-hand knowledge. Just as we encourage anyone with a report of abuse against Father Escalante to come forward, we also welcome anyone with direct knowledge or evidence supporting Father’s innocence to come forward.
“The Diocese will not comment on the substance of claims while the investigation is still ongoing. Father Escalante and his canonical representative are part of that process, which provides Father an opportunity to respond to all allegations. At this point in the investigation, information is being collected and assessed by a third-party investigator and appropriate experts. Once all available evidence is assembled, Bishop Burbidge will review the case in its totality and make a decision regarding next steps.
“Several individuals have suggested that the former director of religious education attempted to defame Father Escalante after Father allegedly discovered copier misuse or similar offenses on the part of that former employee. The Diocese examines every allegation of employee misconduct that is brought to its attention and is looking into this matter as well.”
The diocesan response clearly contradicts the current evidence.
- The Diocese claims to have “endeavored to speak to anyone with direct knowledge of relevant information.” However, parishioners who were contacted by the Director of Religious Education said they contacted the diocese on multiple occasions to testify that they were being asked to make false allegations, and their calls were either not returned or their attempts were rebuffed.
- The diocese claims that the additional allegations made against Fr. Escalante “was communicated to Father Escalante’s canonical advocate prior to it being made public.” However, Fr. Escalante’s brother emphatically states that neither Fr. Escalante nor his attorney were given any information on the new allegations until weeks after Bp. Burbidge’s letter was published.
- The Diocese claims that it did not receive the April 8 letter prior to the Lepanto Institute’s communication from May 30 (not 31). However, the Diocese fails to address the fact that the cover letter indicates that phone calls regarding this information were made April 2-5, and contact was made with Angela Pellerano, former Communications Director for the diocese and Fr. Ferguson’s secretary while messages were left for Fr. Scalia, and none of these calls were returned.
The Lepanto Institute will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as new information comes in. In the meantime, please pray for all involved, invoking Our Lady of Victory for a right and just judgment.