Documents Reveal How Priest Gained Trust of Teen
By Gary Stern, Noreen O’Donnell, and Bruce Golding
April 19, 2002
It has been 21 years since Joseph Theisen left St. Gregory's Church in Garnerville, 15 years since the former pastor was first accused of sexual abuse, and eight years since he was defrocked, stripped of his status as a representative of Christ.
He is a largely forgotten figure at St. Gregory's, as he is at St. Raymond's Church in the Bronx, Theisen's last assignment before the Archdiocese of New York learned that he was more predator than priest.
Theisen's case was recently revived when dozens of old case files were handed over to district attorneys by the archdiocese.
But the allegations against Theisen are too old to prosecute, making them meaningless.
Except to the victims who are still suffering.
"Theisen is a monster," said the mother of one Rockland victim who reached a $20,000 settlement with the archdiocese in 1994. "He was our priest, our friend. He made a fool out of us. But my son's been victimized twice, first by Theisen, then by the archdiocese. These are smart men, but they don't care what happened to my son. They were more concerned with their image and their status than this poor boy."
Rockland County District Attorney Michael Bongiorno, who received information about Theisen from the archdiocese two weeks ago, declined to comment for this article. But he said recently that, "Our ability to investigate these cases is severely hampered by the passing of time."
Spurred by national scandal, Cardinals Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., and William Keeler of Baltimore, two of the American archbishops who will meet next week in Rome with Pope John Paul II, proposed this week that all dioceses be required to report future allegations against priests to civil authorities.
In the meantime, old cases continue to haunt the church. Documents obtained by The Journal News, which detail Theisen's abuse of the Rockland man when he was between the ages of 15 and 18, answer some of the key questions about past cases of sexual abuse by priests that have plagued the Catholic Church since the current scandal began months ago.
Among them: How have abusive priests used their clerical standing to lure physically maturing, teen-age victims into sexual relationships? How damaging can the long-term effects of abuse be for a victim? And how has a major archdiocese, until very recently, dealt with at least some victims of an abuser?
In the Theisen case, documents show, the Archdiocese of New York dealt with the Rockland man and two others from the county who came forward in 1994 — seven years after the archdiocese first learned of Theisen's misdeeds — by giving each $20,000 in exchange for making them promise not to discuss what happened to them.
Under the settlement, the victim agreed to "not, directly or indirectly, disseminate to the general public any disparaging or damaging information about the Church ... regarding the matters embraced by this Agreement."
Theisen's abuse of the Rockland man, now in his mid-30s, lasted from 1980 to 1984. A 1994 report prepared as part of the settlement by Dr. Alan J. Tuckman, a forensic psychiatrist, explained how Theisen ingrained himself in the victim's family and nurtured the victim's trust, promising an emotional attachment for a vulnerable teen, before gradually introducing sexual acts.
The victim, whose name is being withheld by The Journal News, did not tell his family about the abuse until 1993, well after he had started drinking heavily.
"This is a very classical situation of an adult in a position of authority and power, befriending and then manipulating an impressionable teenager into sexual activity," Tuckman wrote. "(The victim) will need long-term, intensive psychotherapy if he is to ever resolve these problems."
The family's brief contact with the archdiocese did nothing to help the victim cope. He and his mother deeply regret their decision to accept a quick settlement, which they see as nothing more than a payoff to be quiet, and wish they had sued the archdiocese for more money, therapy and a public apology.
Instead, they struggle each day in solitude, sometimes ashamed, sometimes angry, often both. Theisen's victim remains unable to face his past, continues to drink and has difficulty holding a job or maintaining relationships.
Theisen, meanwhile, is now 68 and lives in a luxury apartment building in Albuquerque, N.M., with a heated swimming pool, 24-hour security and a view of the Rio Grande Valley. When approached by a reporter, he would not discuss his past. Asked if he was once a priest, he said, "That was many years ago."
Theisen spent 10 years serving on Staten Island before arriving at St. Gregory's in 1970. He stayed there until 1981, moving on to St. Raymond's in the Bronx. He was still there in 1987, when the archdiocese received its first clear allegation that Theisen had sexually abused a minor, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Other allegations followed. Before 1987 was up, Theisen was put into a clerical limbo, still a priest but without an assignment from the archdiocese.
He was treated at the Servants of the Paraclete centers in Jemez Springs, N.M., a prominent facility for priests with sexual disorders. He then became a chaplain at the Heartland Center for Spirituality in Great Bend, Kan., a spiritual retreat run by the Dominican Sisters of Great Bend, but stayed for only a short time.
In 1994, Theisen was voluntarily defrocked, a process that often drags out. The process for defrocking a priest against his wishes takes even longer, something that American bishops have asked the Vatican to change as one way to deal with the current scandal.
It was around the same time that Theisen was defrocked that his three victims from Rockland approached the archdiocese.
Zwilling could not say, based on Theisen's old file, whether the initial accusations against the cleric in 1987 stemmed from his time in Staten Island, Garnerville or the Bronx. Since it's unclear to which time period the 1987 accusations referred, it is difficult to determine if Theisen could have merited prosecution had the archdiocese alerted authorities.
It was not until the early 1990s that the archdiocese adopted its first formal policy for dealing with accusations against priests. And it was not until a few years later that the archdiocese began advising accusers that they could seek police involvement on their own.
Only in recent weeks, as the current scandal mushroomed, did Cardinal Edward Egan meet the demands of prosecutors and say that the archdiocese would refer future allegations against priests to police. He also turned over the old files, Theisen's case among them, and removed six priests facing unresolved allegations from their assignments.
These changes, of course, come too late for Theisen's victims. The Rockland victim's mother cannot grasp why the archdiocese is now serious about fighting abuse but dismissed her son's trauma and pain so easily.
The archdiocese offered a settlement that made her son promise never to bring any kind of legal action against the church, and never to discuss the matter with any media.
When the papers were signed, her son was on his own.
"They should be ashamed of themselves," the mother said. "It was just 'Here's a few thousand. Now shut your mouths.' How dare they?"
John Aretakis, a Manhattan lawyer who later tried to get more money for the young man, described the $20,000 settlement as "shut-up money." Aretakis, who has handled some two dozen abuse cases against the Roman Catholic Church, said the money is one way for the church to assuage its guilt.
"So far they're doing a damn good job of keeping all the holes plugged," he said. "Just like the Mafia, they're trying to make sure no one breaks the oath of omerta, that no one rats out the priests."
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