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  Mississippi Sex Abuse Cases Have Bigger Meaning for Law

By Reed Branson branson@gomemphis.com
March 26, 2003

JACKSON, Miss. - Father George Broussard befriended the Morrison family shortly after they moved here from Massachusetts in 1969, lingering at their home and even tucking the boys in at night.

And that's when the Morrison boys - Kenneth, Francis and Thomas - say Broussard sexually abused them, altering their lives forever.

"It completely changed the dynamic within my family,'' said Kenneth Morrison, 38, who has since struggled with depression and drug abuse and today with his family is suing the diocese here.

"I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old,'' said Morrison. "I can't say every problem I have (is to blame on the abuse), but this was the time in my life in which my entire psyche was developed."

The Morrisons, it seems, weren't the only ones.

Even in Mississippi, where the Catholic Church is dwarfed by larger Protestant denominations, at least 18 adults are suing the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, alleging abuse by seven priests around the state years ago and a subsequent coverup by church officials.

But this is more than just another troubling story of abuse by priests. Indeed, at least two cases appear to have broader implications for Cardinal Bernard Law, who until December was one of the Catholic Church's highest-ranking officials, presiding over the Boston Archdiocese.

The cases pending here appear to add evidence that Law - whose first assignment out of the seminary was in Mississippi in the 1960s - knew of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy much earlier than he recently has suggested under oath.

In Jackson, the local diocese has expressed sympathy for the victims of sexual abuse, and stressed that it instituted procedures in the mid-1980s to protect parishioners from abusive priests. None of the current suits alleges abuse since those procedures were instituted.

But the church here continues to anger some victims, who are seeking a combined $240 million in damages.

"They say they apologized,'' said Johnny Rainer, who said he was abused by a priest when he was in the seventh grade and who now is helping organize a local abuse survivors group. "That's bull. There are 20 people out there who say 'you haven't acknowledged it and you haven't dealt with it and you haven't handled it.' ''

The church is asking the courts to seal discovery records in the case and prohibit lawyers from speaking with reporters.

Many are particularly troubled by the church's posture here that a priest can legally deny knowledge of abuse, even under oath, if that knowledge came via a conversation the priest categorizes as a confession.

Roy Campbell III, a lawyer representing the diocese, explained it in a deposition this month: ". . . under the seal of confession the priest considers that that conversation, insofar as the public is concerned, that that conversation never occurred . . .''

Father Kevin Slattery, a spokesman for the diocese, insists that position is not an attempt to cover up abuse.

"If identities are revealed, the harm to the victims who seek privacy would be immense and irreversible," said Slattery. "The diocese is willing to reveal those identities, provided the victims involved first give their consent.''

Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy gripped the nation's consciousness much of last year as news broke in Boston of hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by dozens of priests, many of whom were shuttled from parish to parish.

At the center of the scandal was Cardinal Law, who made a name for himself here in the 1960s through his support for civil rights for African-Americans and who headed up one of the most populous and traditionally important dioceses in America - the archdiocese of Boston.

And it was Law's responses to the scandal that inspired the Morrisons to finally speak.

"I was getting more and more frustrated, listening to Cardinal Law say he knew nothing about this before 1984,'' said Kenneth Morrison, who today lives in Chicago. "I wasn't going to address this or bring it up. But I wasn't able to dodge this. It kept coming back to me every night. So I wrote a letter to the lawyers (suing the church) in Boston.''

The Morrisons moved to Jackson from Boston in 1969. Dr. Francis Morrison, an oncologist and hematologist, took a teaching position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

The family attended St. Peter's Catholic Cathedral, a downtown church, and the family befriended Broussard and Law among others. The Morrisons say that Broussard "became a fixture'' around their home, eating dinner with the family, tucking the boys in for the night and even taking them - by himself - to the family's lake house.

When the alleged abuse began, Kenneth's older brothers - Thomas and Francis - were 7 and 10, respectively, the family says. The abuse continued for nearly five years, the suit alleges.

Broussard, who left the priesthood in 1975 and now lives in Houma, La., declined to comment for this story. In depositions recently he invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

In 1973, Dr. Morrison - who died of cancer in 1999 - was contacted by the parents of another boy who had been abused and then questioned his two oldest sons. Dr. Morrison confronted Broussard, who tearfully apologized, the family says.

They say he also reported the abuse to Law, who was then vicar general - a church official authorized to act on a bishop's behalf.

The family says they were told by church officials that Broussard was receiving treatment. But he nevertheless remained at the church for more than a year, and even on occasion continued to attempt to abuse Kenneth. (The family had not even thought to ask Kenneth if he was abused, assuming at the time he was too young.)

Last summer, upon learning of the Morrisons' story, attorneys representing Boston-area victims asked Law during a deposition if he was aware of abuse during his tenure in Mississippi.

Under oath, Law said, "the sexual molestation of minors wasn't even on my radar screen. It wasn't the issue that it is today . . . it didn't come up.''

But when confronted with the specifics of Morrison's case, he later acknowledged "boundary issues'' between Broussard and Kenneth Morrison - a statement that particularly angered Kenneth Morrison. "Do you call a naked priest and a naked boy together a boundary violation?'' said Morrison.

William Houck, until weeks ago the bishop of the Jackson diocese, acknowledged in court documents that the church confirmed part of the Morrisons' story. Houck said, "Mr. Broussard said he subsequently admitted the accusations to Bernard Law and to Bishop (Joseph) Brunini, and attended confession with Bernard Law.''

Efforts to reach Law through the Boston archdiocese were not successful, but Law has since acknowledged knowing of the abuse here.

Generally, he has apologized for his failure to act in many cases of abuse.

And he has tried to explain leaving molesting priests in parishes by saying he didn't fully understand the nature of sex crimes.

For its part, the Diocese of Jackson insists the complaints against Broussard were dealt with as well as the church knew how at the time.

"In fact, when the then-Bishop of the Diocese, Joseph Brunini, found out about the claims, he insisted that Mr. Broussard receive psychiatric treatment and evaluation. Mr. Broussard continued psychiatric treatment until he left the priesthood in August, 1975,'' the diocese says in a statement posted on its Internet web page.

The Morrisons aren't the only victims who say Law knew of their abuse here.

Mark Belenchia says he was abused as a boy in Shelby, Miss., around 1970 by Father Bernard Haddican - a priest who served in several parishes around Mississippi for nearly four decades and died in 1996.

Haddican, Belenchia and others say, plied young boys with liquor, cigarettes and gifts. Belenchia said he ultimately told his mother and an uncle.

Thinking back, Belenchia said, he eventually noticed that his mother changed her attitude toward Law from admiration to disdain. Years later, as his mother was on her death bed, Belenchia said, he found out why.

"She told me she went to Law (about the abuse). She was apologizing to me,'' said Belenchia.

Contact Jackson, Miss., Bureau reporter Reed Branson at (601) 352-8631. gomemphis.com

 
 

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