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  Inheriting a Legacy of Secrecy, Scandal
Bishop O'Brien Says the Church Is Different Today

By Joseph A. Reaves and Kelly Ettenborough
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
May 4, 2003

Silence trumped justice far too long for victims of sexual abuse in the Phoenix Diocese.

On that, most everyone agrees.

Why and how it happened, though, remains a gnawing question.

There's surely no single explanation. The possibilities include a former bishop's struggle with sex, a desperate shortage of priests and the fear of scandal.

But the world was a different place decades ago when allegations of sexual abuse were routinely covered up. And, like the times, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien says the church has changed as well.

"Society as a whole has come to a greater understanding of these pathologies in recent decades, and the church has learned along with the rest of the community," O'Brien wrote in an opinion column published by The Arizona Republic last year. "We have learned, and we continue to learn from each challenge."

Easy forgiveness

Allegations of sexual abuse by priests and other church employees were handled much the same way in dioceses and archdioceses across the nation until at least the mid-1980s, when the first scandal involving a serial pedophile priest surfaced in southern Louisiana.

Typically, complaints were funneled to a small group of church officials led by an attorney, the chancellor of the diocese and a vicar general, or the bishop's second-in-command.

Before the Louisiana scandal broke, O'Brien was vicar general for Bishop James Rausch, who mirrored other church leaders by showing far greater tolerance than ever would possibly be accepted today for sexual indiscretions by priests.

Rausch, considered a leading liberal in the church in his day, was head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before coming to Phoenix. He died in May 1981 of a heart attack at age 52 and was succeeded by O'Brien in January 1982.

Court records and interviews with victims indicate Rausch and O'Brien worked closely with the diocese's attorneys to keep many allegations from becoming public by negotiating confidential settlements, appealing to families to protect the image of the church and promising to remove known molesters.

Although those policies may have been typical in the 1970s and '80s, Rausch appears to have had strong personal reasons for keeping sexual abuse allegations hushed. He was accused in a lawsuit settled in Tucson last year of paying a teenage boy for sex.

The pay-for-sex allegations were made in a sworn statement but never proved in court. The claims, however, were part of 11 lawsuits the Tucson Diocese settled out of court for $14 million last year.

Rausch's older sister, Patricia Bloms, now 75 and living in Wisconsin, scoffed at the allegations.

"In all conversations that I had with him, there was never anything that indicated to me that there was anything going on," she said. "I just can't believe that this man is saying this."

But Richard Sipe, a former priest and nationally recognized pedophilia expert who attended seminary with Rausch, said the former bishop's personal behavior was known among the church hierarchy. Rausch's behavior, Sipe said, had an impact on how sexual abuse was historically handled in the Phoenix Diocese.

"Bishop Rausch was certainly a good man, and he did many very good things," Sipe said. "But he was also sexually active, which sets the tone for the diocese through easy forgiveness and understanding and too great an acceptance of violations by other priests."

Help wanted

Besides Rausch's legacy of secrecy, O'Brien inherited another difficulty that appears to have had an impact on the way the Phoenix Diocese dealt with sexual abuse allegations for years: a steadily worsening shortage of priests.

Until 1969, the church in Arizona was mostly administered by the Diocese of Tucson, except for parishes in the northern part of the state, which were controlled by the Diocese of Gallup, N.M.

Rapid growth after World War II led Pope Paul VI to establish a separate Phoenix Diocese 34 years ago.

The new diocese embraced 43,967 square miles of Maricopa, Mohave, Yavapai and Coconino counties as well as the Gila River Reservation in Pinal County.

At its birth, the Phoenix Diocese had 51 parishes, 61 missions and 182 priests serving 180,000 Catholics.

Today, there are 89 parishes, the most recent was added in July, with 28 missions and 201 priests. The Catholic population is now 478,163.

In a little more than three decades, the Phoenix Diocese has gone from having one priest for every 989 Catholics to one for every 2,379 Catholics.

The shortage of priests is so severe that the Rev. Dennis Riccitelli, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Mesa, placed a help-wanted advertisement in March in the Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

"Priests are needed for Mass and other sacraments at Holy Cross Church in Mesa, Ariz., anytime from April 1 through Sept. 30," the small ad read.

Don't take him

Several thousand pages of documents released last month as part of an agreement between prosecutors and the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., show that as early as the 1960s and '70s, a desperate need for priests compelled bishops to give first, second, third and, sometimes, fourth or fifth chances to known sex offenders.

A prime example was the Rev. John T. Sullivan, a known serial molester who preyed on young girls in a half-dozen states, including Arizona.

The newly released New Hampshire records show that Sullivan's bishop wrote to at least 17 fellow bishops and archbishops across the country warning them about Sullivan.

Despite those warnings, Sullivan found work as a priest in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. He served briefly in Winslow in the mid-1950s before moving to Michigan where a court case made public last year revealed allegations he molested three sisters ages 7 to 12.

Sullivan eventually was assigned to six rural parishes in Arizona: Madre de Dios Church in Winslow, Immaculate Conception in Cottonwood, St. Francis in Seligman, Our Lady of the Lake in Havasu City, St. Margaret Mary in Bullhead City and St. John Vianney in Goodyear.

He retired in 1981 after pleading no contest to attempted sexual abuse of another minor girl in Bullhead City. That girl was one of four who accused him of sexual misconduct at St. Margaret Mary.

Sullivan returned to New Hampshire in retirement but ran into trouble again. He was stripped of his priestly faculties in 1983 when, at age 66, he admitted kissing a 13-year-old girl and making unwanted advances on another teenager.

In an exchange of letters with church officials in New Hampshire shortly after Sullivan's dismissal, O'Brien expressed regret about the priest's long history of trouble.

"Naturally, I was very distressed to learn of a recurrence of a problem which has beset him for a long time," O'Brien wrote Sept. 6, 1983. "I feel very badly for the young girl and her family and I appreciate their understanding."

Sullivan died in 1999.

In another case dating to the early days of the diocese, church officials acknowledged last month that they allowed a Jesuit brother to move to Phoenix in 1971 after he was accused of molesting boys at a home for wayward teens. Brother Wellington Joseph Stanislaus spent 1971 at St. Francis Xavier in Phoenix, where he helped with church youth programs while his superiors in the Jesuit order began the process of dismissing him.

Stanislaus was arrested in California last month and charged with two felony counts of sexual abuse with a 16-year-old boy stemming from incidents in 1969.

Routine procedure

Church leaders weren't alone in not calling public attention to allegations decades ago. Law enforcement officers and the media were generally non-aggressive as well.

Most broadcast outlets, newspapers and magazines generally confined coverage of sex abuse by priests to routine reports of arrests and sentencings.

Police and sheriff's deputies, too, treated priests differently, as a confidential letter in the files of John Sullivan makes clear.

"We are amazed to find how often a man would be behind bars if he were not a priest," a counselor at a sexual treatment center wrote to Sullivan's superiors in 1957.

Three decades later, a pre-sentencing report in the 1986 arrest of the Rev. Joseph M. Lessard details police handling of a case involving a priest then.

"Police contact was made with church officials who referred investigating officers to Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien," the report reads. "Bishop O'Brien advised that he was aware of the incident. . . . He did state that the defendant was not currently assigned to any parish and would not be assigned anywhere until this matter was taken care of."

In another case, a Vietnamese priest arrested for fondling one boy and avoided jail in December 1993 because Phoenix prosecutors charged him only with "lewd and lascivious" behavior, a misdemeanor, rather than felony sexual misconduct.

"Unquestionably, the church has failed to handle this situation well, but law enforcement shares some of the blame," Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said.

"It's becoming increasingly clear that law enforcement has not always acted appropriately."

Romley said that has changed in recent years, largely because of increased media scrutiny.

"No one," he said, "wants to be seen as harboring and aiding these acts."

 
 

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