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  Bishop Let Accused Priest Stay on Job
Sex-Abuse Policy Leader to Open Inquiry, Regrets Not Doing So Earlier

By Reese Dunklin
Dallas Morning News
September 21, 2002

The U.S. Catholic bishop who has led efforts to confront clergy sex abuse has let a priest continue working despite allegations of inappropriate behavior with boys and adults.

Bishop Wilton Gregory - a rising star of the U.S. Catholic Church who guided his colleagues to a one-strike-and-you're-out-of-ministry charter in Dallas this summer - said he would ask a review board to re-examine the conduct of the Rev. Daniel L. Friedman after inquiries this week by The Dallas Morning News.

Bishop Gregory suspended Father Friedman on Friday pending that investigation, which will be the third involving the priest since the late 1980s.

"I regret not having asked the review board to reconsider this matter in light of the charter immediately after our Dallas meeting," Bishop Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., said in a written statement Friday afternoon.

Bishop Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had returned Father Friedman to parish work in 1995, even though the priest had been removed from a previous post and sent to counseling after complaints.

The bishop said in an interview with The News this week that he reinstated Father Friedman at the recommendation of the review board, which had investigated at least one allegation of sexual misconduct between the priest and a minor at a church youth camp.

Bishop Gregory said he was unaware of several other accusations made against Father Friedman. But several camp workers told The News that they forwarded the complaints to the diocese before and after Bishop Gregory arrived in 1994.

Among them: that Father Friedman grabbed the buttocks of a young man who worked at a diocese-run camp, rubbed his groin against a clothed boy's backside and insisted on helping campers dress. He also was sued this year by a woman who said he fondled her after she went to him for counseling. The woman later dropped her suit.

Father Friedman, 56, when asked whether the allegations against him were credible or false, refused to comment and would not answer further questions. The priest is also a member of the diocese's Priest Senate and an adviser to the National Catholic Committee on Scouting.

"You'll have to talk to my lawyer," he said. His lawyer did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

'An obvious reminder'

Bishop Gregory's vicar general, the Rev. James Margason, said the diocese considered the woman's accusations false. He then gave varying accounts about another allegation and initially denied knowing about additional complaints. He acknowledged that Father Friedman was still undergoing therapy - not because the priest was a risk, but because "he wants to go."

"The man has had to deal with a considerable amount of accusations," said Monsignor Margason, who oversees the diocese's abuse investigations. "I think that, in itself, is reason enough for someone to want to seek counseling."

The U.S. bishops' new policy, approved at their historic Dallas meeting in June, defines abuse as behavior that does not necessarily involve "a complete act of intercourse" with a minor and says that it need not involve physical contact or explicit force. The document does not address abuse of adults.

"There will be severe consequences for any act of sexual abuse," Bishop Gregory said the day the charter passed.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, head of the Catholic Church's new national review board, said the church's new charter requires "retrospective zero-tolerance and therefore the reopening of any past cases." Bishop Gregory's decision to revisit the matter involving Father Friedman adheres to that policy, Mr. Keating said.

"The best and honest policy is always re-examination and referrals to the criminal justice authorities," he said, "so it does not look like a cover-up or that it was hometowned. Bishop Gregory will do the right thing."

David Clohessy, national president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was surprised that Bishop Gregory did not remove the priest sooner. He noted that the lawsuit filed against Father Friedman this year was "an obvious reminder" about the priest's past.

"If it is an honest case of 'Gosh, I forgot' on Bishop Gregory's part, heaven help us all," he said. "If he, as leader of the bishops conference, loses track in his own diocese, that's very troubling."

Complaints at camp

Concerns about Father Friedman's conduct date at least to 1986, eight years before Bishop Gregory took over the sprawling, rural diocese across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Father Friedman had just started working as a chaplain and co-director at Camp Ondessonk, a diocese-run retreat for boys and girls near the Illinois-Kentucky border. He was assigned there, in part, to replace the Rev. Robert Vonnahmen, who was later accused in lawsuits of abusing boys at the camp.

Former camp workers said they were hoping for a fresh start when Father Friedman arrived. But they soon began to notice questionable behavior - much of it revolving around his fondness for one Ondessonk tradition, they said.

Throughout the year, campers in their early teens and younger were initiated into a special, American Indian-themed club called the Lodge. For the ceremony, they would dress as Indians, wearing only body paint, loincloths, moccasins and replica headdresses.

Several former employees said they saw Father Friedman help the boys, many of whom were naked, put on the loincloths. The workers said they also saw Father Friedman hugging campers and massaging their shoulders.

"It was creepy - he gave everyone the willies," former camper and staff member George Wickey said. "We, as counselors, would almost police him among ourselves. We wouldn't let him be alone with the boys."

When it came to the Lodge initiations, Father Friedman was "really into it," former camp ranger Dave Bretscher said. "If I had to sum up Father Dan, I'd say he's a little too touchy. There are red flags there," he said.

One former camp employee, William Benton, alleged in a deposition that Father Friedman had "put his hand on my bare butt" before one of the Lodge events that first year.

Mr. Benton, who was about 24 years old at the time of the incident, gave the testimony several years later as part of his lawsuit accusing Father Vonnahmen of sexual abuse at the camp. An appeals court dismissed his suit because it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.

"I wouldn't want Father Dan around children," Mr. Benton said. "If an uncle would come over and play a little too frisky with the kids, the parents would keep an eye on that uncle."

In subsequent camp years, there were other red flags. Mr. Wickey said that while he and Father Friedman were alone in a room at the front of a camp chapel, the priest began making suggestive remarks and inching closer to him.

"Then all of a sudden he got real weird," said Mr. Wickey, who was about 16 at the time. "I very distinctly remember that he was moving his tongue like the way a teenage boy would pretend to be French kissing a girl. It was so crazy that I literally closed my eyes and looked down. When I looked up, he was still doing it."

Startled, Mr. Wickey moved to leave the room, he said, and Father Friedman slapped his buttocks.

Mr. Wickey and Mr. Benton said they reported Father Friedman to their camp bosses. Former camp director Gene Canavan said he forwarded those complaints to the diocese, as well as several others. Among them: A camp employee told Mr. Canavan that Father Friedman reached around a young camper and, while helping move a dining table, repeatedly bumped his groin into the boy's backside.

Mr. Canavan said he considered the allegations credible and confronted Father Friedman, who denied them. At one point, Mr. Canavan said, he urged the diocese - then led by James Keleher, now an archbishop in Kansas City, Kan. - to replace the priest.

"Every time I had a case like that come to me, I went to the diocese," Mr. Canavan said, adding that he took at least one accusation directly to Archbishop Keleher and others to Monsignor Margason. "I didn't hear anything back. I got thanked for coming."

During an interview Thursday, Monsignor Margason initially said he did not remember talking to Mr. Canavan about Father Friedman. He subsequently said, however, that he recalled receiving reports that "Father Dan did not always act appropriately." The monsignor also said that he asked Father Friedman about the reports and that the priest denied wrongdoing.

In 1988, the diocese did assign Monsignor Margason to investigate allegations against Father Friedman of sexual misconduct with a minor. Few details about that case have been released. In fact, the diocese did not publicly acknowledge the investigation or its outcome until six years later.

After his investigation, Monsignor Margason recommended removing Father Friedman as camp chaplain. But Archbishop Keleher left the priest there.

A spokeswoman for Archbishop Keleher said he was unavailable for comment. Monsignor Margason said he could not remember specifics about the incident, whom he questioned, or why his recommendation wasn't followed.

Some camp workers said they didn't even know that the diocese had checked into their complaints and weren't given an explanation for Father Friedman's continued employment.

"Any counselor would have been removed, if not fired, for the same conduct," Mr. Canavan said. "Now I think I maybe should have gone to someone else other than the diocese."

Conduct reviewed

In September 1994 - shortly after Mr. Benton's deposition - Bishop Gregory removed Father Friedman from ministry. The decision, which Bishop Gregory said was recommended by the lay review board, triggered a broader review of all diocesan priests' personnel files.

Bishop Gregory also banned Father Friedman from private contact with children while the review board looked further into the claims against him. The priest also was sent to counseling at the Cardinal Stritch Retreat House in suburban Chicago. Monsignor Margason said all priests investigated by the diocese for sexual misconduct were placed in that facility.

During that second investigation, Mr. Wickey said, the diocese contacted him about Father Friedman's alleged advance. Mr. Wickey said he told the diocesan representative that he and some co-workers at the camp previously had reported other questionable behavior by the priest.

Mr. Canavan, meanwhile, said he was not contacted during the inquiry, despite the several complaints about Father Friedman that he previously had forwarded to the diocese.

At the conclusion of the investigation in January 1995, Bishop Gregory reinstated Father Friedman, making him the only priest out of more than a dozen investigated by the diocese who was allowed to return.

Bishop Gregory said he once again depended on the recommendation of the review board, which included three priests and one diocesan employee. Several members of the board did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

"They simply sent me a single-page paper, saying they met and examined whatever was in front of them," he said in an interview this week.

Monsignor Margason initially said the board had recommended reinstatement because the sexual misconduct claim was considered "a false allegation." He later gave a different account: that the panel members concluded that the priest had engaged in inappropriate behavior, rather than sexual misconduct.

"If we felt children would have been at risk, we would have removed him," Monsignor Margason said. "It's been the policy of the diocese to do that, and we've done it openly over the years."

Later in 1995, Bishop Gregory assigned Father Friedman to be pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Aviston, Ill., about an hour from Belleville, and lifted the restrictions that had been put on the priest. But Father Friedman continued to attend therapy sessions in St. Louis, for a while at the diocese's directive and more recently on his own, Monsignor Margason said.

After Father Friedman's reinstatement, Mr. Clohessy, the leader of the victims' advocacy group, wrote to Bishop Gregory to express his displeasure and press the bishop to explain the decision.

"Either this really happened, and you are now convinced Friedman has been 'cured,' or Friedman was falsely accused," Mr. Clohessy wrote. "If you feel he was wrongly accused, he would appreciate the public knowing this. If you feel he has molested but won't again, he deserves support and monitoring by his new parishioners."

Bishop Gregory never responded to his questions, Mr. Clohessy said this week.

New allegation

Since his return to work, Father Friedman has faced one new allegation, Monsignor Margason said.

Parishioner Judy Hangsleben accused the priest of fondling her breasts during three counseling sessions in early 2000. Ms. Hangsleben, who said she had been a supporter of Father Friedman for years, said she sought his help in coping with sex abuse during her childhood. She said that after she resisted his advances, the priest limited her role in parish work.

Ms. Hangsleben said she reported the incidents to the diocese a few months later and met with Bishop Gregory to discuss the incidents. Bishop Gregory agreed to talk to Father Friedman, she said.

After a week or so passed with no response, she said, she called the diocese and was told by Monsignor Margason that the diocesan review board would not investigate because it only handled clergy abuse cases involving minors.

"That was a real slap in the face," she said. "There's no help if you're an adult and you're abused. That's OK. But abuse is abuse."

This week, Bishop Gregory and Monsignor Margason said Ms. Hangsleben's allegation against Father Friedman was "entirely false," but neither would elaborate.

After Ms. Hangsleben decided to take her complaints public by filing a lawsuit early this year, the diocese began an internal inquiry.

Lawyers for Father Friedman and the diocese sought to dismiss her lawsuit on various technical grounds, including that the statutes of limitation had expired by the time she filed the suit. The lawyers called the suit a "vague collection" of allegations.

Others in the community became equally skeptical of Ms. Hangsleben - some left angry phone messages at her home, she said. She finally decided early this summer to drop the lawsuit.

A month later, Monsignor Margason notified Ms. Hangsleben in a letter that she could no longer be a member of Father Friedman's parish because she didn't live in Aviston, and that she should attend her hometown parish instead.

"Even though I filed a lawsuit over all this, I don't hate Friedman," she said. "But I don't approve of the way it was handled by the diocese."

 
 

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