When the Law Looks the Other Way Authorities Allow Priests Accused of Abuse to Live Abroad
Runaway Priests Hiding in Plain Sight
By Reese Dunklin and Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
December 5, 2004
First of three parts
MANILA, Philippines - As fugitives go, the Rev. Fernando Sayasaya is an easy catch.
North Dakota police found him here two years ago with the FBI's help. Under questioning, the Catholic priest admitted molesting boys in the Fargo Diocese.
Prosecutors, however, haven't brought him back for trial.
Nor have authorities investigated his explanation for his initial disappearance: that his bishop warned him through an intermediary to stay out of the United States to avoid arrest. An FBI agent and a North Dakota detective immediately talked themselves out of pursuing the priest's assertion, which the intermediary has verified for The Dallas Morning News.
Father Sayasaya, meanwhile, is working with young people in his native Philippines. "I'm trying to restrain myself," he told The News.
The case highlights a central finding of the newspaper's yearlong study of how Catholic Church workers escape sexual abuse allegations by going abroad: Justice officials sometimes assist them and their religious superiors. And it happens even in countries such as the United States, where the rule of law is presumed to be strong and the separation of church and state clear.
Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal exploded anew in 2002, Catholic leaders have taken the brunt of blame. Overlooked is the role of police, prosecutors and judges - the people expected to hold abusers accountable when the church itself will not. Law enforcement typically has helped through inaction, but sometimes the aid has been direct.
A West Texas prosecutor, for example, agreed to let the church send a priest candidate home to Spain after the man admitted to his bosses in 2000 that he had pulled down a boy's pants, touched his buttocks and taken his underwear. Police closed their investigation without questioning the suspect.
In the 1990s, judges in California and New Jersey took the unusual step of sentencing foreign priests convicted of abuse to serve probation in their home countries, with bishops as their lone supervisors. A similar proposal died in Dallas five years ago only after The News reported that a judge had discussed it with diocesan-paid lawyers and was set to sentence an abusive Nigerian priest at an unscheduled hearing.
Such sentences don't deserve to be called probation, one expert said, because there's no independent monitor of behavior or way to respond if violations are somehow discovered.
"This is like a lesser degree of diplomatic immunity," said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association. "I would call it sweeping it under the rug."
Other times, investigators don't pursue leads, or they don't seek search warrants or subpoenas when church leaders rebuff requests for personnel records. Some don't even gather basic data. A Wisconsin sheriff who said he was trying to find a missing Nigerian priest had not asked diocesan or driver's license officials for his photograph and birth date.
And in some instances when police have investigated, prosecutors don't file charges or seek fugitives' extradition to stand trial.
Milwaukee prosecutors didn't charge the Rev. Simon Palathingal when he was accused of abuse a decade ago. The priest, who had returned home to India, later re-entered the United States and worked in Louisiana, where he was accused of sexual misconduct with another boy. He was at a New Jersey church when his Milwaukee victim tracked him down a few months ago and finally got prosecutors to file charges. The priest pleaded guilty.
In Metuchen, N.J., diocesan child-protection director Lawrence Nagle said timely charges in Milwaukee might have prevented further harm in Louisiana. He said Father Palathingal, if not caught in India and extradited, probably would have been arrested upon returning to the United States or after undergoing Metuchen's criminal background check.
"The church is receiving the bulk of the criticism in these matters, probably [deservedly]," Mr. Nagle, a former criminal investigator, wrote in an e-mail to the Milwaukee victim. "But law enforcement has gotten very little attention in their misdeeds."
Justice officials tend to treat religious figures far less aggressively than other people because they mistakenly consider them more trustworthy, said Marci Hamilton, an expert on church-state relations at Cardozo Law School in New York City. She said that officials whose jobs are determined by the ballot box also fear backlash from the faithful.
"The reason for all this is so plain, it's scary: It's political," said Ms. Hamilton, who consults with the few prosecutors trying to build cover-up cases against Catholic leaders and with plaintiffs' attorneys in clergy-abuse lawsuits.
A 2000 memo from a U.S. Border Patrol agent illustrates the kind of special consideration that priests receive: It warned that a warrant entered into a national crime database might not snag an accused cleric if he tried to re-enter the country.
"Not all entry applicants are checked" at land crossings, Agent Ron Bastyr wrote. "Based on the fact that this guy is a priest, there is a good possibility that he would not be checked."
The priest in question, the Rev. Abraham Anthony, was also a fugitive from the Fargo Diocese. He vanished a year after Father Sayasaya did and flew home to India, as authorities in Jamestown, N.D., prepared to charge him with abusing teenage boys.
Father Anthony denied abusing anyone, but otherwise his case is strikingly similar to Father Sayasaya's. Law enforcement hasn't tried to extradite him, either, and hasn't investigated his assertion that the Fargo bishop sent him out of the country to thwart police. He has gone on working with children, too.
The Sayasaya case stalled soon after it started in 1998, when two boys told West Fargo police that the priest had gotten them drunk and sexually abused them. One boy, in his early teens, had recently come home with bloody underwear after spending the night at church, his mother reported.
The complaints fed Detective Greg Warren's suspicions from an investigation the previous year. He had learned that Father Sayasaya rented a motel room with a runaway and taken another boy to the Philippines without telling church officials. Charges weren't filed because no one alleged abuse.
This time, Detective Warren said, he felt he finally had the evidence he needed to proceed against Father Sayasaya.
But prosecutors in the Cass County state attorney's office declined to file charges unless police interviewed the priest first, the detective said. That wouldn't be easy because Fargo Bishop James Sullivan had sent Father Sayasaya to an out-of-state monastery shortly after the criminal investigation began. And the priest's lawyer had advised him not to talk.
The delay in filing charges set the stage for one of the biggest challenges that law enforcement can face: the international movement of a suspect.
Around Christmas 1998, Bishop Sullivan let Father Sayasaya go to the Philippines for a vacation. The cleric did not return.
A month later, in January 1999, a third boy accused Father Sayasaya, but prosecutors still didn't want to file charges. Birch Burdick, who took over as Cass County state attorney that month, said he still wanted to interview the suspect before proceeding. Wade Webb, who was an assistant prosecutor on the case and is now a local judge, declined to comment.
Several months went by when "nothing else was done," according to a summary that police prepared in 2000.
The summary said the state attorney's office had questions about charging the priest because he was in the Philippines. The office also was trying to turn the case over to federal prosecutors, who initially expressed interest but ultimately declined.
Detective Warren continued his search for Father Sayasaya and sent the summary to the FBI's office in the Philippines. Two years passed before Agent Elizabeth Lenseigne found the priest, set up the interrogation and got him to admit the abuse. That finally led local prosecutors to charge him in late 2002.
Afterward, Mr. Burdick was quoted in the Fargo Forum newspaper as saying that Catholic leaders had cooperated throughout the investigation. Detective Warren told The News a different story.
The Fargo Diocese "gave us several lightweight reasons" for not turning over its records on Father Sayasaya, he said, and "sidestepped several issues, as far as I'm concerned." He acknowledged, however, that authorities never tried to subpoena the church records.
Nor did anyone check out Father Sayasaya's explanation for being out of the country: Bishop Sullivan, he said, had sent word during the 1998 holidays for him to stay in the Philippines. The messenger, longtime Fargo physician Eusebio Mendoza, "told me, 'OK, I was requested by the bishop to call you,'" the priest said under interrogation.
Agent Lenseigne and Detective Warren reacted with disbelief, according to a transcript of their phone call filed in court records.
"I can't imagine [Dr. Mendoza] really spoke on behalf of the bishop," the agent said. "That would be obstruction of justice. The bishop wouldn't do that."
The detective replied: "No, no, absolutely not."
The exchange came after months of pervasive, international news coverage of clergy abuse scandals and cover-up allegations against bishops.
Agent Lenseigne no longer works for the FBI and, through a former co-worker, declined to comment.
Detective Warren told the agent that he recognized the name of Dr. Mendoza. "But he's moved on," he said in the transcript. "I have no idea where he is."
In fact, Dr. Mendoza is living in Fargo, as he has for decades, and maintains a publicly listed phone number. He told The News that another priest, calling on Bishop Sullivan's behalf, had recruited him to call Father Sayasaya.
The message he said he was told to deliver: "It would be good for him not to come back, because they will arrest him."
The other priest, the Rev. John Cavanaugh, "didn't want the bishop quoted or mentioned," recalled Dr. Mendoza, a Catholic of Filipino ancestry who had become friends with Father Sayasaya. "He mentioned to keep it kind of quiet. They didn't want to involve the higher-ups, especially publicly."
Father Cavanaugh said he remembered only that he asked Dr. Mendoza to convey Bishop Sullivan's concern for Father Sayasaya's welfare. But "I'm not going to dispute" Dr. Mendoza's statements, he added.
There is no indication in police records that Father Cavanaugh disclosed these communications. The priest did say that Father Sayasaya had initiated contact with him during the 1998 holidays and said he couldn't travel because of bronchitis.
Father Cavanaugh formerly supervised Father Sayasaya at a West Fargo parish and now is head priest at Fargo's cathedral.
Dr. Mendoza said police have never questioned him about Father Sayasaya, although "it's widely known that he's my friend. I don't think those agencies wanted to do anything further once he was out of the country."
Detective Warren said he didn't remember what he had done to try to find Dr. Mendoza.
He said another person he wanted to interview was unavailable: Bishop Sullivan. The bishop retired in early 2002, with church officials saying he had Alzheimer's disease. He was still celebrating Mass earlier this year but now can no longer converse or recognize friends, church officials said.
Detective Warren said he didn't chase some leads because investigating church leaders was politically complicated. He had enough trouble getting a prosecutor to charge Father Sayasaya.
"Yeah, I could open this thing wide open and it'd be a new can of worms," the detective said. "I don't know where it would take us and what the lasting effects would be, and is it worth that?
"I've had this discussion with some people," he continued. "And so far it's been, 'If we're going to turn that stone, let's deal with Sayasaya first.'"
Mr. Burdick, the prosecutor, declined to comment on whether church leaders should be investigated.
Priest still free
Father Sayasaya was teaching English grammar in Manila - the teeming, smog-choked capital of the Philippines - when The News caught up with him earlier this year. His summer school pupils at De La Salle University, one of the country's top Catholic schools, included a boy in his early teens.
"This is the time of year when young people are here," the priest said, standing in the hallway outside his classroom. "I'm really very careful with young people."
Asked whether he had molested anyone since leaving the United States, he replied: "Mmmm," then paused and added, "My mother is helping me with prayers."
Father Sayasaya's boss said she hired him two years ago. She said he told her that he might have to go back to North Dakota at some point because a boy whose family "wanted money out of him" had made false accusations.
But in speaking with The News, the priest confirmed his admissions to criminal authorities - that he had abused while studying in Rome, while serving in Fargo, while taking Fargo children on a church trip to Canada and while taking one boy on a private trip back to the Philippines.
He denied, as he had to the FBI, that he tried to penetrate the North Dakota victim who suffered bleeding.
"I keep on blaming myself," he said. "I should have done better."
Father Sayasaya maintained that he had not run away from U.S. authorities. It was Bishop Sullivan, he said, who gave him permission to take that Christmas vacation, and Bishop Sullivan who sent "a stern order" to not return.
"He treated me like his own son," the priest said. "He's a father to me."
Father Sayasaya said he had told the bishop he was willing to come back. He said he would not fight extradition.
Not that anyone is trying to extradite him.
Legal experts say the state's attorney's office in Fargo has primary responsibility for pursuing the priest's return because it filed the criminal charges. Mr. Burdick said he had relied on the U.S. attorney's office in North Dakota to begin extradition proceedings.
Federal prosecutors said they thought they had taken the necessary steps to do that in early 2003. After inquiries from The News, they discovered that more was required. They told Mr. Burdick's office months ago what to do.
"Our job is to assist them by helping them locate and return the suspect," said Clare Hochhalter, the most recent assistant U.S. attorney to give advice. "We may not have done it as expeditiously as we could have, had I been better informed as to the procedures that were required. But I think we've done that now.
"I'm still willing to do what I can to have him returned," continued Mr. Hochhalter, who said it was "crazy" that the priest was still free. "But at this point, the ball is in the state's court, so to speak."
He said he didn't know what Mr. Burdick was doing on the case, if anything. Neither did Detective Warren.
Mr. Burdick told The News he has been short-staffed and plans to have a law clerk begin preparing an extradition request in the next few weeks.
"I want the man back here," he said. "I want to have the man face the court proceedings and whatever justice is divvied out by a jury."
One mother who said her family has been damaged by Father Sayasaya's abuse said she had no idea the case would drag on so long.
"I wish something could be done so he doesn't hurt any other children in any country," the woman said. "It's just as painful to those children as it is to anyone here."
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