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Breach of Faith
Catholic Leaders Struggle with Reports of Pedophiles in the Priesthood

By Rebecca Jones
Rock Mountain News
April 13, 1993

Slowly and painfully, the Roman Catholic Church is coming to grips with a festering scandal that re-fuses to die down: pedophiles in the priesthood.

A 60 Minutes report on CBS last month accused the archbishop of New Mexico, Robert Sanchez, of shielding priests who sexually abuse children, refusing to take action against them to protect the image of the church. Sanchez resigned two days before the segment aired.

Just last week, yet another report surfaced from New Mexico that church officials and state police are looking into allegations that a recently retired priest in 1962 sexually abused a teen-ager who later committed suicide.

The accused priest, the Rev. Barney Bissonnette, who most recently served a church in Truth or Consequences, N.M., had undergone treatment at the Servants of the Paraclete, a center near Albuquerque where troubled priests are often
sent.

Critics charge that priests leave the center - uncured - only to settle in New Mexican parishes and continue abusing children. It's a charge church officials stoutly deny.

But the allegations of pedophilia are by no means limited to New Mexico. Church officials around the country are confronting the problem. For example:

• In Chicago, officials recently removed 24 priests from their parishes and confined them to therapy after determining the priests were a danger to children.

• The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced last month it will hire someone - not a priest - to track complaints of sexual abuse by clergy and help victims through the church's bureaucratic process. It has also established a pastoral team to help parishes devastated by charges of criminal sexual misconduct against priests.

• The Diocese of El Paso, Texas, set up a telephone hotline for people to call if they believe they were victimized by priests.

Since the mid-1980s, more than 2,000 Catholic priests - out of a brotherhood of 58,000 nationwide - have been publicly accused of sexually abusing children. "You can bet there are at least twice that number (of cases) silently settled," said Richard Sipe, author of a 25-year study of celibacy, entitled A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy. ''That's the way it always is. That's even more true in the Catholic Church. In other denominations they tend to oust the minister pretty quickly."

In Colorado, at least one Catholic priest has pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a child in the past four years. A second committed suicide before he could be charged with sexual assault. Charges against a third were dropped after investigators questioned the credibility of the teen-age witnesses. A fourth pleaded guilty last month to sexual abuse charges stemming from incidents 20 years ago in New Mexico.

"To my present knowledge, I'm not aware of any charges of pedophilia against any priests of the archdiocese of Denver," said Bob Feeney, spokesman for Archbishop Francis Stafford.

"We have been fortunate . . . The archbishop, going back about three years ago, took positive steps to make his priests keenly aware of a growing issue in the church, keenly aware that the dangers of sexual misconduct were lurking, then put into effect policies and programs to assist them," Feeney said.

Nineteen months ago, the Denver archdiocese, spurred by mounting accusations nationwide, issued a new policy on sexual misconduct that compels anyone who works for the church with knowledge of an incident of sexual abuse to report it to law-enforcement authorities immediately. It also commits the church to offer to the victim "whatever concern or solace may be needed . . . without reference to the truth of any accusation."

Meanwhile, a Minnesota attorney is turning the church's dilemma into a cottage industry.

"I've got cases against clerics in 26 states," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who specializes in sexual assault cases. "We're handling over 200 cases against the Catholic Church right now."

While Anderson isn't involved in any Colorado cases, he does plan a trip to the state soon to conduct a seminar for lawyers contemplating suits against the church.

The cost of all this has been devastating to the church - both financially and spiritually.

"What we do know is that they've paid over $350 million in settlements of these claims and defense of them since the mid-80s," Anderson said. "I would have a hard time predicting how much more will be paid by the year 2000. Certainly, it will be in the billions. But where it stops, it's hard for me to say."

Other denominations have had problems with sexually misbehaving clerics too, of course.

In March alone, a Baptist minister in Denver pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child; a Baptist minister in Colorado City was set to stand trial in May on similar charges; and a Methodist minister in Greeley pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a girl.

But the problem has hit the Catholic Church especially hard.

Theories why this is abound, but most boil down to the celibacy issue. That, and the fact that the Catholic Church is hierarchical, and can quietly move troublesome priests around without the assent of parishioners.

"Repressed sexuality almost invariably results in some kind of problems," says Rich Salmon, past president of the National Council on Sexual Addiction of Colorado & Wyoming. Salmon helped organize a recent workshop for church leaders on sexual addictions. "It lays the groundwork for sexual problems to develop in the individual."

"The philosophy in the past has been to sweep the problem under the rug by believing it would go away just because the perpetrator said that he wouldn't do it again," Salmon said. "And so the leadership, who really didn't want to deal with this in a public way, chose to pass it along. They did what we call the 'geographic cure' - move the person off to another place without effectively addressing the behavior problems going on in the individual."

Some believe pedophiles are drawn early on to the priesthood.

"I've talked to some priest perpetrators. They knew their proclivities at an early age - 14 or 15," said Jeanne Miller, director of LINKUP, a nationwide support group for victims of priestly perversion. Miller's son was molested by an Illinois priest 10 years ago. They sued and won, but the priest continued to serve in parishes - until he was convicted and sent to prison for molesting a 14-year-old girl in 1991.

"Some say they joined the priesthood because they thought celibacy would be some sort of magical cure," Miller said. "It isn't."

Sipe, a former priest, says part of the problem is a lack of instruction about sexuality and celibacy given to priests-in-training. Seminarians aren't told how to deal with sexual urges, he says.

"And no one wants to talk about this, but certain people, regardless of anything else, just decide to do it," he said. "There is still a question of evil, you know. Psychiatry doesn't obviate evil."

Experts say for the Catholic Church to successfully weather this storm, church officials must:

• Immediately remove accused priests from parishes or any position in which they have contact with children and report the allegation to police.

• Stop treating people who say they've been abused by priests as adversaries and instead offer them counseling and solace.

"Catholics can't undo what their church has done to this point. But what they can do now is to make their church authorities acutely aware of the intolerable practices they have employed, so they will stop the concealment, the cover-up, the denial and the blame," attorney Anderson said. "That's what a good Catholic can do."

Colorado clergy involved in sexual misconduct

Sexual-misconduct allegations involving Colorado clergy as reported in the Rocky Mountain News since 1989.:

March, 23, 1993 - The Rev. David A. Holley, 65, a retired Roman Catholic priest who formerly lived in Denver, pleads guilty to sexually molesting eight boys between 1972 and 1974 in Alamogordo, N.M. The lawsuit includes plaintiff Michael Sandoval of Wheat Ridge. Holley's last assignment before retirement in 1988 was hospital chaplain at St. Anthony Hospital Central.

March 23, 1993 - Juan Jose Hernandez, formerly of the First Spanish Baptist Church in Greeley, pleads guilty to sexual assault on a child. He admits he assaulted a 6-year-old girl at his home about three years ago.

March 1993 - Kirk Higbee-Barzola, 32, minister of a Colorado City Baptist Church, will stand trial beginning May 18 in Westcliffe on a charge of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl during a church-sponsored trip.

March 1993 - Daniel DeHart, 39, former associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Greeley, pleads guilty to sexually assaulting a girl who once attended the church. Christa G. Bohrer, 22, reports that DeHart had sexual contact with her from the time she was 14 until she was 18 (between 1983 and 1988) after she went to the minister for counseling.

January 1993 - Dianne R. Winkler files a lawsuit against the Rev. Glenn A. Chambers, a Denver Methodist minister, claiming he sexually harassed her from August 1990 until February 1992, and five other women at the church.

January 1993 - Holley Van Osdol, stepdaughter of the Rev. H. Fred Vogt, senior minister of Mile High Church of Religious Science in Lakewood, claims in a lawsuit that he repeatedly molested her as a child. The suit says Van Osdol, now in her mid-30s, sought help in June from the United Churches of Religious Science, where she held a minitry position, to get Vogt to pay for her therapy. In September, the suit says, church officials fired Van Osdol from her ministry position.

November 9, 1992 - Episcopalian priest Paul Robinson agrees to pay $575,000 in damages to Mary Tenantry, a woman he began an extramarital affair with during pastoral counseling in 1984. Tenantry contends that the affair and the church's subsequent cover-up campaign aggravated her mental problems and caused her to develop multiple personality syndrome. Robinson was promoted after church officials learned about the affair. He resigned his Colorado church post in April 1991 and moved to Florida but has not been defrocked. Last year, Tenantry won a $1.2 million judgment against the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and Bishop William Frey. That case is under appeal.

October 1992 - The Rev. Maurice McInerney, pastor of St. Peter's Church in Greeley, and the Rev. Anton Borer, assistant pastor at Nativity of Our Lord Church in Broomfield, are suspended after several women report allegations of sexual misconduct.

August 1992 - Homer Wolfe, 59, a former minister from Bear Valley Church of Christ, is orderd by a Denver jury to pay $450,000 damages to a 17-year-old- boy and his mother who said Wolfe used "improper counseling methods" during counseling sessions at the church from 1981-1988. In a second settlement, Wolfe and the Church agree to pay $300,000 to a man who said Wolfe
sexually assaulted him during family counseling sessions. Neither case results in criminal charges.

April 1992 - The Rev. Richard Chung, 40, a Catholic priest and teacher at St. Mary's High School, is accused of felony sexual assault against one of his students. He committed suicide March 20.

April 1992 - Donald C. Olson, former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Boulder, files a lawsuit against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rocky Mountain Synod, his ex-wife and several church pastors or officers, contending that he was forced to resign in December 1991 because of unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct.

March 1992 - The Rev. Dan Hopkins of the Church of the Holy Redeemer in northeast Denver is indefinitely suspended from acting as a priest after an ''indiscretion" with a female parishioner. Officials would not say whether Hopkins was counseling the woman with the indiscretion occurred.

February 1992 - Nancy Stage, who accused former pastor Rev. Warren Wilkewitz of taking advantage of her financially, settles out of court. In her lawsuit, Stage says she had a relationship with Wilkewitz, and that he borrowed money from her and didn't repay it from 1982 to 1989. She also says that the First Presbyterian Church of Boulder and the Presbyterian Church USA failed to thoroughly investigate her complaints.

January 1992 - Carolyn Kruse files a lawsuit claiming her pastor, John R. Leonard of Harvest Christian Center, had sex with her during counseling sessions. Leonard told his congregation that Kruse is possessed by a demon, according to the suit. Kruse, who is married, and Leonard met with church elders in March 1991. She told them she wanted Leonard to resign and retract statements he had made. Instead, the elders told her she should possibly undergo exorcism, the suit says.

September 1991 - Robert Lee Thrasher Jr., 47, of Arvada, who served as therapist, prophet, high priest and martial-arts trainer for his followers in the Melchizedek Order of the Christ-hood of Eternal Light, is sentenced to 16 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman and a 14-year-old girl he was counseling.

June 18, 1991 - Bryan Bush, a former church youth counselor, is sentenced to 16 years for sexually molesting 11 boys. Bush confesses to molesting more than 30 teen-age boys while working as a youth director in three churches in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties between 1981 and 1988. He pleads guilty in 11 of the cases.

April 1990 - The Rev. Bill Groves, pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church, pleads guilty to a felony charge of sexual assault on a child, but four other charges against him are dropped as part of a plea bargain. The charge to which Groves pleads guilty stems from an incident Sept. 15 in which a 14-year-old Ignacio boy was sexually assaulted.

January 4, 1990 - The Rev. Jimmy Skinner, a Colorado Springs minister at the Colorado-Utah Church of God, is convicted of sexually assaulting a prostitute and impersonating a police officer in October 1988.

December 1989 - Robert G. Halverstadt, a former Pueblo minister, is sentenced to a year in jail for sexually assaulting three girls from his congregation, Pueblo Victory Center Church.

July 1989 - The Catholic Archdiocese of Denver and the Rev. Prosper Bemunuge, assistant pastor at the Nativity of Our Lord Church in Broomfield, agree to an out-of-court settlement with Sara Hodges, who claimed the priest engaged in "various sexual acts" with her during a counseling session in 1988.

Research by Marsha Luevane, compiled by Carol Kasel, Rocky Mountain News Library.

 
 

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