Bishop Accountability

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By Lois Romano
Washington Post
May 21, 2002

Duncan, Okla. - Just after Easter in 1994, Archbishop Eusebius Beltran of Oklahoma City received a disturbing letter from a church official in Michigan. The Rev. James Rapp, pastor of a Catholic church in this rural town, was about to be sued for allegedly molesting a teenage boy in Michigan a decade earlier -- an incident, the church official wrote, that had led Rapp's superiors to send him to a well-known treatment center for sexual disorders in 1986.

Soon afterward Beltran fired off his own letter to the head of Rapp's religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He said his archdiocese had never been informed of the priest's troubled sexual history with children before hiring him in 1991. And Beltran listed a series of conditions for Rapp to remain in Oklahoma, one of which was that he be reevaluated and the evaluation given to Beltran.

The Rev. James Cryan, the Oblates provincial in Toledo, did not act on the demands. But there is no evidence that Beltran followed up on them either. A month later Beltran received a copy of a prior medical evaluation of Rapp stating that it is "very important" that Rapp not be around children without supervision, but the archbishop left the priest in his job. For the next five years, Rapp remained pastor of the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Duncan, a town of 22,000 an hour south of Oklahoma City. During that time, he repeatedly molested one troubled teenage boy, Dennis Ballard, and allegedly abused two others.

In 1999, Rapp pleaded no contest in an Oklahoma court to two counts of lewd molestation and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In a secret settlement last December, the archdiocese and the Oblates agreed to pay Ballard more than $ 5 million -- believed to be the second-largest known settlement for a single victim of a priest. Another suit, brought by one of the other victims, is pending. The third alleged victim reached a financial settlement with the church several years ago.

Like the Archdiocese of Boston's handling of priests John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, the Rapp case is a stark example of church officials failing to act when they had clear evidence of past sexual abuse by a priest. But unlike the highly publicized Boston cases, Rapp's crimes occurred in an isolated community that had trouble attracting a priest, his case received little publicity, and his victims have not been previously identified.

The Washington Post has reviewed sealed records from the lawsuits, including internal correspondence of church officials on Rapp, the priest's confidential medical and personnel records and depositions from senior church officials. Documents describe Rapp's sexual problems as dating to 1959, before he was ordained. By 1969, when he was teaching at a high school in Salt Lake City, students began to complain about inappropriate behavior. He never denied the numerous allegations against him, according to those papers seen by The Post.

But because he belonged to a religious order, it was not always clear who was Rapp's ultimate superior. Rapp had, in essence, two bosses: Cryan, the head of the Oblates who was responsible for his personal behavior, and Beltran, who as archbishop was responsible for Rapp's ministry.

Just one day after Rapp was arrested, Beltran, in a memo to himself, called Cryan "the most inept major superior I have ever dealt with" because Cryan did not immediately replace Rapp in Duncan. "I told him it was his responsibility. . . . The situation is caused by one of his priests and he is responsible for it."

Cryan asserted in a deposition that he believed his primary obligation was to provide medical documents for Beltran. Any decision about what to do about them, he has said, was Beltran's.

"The arrogance of it all is very remarkable," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has treated abusive priests and victims, and who is an expert witness in the pending case. "This priest had a long factual history of abuse -- so much that was traceable and easily identified. The thing that really strikes you is the archbishop's reluctance to take responsibility for this man's actions."

The Rev. Edward J. Weisenburger, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City archdiocese, declined to discuss the Rapp case yesterday, citing the court's protective order in the civil cases. He said Beltran was unavailable for comment.

Cryan said in an interview last night that the Oblates should have been more aware of Rapp's history. "I acknowledge it was handled very poorly," said the provincial from his headquarters in Toledo. Cryan, who became provincial in 1991, said he only learned of Rapp's background in 1994, and at that point, he believed Beltran "was handling it locally."

John Stuart, James Frieda and Garvin Isaacs, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the civil suits, declined to comment, also citing the protective order. Rapp's lawyer, John Dexter Marble, also declined comment.

Oblate officials expressed their first concerns about Rapp in 1959, when they sent the young seminarian for a psychological evaluation. Rapp "has some fairly strong homosexual impulses, which are linked to articles of clothing," a psychologist, Joseph S. Jastak, wrote.

"He becomes sexually aroused at the sight of someone wearing loafers and also strong feelings of hostility and anxiety along with it. He feels like 'picking up a chair and breaking it.'. . . He may benefit from frequent informal conferences with the superior of the novitiate for purpose of . . . obviating homosexual panic reactions."

The oldest of five children, Rapp, now 62, grew up poor near Buffalo. In one medical report, Rapp described his father as a remote figure who worked three jobs to support the family. He remembered both parents drinking heavily. He said he was an A-student and valedictorian of his high school class.

Rapp was finally ordained in 1967 after chronic back problems delayed his studies, according to records. Two years later, students at Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City alleged that Rapp rubbed his feet on their legs.

The report to the Oblates from the religion teacher who investigated the allegation complained that two other priests he had asked to meet with Rapp to help manage the situation declined to do so. "Both found the situation repulsive," stated the writer, whose name is not evident.

The writer concludes: "I feel in conscience I have done all I can do -- I will not bring it up again nor will I interfere even if something happens at school this coming year."

Within a few years, Rapp left the school and in 1973, he took a five-year leave of absence from the order. According to the medical report, Rapp remained in Salt Lake City, worked odd jobs, and by his own admission, drank heavily.

In 1978, Rapp was granted a reinstatement to the Oblates. By the early 1980s, he was stationed at Lumen Christi High School in Jackson, Mich., as the head of building maintenance and a wrestling coach. His troubles began anew.

In 1984, a male student assigned to Rapp for after-school detention reported to a school official that Rapp had allegedly taken off the boy's shoes and rubbed the boy's unshod foot against Rapp's groin area. The incident resulted in the 1994 suit against Rapp.

In 1986, records show, Rapp was dispatched for a month-long evaluation to St. Luke Institute in Maryland, a church-sponsored treatment program that has long dealt with priests who abuse children. He was then sent to the House of Affirmation, a now-defunct treatment center in California for Catholic priests and nuns suffering from emotional problems. No records from his eight-month stay there are available.

But the evaluation from St. Luke was specific:

"The diagnosis of fixated ephebophilia -- that is a sexual attraction to adolescent boys -- can be made without equivocation. It is clear from Father Rapp's history that his ephebophiliac behavior extends over many years and with a number of contacts. It is very important that Father Rapp not be in the presence of youth without another responsible adult there."

Rapp left the House of Affirmation when it closed. He went on to a post in Naperville, Ill., in the Diocese of Joliet, where he received good reviews; no known accusations have emerged from there.

In 1990, then-Oklahoma City Archbishop Charles Salatka contacted the Oblates, the documents indicate, to request a pastor for Assumption Church in Duncan. According to a deposition from the Rev. Alfred Russell, the former Oblates provincial, Russell said he at first told Salatka that no one had responded to his posting.

But then, during an overnight visit with Salatka in Oklahoma City, Russell broached the subject of Rapp. "There is one -- and I did not use father's name at that time -- who had been through the House of Affirmation. He was sent there for a program dealing with some sexual difficulties," Russell said he told Salatka.

Russell said under oath that he told Salatka that those difficulties were with "young people." But he said he also conveyed to Salatka that Rapp had a "positive response" to the treatment program. Russell said that the next morning Salatka expressed an interest in checking out Rapp.

In handwritten notes, which sources say are Salatka's, the archbishop wrote: "No public accusation" and mentioned both St. Luke and the House of Affirmation.

Legal experts say the notes suggest that the Oklahoma archdiocese was informed of Rapp's history. But there is no evidence that Salatka ever requested Rapp's medical records before hiring him in 1990.

Salatka was deposed for the civil suits but his deposition remains under court-ordered seal. He did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.

Rapp arrived in Duncan in January 1991. By all accounts, he was a charismatic preacher and a hard worker who also served as the town police's chaplain. But within a couple of years, former church officials and employees -- none of whom would speak for attribution -- said there were concerns about how much money Rapp was spending, how secretive he was and how he never seemed to be around. A few years after arriving, he moved out of the rectory and into a small house nearby that the parish owned.

"He was very moody, very secretive," said one former church employee.

Dennis Ballard's parents, however, thought Rapp could help their adopted son, who had been having problems, and asked Rapp to counsel him. Court records indicate that Rapp started abusing Ballard when he was 10 and continued for five years.

Ballard eventually introduced the priest to a high school friend, who has also alleged that Rapp molested him. The young man has also has sued the church; his case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing in July.

In 1994, Rapp's past in Michigan caught up with him. A victim, then 25, had come forward with accusations against him. And there were rumors, soon proved true, that another victim would be forthcoming. Both sued.

That April, Beltran, who had succeeded Salatka as archbishop, was notified by both Cryan and Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing about the Michigan trouble.

"We fear that more victims are going to emerge," Povish warned Beltran. "In light of these developments, I am obliged to alert you to potential dangers of Father Rapp continuing in the ministry in the archdiocese."

On May 4, 1994, Beltran wrote Cryan that Rapp must receive a new therapeutic evaluation and not be allowed to participate in youth ministry activities unsupervised. In addition, the Duncan church's associate pastor, the Rev. Marc Clifford, must be "immediately apprised" of the situation.

But Beltran said, he did not immediately "wish to suspend Father Rapp from his ministry."

In a recent interview, Clifford said he was never told by anyone that Rapp had a sexual problem. "I had no idea he had any kind of problem of that nature," he said.

Asked last night why he did not take any action on Rapp in 1994, Cryan acknowledged that "the issue of responsibility and the lack of clarity on the accountability has caused great confusion . . . once we revealed the situation to the archdiocese, we thought we had done our job."

In his deposition, Cryan maintained that it was his responsibility as Oblates provincial to provide Beltran with all relevant medical reports on Rapp. He strongly suggested that the burden was on Beltran to follow up because he was Rapp's direct supervisor.

Experts tend to agree. "In my view," said Sipe, a former priest, "liability rests with the archdiocese because they have given him the faculties" to be a priest in Oklahoma.

One canon lawyer, who asked that his name not be used, said that the superior of a religious order is responsible for seeing that the personal lives of his priests conform to the obligations of their vows. "But a bishop or an archbishop," he said, "has not only a right but an obligation to act if he is aware that the priest's actions are harmful to the faithful of his diocese."

Cryan agreed under questioning that it was "imprudent" for Beltran not to remove Rapp from the parish in 1994. Asked if the archbishop followed up on what was included in this letter, he said: "I'm not aware of it."

Did Beltran ever tell Cryan that he had directed Rapp not to be in the presence of adolescents unsupervised?

"No," said Cryan.

Was he certain that Beltran understood that Rapp had a history of molesting children?

"Oh yes, yes," said Cryan. "I told him first on the phone."

By the fall of 1998, a number of parishioners and church employees were increasingly troubled by Rapp's mysterious behavior. Still, no one suspected child abuse. Finally, someone complained to the archdiocese. The archdiocese referred the person to the Oblates, said sources. No known action was taken, according to four Assumption parishioners.

Rapp was arrested on May 11, 1999, after Dennis Ballard's parents learned from their son's psychiatrist that he had been repeatedly molested. His parents informed Beltran, and the archdiocese reported the accusation to the police.

Publicly, the archdiocese said it was committed to finding the "full truth." Privately, parish officials who did not wish their names used said they were encouraged to support Rapp.

Several months later, in August 1999, the mother of another Duncan teenager named John Hines found her son sitting on a couch, sobbing, with a shotgun to his head. She wrestled the shotgun away from him. The boy told his parents that around Easter of 1999, a month before Rapp was arrested, Rapp had molested him. He was 16.

Hines said in an interview that he was an active member of the church's youth ministry at the time and that he admired Rapp, and was spending a lot of time with him "just talking and drinking coffee." After a number of suggestive comments over time, said Hines, "one day he was just on me [performing oral sex] before I could stop him."

Hines' parents had him hospitalized to be evaluated for depression. Once an A-student, Hines said he dropped out of high school and turned to drugs. Hines and his lawyer, Danny Shadid, confirmed that Hines has also received a confidential settlement from the archdiocese.

"I just want people to know how arrogant and uncaring this archdiocese can be," said Hines, who plans on entering college in the fall. "That they can send a priest with a history of sexual misconduct to a church and put him around youth and not care what could happen."

Indeed, the events of the past three years have torn apart Duncan's Catholic community. Several people said they were stunned when Rapp pleaded no contest. Until the end, they said, the archdiocese did not level with them.

Lines were drawn quickly between those who chose not to question the church and those who continually demanded answers. Parish employees were fired and accusations flew. One woman became an Episcopalian, and another has vowed to lie down on the church's steps next month if Beltran comes for a centennial celebration of the parish.

Staff writer Alan Cooperman and staff researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.


Bishop Accountability © 2003