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Catholic Officials Strike Back at Charges of Child Abuse

By Carl M. Cannon
Mercury News Washington Bureau
San Jose Mercury News
December 31, 1987

[See a linked list of all the articles in the Priests Who Molest series.]

Confronted with complaints that priests have molested children, some Catholic dioceses have responded by attempting to discredit those who made the allegations.

Catholic officials and their attorneys have sought to seal court records, attacked newspapers and impugned the motives and even the sanity of those who have brought complaints against priests.

Church officials say that dioceses and archdioceses in the United States are autonomous when it comes to dealing with priests who molest children and that in dioceses where mistakes were made, it wasn't because of a lack of sensitivity, but a lack of education on how to handle the issue.

However, the policy of allowing each diocese to deal with the problem in its own way leaves dioceses free from national church oversight. And because they are operating in states with different legal systems, the church shifts its legal approaches in ways that seek to limit its liability, but these tactics leave victims wondering who actually is responsible for the parish priests.

2 cities, 2 arguments

The Cleveland diocese has argued in Ohio courts, for instance, that it is not liable for priests there because they are "self-employed . . . independent contractors."

But the Newark, N.J., archdiocese argued successfully that the diocese and priests working there were not liable in the case of a molested child because they were protected by New Jersey's "charitable immunity" law, which protects Catholic institutions from damage claims.

In the New Jersey lawsuit, Margaret and Richard S. complained that after they told the diocese that their two sons had been molested — one later committed suicide — "members of the Newark archdiocese advised the plaintiffs that they would be provided with financial assistance to help with their medical bills . . . provided that this matter was not made public."

Furthermore, the family's lawsuit asserted, when the father of the boy confronted the cleric in question, a Franciscan Brother of the Poor, the man "first denied what had occurred, and then claimed that he had been seduced by the (boy)."

Keeping details secret

Keeping details of the cases secret has been a consistent church priority, according to court records, families of victims, law enforcement officials and attorneys who have sued the church. And those who bring it out in the open risk retribution.

Raul Bencomo, a New Orleans attorney, said that after he sued a Louisiana diocese, his sister went to a wedding, and, after being told her last name, the priest — whom she didn't know — handed her a piece of paper with a biblical verse on it. It was a passage about traitors.

Lorraine Mandeville, an office aide and cafeteria worker for five years at All Souls School in Sanford, Fla., wrote to school administrators on March 30, 1984, with a vivid warning that Father William Authenrieth was telling dirty jokes and having improper physical contact with her son and other teen- age boys around the parish.

Mandeville received no direct response from anyone in the Orlando diocese. But four months later, she was told she would lose her part-time job in the school's cafeteria because the daily hot lunch program was being discontinued. But the school did not discontinue the hot lunch program. And Mandeville turned out to be right about Authenrieth, who later admitted molesting boys.

Reprisals

In the same diocese, Susan R., who told authorities that she observed her daughter Katherine being fondled by Father Eamon O'Dowd, was at Mass in 1983 only days after the priest was arrested. Their parish priest, Father Richard Steinkamp — in the presence of the 12-year-old girl — referred from the pulpit to the allegations as "a terrible accusation." He said that he knew O'Dowd well, could vouch for his character and was sure the priest would be "vindicated."

But last year, Steinkamp admitted in a deposition that six years before the 1983 incident, two sets of parents complained to him that O'Dowd had improperly touched the breasts of at least one young girl and touched the second in a way that alarmed her. Steinkamp said that he talked with O'Dowd about the allegations back in 1977 and that "he assured me it would not happen again."

'Sometimes I get the feeling that it is open season on the Catholic priesthood on sexual matters.'
Michael Salvagna, Pittsburgh priest

The girl's family sued O'Dowd and the diocese, which agreed to submit the lawsuit to binding arbitration provided by Christian Conciliation Service. But initially, the diocese balked at making the $250,000 payment awarded to the girl. Instead, diocesan attorney Robert J. Pleus Jr. offered to pay $150,000 in a written offer to the family's attorney that included a threat to sue both the lawyer and the girl's father if the offer wasn't accepted.

'Circle-the-wagons mentality'

Pleus, claiming in a recent interview that the mother of the 12-year-old had had an affair with the priest herself, said, "She was trying to blackmail the priest into leaving the priesthood and marrying her. She's a crazy woman, absolutely crazy."

But Jack Fennelly, the prosecutor assigned to the O'Dowd case and now a Martin County, Fla., judge, questions the conduct of the diocesan officials. "They were less than candid and frank with the family," he said. "It was a circle-the- wagons mentality. I'm Catholic, but I was appalled."

Dioceses react

When newspapers write about these cases, the affected dioceses sometimes act as if they are not the public's business.

In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette wrote about efforts by the western Pennsylvania dioceses to keep molestation cases secret by getting court records sealed.

Afterward, Father Robert J. Clarke, director of vocations for the Pittsburgh diocese, asked, "Is the Post-Gazette on a subtle campaign of Catholic-bashing?" Added Father Michael Salvagna, a priest at St. Paul's Monastery in Pittsburgh, "Sometimes I get the feeling that it is open season on the Catholic priesthood on sexual matters."

In Lafayette, La., the Times of Acadiana published an article by free-lance writer Jason Berry about how the diocese had known that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested boys 10 years before he was arrested in 1985.

Attack on newspaper

After an editorial called on the local bishop to resign, a monsignor in the diocese persuaded prominent local Catholic businessmen to withdraw their advertising. The boycott cost the newspaper $25,000 in advertising revenue, a significant amount of money for a weekly newspaper.

Sometimes, this attitude remains even after law enforcement authorities are involved.

In April 1986, Father Andrew Christian Andersen was arrested after an Orange County psychiatrist told police that a troubled 13-year-old altar boy at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church might be a victim. Other altar boys were questioned by Huntington Beach detectives, and Andersen, 34, was charged with — and later convicted of — fondling three boys, aged 12 to 14.

Many parishioners expressed disbelief that "Father Chris" would do such things. A former parishioner the police will identify only as "Mrs. Y" was not among them.

Three years before, she had told pastor Monsignor Michael Duffy that Andersen had fondled her son. Duffy told her to write down what happened and he would report it to the diocesan headquarters.

Huntington Beach police Sgt. Gary Brooks checked the child abuse registry to see whether such an allegation had been reported — it hadn't been — and then went to see Duffy.

'Seal up what happened'

''Monsignor Duffy was very evasive," Brooks said. "He obviously didn't want us investigating it."

Brooks said he discovered that Duffy had given the woman's letter to Monsignor Michael Driscoll at diocesan headquarters. Driscoll confirmed this and told Brooks that Andersen had been sent to a psychiatrist, but not removed from supervising boys. Driscoll told the officer that he'd destroyed the letter, and Duffy told him the family wanted the letter destroyed and didn't want to press charges.

Mrs. Y told Brooks that such a statement was false. Duffy would not return repeated phone calls.

In East Los Angeles, a suit filed by Yolanda and Manuel H. alleges that they were driven out of their parish by both their fellow Catholics and church employees after they sued the Los Angeles archdiocese for not heeding their earlier complaints against Father John Anthony Salazar, who subsequently pleaded guilty to molesting boys.

Attorneys with the Los Angeles archdiocese refused to discuss this case — a normal practice for many civil lawyers. But because diocesan lawyers insist on sealing these cases when they settle them, the mistakes made by the dioceses — even when privately they've paid out millions of dollars — are never publicly acknowledged.

''What the church has effectively done in these cases is seal up what happened," said Ken Kilbert, a Pittsburgh attorney who argued unsuccessfully that the depositions in a Pittsburgh-area case ought to be public records. "This wasn't an isolated case. It's happened all over. You never do find out anything about these cases. It's an effort to keep them shrouded in secrecy."

 
 

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