Friday, January 06, 2006

Mark Rowlands: One Slick Seminarian

Fr. Jeff Coning

Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Columbus

I have been following the tragic death of two seminarians at Saint Mary of the Lake (Mundelein) seminary, following a late night of drinking and pizza and arriving back at the seminary well after Midnight. No curfew (or no seminary officials enforcing of a curfew) at Mundelein? No one at Mundelein knew that one of the seminarians involved in the accident (his car in fact) was once charged with several felonies? No one at Mundelein knew that a seminarian (Mark Rowlands) was in possession of a handgun and ammunition on seminary property? Several other questions came to mind, so I decided to discuss this issue with several priests of the Diocese of Columbus. I discovered some answers that are enlightening and equally tragic.

QUESTION: Why did the Diocese of Columbus allow Mark Rowlands (seminarian) into their priestly vocations program knowing that he was accused (though plea bargained down to a misdemeanor) of several felonies?
ANSWER: Fr. Matthew Hoover, former vocations director of the Columbus diocese, attended Fisher Catholic High School with Mark Rowlands in Lancaster, Ohio (a town near Columbus, and within the Diocese of Columbus). I was informed that Fr. Hoover was well aware of Mark Rowlands' criminal actions as a Fairfiled County deputy sheriff (chief of staff) to the former sheriff who was found guilty of several felony counts. Knowing this, did his friendship with his high school buddy cloud his judgement about whether or not to admit Mark Rowlands as a seminarian? Apparently so!

QUESTION: Why didn't the new (current) vocation director correct the situation, knowing that Fr. Hoover made a mistake in admitting Mark Rowlands as a seminarian?
ANSWER: The current vocation director, Fr. Jeffrey Coning, became acquainted with Mark Rowlands when Fr. Coning was assigned as the associate pastor of St. Mary's parish church in Lancaster, Ohio. Fr. Coning was known for spending his days off at Mark Rowlands' home near Lancaster. But this is the amazing part: after Fr. Coning became vocations director he and Mark Rowlands went on several vacations together. Thus, Fr. Coning's judgement was also clouded by his friendship with Mark Rowlands as he never established proper boundaries between himself as vocations director and Mark Rowlands as seminarian.

QUESTION: What about the use of these sheriff badges? Was this the first time that Mark Rowlands used the badges inappropriately?
ANSWER: Mark Rowlands used these badges on at least two known occasions. On one occasion, he was out one evening with a close seminarian friend (who is now and ordained priest of the Diocese of Columbus) in Westerville, Ohio (a suburb of Columbus) when the seminarian was caught speeding and was pulled over by a Westerville Police officer. The seminarian, now priest (Fr. Joshua Wagner, associate pastor of St. Brigid of Kildare parish in Dublin, Ohio, also a suburb of Columbus) tells the story that when he was pulled over, Mark Rowlands jumped out of the car and said "I'll take care of this." Minutes later, Mark Rowlands came back to the car saying "It's taken care of...let's go." Fr. Wagner asked: "How?...What did you say?" Mark Rowlands said: "I showed him my badge (expired sheriff's badge) and asked for a professional courtesy." With that the two drove off.

QUESTION: Didn't Fr. Wagner feel obliged to inform proper authorities in the Diocese of Columbus or Mundelein Police about this incident?
ANSWER: No. Fr. Wagner shared this information with Fr. Coning, as they are very close friends. Fr. Coning told Fr. Wagner to keep his mouth shut, and Fr. Wagner has done so. This is just another sad but true case about lies and cover-ups among men who call themselves priests.

QUESTION: What about the second incident involving Mark Rowlands' illegal use of an expired deputy sheriff badge?
ANSWER: This occurred when Mark Rowlands and Fr. Jeff Coning were on vacation together. Fr. Coning left his cell phone in a cab. Realizing he lost his phone, Fr. Coning and Mark Rowlands caught up with the cab and asked for the cell phone. The cab driver allegedly said it would cost them. Enraged, Mark Rowlands pulled out his expired deputy sheriff badge and, threatening the cab driver, said: "If you don't hand over the phone I'll have your taxicab license revoked and have your butt deported and on the next plane back to wherever you're from!" The scared drive handed over the phone and drove off. This story comes from the mouth of Fr. Coning himself. That is two incidents that he knows of (one where he was a witness) where Mark Rowlands illegally used an expired deputy sheriff's badge. One would think that a vocations director would see Mark Rowlands' behavior as unbefitting a seminarian. But apparently that is not the case! In fact one could argue that Fr. Coning and Fr. Wagner are partly responsible for Mark Rowlands' illegal behavior by not doing anything about it!

Mark Rowlands is scheduled to go on trial in Lake County, Illinois in late January. He has plead "not guilty" to possession of a handgun and ammuniation found in the glovebox of his car (these items just appeared out of thin air?), impersonating a police officer, and aggravated impersonation of a police officer. With his history, pleading "not guilty" appears to be nothing more that a continuation of his being one slick seminarian.

May the light of truth shine brightly on this tragic incident, and on a pattern of behavior that is not fitting of a seminarian...a person who desires to become a Catholic priest!