Shelter for the Shamed?

By Rory Callinan and Daniel Hoare
The Australian [Australia]
July 6, 2004

THE 145-year-old Salesian religious order likes to boast about having 40,000 priests, brothers, sisters and lay people working in 120 countries around the world.

"Whether in Colombia, South America or in Columbus, Ohio the goal of the Salesians is the same: to give kids in need a chance at a full life," its website states.

But the order's spiel fails to mention how its global structure has provided comfortable boltholes for priests who are alleged to have preyed upon the children their order vows to help.

In missions and parishes from Costa Rica and Chile to Peru and the US and even Samoa and Australia, the Salesians have come under attack for allowing alleged pedophile priests to move across international boundaries and avoid prosecuting authorities.

Nowhere has this been more apparent recently, than when former Melbourne-based Salesian priest Frank Klep was found working in the order's theological college in Apia, Samoa.

This was despite the fact Australian police had put out an arrest warrant almost six years ago for the 60-year-old priest on charges relating to incidents which allegedly occurred at one of the Salesians' Melbourne schools in the 1970s.

Last month after being found in Samoa and expelled, he flew back to Australia to finally face a Melbourne Magistrates Court on five counts of indecent assault, dating back to 1973.

The court was told that the priest had passed through Australia three times without being detected, despite outstanding arrest warrants.

Looking tanned and healthy and dressed in a checked blue-and-white shirt and grey tracksuit jacket and white slacks, Klep sat stony-faced in the dock throughout the 30-minute hearing. He was not required to enter a plea and was remanded in custody to appear in court again in September.

Magistrate Paul Smith said the priest had shown "a disinclination" to abide by the law by not presenting himself to police even though he knew a warrant was outstanding against him. Salesian officials have denied any attempt to cover up or avoid justice in dealing with suspected pedophile priests.

But a lengthy global investigation of the Salesians by a US newspaper found some disturbing facts.

In the 18-month investigation, The Dallas Morning News found a series of priests accused of sexual abuse were being moved from country to country away from law enforcement and victims.

The newspaper alleged influential Salesian officials had spoken out forcefully against co-operating with law enforcement agencies investigating sex abuse allegations.

"For me it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop," one Salesian cardinal, Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras, a prominent candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II, told the paper's reporters. "I'd be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests," he said.

The paper also found Salesian officials in Costa Rica and Chile are facing criminal complaints, accused of protecting priests who were shuffled across international borders.

A judge in Chile is reviewing whether there is enough evidence to try a Salesian bishop on obstruction of justice charges.

In the case of one priest from Peru, his superiors have ignored a church panel's 1995 demand that he have no contact with children, as well as Chicago police's subsequent request to question him.

Salesian officials in Peru say they don't know where he is, but The Dallas Morning News found him working in Mexico the fourth country he's been in since he was first accused of misconduct more than a decade ago.

Even Pascual Chavez, before he became the Salesians' worldwide leader in Rome, knew of an admitted molester in ministry in Mexico, says the paper.

After a judge dismissed criminal charges against the priest, he was reassigned to Africa. The priest returned to duty in Mexico but could not be reached for comment by The Dallas Morning News. Father Chavez declined to be interviewed by The Dallas Morning News reporters.

The paper also spent time investigating Samoan priests and the handling of allegations by Melbourne officials. It found about a dozen parents who confronted the Salesians and the archdiocese of Melbourne in a series of meetings about one of the priests suspected of abuse in the '80s.

Church leaders were dismissive, recalled one of the parents to the paper's reporters.

The parents were concerned about a priest moved on without any apparent significant investigation into their complaints.

In the Klep case, police have alleged that the priest was moved to Samoa by the Catholic Church, which was a key defendant in a civil action against Klep.

Klep's alleged offences all relate to Rupertswood, a Salesian all-boys boarding school at Sunbury, north of Melbourne, between 1973 and 1976.

Klep is not the only former Australian priest who had spent time at the Melbourne school to turn up in Samoa under a cloud.

The Samoan Government is considering expelling another Samoan-based Salesian priest alleged to have sexually abused a boy in Melbourne in the '60s.

In 2000, a Melbourne man received a $45,000 payment after approaching the Victorian Salesian Society with allegations relating to the then Samoan-based priest, Jack Ayers.

Ayers was last month in a nursing home in Samoa. Police have contacted the Melbourne man seeking a statement about the alleged abuse.

Then last week further allegations surfaced about a third priest who had been working in the South Pacific and had many years ago worked at the Salesians' Melbourne school.

Like the Ayers case, an alleged victim had approached the Salesians in 2000 claiming the priest had raped him six times when he was a boarder at the Salesians' Rupertswood school in the '70s.

The Australian has seen a document dated October 13, 2000, and signed by a senior member of the church, which agreed to pay the alleged victim $35,000. The deed of release does not acknowledge any wrongdoing.