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  Secret Sins

By Tony Bartelme
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
April 28, 2002

Local Catholics confront fallout from sexual abuse

Before it was torn down in 1964, the City Orphan Home stood at the corner of Queen and Logan streets, a hulking five-story brick building in the shadow of the brownstone buttresses of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Overseen by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston and run by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, the orphan home housed 20 to 40 children, including a boy named J, who spent six years there in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

J, who is now in his mid-fifties and asked that his full name not be published, does not have fond memories of the place. It was there, he said, that two priests _molested him.

"At night from my room, I watched the lights flicker at the Francis Marion Hotel, wondering how normal people lived," he said. "I dreamed of a place somewhere where I would get appropriate_ hugs and kisses."

He recalled a conversation he had with another boy at the home.

"We had jobs cleaning the dorms, and he knew something had happened to me, and we got to talking. He was two or three years younger than me, and he said he got fondled over at 119 Broad St., (the diocese's chancery). He was a quiet kid, kind of scared. I think he didn't want to feel like he was the only one this was happening to."

J's experience in the orphan home is one story in a sad and complex history of abuse in the Diocese of Charleston's schools and churches -- a history shared by other dioceses across the country that are reeling under an unprecedented sexual abuse scandal.

The issue came to a boil last week when the pope summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican. "Many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted," the pontiff told the clerics. "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who harm the young."

But, over the years, the Diocese of Charleston, which covers the entire state of South Carolina, harbored a number of priests who preyed on children. Lawyers and counselors who have worked with victims believe that dozens of children were abused during the past four decades.

The diocese has acknowledged that it has received complaints against 23 priests since the 1960s. Eleven of those priests have been removed from the ministry. The other 12 have either died, retired or are no longer in active ministry, said John Carroll, the diocese's spokesman on sexual abuse issues.

As in other dioceses, priests accused of sexual abuse here have been transferred to other dioceses or parishes.

The 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office is negotiating with the diocese to turn over information about past allegations. The diocese itself is doing internal investigations of new allegations against several other priests who are no longer in active ministry. Carroll declined to identify the priests. If deemed credible, the allegations may be turned over to authorities.

Meanwhile, lawyers who represented more than 12 victims estimate that the diocese has paid at least $2 million to settle sex abuse allegations against priests and other diocese employees.

Carroll said money for settlements and victim counseling "comes out of diocesan assets" but declined to comment on the actual costs. "It's important to be very forthright about the issue of abuse," he said. But disclosing financial information "has nothing to do with it."

Since January, when the scandal began to heat up, church officials have tried to reassure parishioners that their children are safe. Bishop Robert J. Baker said in a recent statement that the diocese is taking "aggressive action" to identify any adult "known to have sexually abused a minor" and remove that person from any church-related activities. "The well-being of our children is at stake."

The diocese has strengthened its screening procedures for new priests and employees and has adopted policies to handle cases of abuse that happened years ago. "I am alarmed by every single situation of child sexual abuse," Baker said, "and am reminded of the Lord's strong condemnation in the Scriptures of anyone who brings scandal to a child."

J'S STORY

But J, who hired a lawyer and is considering a lawsuit against the diocese, said priests and a diocese teacher ruined his childhood. He tried for years to block out the memories of what happened to him. Then, in 1997, he heard that Eddie Fischer had been arrested. He decided to tell prosecutors his story, which led to another criminal charge against Fischer.

Fischer began his teaching career in the late 1950s, landing a job at the Catholic Sacred Heart Elementary School on King Street. J was in sixth grade and was one of Fischer's first victims.

The abuse happened in a small room on the second floor that the school used as a library and counseling room. "At first, I liked him, because he was so different from the nuns." Fischer asked him to stay after school one day and study geography. They went to the library room, and Fischer put a piece of cardboard over the window. Fischer then fondled the boy.

"I just felt so uncomfortable. I was crying while we were doing this, and he would say, 'Stop crying,' and once or twice we would go get some ice cream." Fischer molested him several times. "I finally said I couldn't do this anymore, and he said, 'You're going to regret this.' "

A week later, his friends at school began to call him a sissy and mock him. "It was Fischer's pets who went after me first. It got to the point where I didn't want to go back to school."

J came from a troubled family, and church officials suggested he be put in the City Orphan Home (not to be confused with the much larger Charleston Orphan House on Calhoun Street).

"I remember the first day I went there. It had chain link fencing on the windows. It was a dismal place, like the house in that old television show, Dark Shadows."

He said two priests eventually molested him there, including the Rev. Frederick Hopwood.

"How does that affect a little human being who's trying to relate to all this catechism here, and then friendly father pedophile comes in and does his thing? It was confusing. It really makes me angry."

After J left the home, he hung out with a rough crowd. "It sounds kind of strange, but I felt safer with them, because I knew they wouldn't mess with me." He had difficulty maintaining stable relationships and drank heavily. While drinking, he sexually abused two minors. He was arrested, pleaded guilty and spent three years in jail.

"I take responsibility for what I did. The circle must be broken, or it will only get worse. At the same time, I was stripped of my childhood, dignity and self-esteem. I never really knew what normal was."

Sexual abuse wasn't the only horror he experienced at the home. "This may sound strange, but all this sex abuse was better than the alternative -- getting whipped. The kids who were being sexually abused were kind of protected. If we got out of line, we got talked to instead of slapped. The physical abuse that went on there was incredible."

'MENTAL AS MUCH_AS PHYSICAL'

Other orphan home residents in the 1950s and 1960s confirmed his stories of whippings and other physical abuse.

Sally Craft said a nun blistered her with a razor strop, covering her body with marks and bruises. Another time, a nun ordered her to strip and rubbed her hands over her body. Nuns regularly locked children in small closet lockers as punishment. She remembered a nun beating a girl with epilepsy when she dropped a dish, and later, when the girl had a seizure, stuffing her in a cramped closet. Craft's sister, Peggy, said she remembered walking by locked closets and wondering if the children inside had enough air.

Leona Pye kept some of her children in the home in the 1950s. "I loved the children there and was kind of like the housemother." Some of the boys wet their beds, "and I would sneak up there and change their sheets so they wouldn't get a whipping." But one day, a nun beat her 6-year-old boy with a coat hanger. Her son, who has since died, "was a different child from the day he got that whipping."

Mike South said he and his brother, Robert, and sister, Pat, were beaten regularly. Robert South eventually was convicted of killing a police officer in Columbia and executed. Before he died, lawyers who handled his death penalty case remembered seeing the scars on his knuckles from some of the beatings.

"The abuse was mental as much as physical," Mike South said. He recalled that the milk the children drank for breakfast often was put on the table hours before they ate. Children who didn't drink the warm and often sour milk would be whipped. His sister would get sick when she drank it, so he would slip over to her seat to drink it himself so she wouldn't get beaten. Sally Craft also remembered the milk. "It was so bad it would solidify. It didn't spill out, it kind of flopped out."

She and her sister also remembered a recreation room that they weren't allowed to enter when priests and other boys were inside. "Our abuse was nothing compared to what happened to those poor boys," Sally Craft said.

Not everyone has these dim views of the home. Arthur Deveraux, who was there in the 1950s, said the nuns and priests were disciplined but kind.

"Maybe abuse went on, but I wasn't aware of it," he said. "I did have a 12-inch ruler cracked against my knuckles by a nun, but I don't have a bad thing to say about that place. I don't know where I'd be without it. I think it saved my life."

'SENSE OF SORROW'

Frederick J. Hopwood was born in Newark, N.J., and at age 26 was ordained a priest. A year later, in 1952, he moved to the Charleston area, where he taught at Bishop England High School, served as The Citadel's chaplain and eventually worked his way up the church hierarchy to monsignor and rector of Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, sometimes called the "home church" of the Charleston diocese. In 1984, he moved to a large parish in Greenville.

At about the same time, the church learned of an accusation against Hopwood. It's unclear what action the church took then, or whether his transfer to Greenville was related to the allegation. A 1994 press release said the church was investigating that allegation, but diocese officials last week were unable to provide details about that investigation's results.

In the early 1990s, another man came forward, and the church removed Hopwood from the Greenville parish. The church's action generated several news stories, and at least nine other men told prosecutors their stories of abuse. But only one pressed charges.

That victim told authorities that Hopwood stripped him, held him down and had sexual contact with him in 1970 when he was an altar boy at Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The victim said that on several occasions, they took showers together. Hopwood pleaded guilty on March 21, 1994, to one count of a lewd act upon a minor.

As part of his plea agreement, the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office gave Hopwood statewide immunity from further prosecution. During the guilty plea hearing, Hopwood told the court, "I have a deep sense of sorrow for what I have done and an even deeper sense of hurt for what I have done has caused to others."

Hopwood, now 78, lives in Red Bank, N.J., and is listed on the Charleston diocese's Web site as "retired." Contacted by phone, he referred questions to the diocese, adding, "Why bring up ancient history?"

BETRAYED AND CONFUSED

"Why bring up ancient history? That's a good question," said Dr. Ben Saunders, an associate psychology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina who has counseled more than a dozen victims of Catholic priests. "The people who bring it up are the victims, because these episodes remain profoundly disturbing to them."

Some victims live productive and happy lives, but for others, the abuse remains an incredibly traumatic experience, said Saunders, who also is a director of MUSC's National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. "They're stuck, and they bring it up to get some resolution, closure."

Many victims come from the most devout families. "They were the altar boys, the ones whose families invited the priests over to dinner. That's how they get the access."

A priest who molests a boy or girl often shatters the child's spiritual and emotional identity, he said. "The church holds a different place in the hearts of Catholics. It has a hierarchical organization where certain people are ordained to know the truth," Saunders said.

Many victims feel as if God had a hand in what happened. "They question their faith, their own personhood. They feel that priests could do no wrong, but something wrong did happen, so it must be them that's wrong."

Many end up trying to numb their feelings of shame, confusion and guilt with drugs or alcohol. Almost all never considered telling anyone about the abuse at the time.

"They say, 'Who on earth would I tell?' They weren't accusing some wacko neighbor. They're talking about Father So-and-So. From a deviant priest's standpoint, you are in a perfect position. You have the opportunity to abuse children, the ability to control them and deniability if they do tell."

OTHER PRIESTS

Hopwood was one of several priests brought before a judge.

The Rev. Eugene Condon, another popular Charleston priest, pleaded guilty to four criminal abuse charges in 1998.

One victim told the FBI that while he was a teen-ager in the early 1960s, he and a priest had sexual contact. Afterward, the priest told the boy they had sinned and should go to confession, according to an FBI statement.

The boy went to see another priest -- Condon -- who after confession gave him some alcohol in the rectory. When the boy took a nap, he woke up with Condon kissing him in bed.

He met Condon again more than a decade later, and Condon showed him a trunk full of Polaroid photographs of boys, the FBI statement said.

Based on this and other information, authorities arrested Condon and found the trunk, which contained about 150 photographs of naked adolescent boys taken in the rectory of Stella Maris on Sullivan's Island, said Debbie Herring-Lash, an assistant solicitor who prosecuted the case. The photographs showed the boys from the shoulders down. Also seized were books such as "The Way Homosexuals Make Love" and pornographic videos such as "The Young Cadets."

Condon, like Hopwood, also received a probationary sentence. He declined to comment for this story.

When the allegations against Condon were made public, one of his victims called church officials.

"From what I gathered in our conversations, they had good evidence about his activities before but didn't see fit to control him," he said in an interview. "That's one of the things that bothered me about the whole thing." He eventually made a legal claim against the church that was settled out of court.

The first priest the boy said had sexual contact with him was _never charged. The bishop removed the priest from an Upstate parish, but the priest challenged the allegation, said Carroll, the diocese's spokesman. The priest was transferred to a smaller parish in another part of the state with orders that he not be alone with any children and that the new parish be fully informed of the previous allegation.

When contacted for this story, the priest referred questions to the diocese and declined to comment.

Other priests arrested on criminal charges include: the Rev. Justin Goodwin, a deceased priest who pleaded guilty to abusing four boys at Blessed Sacrament Church on Savannah Highway in the mid- and late-1970s; the Rev. James Robert Owens-Howard, a former Bishop England High School teacher and retired priest who was charged with fondling children in a pool; and the Rev. Gerald Ryfinski, who pleaded guilty last month after authorities found child pornography on his computer. Last month in Rock Hill, the Rev. Juan Carlos Castano, 44, was charged with fondling a 5-year-old girl in her Rock Hill home in the fall of 2000.

The issue has been like a chain reaction: new revelations generated media attention, which emboldened more victims to tell their stories. This led to more lawsuits and more headlines. "Sex abuse thrives in secrecy," said Denis Ventriglia, a Wilmington, N.C., lawyer who has represented several victims of Charleston-based priests. "Removing that secrecy gives other victims the confidence to come forward, to support fellow victims and to prevent it from happening to other children."

THE DIOCESE'S RECORD

The sexual abuse issue is by no means new. In the mid-1980s, a priest in Lafayette, La., pleaded guilty to molesting more than 11 boys. Victims eventually accused 19 other priests of abuse. At about the same time, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer for the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., helped write an internal memo warning American bishops that the failure to report sexual abuse allegations was a crime in many states. The memo warned that the sexual abuse issue could cost the church $1 billion over the next decade.

When Doyle wrote the memo, the church's "Code of Canon Law," its official set of rules and policies, had more lenient penalties for priests accused of molestation than those accused of having relations with women. Official commentary to the code said that sexual abuse of a child "is not viewed as seriously" as "concubinage" (cohabiting with a woman) or "attempted marriage."

The church studied the issue extensively in the 1990s, adopting five guiding principles in 1992 on how to handle sexual abuse cases: Respond promptly; remove the offender, comply with civil reporting laws, reach out to victims; and deal with the issue as openly as possible with the community.

Based on these guidelines, the Diocese of Charleston in 1994 adopted its own detailed set of rules. Among other things, the rules require the diocese to investigate an allegation immediately, report the information to authorities if the allegation is deemed credible and offer both the accuser and accused counseling and other pastoral care.

But as far as some victims are concerned, the new policies and procedures go only so far. Though the sexual contact may have happened decades ago, many only now are beginning to deal with the unique psychological effects that sexual abuse by a priest creates.

This puts the church in a difficult predicament: How can it both atone for its past mistakes and protect its many schools, charitable organizations and other assets? And how can the church, which believes in the absolution of sin and possibility of redemption, show compassion to priests with sexual abuse problems without appearing to cover up their crimes?

"The church just can't roll over and be the next lottery for someone making a charge against any old priest," said Saunders of MUSC. "The church and its lawyers have every responsibility to protect the assets of the church. But look what happened in the Fischer case," he said, referring to a jury's $105 million verdict in 2000 against Porter-Gaud School. In that case, school officials helped a teacher, Eddie Fischer, get jobs at other schools, even though they knew he had abused students. "When people do something that brings harm to children, (jurors) get really mad and write lots of zeroes on the verdict form."

'IT CANNOT BE CURED'

Some question whether the diocese has learned any lessons.

"Look what happened with Father Bench," said David Flowers, a Greenville lawyer who has represented victims of Catholic priests.

In 1993, the Rev. John Bench resigned from his parish in Pickens after parents accused him of abusing their young daughter. Two years ago, Bench asked to be reinstated to a parish in Florida. The diocese asked for input from the parents and their lawyers, who were outraged.

"Pedophilia is not a disease. It cannot be cured," Flowers wrote the diocese. "It is inconceivable that the diocese would even consider reinstating him to an active ministry ... Sending him to another state only reinforces the perception that the church merely 'passes the trash' rather than making hard decisions about sexual offenders who happen to be priests."

Bishop Baker ultimately denied Bench's reinstatement. Carroll said that the bishop's initial inclination was to reject Bench's request and that he simply wanted feedback from the family about Bench's intentions. "He was trying to be respectful about the situation."

As the scandal unfolds, many priests are trying to reassure parishioners that the church is doing everything it can to ensure the safety of children today and deal with the errors of the past.

"I am hurt, as we all are, and embarrassed by the revelations of the past few months," Msgr. James A. Carter, pastor of Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant, said during a service April 7.

"I feel -- like caught in the middle. The priests who have been guilty of such horrendous acts of child abuse have betrayed their priesthood, the lives with whom they've been entrusted and the church of Jesus Christ. And yet, they are my brother priests who are ill and deserve help, prayers and the compassion of Christ."

The church made mistakes, he continued. "It is true in the past the church has handled clerical misconduct with minors as it has other moral failings ... Sometimes, unfortunately, reassignment has been allowed. Like other institutions with care over children, we now know that reassignment is never appropriate."

But, he concluded, the church will survive. "Throughout the long history of the church there have been many scandals ... And if church history teaches us anything, it makes clear that the Lord often reforms us and shepherds us best through the most troubled of times, producing a stronger more faithful church for the future."

 
 

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