Suits Say Archdiocese Aided Molester Priests
[Photo caption: This building once housed St. Philip High School, where the Rev. Andrew Ronan was accused of molesting students. Ronan died in 1992. Photo by Bob Black; Associated Press. Rick Gomez (right) attends a Florida news conference Wednesday with his mother, Valerie Tolson, and attorney Jeffrey Anderson. Gomez filed suit against a priest whose order was linked to similar allegations here.]
"The circumstances involving Father Ronan's assignments are unacceptable," Guimon said. "But I can only speculate that at the time of these alleged incidents some 40 years ago, the province took actions it believed were appropriate and consistent with then-conventional wisdom about the issue of sexual activity by the clergy. "The province apologizes to all who are affected by the tragedy of sexual abuse, and we pray for the healing of all involved." The Oregon lawsuit, which also names the Vatican, the Portland Archdiocese and the Servite order as defendants, argues that the Chicago Archdiocese is liable because it allowed Ronan to be transferred to Portland even after the allegations of his sexual misconduct at St. Philip had surfaced.
Chicago archdiocesan officials released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that "a preliminary review of archdiocesan records has not disclosed any incident of misconduct involving Father Ronan, who was not an archdiocesan priest and was not assigned by the archbishop." Ronan's religious order primarily governed his assignments. In a second lawsuit, Rick Gomez, a 28-year-old Californian, accuses Brother William Burke, a Salesian Order religious, of molesting Gomez while he was a seventh-grader at Mary Help of Christians boarding school in Tampa, Fla. The suit, filed Wednesday in St. Petersburg, Fla., does not name the Chicago Archdiocese as a defendant, but it does relate a story of alleged sexual abuse of a minor by a Chicago priest in 1999 as an example of how the religious organizations allegedly moved clergy from place to place to avoid criminal prosecution and scandal. The Florida lawsuit says the Rev. Carlos Peralta was moved by his religious order to Chicago because of many acts of sexual abuse against minors outside the United States. Peralta, 39, had a history of allegations of sexual misconduct with minors dating back to his seminary days in Chile in the 1980s, according to the lawsuit and a deposition given in May 2001 by the Rev. Patrick Angelucci, the Salesian Order's provincial.
Allegations of misconduct followed Peralta from Chile to Guatemala to Peru and eventually to Chicago, where the priest was assigned in March 1998 to St. John Bosco parish on the North Side. The Salesians of Don Bosco had opened a new mission there to serve the growing Hispanic community. The Salesian order has a special commitment to working with young people, and poor youths in particular. Peralta went to work at the St. John Bosco youth center. But according to Angelucci's deposition, the young, popular priest arrived with fraudulent papers from the order in South America stating that he had no disciplinary or other problems in his background. "We were completely unaware of anything in hi s background that would compromise his working with young people, that would endanger them," said the Rev. James Heuser, the order's vice-provincial. Angelucci is in Rome and was unavailable for comment. "Had we known the things in his background, we never would have accepted him," Heuser said. In May 1999, a little more than a year into his Chicago tenure, a male teenager accused Peralta of sexually abusing him, according to Heuser, the lawsuit and the deposition. Peralta was removed from his position at St. John Bosco within days of the allegations being leveled and was sent to a Salesian community in New Jersey.
The case is the first sexual abuse by clergy alleged to have taken place after Cardinal Francis George came to Chicago. There was a civil investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct at St. John Bosco, and a civil lawsuit had been filed by the family of the alleged victim, according to Heuser and the lawsuit. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services learned of the allegations against Peralta in a call to its abuse hotline in July 1999, DCFS spokesman Andy Martinez said. The allegations were substantiated in October 1999, he said. The Chicago Police Department launched an investigation into sex-abuse allegations against Peralta in September 1999, based on the victim's statement, said police spokesman Pat Camden.
The priest "was long gone," Camden said. "We never had a chance to talk to him. We still want to talk to him." In an interview, Heuser said the order offered to make Peralta available to authorities in Chicago but they weren't interested in talking to the priest. In his deposition, Angelucci said to his knowledge, police had never contacted the order asking to talk to the priest. "We are sorry for the sexual misconduct of some of our members, for the unspeakable violation of the young whom we have harmed rather than served," the Salesians of Don Bosco said in a statement.
After being evaluated at a Virginia facility that specializes in clergy with psychiatric disorders, Peralta was sent to the Salesian provincial house in Mexico City. The Florida lawsuit also names the Vatican, the St. Petersburg Diocese, Burke and his order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, as defendants. Jeff Anderson, the Minnesota attorney who filed both lawsuits Wednesday, said he hoped to "get at the root of the problem" by holding the Vatican responsible. The Vatican has never been successfully sued in a sex abuse case. "The Vatican is giving directives to their superiors to keep secret files on pedophile priests that only their superiors and the bishops can have access to," Anderson said. "In each of these cases, the common denominator is a practice that is a directive from the Vatican to keep these secret files and to avoid scandal at all costs."
In an unrelated case, a former priest accused of molesting boys in Florida has surfaced in the Chicago area, where until recently he taught at DePaul University. Arthur Bendixen, a part-time adjunct professor at DePaul's adult college since 1999, teaches a class on spirituality and homelessness. Adult college students are at least 24 years old, said Denise Mattson, a university spokeswoman. After the Chicago Sun-Times and other news organizations began inquiring last week about Bendixen's status at DePaul, he and university officials reached an agreement this week that he will not teach this quarter's course, which began Tuesday.
DePaul did not know about the allegations against Bendixen before hiring him and has not ruled out hiring him again in the future, Mattson said. In 1994, Bendixen was suspended as rector of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla., after the church received a sexual abuse complaint against him. In 1995, a former altar boy sued over alleged sexual abuse. Sheldon Stevens, the former altar boy's attorney, handled several other sexual-misconduct lawsuits against Bendixen. Settlements were reached in every case, according to one of Stevens' assistants. Bendixen, whose voice mail said he was on vacation, did not return calls for comment.
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