The sly tone of his voice, combined with his unexpected and uninvited persistence in discussing Adam attending St. Vincent College, made me suddenly aware that Nowicki never intended to discuss the copycat crime or anything else regarding the problems at Serra Catholic. You see, I heard that a student was planning to copy cat the shooting of my son. So, I went up to ladder in church authority and called Nowicki, to talk about those issues, and never mentioned Adam's future. I wanted to prevent another shooting.
Well, Nowicki came to my office. But, he never spoke about anything surrounding the planned copycat shooting or anything surrounding my son's attempted murder. So, my perception was that he was essentially offering me a bribe — to send my son to St. Vincent College, if I would stop raising a fuss about issues raised by his shooting.
Below is a letter that I did send to the Vatican. It was ignored.
Letter to Tobin: In re: Nowicki’s Perceived Bribe
September 29, 2011
His Excellency, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin C.Ss.R
Congregatio pro Institutis Vitae Consecratae et Societatibus Vitae Apostolicae
Palazzo della Congregazioni, 00193 Roma, Piazza Pio XII, 3
Vatican City State
My name is Mike Ference, and I am writing to make you aware of what I perceived as a bribe from Douglas Nowicki who is currently Archabbot of Saint Vincent Archabbey and Chancellor of Saint Vincent College & Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The perceived bribe took place in February of 1990, during a meeting in a sales office of the Deaktor/SYSCO Foodservice Company, where I worked at the time.
On December 5, 1989, my son Adam, then 16 years old, had been the victim of an attempted murder while on his way to Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. As his school bus entered school property, the shooter, a sophomore at Serra Catholic, fired a .2 caliber gun at point blank range into the back of my son’s head. He then shot and killed himself. My son, mercifully, survived.
An attempted murder/suicide would normally be handled by Allegheny County detectives. Instead, the McKeesport Police Department, despite lacking the resources to investigate such a case on their own, took the lead. I believe this decision was motivated by the desire of multiple stakeholders to cover up certain details of the case.
For example, the shooter had a strong interest in Satanism and the occult. This was confirmed by State Trooper Bob Griffin (since retired), an expert in this area who was brought in during the investigation. Another investigator, Clairton Public Safety Director Bill Scully, told me that the shooter may have been sexually abused by local Catholic priest John Wellinger — who later left the ministry and was named in a sexual abuse lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Barely a month after my son was shot, Scully came to my home and bluntly told my wife and me that the case was being deliberately quashed. He provided me with case notes (which I still have and can give you upon request) which strongly suggested that, if I wanted to get to the bottom of the attempted murder of my son, I would have to do it on my own.
Meeting with Douglas Nowicki
In February of 1990, I was contacted by Kathy Ulmer, a long-time friend whose son also attended Serra Catholic High School. She told me that was another student at Serra Catholic who had planned a copycat shooting, similar to what had happened to my son. I immediately called Scully (who also had children at Serra Catholic), to see if he were aware of the problem. He was — and advised me to contact Serra Catholic directly to express my concerns.
I contacted a “Brother Chuck” — who I believe was Dean of Students and/or a guidance counselor at Serra Catholic at the time. After I shared what I had heard about a potential copycat crime, Brother Chuck explained that it was a student suffering from depression, that he had been taken out of Serra, and that I shouldn’t be concerned about the matter.
I asked if the police had been notified and Brother Chuck answered no. Given the double tragedy that had occurred just two months earlier, I found his cavalier attitude inappropriate to say the least. So, I decided to contact a higher authority.
I called Douglas Nowicki, the secretary of parochial schools at the time. Once again, I expressed my concerns about a potential copycat crime, and also noted Brother Chuck’s apparent dismissal of the seriousness of this issue. Nowicki offered to meet with me to discuss my concerns.
We met the next day at 10:00 a.m., in a sales room at Deaktor/SYSCO Foodservice Company in Harmony, Pennsylvania, where I was employed as a national accounts sales representative. Oddly, Nowicki started our conversation by advising me that he would be assuming a new position as the Archabbott at St. Vincent College. Next, he mentioned my uncle, Joseph Ference, who became Brother Martin Ference, and was a monk at St. Vincent until his death in the late 1970s.
Without ever broaching the subject of the copycat crime which inspired my calling him in the first place, Nowicki then asked about my son and suggested that he consider attending St. Vincent College after high school. A little taken aback, I explained that we were still dealing with the trauma of the shooting and weren’t really thinking about college just yet. I also said that I wasn’t sure Adam would meet St. Vincent’s high academic standards.
Instead of letting it go and turning to the issue of the copycat crime and the safety of Serra Catholic students, Nowicki seemed intent on convincing me that Adam could, and should, go to St. Vincent College. He told me that tutors could be available to help Adam get through his courses. I replied that instead of being dependent on tutors, it might be better for my son to spend his first year or two at Allegheny County Community College, where it would be easier to take any remedial classes and get his feet under him.
This back-and-forth continued for several minutes, with Nowicki reeling off reasons why Adam should attend St. Vincent College, while providing quick “solutions” to every obstacle I brought up. Finally, I admitted that I simply could not afford to send my son to St. Vincent College and that I was against him taking on excessive student loans. As if he had been waiting for that moment, Nowicki immediately said, “there are ways around that.”
The sly tone of voice combined with his unexpected and uninvited persistence in discussing Adam’s attending St. Vincent College made me suddenly aware that Nowicki never intended to discuss the copycat crime or anything else regarding the problems at Serra Catholic. My perception was that he was essentially offering me a bribe — to send my son to St. Vincent College if I would stop raising a fuss about issues raised by his shooting.
In retrospect, it also seems likely that Nowicki was testing the waters to see if we were considering a lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Diocese — and to determine what it might take to keep the case out of the courts.
Outraged by the perceived bribe, I told Nowicki to get out. He stood and backed out the door, his eyes locked on mine as if to stare me down.
Nowicki’s actions may or may not meet the criteria to prove attempted bribery in U.S. courts — I did not pursue that option. However, they were certainly inappropriate and suspicious at best. Again, he completely ignored the stated purpose of our meeting — i.e., to discuss issues surrounding the shooting of my son and the possibility of a copycat crime. He quickly steered the conversation to what could be done to get my son into St. Vincent College. That may have been fine, if it had been a straightforward expression of wanting to help a student traumatized by an attempted murder. But Nowicki chose his words carefully, intently gauging my response to subtly implied offers that went beyond good ethics. There shouldn’t be “ways around” a college’s academic requirements or costs for any student, should there?
After my initial anger subsided, I was struck by how carefully designed and controlled the whole meeting had been. I had the strong impression that Nowicki had conducted similar conversations many times before. That, along with other factors, inspired me to begin a deeper investigation into clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups that continues to this day.
In the case of the attempted murder of my son and suicide of his shooter, I firmly believe that Nowicki’s “offer” to me was part of a broader (and, unfortunately, successful) effort to suppress further investigation of this terrible tragedy. Your Excellency, at your request, I would be willing to share more detailed information about Nowicki. My understanding is that you are genuinely dedicated to investigating and resolving the corruption within Religious Congregations that has done so much damage to the Roman Catholic Church.
I will conclude by emphasizing that my desire to find and tell the truth in cases like my son’s is tied directly to having grown up with the core teachings of the Catholic Church. Sadly, 22 years of deceit and bullying from the hierarchy of the Pittsburgh Diocese has eroded my desire to participate in traditional Catholic services — but the core teachings of Christianity remain central to everything I do.
I will also add that I have no ax to grind with St. Vincent College & Seminary. I have many fond memories of St. Vincent, dating back to early childhood. As mentioned, my Uncle Joe, also known as Brother Martin, spent 30-some years at St. Vincent, much of it in the boiler house. He had a small room where we would sit and talk, and I have wonderful memories of wandering the grounds. I also remember the terrible fire in the 50s that damaged much of the college. It was in the dead of winter, water lines were frozen, and the fire departments had a hard time dousing the blaze. This happened while I was a student at St. Joseph’s in Clairton, and I remember the nun mentioning my uncle to our class and saying fervent prayers for the safety of those involved. I also recall meeting Father Jack O’Malley when he was just a seminarian playing basketball at St. Vincent’s gym. He went on to become quite an advocate for the poor and less fortunate.
I could go on and on with positive memories of St. Vincent — so again, I have no ax to grind there. However, I believe further investigation of Douglas Nowicki is urgently needed and will likely justify corrective and/or punitive action. I am willing to swear under oath the contents of this letter before the Chancellor of the Diocese of which I am canonically domiciled; and or under oath under the pains and penalties of perjury before a civil notary.
In light of the aforementioned, I formally denounce Arch abbot Douglas Nowicki to this discastery, with the expressed petition that I have outlined above be investigated and dealt with according to the dictates of Canon Law, and I request a written acknowledgement of receipt of this within 15 days.
Very truly yours,
Michael J. Ference
Clairton, PA 15025