Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal Expands in Military
New Accusations Surface
October 10, 2003
WASHINGTON -- New accusations have surfaced in the past year against current and former Catholic priests who served as chaplains in the military, even as the church has tried to put its clergy sex abuse scandal behind it with fresh policies and investigations.
The new claims bring to more than two dozen the number of Catholic military chaplains accused of sexual abuse, according to an Associated Press review of church, military and court records.
The most recent cases include four chaplains punished for sexual misconduct whose cases were discussed in a 1999 Navy memo obtained this year by the AP. Lawsuits have been filed against two other former military priests in the past year and three priests have been suspended by the church.
Among the latest to be accused is Navy Cmdr. Brian Bjorklund, whose priestly authority was restricted by the Detroit archdiocese in July because of what it termed a substantive allegation of sexual misconduct involving a minor before he joined the Navy. Bjorklund has been suspended as a chaplain at the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, Calif.
He is one of at least eight Catholic military chaplains accused of sexual misconduct before joining the military, the AP review found. Church and court records show that Catholic officials knew but did not tell the military about the misdeeds of at least two priests before they were commissioned as chaplains.
Victims' advocates say those cases suggest that church leaders may have knowingly endangered military members and their families by sending problem priests to the Army, Navy or Air Force. Church officials strongly deny doing that.
Bjorklund did not return several telephone messages left at his home near the California naval base.
Of more than 25 military priests accused of sexual misconduct in the past three decades, at least 19 have been punished by military, civilian or church authorities, the AP review found. They include priests sent to prison for raping children, priests found guilty of abuse by juries in civil lawsuits or priests removed from their posts by the military or the church.
Other priests have avoided jail by agreeing to quit the military rather than face prosecution. In 1992, for example, Roberto DeOtero resigned from the Navy after admitting he molested an altar boy at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., court records show.
Two other former altar boys now are suing DeOtero and the Catholic diocese of Hawaii, saying he molested them before he joined the Navy in 1987. DeOtero declined comment when contacted at his father's home in California.
The Catholic Church has been rocked by revelations that hundreds of priests have sexually abused parishioners and that church leaders often shifted abusive priests from assignment to assignment after the assaults. One option for church officials was to send priests into the U.S. military, where about 900 of the more than 5,500 chaplains are Roman Catholic priests.
The Army, Navy and Air Force rely on religious organizations to check the backgrounds of potential chaplains and certify they are fit for the job. Once in, chaplains are subject to the same military laws and regulations as other service members.
Priests serving in the military technically answer to the bishops in the dioceses where they worked before joining the armed forces. A military archdiocese acts as liaison.
Sexual misconduct by chaplains is not unique to the Catholic Church. A 1999 Navy study obtained by The Associated Press, for example, found that 19 chaplains from 12 denominations had been punished for sexual misconduct between 1994 and 1999.
Five of the 19 punished Navy chaplains were Catholic priests, the most of any denomination; four of the five cases have not been publicly noted before. They were not identified.
In all, the military has disciplined, discharged or jailed at least 13 Catholic chaplains for sexual misconduct during the past 25 years, records show.
Victims' advocates say the Catholic Church had a pattern of sending problem priests into the military, either in an attempt to straighten them out or cover up their abuses.
"I think the military is particularly attractive for a bishop in that situation," said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "The priest ends up far away from the diocese, so the bishop can say they took the father out of active ministry and say he's no longer in the diocese."
Church officials deny any such effort.
"The military chaplaincy is not a dumping ground for priests," said retired Rear Adm. Tom Connelly, the vice chancellor of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.
Church officials knew of abuse complaints but did not tell military authorities in the cases of priests Thomas Forry and Robert Peebles Jr., according to documents and testimony in lawsuits against the church.
Officials in the Boston Archdiocese knew that Forry had been accused of beating his housekeeper and that he had resisted counseling before they assigned him as an Army chaplain in 1988, church documents indicate. Cardinal Bernard Law, then head of the archdiocese, did not tell the military about Forry's problems, the documents show.
"I have every confidence that you will render fine priestly service to the people who will come under your care," Law wrote to Forry when announcing his military appointment in March 1988.
Forry served with the 82nd Airborne Division in the 1991 Persian Gulf War before leaving the Army and returning to Massachusetts. Church officials suspended him as a priest last year after he was accused of molesting children. Forry has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment.
Church officials in Dallas told Peebles to join the Army in the 1980s after receiving abuse allegations against him, according to testimony in a civil lawsuit. The Army allowed him to resign rather than be court-martialed in 1984 after he admitted molesting a boy on a Georgia military base, court documents show.
The church later paid for Peebles to attend law school. Now a lawyer for the Social Security Administration in New Orleans, Peebles did not return telephone messages left at his home.
Catholic officials including the head of the military archdiocese also came to the defense of a Navy chaplain convicted in 1993 of molesting four boys under age 12, according to records released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Archbishop Joseph T. Dimino and eight priests pleaded with military authorities to send Lt. Robert Hrdlicka to a church-run treatment center. Instead, Hrdlicka went to prison for nearly six years.
Shortly after his release in 1999, Hrdlicka and a former cellmate tried to enter Canada, saying they were clergymen planning to set up a charity for needy children, federal court records show. Canadian authorities turned the men away because of their criminal convictions.
Four Nebraska brothers have demanded $2 million from the church, saying Hrdlicka molested them in 1978 before he joined the Navy, officials from the Lincoln diocese have said. Hrdlicka, who has been defrocked and now lives in St. Louis, has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment.
The total number of Catholic chaplains accused of misconduct is nearly impossible to determine. Officials at the military archdiocese and at each service's chaplain corps say they don't keep such records.
Bishop John J. Glynn, a former top official with the military archdiocese, testified in 1993 that he knew of seven sexual allegations against military priests. He identified only one.
Glynn also testified that military archdiocese officials had persuaded one victim not to pursue his complaint.
"We helped the young man realize that he was dealing with a very tragic figure," Glynn testified. "We were trying to say, 'This is a poor priest. Have pity on him. He has alcoholic problems."'
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